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gregorian chantWolfgang Smith, commenting on the temporal modality of the Garden of Eden, points out that “Aeviternity, properly so called, may be characterized as the temporality proper to the celestial or angelic order. But whereas ‘Paradise’ is situated ‘below’ the celestial state and may be subject to time, it yet partakes of aeviternity; as St. Chrysostom observes: ‘Man lived on Earth like an angel.’ And I would observe that Edenic temporality appears indeed to be a mean between aeviternity and secular time, which is moreover recovered or attained in the liturgical act, and above all in the traditional rite of Mass, in which, as theology teaches, temporal separation is definitively transcended. It is in this sense that the moment of the Fall ‘marks the passage from aeviternity to time’: at that instant time ceased to be ‘liturgical,’ its link with eternity was broken. And it is by way of this scission that ‘death and corruption’ entered the world.”[1]

I too would observe that temporality, in descending modes from God’s eternity to the lower levels, becomes progressively more dispersed, meaning that cognition has to run discursively through many things in a sequential order (polythetically) in order to grasp what can be grasped all at once on a higher level (monothetically, in intuitive cognition, as opposed to discursive, polythetic cognition).

The poetry of Gregorian chant—that is, the mode of artistic making (Greek: poiesis) that characterizes its properly liturgical function—is that it allows us to achieve an ascent from secular time into liturgical time, thereby participating in something of the original, Edenic share in aeviternity, in angelic time.

This cosmological function of Gregorian chant, restoring and deepening our cognitive access to higher, more intuitive ways of knowing, involves both ascent and descent between monothetic and polythetic modes of cognition.

Hildegard_von_BingenI use these terms, monothetic and polythetic—where monothetic means the intuitive cognition of one thing (mono-) set before the mind (-thetic), as opposed to polythetic, which means the discursive cognition of many things (poly-) being set before the mind (-thetic)—because I am indebted to the discussions of Alfred Schütz about the many levels of meaning, and the multi-level experience of that meaning, in music and poetry.

Schütz noticed that “the meaning context of music is not related to a conceptual scheme. A poem, for instance, may also have a conceptual content, and this, of course, may be grasped monothetically. I can tell in one or two sentences the story … But in so far as the poetical meaning … surpasses the conceptual meaning—that is, in so far as it is poetry—I can only bring it before my mind by reciting or reading it from beginning to end.”[2]

In her last great work, the Liber Divinorum Operum (The Book of Divine Works), St. Hildegard, Doctor of the Church, in its first vision, sees an image that speaks to her. I ask you to consider, by experiencing it polythetically, what this translation of that image’s speech to her says poetically:

“I am the supreme fiery force
That kindles every spark of life;
What I have breathed on will never die,

I order the cycle of things in being:

Hovering round in sublime flight,
Wisdom lends it rhythmic beauty.

I am divine fiery life
Blazing over the full-ripened grain;
I gleam in the reflection of the waters,
I burn in the sun and moon and stars,
In the breeze I have secret life
Animating all things and lending them cohesion.

I am life in all its abundance,
For I was not released from the rock of ages
Nor did I bud from a branch
Nor did I spring from a man’s begetting:
In me is the root of life.
Spirit is the root which buds in the word
And God is the intelligible spirit.”[3]

Already this translation is a more monothetic rendering of the polythetic experience of the Latin original, since it is more interpretive and less literal than other English translations. And consider that the speech itself is more monothetic than the image itself, which, experienced polythetically, is quite mysterious: we can identify its parts, but not until the vision speaks to Hildegard do we hear what may perhaps give us a more monothetic grasp of the meaning of the image in her vision.

Hidden in the poetic meaning of a story (or poem) is everything that escapes your first—or even your current—monothetic, conceptual grasp of the story (or poem). And the only way to access that hidden meaning is to enter into the richer, polythetic experience of it, until you are able to extend your cognitive grasp further to what will enable you to make your monothetic ascent.

This polythetic exploration and experience of meaning characterizes what I call the poetry of Gregorian chant, since the polythetic character is so constructed as to especially encourage an ascent: I am referring to that unique freedom from rhythm that characterizes chant.

Interestingly, Schütz argues that rhythm is not even proper to our inner experience of music: “Music belongs to inner duration through melody, harmony, and harmonizing, interweaving voices (Stimmfuhrung), but it belongs to outer time through rhythm.”[4]

Consider further how the ascent from the polythetic to the monothetic, and back again in descent (from the monothetic to the polythetic), and back up again (i.e., in our constantly alternating musical experience of both the quotidian and the sublime), actually gives us a cosmological experience of the hierarchies of order within creation, ranging from the celestial to the corporeal.

It is a kind of cognitive grasp of the eternal. For, as Augustine observed, God creates all things at once: “Beyond all doubt, the word was not made in time, but with time.”[5]

St. Hildegard

St. Hildegard

St. Hildegard herself sees the Trinitarian outline of this monothetic, “omnes simul” creation, which is refracted into the polythetic, six-day accounts. She sees, in her vision, the divine Fire of the Spirit that actualizes the material creation:[6]

“I saw as it were in the southern sky an image, beautiful and wonderful in the mystery of God, like the form of a human, whose face was of such beauty and clarity that I would easier look at the sun than at it; and a great circlet of golden colour surrounded its head. Above that head, moreover, in the same circlet, another face appeared like an old man, whose chin and beard touched the crown of the [lower] head. [This symbolizes God the Father, source of the divine Ideas actualized in creation.] And from each side of its neck a single wing appeared, which rising up joined together above the aforementioned circlet. At the far point in the arc of the right wing I saw as it were the head of an eagle, which had eyes of fire, in which appeared the brilliance of the angels as in a mirror. [The eagle thus symbolizes the angels.] But in the far point of the arc of the left wing there was as it were a human face, which shined like the radiance of the stars. [This is man, the material counterpart of the immaterial creation of angels.] And these faces were turned to the east. But also from each shoulder of this image a wing stretched forth down to its knees. It was clothed in a tunic like to the brilliance of the sun; and in its hands it held a lamb, shining like the light of day. [This symbolizes the incarnate Son.] The image was, moreover, treading with her feet a monster of horrible form, venomous and black in colour, and a certain serpent, which had fixed its mouth upon the right ear of the monster and, curving the rest of its body around the monster’s head, had stretched out his tail down the right side of the monster to its feet.”

The latter image symbolizes Lucifer’s tin ear thoughout the Hexaemeron. The serpent and the monster are twin, Luciferian images symbolizing the one evil dissonance that tries to mar creation: Lucifer as the serpent of material earth, and the monster of immaterial heaven. Yet the secret fire of the Spirit, the concerted action of the Trinity in creation, defeats the dissonance.

St. Hildegard hears the image speak. It polythetically encapsulates the cosmological structure which I have set forth for you, monothetically, as the cosmic significance to which we may have access, thanks to the poetry of Gregorian chant.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


[1] Wolfgang Smith, Ancient Wisdom and Modern Misconceptions: A Critique of Contemporary Scientism (Angelico Press / Sophia Perennis, 2013): 114 n.33.

[2] Alfred Schütz, “Making Music Together: A Study in Social Relationship”, in Arvid Brodersen (ed.), Alfred Schütz: Collected Papers II: Studies in Social Theory (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1964), 159–178. Read before the General Seminar of the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research. Originally published in Social Research 18.1 (March 1951): 76–97. Quoted from Schütz 1951: 173 n.22.

[3] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Religion and the Order of Nature (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1996): 59; quoted at Stratford Caldecott, The Power of the Ring (Crossroad, 2012): 140, with an erroneous line break after the first stanza. Note both have “repined” instead of “ripened”. Alluding to this vision-speech from Hildegard of Bingen, Caldecott titled his book on Tolkien, Secret Fire. The American publisher (against Caldecott’s wishes) changed the title to The Power of the Ring. Caldecott quoted Hildegard in Nasr’s translation.

[4] Schütz 2013: 185. Collected Papers VI. Literary Reality and Relationships.

[5] Smith 2013: 60, 123; cf.

[6] I quote a translation of her description of the vision, within which I add my parenthetical comments in square brackets. The quotation is from St. Hildegard of Bingen, Liber Divinorum Operum (The Book of Divine Works) I.I.1; translated by Campbell 2009.

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Published: Dec 17, 2015
Christopher Morrissey
Christopher S. Morrissey teaches Greek and Latin on the Faculty of Philosophy at the Seminary of Christ the King located at the Benedictine monastery of Westminster Abbey in Mission, British Columbia. He also lectures in logic and philosophy at Trinity Western University. He is a Fellow of the Adler-Aquinas Institute and a Member of the Inklings Institute of Canada. He studied Ancient Greek and Latin at the University of British Columbia and has taught classical mythology, history, and ancient languages at Simon Fraser University, where he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on René Girard. His book of Hesiod’s poetry, Hesiod: Theogony / Works and Days, is published by Talonbooks.
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