Lent 2022 A Saint a Day for Lent Day 25

Day 25 26th March Caedmon

I love the story of Caedmon, who was a lay brother at the Abbey of Whitby in the 7th century. As a lay brother he was responsible for looking after the cattle and performing other jobs that contributed to the upkeep of the monastery, so the monks and nuns ( yes, it was a mixed monastery) could devote their time to prayer, choir, copying texts, teaching and study. There are numerous versions of his story, I recall here my favourite.
Caedmon was a bit of a loner, he didn’t fit in. He was the type that people often ridiculed and made fun of and so he kept to himself as much as possible and quietly got on with his tasks. One of the things he was teased about was his voice and his singing. Among the lay brothers they would often socialise through sharing tales in song. They would sit in a circle and each would take a turn to offer a song. Whenever it was Caedmon’s turn there was laughter, for his voice was not a singing voice, and his embarrassment and lack of confidence always made it sound worse than it was. He used to get called crow-throat and he avoided such gatherings as much as he could. The story goes that one night there was a feast in the Abbey, and the lay brothers were allowed mead and rich food in their residence. As always the evening turned to song. Caedmon sat there hating each moment because he knew it would get to his turn. When it did they all encouraged him to sing his tale, and out of embarrassment he got up and left the feast telling them he had work to do in the cow sheds.
They laughed as he left. But that night while he sat in the cowshed feeling sorry for himself, he had a vision of an angel who told him to sing. Caedmon protested, but the angel was insistent. “Sing me a song of creation” his holy visitor insisted. Caedmon knew he could not refuse, so he sang and the voice he heard singing was tuneful and lovely; and the song he sung was beautiful. The next day he discovered he could still sing and compose, and he became well known for his talents.
Caedmon’s story tells me not to worry what others may think of my voice. That singing, music, composing, is a holy gift. I have often been self-conscious about my singing, especially in a church setting, I am sure many others are as well. One thing this last year or so has taught me, when we could not sing in church, is that we should not take our voices or our music for granted. God has blessed us with a voice, lets sing, rejoice and not worry about what others think. Our voice is a holy gift.

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When I wrote about Hildegard of Bingen (Day 14) I was torn on what to focus upon in her life. She was a poet, a healer, a lover of nature, a writer and teacher, an artist, and also a composer of some of the most sublime music that I have listened to. If you have not heard her music give yourself a treat, look her up and have a listen. There are some beautiful renditions of her works by groups such as Sequentia or Anonymous 4. Caedmon was a composer that we know so little about, and so this gives me an opportunity to return to Hildegard and her music.
She wrote at a time (12th century) when church music expected to be simple, unadorned, and as plain as possible. Hildegard, as she did with most other things in her life, broke all the rules of convention! In fact, at one stage, her convent was banned from singing altogether because Hildegard pushed all the boundaries. I have a sneaky feeling that Hildegard will have ignored the ban!
Her music expressed her love of God’s world and creation. Hildegard saw the world and nature as a hymn of praise to God, and she aimed to set it to music, and express it through instrument and voice. She used imagery that was imaginative and sensual: fecundity, jewels, femininity, the elements, and erotic imagery of God as a lover, were themes she returned to again and again. She stretched her singers voices to their limits in their praise of the Creator.
Whenever I listen to recordings like Hildegard, and many others like her, I am always transported into wonderment of the ability and range of the human voice. When did humanity first have that moment of enlightenment that the voice could be used so beautifully and creatively? When did we first realise the beauty of putting two voices together in harmony, and then adding a third and a fourth and so on? I don’t know the answer but I am grateful that we discovered this extraordinary gift and I give thanks for the likes of Caedmon, Hildegard and so many others that have blessed us with such bliss and encouraged us to find our voice and sing.

I wrote the following after listening one evening to the vocal group Stile Antico:

Am listening to choral music
From the renaissance
Beautiful. Rich. Prayerful.
Gorgeous blend of voices:
Alto, soprano, tenor, baritone, bass –
Descending the surface
To somewhere deeper.

How did it all begin?
Who sang the first note?
Who had the great epiphany:
That blended voices in unison
Could create the sound of heaven,
Take us deeper in to the mystery of our soul
And unite us with
The Divine Presence?