The Alchemical Harp of Mechthild of Hackeborn

Therese Schroeder-Sheker 1

Regis College, Denver, CO


“.... When a world-view is based explicitly on a metaphysical system which takes into account the transcendental dimension and which, furthermore, shows itself in concrete realizations, we are then in the presence of Tradition. When the spirit no longer breathes in the works, even if the activities exist, then it is no longer tradition but custom ....2

The history of the mediaeval European harp includes every ambiguity possible. It remained a fiercely guarded oral tradition until the middle of the sixteenth century and by the time written custom prevailed, the true wealth of this tradition had become obscured and splintered into forced but discreet retirement settlements, waiting to be remembered. Subtle traditions which involved a life-time commitment to an interior practice became lost and forgotten when placed alongside the dazzling products of scriptoria and the printing press. The pure and objective notation of music itself became the primary documentation of the end product of an essentially interior journey.

Musicians have long been thrilled to have, study, and learn these notational steps when they digest a new repertoire. How this repertoire, when carried by a real artist, ceases to be a score! How it comes to life again and links with Tradition! In this brief article I will explore a little-known part of monastic history in which an exterior and historical harp Tradition became a completely interior practice through the rhythm of prayer. This is the alchemical harp of religious communities in the Middle Ages.

This paper is also an effort to explore precious moments in the history of sung prayer: personal acts of piety, modes of transformation and individuation and inspired symbols. I specifically probe the intentionality of a mediaeval female contemplative named Mechthild of Hackeborn3 who came to a deeper understanding of the love of the crucified and risen Christ through the teaching process of the plucked-string tradition. This multi-dimensional Mechthild provides us with an exemplary model of the Christian musical-alchemical initiation. In her, contemplation, prayer and music merge and wed, bringing to birth a profoundly integrated human being who harmonises and strengthens her entire community but who maintains her anonymity in the true spirit of humility. An initiate of peace and reconciliation, she is, on the one hand, linked to her distant pagan brothers Pythagoras and Plato in her own profoundly musical initiation while, on the other, she opens herself to Christ's love and the depths of Christian mysteries. Her entire narration in The Book of Special Grace serves as a paradigm of nuptial mysticism where harmonised body, soul and spirit become liturgy, and she herself becomes Christ's harp.

The Mediaeval Harp

Fragments of harp history are today woven together by scouring written chronicles, diaries, histories, mythologies, monastic customaries, tax accounts and the full spectrum of religious and secular literature. There are numerous histories which associate the harp and the psaltery with monastic communities from the tenth to the fourteenth centuries in Ireland , Wales , Germany , Italy , England , Switzerland , Spain and, possibly, France. In substance and symbol, the continental Romanesque and Gothic harps remained a living tradition for many members of religious communities, although this aspect of musicology is only now being recovered in vigorous new scholarship.4 When studied together, these episodes create an entirely new matrix and structure in which we can understand more fully a mediaeval experience of symbol, icon, psyche, spirit and harp and clearly offer us much food for contemplation.

One must differentiate between the Irish harp of the Western Isles and the European harps found on the continent. The massive calendric wire-strung Irish harp,5 associated as it was with the Nature religions and the phases of the moon, was shunned by ecclesiastics. The harp of Celtic tradition is preserved in many myths and royal accounts6 and has long been associated with entry into the supernatural world, the world of spirits and forces hidden from our physical eyes. The one who would finally carry Irish tradition studied years to master the three roads: the sleep song, the tear song and the laughter song.7 Like Orpheus, this harper could call up nature forces to aid a king in battle, put soldiers to sleep, soften women's hearts and make mirth abound. The heavy, truncated wire-strung harp with its bell-like clarity has a regal stature; it wields power and authority, and mystifies all who enter its sphere. Its fascination with riddles demands things from us. Penetrating like lightning or the gaze of an eagle, it forces us to ask questions of ourselves and our meanings. Its royalty teaches.

How completely different the Irish harp is from its continental European cousin! The Irish missionary monks preferred small eight-stringed harps (ocht-Trdach ),8 strung with gut, silk or horsehair. They brought them with them, suspended from their girdles, as they founded their monasteries in Europe. In central Europe these harps gradually metamorphosed, by district and country, into the triangular Romanesque harps seen so prolifically in psalter iconography. By the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Romanesque harp received a small shoulder and became the elegant, slender, light-weight Gothic harp strung with eight to twenty-four gut strings, full of melting warmth and generosity. Both Romanesque and Gothic harps were held and contemplated by monks and nuns (Benedictine, Cistercian, Franciscan and Carmelite alike) who composed new Offices on them, or heard them being played by angels in mystic visions.9

This mediaeval monastic alchemical harp tradition seems to revolve solely around the processes of spiritual and emotional harmonisation and the lessons of love: sacrifice, purification and transformation. This is the revered harp of prayer, heroic struggle, love lyric and it seeks to serve, comfort and soothe. It teaches indirectly through tenderness and enters one's life quietly like mist or the haunting beauty of a swan's ascent into air. It is this harp tradition that elects Mechthild as a rare and stellar guardian from whom we can today learn so much.

Mechthild of Hackeborn and the Christian Alchemical Tradition

Mechthild of Hackeborn (1241?-1298/99) came from the high nobility and entered the convent of Rodarsdorf in northwestern Germany at the age of seven. When she was about eighteen the nuns moved to Helfta near Eisleben where a Saxon monastery flourished. Theirs was a centre of religious culture and scholarship where spiritual revelations, preserved and honoured, nurtured the entire community. Under the direction of her sister, the Abbess Gertrude (not to be confused with Gertrud the Great), books of poetry, prayer and spiritual exercises were written, collected and transcribed by the nuns in the scriptorium.10 Scholarship and spiritual activity flourished and were equally valued at Helfta. The momentum of intellectual discernment and discipline born in the study of the seven liberal arts was never set in opposition to the profound current of religious devotion so characteristic of the Helfta spirituality.

No doubt this harmony supported the possibilities of both serenity and integrity within the community. Active devotion to the Eucharist was cultivated, as was a devotion to the Passion and Humanity of Christ, His wounds and the cult of His Sacred Heart. At the same time the nuns studied Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Gregory the Great and Hugh of St. Victor.11 Their spirituality was Cistercian in nature which repeatedly found voice in luminous expressions of personal love, nuptial symbolism and mystic espousal.

Mechthild as the chant-mistress orcantrix trained the choir 12 and earned the tender sobriquet “God's nightingale” from her sisters, her singing being renowned and inextricably linked with her lyric and transparent spirituality. The visionary states she enjoyed were the result of her total ability to enter prayer when she sang and when she heard music. Two hundred and thirty visions were recorded by St. Gertrud and another companion in the volume entitled Liber Spiritualis Gratia (The Book of Special Grace) and later translated into Middle English.13 These visions show a Mechthild whose special graces are both clairvoyant and clairaudient and in whose interior life sheaths of music, love, and prayer are seamlessly integrated and flawlessly interpenetrate each other.

Mechthild's visions reflect stages of transformation rather than chronological events. For instance in a vision immediately following her mystic betrothal, Christ tells her that He “worships Himself in her when she worships Him.”14 He tells her to “rest her weary head in His heart”15 which is elsewhere described as a “five petalled rose.”16 When Mechthild gives away all her desires in the practice of inner emptiness, there is room for the true freedom of poverty and the burden of tender longing to strike her simultaneously like a lightning bolt. During the Secret17 of the Mass, she reports that she was transported to another level where she met Christ intimately. Wanting to fill her with every sweetness and to know her requests, Mechthild replies three times that her only longing concerns the knowledge of the perfection of His will. Her request echoes the third supplication of the Pater Noster and recalls the similar mystic experiences which Simone Weil enjoyed as a result of saying the Lord's Prayer.18 No longer the shy maiden, Mechthild's relationship with God is now more mature, more close and more complete. She relinquishes the naiveté of girlhood for the depth and responsibility of a fully human womanhood. An understanding of this health and harmony is essential to an understanding of the next series of visionary images.

As Mechthild draws near to her Beloved, she is startled by a blinding new kind of union. A harp emerges from the divine heart19 which, we are informed, was “our Lord Jesus” and “the harp's strings were all chosen souls which are all one in God through love.” 20 Then becoming a minstrel for her, Christ, the “high chanter of all chanters, smote the harp” “and all the angels with delectable sound sang Regem Regum Dominum.”

The languages of love, alchemy, poetry, psychology and mysticism collide and engender a highly individual and shimmering series of symbols which Mechthild receives in full power. The contents of her inner life ignore the canon of rules that historically forbade the use of instruments within the liturgy.21 She makes her own history and, standing within her own tradition, weaves her spirituality from every thread of beauty in her life. For her, Christ is the tactile and fragrant celebrant of a liturgy which she hears, receives, and then shares with her community. She enters into the mysteries of Christ's love and lives from the leaven of the perfectly tuned strings which sound in His perfectly formed hands. His sung holy words become Eucharist, suspended and offered in melody. Like the exchange of true lovers, He gives her His gift in the one modality that she can return seven times daily in the Divine Office. This image - the audible, tactile, fragrant troubadour-Christ who sings and plays His harp for her - is an icon, not a metaphor.

There is yet another vision in these revelations which concerns the inspired nature of medieval plucked-string instruments:

It seemed to her that love stood at the right side of God and from His heart there showed forth an instrument of melodious and merry sound which stretched to the heart of this maiden. This instrument was a psaltery and had ten strings concerning which it is written “My God, I shall sing to thee in a psaltery with ten strings” (Ps. 32, 2). By these nine strings were betokened the nine orders of angels in which are arranged all the persons of the saints. The tenth string betokened our Lord Himself who is the King of angels and the Sanctifier of all the saints.22

Mechthild's tenderness always manifests itself by means of this kind of relational picture: two stand together and mutually fructify each other, thus creating a kind of alchemical marriage. In this case, the alchemical marriage gives birth through pure resonance to another stringed instrument which comprises all God's creation, both the angels23 and the saints. As she touches each string, Mechthild sings the antiphons of the Magnificat for the Feast of the Holy Trinity, giving praise and worship to God, but she dare not sing the tenth string “for she was not yet able to reach in thought the height of God.” Mechthild's tenderness knows no bounds for she wants all the souls of heaven and earth to “be made partners of the divine grace.” Her marriage mysticism utterly relational.

Why have harp and psaltery become the archetypes of the mystic call or “spiritual election” as Mechthild calls it? Why is the “lover of all lovers” - Christ - the harper and minstrel divine? His corporeality is manifested here on earth as a harp and thus does the Body-of-Christ suffuse Mechthild's entire consciousness with heavenly music. Such a marvel occurs because strings which stretch must do so between two polar opposites. In this way they can be seen to be the alchemical wedding of one's soul to one's spirit. Indeed, the suffering and sacrifice, as well as the self-purification so necessary for betrothal are physically present in these inspired instruments. The strings for the harps and psalteries come from the animal kingdom where goats and sheep, recalling the Lamb of God, are destined for sacrifice. The wood from the fallen willow, hornbeam, spruce, or cherry tree is offered up from the plant kingdom. Just as Jesus Christ stretched on the wood of the cross becomes at once both Eucharistic string and the sounding-board for the lament of our suffering humanity, so too does the harp show forth the intimate and essential aspects of the Eucharist.

The body of a harp - any harp - is a huge empty womb or sepulchre. Appearing as the Divine Bridegroom of our nightingale, the Risen Christ becomes a harp which longs to be played. Mechthild lived her vow of poverty as the interior practice of inner emptiness in the alchemical harp so that she could make room in herself for the reception of revelation. Just so do choirs of plant, animal, human and celestial kingdoms join together to offer praise to their Creator. Mechthild, like Christ, creates pure tone from her finely-tuned body, from her throat, the larynx: this is a metamorphosis of the maternal womb. Christ walks the way of all women by giving birth when He sings and she, who has spent years fine-tuning herself to reflect the heavenly harmonies, becomes the harp; indeed, in her obedience, she becomes the very harp played by the “high chanter of all chanters.” Christ as harp, Mechthild as harp: thus do the two lovers find union, and thus do the boundaries dissolve and Christ worships Himself when she worships Him.

It was in this way that Mechthild journeyed to discover her resurrection body. The images, memories, feelings, desires and hopes created through long years of patient struggle were now completely purified and seen to have been woven from the non-material substance of song, from Christ's song. Thus purified, the interior work of fine-tuning, pitch, proportion and harmony, hidden from the casual glance like the secret intimacies of marriage, far surpasses mere musical technique. Such harmonious consonance between the spiritual self and the physical body is attained only through long and conscious spiritual activity. By weaving her resurrection body, Mechthild was becoming more and more complete in her physical body. This fulfilment can be seen from one final story.

By a strange twist of fate, Mechthild found herself in the middle of a political intrigue which resulted in the imposition of an interdict on the convent which forbade the singing of the Chant and the celebration of Mass for the great feast of the Assumption.24 The grieving women, strengthened by their years of fine-tuning and the loving friendship which bound them together, weathered this outrageous attack with a victorious blessing from their Divine Troubadour who, once again, healed with the sound of His voice.

Weeping because she would not be able to give her “devout service” at the great feast nor be able to receive Communion, Christ appeared to Mechthild and, wiping away her tears, took her hand and said, “This day thou shall see marvels.” Then it seemed to her that the Lord, with His Mother, led all the congregation in procession into the church.

Then, arrayed in a red chasuble and in a bishop's finery, Christ sang the Mass. St. John the Baptist read the Epistle “because he was the first which, in his mother's womb, made joy of that first joy of our Lady” while St. John the Evangelist read the Gospel “because he was ordered by our Lord to be keeper of that glorious Lady.” St. John the Baptist and St. Luke ministered to our Lord at the altar and St. John the Evangelist ministered to our Lady. Mary stood at the altar on the right side of her Son “dressed in clothing as bright as the light of the sun.”

A description of the Mass then follows, at which all present participated in song, but “among all of them and above all of them our glorious Lady gave such a sound that her voice was especially known beyond all the voices of the saints.” At the Offertory “it seemed to her that the sisters who did special spiritual service to our Lady went up to the altar and offered rings of gold which our Lord received and put them on His fingers.” At thePax Domini, Christ sat down at a table with His blessed Mother and the congregation came forward and

each of them knelt under the arm of our Lady to receive God's Body from our Lord's hand. Our Lady held a chalice of gold with a golden tube and she held it to our Lord's side through which they all sucked that holy and sweet liquid which came out from the breast of our Lord.

When Mass was finished, our Lord gave the blessing with His hand and on each finger He had a ring of gold which betokened the wedding of each of those virgins who were espoused to Him at that time. And the rings had red stones by which it signified that His blood pertains especially to the adornment of virgins.25

Thus, despite the interdict, did ten of the Helfta nuns become the brides of Christ! Married inwardly in a most intimate Eucharist of sound, they remained stable and steadfast in their experience despite outside turbulence. Helfta had always been marked by a harmonious balance between scholarship and devotion, head and heart, a balance and agreement which fortified their unitive experience. Individually and collectively the nuns sought and found balance and serenity in angelic sound that had become incarnated in their interior practice. Keeping their sense of pitch and their feeling for truth and harmony, they received grace instead of psychic wounds.

Mechthild's Christian alchemical initiation thus resulted in a series of authentic stages in which she heard and saw inwardly. A new kind of certainty was created which manifested itself as body-wisdom and which sang or resonated on all three levels of body, soul, and spirit. Its inwardness was so deep that it could and did bypass or dissolve the barriers of the body and could, instead, ring all around her like a protective sheath. This body-wisdom, however, was not self-absorbed but rather seems to have been infectious, spreading itself to benefit, heal, comfort and nurture the other nuns. This relational and boundless love would seem to be the ultimate harvest of marriage mysticism. A young and foolish virginal soul may want to hide the light of her handsome light selfishly in the isolation of her own house lest someone covet it. Mechthild, on the other hand, was so at home in her purified singing sheath that she sang the newly composed hymn of the wise virgin. Her loving heart had generated a physical body that had become a “chapel spun of sound. Every door and window gleams and motion crowns.”26

The depth, frequency and details of these plucked- string visions would suggest a great personal intimacy with physical harps, although it is not known whether Mechthild actually possessed one or not. Be that as it may, she certainly lived the harp tradition so completely that the physical harp was experienced as an exterior reminder of an interior practice. When a contemplative musician goes so far as to abandon even the physical tool or prop, she freely lives the harp as the interior path of fine-tuning. This is the alchemical harp of mediaeval monasticism: a timeless and resonating icon which sings only of an anointed love.

This article was written for two of many Cistercian emissaries of peace and prayer: Lillian Thomas Shank (Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey, Dubuque, IA) and Chrysogonus Waddell (Gethsemani Abbey, Trappist, KY) who understand and inspire the anonymous Mechtild's of the world.