An Office Hymn from the East

St. Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) was a mediaeval mystic in the (Greek) Byzantine tradition. He is especially known for his Hymns of Divine Love in which he explores how apophatic contemplation and Eros can be combined.

Among the hymns of the Divine Office used in French-speaking countries is an example of his work in which he contrasts different aspects of the deity in relation to sinful humanity. A series of paradox questions ends with a return to quiet contemplation. It was translated by the French poet Jacqueline-Frédéric Frié (1922-2009), working in collaboration with the celebrated French Jesuit liturgist and musician Joseph Gelineau (1920-2008), and with music by the latter.

The hymn is listed as being used on Saturdays 2 and 4 of the four-week cycle, and also in the Sanctoral cycle. I give here my translation from the French, designed to fit the music:

The music is of extreme simplicity, spanning a range of just over a 5th, with the third phrase of the melody repeating the first phrase at a higher pitch. The equally simple accompaniment, based on the tonic and flattened supertonic, gives an extraordinary impression of other-worldliness. The recording was made by the Benedictine nuns and monks of Le Bec-Hellouin in Normandy and released by Editions SM in 1998.

If only we could have hymns for the Office like this in the English-speaking world!

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