Monday, April 29, 2013

Twelfth Century Woman Composer

A week ago, I attended a lecture about Hildegaard of Bingem. A 12th Century nun she is considered by many scholars to be the first 'known' composer of music! She was also a respected theologian whose correspondents included the Pope, she was also a revered healer, who wrote medical and scientific works and she had 'visions'...

Hildegaard was the 10th child of a noble family and upon her birth her family promised her to the church, a 'child oblate' -- it was suggested by the lecturer that as the 10th child she could be considered 'tithed'! So at the age of 8 she entered an enclosed Benedictine 'anchorage' with an older nun, Jutta, who was to be her teacher.  The anchorage was attached to a monastery and Hildegaard lived there until Jutta died, when Hildegaard was 38 years old! 

The anchorage had two windows -- one would have enabled her to witness the mass and the other would have given access to the outside world. 
Anchors of both sexes, though from most accounts they seem to be largely women, led an ascetic life, shut off from the world inside a small room, usually built adjacent to a church so that they could follow the services, with only a small window acting as their link to the rest of humanity. Food would be passed through this window and refuse taken out. Most of the time would be spent in prayer, contemplation, or solitary handworking activities, like stitching and embroidering. Because they would become essentially dead to the world, anchors would receive their last rights from the bishop before their confinement in the anchorage. This macabre ceremony was a complete burial ceremony with the anchor laid out on a bier. (
In time  the fame of the two nuns spread and many pilgrims came to visit them for advice and spiritual guidance. As a result other noble families sent their daughters and soon a small convent was established. When Jutta died, Hildegaard was named Abbess and it was not long before she demanded from the Monestery, authority to build a convent in its own right. Although reluctant -- each postulant brought an impressive dowry with her -- the abbott was 'convinced' that it would be best to let Hildegaard have her way. She was suddenly laid low with a kind of seizure and would lie prone and immovable until her wish was granted. Hildegaard's fame and nobility were such that it was best to acquiesce to her wishes. She built the largest convent in Europe!

The second half of the lecture focused on Hildegaard's  music. Whether or not she wrote each piece of music herself or in concert with other sisters, is not known though it is probable. Until then singing was in the form of the Gregorian chant and followed the words of the Latin Mass. Hildegaard's compositions were Liturgical dramas with original music and words. These dramas can compared to the nativity and passion plays we see today.

She also wrote 2 symphonia and 77 songs. Unlike the monotone of the Gregorian chant, this music soars and the notes ascend and descend. It sounds very ethereal and rather primal. it also sounds like it should be sung rather than listened too. They were 'ruminatos' -- that is music and text working together to help contemplate the deeper meaning of her visions. 

Hildegaard became famous for her miracles and was allowed to go on preaching missions outside of the convent. She also had a secretary -- a monk -- who went with her and wrote down her writings. Nowadays she is criticized for her conservatism in only allowing noble women to join her convent -- only they would have the kind of education and manner to understand her work, her visions, her theology...

Isn't it fascinating to consider that such a woman making her way with such success and so respected in the 12th Century. She lived to be 81.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Passing Thoughts

When I first came to Britain to live September 1, 1980, Margaret Thatcher had been The First Among Equals for 16 months. My very first visit to Britain has been from mid November 1978 till early December of that year. Little did I know it at the time, but negotiations between the unions and the government over the amount of pay rises were critical at that time and would eventually lead to the devastating strikes that would become known as 'The Winter of Discontent'. Strikes that would arguably lead to the unexpected election of The Iron Lady.

Upon my first visit I was warned that the unions had a habit of one day strikes -- especially affecting public transportation -- and indeed that did prove to be the case. However, in general I was not unduly affected by industrial action. My love life brought me back to Britain only 6 months later -- in June. So in the interim, Mrs. Thatcher would have been newly elected -- but  on that visit political history made no impact on me at all! I had to live here before that would happen.

The move to England came in September 1980. This novice American had quite a shock as she watched the annual political conferences shortly after arrival! Words like 'manifesto' instead of 'platform' were used by both parties without the innuendo of 'communism'! The Labour party conference addressed its delegates as 'comrades'. You don't hear that word used by the Labour Party  any more!

Then in November Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States -- and 'the die was cast'...

Around September 1981 we moved to the town of Southport in the north west of England from Diss in Norfolk -- just after the Toxteth riots in Liverpool. Margaret Thatcher and her government were facing down the unions and the battles had begun. A newcomer to British politics, I was an enthralled witness to a very different kind of political drama than what I was accustomed to in the United States. Battles between the 'right' and the 'left' would be violent and prolonged. The miners were convinced they had the power to bring down the government -- as they had once before. Mrs. Thatcher was determined to stand firm and she did not flinch. The cost to the miners is still being felt today.

My politics do not coincide with those of Margaret Thatcher. I did not like her stridency. Her hectoring voice could give me a headache, while her attempts to sound calm and reasonable seemed false and insincere. But I did admire her forth right candour and her toughness. . She was right about Gorbachev, who I greatly admire, and I give her credit for the influence she had on Reagan.

There were moments when she took my breath away -- such as her strength of character after the Brighton bombing. I agreed with her when she demanded that Europe pay back the money Britain had owing -- and which ironically still has not been paid. Her appearance when she appeared in Parliament for the last time was phenomenal.

I believe that Mrs. Thatcher exhausted those of us who had to live with her. I can remember the feeling of relief when John Major with his authentically calm voice became Prime Minister. The arguments prevailing over her upcoming funeral bring it all back -- Her premiership was eleven years of that kind of vitriol -- and whether she was right or she was wrong, it was exhausting.But I don't believe she was 'evil'. Perhaps her policies were a necessary evil -- and even though I and many others think there could have been 'better ways',  we will never know, because things just are what they are.  She was a force of nature and she changed everything. I do believe history will be kind to her.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

A Rapist, a Murderer, and a Thief

Habemus Papam! Although I am not a Roman Catholic, I have always been interested in the person who, as the Bishop of Rome, leads the vast number of Roman Catholics and fellow Christians. In my lifetime there have been three following in the footsteps of St. Peter who have particularly impressed me with what I, lowly as I am, perceive as 'holiness': John XXIII, John Paul I, and now Francis I.

On Maundy Thursday it is traditional in many churches to re-enact Christ washing the feet of his disciples just before the last supper. It is customary for the Pope to participate in this re-enactment also, usually washing the feet of selected clergymen. But this year our newly elected Pope went to a prison and washed the feet of a rapist, a murderer and a thief.  For me, the implications of this are very powerful and imply that this man is breaking away from the inculcating protection of the wealth-bound glory of an enthroned papal head. (In addition, it should be noted that he also washed the feet of a Serbian Muslim woman inmate.)

Pope Francis 'gets it'! Christ is to be found among the poor, the wretched, the people who believe and those who do not;  not in the edifices and trappings made and built to glorify him. We, his community, bring Christ to these places, we do not find him there otherwise. Places are spiritually powerful because of those who come -- and have come before us.We find Christ in our humanity toward and for each other -- whether we are rich or poor, white, black, English, Chinese, Korean, German, French, saint or sinner...

I am writing about this in response to the Good Friday service I attended this year. The Vicar made a special reference to the Pope's actions on Maundy Thursday and made the point that the sign of a successful church is in its 'diversity'. Society is now multi cultural. This may well take us out of our comfort zone. We may long for past days when life may have seemed simpler. It doesn't really matter because this cultural diversity is here to stay and it is the lifeblood of the church.

It seems to me that the history of Christianity has been one of struggle: A struggle through persecution and  intolerance. As often happens in  history, the persecuted became the persecutor, those who were not tolerated, became the intolerant. We do indeed "see through a glass darkly".