Thursday, November 5, 2009

Musical Saints of Helfta


November is a month that commemorates many musical saints, both celebrated and unknown. This is a repost from a couple of years ago about the musical aesthetic of the Benedictine Abby at Helfta.
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November 22, aside from being a singularly tragic day in American history, is the feast day of the Roman martyr Saint Cecilia, patroness of musicians, whose name I took at my confirmation. I love that her feast falls at the denouement of autumn, when the beauty of the season is mostly past and everything is gray and barren; it cheers the heart. But November also marks the feasts of some other remarkable “musical” saints, a trio of women from the thirteenth-century Saxon monastery of Helfta, a Benedictine abbey that was a sort of hothouse of visionary nuns: Mechthild of Hackeborn (November 16), Gertrude the Great (who shares her feast day), and Mechthild of Magdeburg, whose feast day is November 19.

All of these nuns were party to visions of Christ in which musical sounds and imagery played an important role. Gertrude the Great, for instance, wrote of a visitation by the Lord in which he told her: “Listen to me, beloved, and I will sing you a song of love that is quite different from those sung by profane courtiers,” and then proceeded, in a voice that Gertrude calls indescribably sweet, to sing the following words to the hymn tune Rex Christe factor:

Amore meus continuus,
Tibi languor assiduous,
Amor tuus suavissimus,
Mihi sapor gratissimus.

(My continuous love,
Your persistent languor;
Your very sweet love,
a most pleasing savor to me.)

Mechthild of Hackeborn, the abbey’s choirmistress, was renowned for her own beautiful voice; her sisters in religion referred to her as “God’s nightingale.” She received a revelation in which Christ extended a harp from his sacred heart, explaining that the harp was himself, and the strings were “all chosen souls which are all one in God through love”; then Christ, the “high chanter of all chanters,” struck the harp and led “all the angels with delectable sound” as they sang the hymn Regem regum Dominum.

Mechthild of Magdeburg’s mystical writings are well known, and have been studied and appropriated by both feminist and Jungian scholars. The record of her revelations, the book The Flowing Light of the Godhead, is also filled with remarkable musical imagery, including a vision in which Christ tells her: “Oh, dear dove,/Your voice is string music to my ears./ Your words are spices for my mouth./ Your longings are the lavishness of my gift.”

I find the musical mysticism of Gertrude and the two Mechthilds of Helfta quite thrilling and encouraging. Their aesthetic – a sort of ecstatic rigor that, like all mystical writing, from Rumi to St. John of the Cross to William Blake, uses the language of poetry and eros – is so very far removed from our present understanding of holiness that it strikes me that many present-day orthodox Catholics would find it dubious and unsettling at best. But it seems to me an antidote to the both the meandering confusion of liberal Catholicism and the joyless legalism of modern-day traditionalism, and I'm happy that the Church in her wisdom has seen fit to honor these three nuns.

4 comments:

Tertium Quid said...

Nice piece. You say things I don't know how to say.

Pentimento said...

Thanks, TQ. I can definitely say the same about you, which is why I love your blog. I think each of us speaks to his own inclinations and experience, but we have much to learn from one another.

Clare Krishan said...

Some wags say Dante's singing maiden of the meadows, Matilda espied by the protagonist across the Lethe river at the top of the mount of Purgatory could have been inspired by a popular mystical manuscript composed by the nuns of Helfta.

Pentimento said...

Thanks for pointing this out, Clare. As far as I know, the Mechtild/Matilda conflation is still under consideration by serious scholars (one of my mentors, Thomas Connolly, refers to it in his 1994 book on Cecilian iconography, Mourning into Joy).