Thursday, 31 January 2013

Celebrating the Icy Mystery of Imbolc

Guest post by Carolyn Lee Boyd

Imbolc is traditionally the celebration of the very first stirrings of life in the spring. In New England where I live, however, Imbolc is the season of ice. The fluffy December snowflakes have been shoveled into piles and compressed into a landscape of ice mountains and fields of solid, slippery whiteness. Ice dangles from the stark trees and clings to the sides of houses, stone walls, and lampposts. For many years I wished for an early spring and for the February ice to melt quickly, but now I think that an icy Imbolc has its own wisdom to ponder.

Like humans, with our body/mind/spirit, water has three natures as ice/water/steam. If we associate these components, and consider ice to be like our solid earthly bodies, water as our freely flowing minds, and steam to be our heavenly-bound spirits, the season of ice is that time when we are most concerned with our physical being. I find that to be true of Imbolc. In times gone by here in New England, winter was a time of a struggle for physical survival, when many people were most concerned about whether their food stores would hold out and the woodlots provide enough heat until the crops and warmth returned in the spring. At the same time, Imbolc in its traditional meaning is the time when Earth’s physical being is re-emerging in the form of baby animals and the first plant buds and we are reminded that even below the seemingly dead ground new life is growing.

Icy Imbolc has much to teach us about our bodies and the physical world. Ice is magic. Its beauty appears in the shimmer of color when light hits it at just the right angle, in its cathedral shapes, in the rhythmic waves it forms across fields. It seems to be sentient in the way crystals combine to build the complex, perfect, and exquisite patterns of snowflakes and rime on the windows. Like ice, our bodies are also outrageously beautiful, complex, perfect, and exquisite if we really look at them and appreciate all that must happen in order to give us each moment of life. Ice holds life in the form of water until it can be released in the spring to nourish the young plant and animal beings in suddenly flowing springs, rising water tables, and vernal pools. Our bodies, too, hold life within us until we are ready to bring it forth into the world as children, art, kind acts, and other forms of creation.

Finally, ice and Imbolc teach us the importance of being able to move among our three natures at will. Ice covers our world when it must in winter, thaws to water that offers new birth in the spring, then rises as evaporation, becoming clouds, all coming together in the water cycle that makes life on our planet possible. We, too, must be able to move among our body, mind, and spirit selves as we need to and developing each fully over our lives. Too often we have been taught that our bodies, minds, and spirits are separate and that one is more important than the others. Only when we are one inter-connected being, like our Earth’s water cycle, can we be all that we are meant to be.

As we prepare for Imbolc, perhaps we can take the time to create our own ice ritual. If you live someplace where February is icy, why don’t you go outside for a walk and notice all the ways ice manifests itself. You might sketch some drawings or bring a blank book and make notes for poems or inspirational thoughts. When you come home, think what the ice you have seen – and maybe touched, tasted, heard, and even smelled --  teaches you. You might even create artwork about the ice and what it means to you for your altar to remind yourself of the mystery of ice when the warm days lead you away to the green and lush world of the spring. This Imbolc, instead of wishing for the disappearance of ice to hasten spring, enjoy it, learn from it, and honor it.

Carolyn Lee Boyd is a human services administrator, herb gardener, and writer whose work focuses on the sacred in the everyday lives of women. Her essays, short stories, memoirs, reviews and more have been published in numerous print and online publications. You can read more of her work at her blog.

Monday, 21 January 2013

The Soul is Symphonic: The Music of Hildegard von Bingen

Born in the Rhineland in present day Germany, Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179) was a visionary nun and polymath. She founded two monasteries, went on four preaching tours, and wrote nine books addressing both scientific and religious subjects, an unprecedented accomplishment for a 12th-century woman. Her prophecies earned her the title Sybil of the Rhine.

Over eight centuries after her death, Hildegard was canonized in May 2012 and on October 7 was elevated to Doctor of the Church in October, a rare and solemn title reserved for theologians who have made a significant impact. Hildegard is only the fourth woman in the history of the Church to receive this distinction.

But to most people today, Hildegard is known best for her soaring ethereal music.

The first composer for whom we have a biography, she composed seventy-seven sacred songs, as well as Ordo Virtutum, a liturgical drama set to music.

Her melodies are completely unlike the plainchant of her era—or anything that has come before or since. Likewise her lyrics are highly original and feel fresh to us even today. She was the only 12th century writer to compose in free verse.

A Benedictine superior, Hildegard and her nuns sang the Divine Office eight times a day. She believed that song was the highest form of prayer—the mystical power of music reunited humankind to the ecstasy and beauty of paradise before the fall, connecting the singer directly with the divine, and joining heaven and earth in a great celestial harmony.

Singing the divine praises was absolutely central to Hildegard’s identity as a nun. But late in her life, the great composer and polymath was silenced.

Hildegard and her nuns were subject to an interdict, or collective excommunication, when they refused to disinter a supposed apostate buried in their churchyard. As punishment for their disobedience, they were forbidden the sacraments, the mass, even forbidden to sing the Divine Office.

It was the prohibition against singing that hit Hildegard the hardest. She wrote a passionate letter to her archbishop in protest. “The soul is symphonic,” she told him. She also warned him that by forbidding her and her daughters from singing God’s praise, the archbishop himself risked going to an afterlife destination where there was no music, ie hell.

Hildegard’s words seemed to give the man pause for thought. He lifted the interdict just a few months before her death in 1179.

“There is the music of heaven in all things,” Hildegard wrote. “But we have forgotten to hear it until we sing.”

I find her song Caritas Abundant in Omnia (Divine Love Abounds in All Things) to be particularly stirring. Hildegard conceived of Caritas, or Divine Love, as a feminine figure, an aspect of the Feminine Divine:

                         Caritas habundat in omnia

Divine love abounds in all things.
She is greatly exalted from the depths to the heights,
Above the highest stars,
                        And most loving towards all things,
                        For she gave the highest King the kiss of peace.

Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen is by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and is Kirkus Review 2012 Book of the Year. Visit Mary’s website.