Souls “Flung Up to Heaven”: Maya Angelou and Hildegard of Bingen


Recently I co-lead a contemplative retreat at Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman, Alabama. Four years ago on this site, Dewey Weiss Kramer gave an uplifting course on Hildegard of Bingen for Columbia Seminary’s Spiritual Formation Program. I decided to adapt today’s post from my reflections on that experience.

I am writing this in the wake of the news of the death of Maya Angelou, and this propinquity prompts me to note Hildegard and Angelou’s shared recognition of our musical and lyrical needs spiritually, as well as the role that deprivation plays in appreciating those needs. Both Hildegard and Angelou played many roles in life, and both were strong and savvy women, unflinching in challenging injustice as well as carving places for themselves in patriarchal systems and cultures.

Angelou took the wistful title and theme of her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, from a poem by African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.  As a poor African American girl turned woman from the backwaters of the South, Angelou knew deprivation on multiple levels.

Hildegard, from a wealthy family in Germany, used her privilege to create and defend a group of women religious, but wrote some of her most profound words and theology when her community was deprived of singing in worship by church hierarchy.

I fantasize about the harmony that these giants, Hildegard and Angelou, might make now that both have been “flung up to heaven,” in the words of the title of the latter’s last book, A Song Flung Up to Heaven.

At nine years of age, Maya Angelou chose to go mute for five years after naming her rapist and believing it was her words that killed him. It could be argued that her six memoirs that followed, perhaps all of her writings, were born out of that silence, a kind of self-imposed spiritual discipline that emulates the contemplative silences of the monastic life.

I may have allowed her to listen closely to those around her, better able to capture their choice of words and phrasings; to see life for what it was, better able to be a truth teller in a world of denial and deception; to deeply smell and taste and touch the world, better able to depict scents and flavors and textures; and then to conjure her worldly, earthy, and cultural experience in lyrical but accessible language.

Similarly, Hildegard’s contemplative life empowered her to describe her visions, coaching artists in their design, then to interpret “their truth,” their meaning spiritually and theologically, in her rudimentary Latin, the mystical language of the time.

And, of great interest to this writer, Hildegard listened to the music of the soul, creating her own forms of spiritual music that did not follow the conventions of the day, thus creating an ethereal, unearthly music, music that serves as a haunting reminder of the harmonies inherent in Eden (not far from that of angels) and in the unfallen first human creature, of whom she said, “If he had remained in his original state, the weakness of mortal man would not have been able to endure the power and the resonance of his voice.”  I have some sense of this, having heard Maya Angelou speak and read her work with a musical, resonant, majestic intonation.

We are blessed that Hildegard and Maya both found their voice.

I am one of those persons of whom Hildegard writes “sighs and moans upon hearing some melody, recalling the nature of celestial harmony.” Maybe these are echoes of the sound of Eden, as Hildegard suggests, or premonitions of heavenly bliss, or “the music of the spheres.”

I hear that music in lyrical writing, whether poetry or prose. That’s why I was so taken with Hildegard’s prayer, “O ignis Spiritus Paracliti,” which, even without music, sings to me, especially that phrase, “O sweet savor in the breast.” Like the Lord’s Prayer, it would be a worthy part of every liturgy.

Harmony comes from the integrity of body and spirit that I experience with Hildegard in the sacrament of music. Augustine’s reservations on the sensuality of music is the very thing that draws me to it as an instance of the Incarnation of God. Music is the Word made flesh—again.

“The body is the vestment of the spirit, which has a living voice, and so it is proper for the body, in harmony with the soul, to use its voice to sing praises to God,” Hildegard affirms.  Just as for Hildegard encountering one of the Trinity is to encounter all of the Trinity, in my view, to encounter an instance of Incarnation is to encounter all Incarnation.

That’s why Hildegard’s understanding that Incarnation was not the result of The Fall but intended from the beginning makes sense to me, especially as she views Creation itself as an incarnation of God, its fecundity, its greening (viriditas)—in my words, a divine impulse, a holy “oozing,” and the soul’s melody.

And the soul’s melody is not just human, it is in every creature, every atom, in the whole of the cosmos—nothing is truly inert in Hildegard’s view, everything is a “sounding icon” and “vibrations” of God’s self in everything.

As I wrote in Communion of Life:

Our original sin
Is not the seizing of forbidden fruit,
But failing to see
The infinite in the finite,
The luminous, sacred essence
Of the garden;
Failing to revere
The life that gives us life;
Trampling on the taboo,
Sequestering, quantifying,
And qualifying the holy—
The heart of our garden.
Forgive us, earth,
Be merciful in our willful ignorance
As you are gracious in your altruistic nature.
Hold us accountable, and then,
Hold us.

Reading this you will understand why I was so taken with Hildegard’s fresh understanding of human alienation, that the first human transgression was refusing the white flower, the fruit of humility offered by a benevolent God: “Its scent comes to the human’s nostrils, but he does not taste it with his mouth…for he tried to know the wisdom of the Law with his intelligence…but did not perfectly digest it…or fulfill it in full blessedness by the work of his hands. … He did not seek God either by faith or by works.”

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