International Women’s Day, 8 March 21

IWD is usually celebrated at Woden Valley Uniting and in many other venues during a Sunday service close to 8 March. Some comments, however selective, superficial and inexpert, are appropriate in a web-site dedicated to the music of the psalms and canticles.

The inattentive visitor looking up at the vaulted Duomo of Siena might tread on this simple but beautiful marble unawares. Step aside, tread softly.

No vector can be found in the Psalter to point us directly to the wonderful presence and roles of women, nor of course the more recently established International Women’s Day. Reflecting historical literary and and societal norms of the era, the psalms give little prominence to women.

First, the whole Psalter is full of cries for justice, equity and treatment of all people according to love and respect. These imperatives should encourage humankind to value and cherish the place of women in our lives and communities. Regrettably, the ideal espoused in the Psalter is frequently sullied, all too frequently by male dominance, power or anger in a widely competitive world. The psalms sound an important message drawing people back to the standards of love and equity constantly expounded in the Bible.

Next, several psalms recognise images of God as feminine spirit and creator, as well as ideas of mothering or midwife (Psalms 113:9, 127), the prophetic (68:11) and other female influences. In Psalm 22, divine spirit and mother’s love seem almost indistinguishable:

Yet you brought me out of the womb;
    you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
10 From birth I was cast on you;
    from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
11 Do not be far from me,
    for trouble is near
    and there is no one to help.

The thoughts of the writer of Psalm 32 are of refuge, wisdom and guidance. Sometimes, refuge is presented as a shelter from violent conflict: “You are my hiding place; you preserve me from trouble”, (verse 7) The author then goes on to relish divine guidance, (8) and understanding. (9) Out in the streets, practical relief from hunger, poverty, oppression and homelessness are far more pressing.

Over the centuries women have often been primary agents for such refuge and guidance to the young and those damaged and destitute in harsh societies. The provision of shelter and care is beautifully seen in the ancient Beguinale women’s order and their houses of refuge and faith in some older European cities.

The Beguinale refuges were run by nuns and female volunteers as homes for poor and solitary women cast off by society. Today for the visitor they exude quiet and assurance. The traffic noise still retreats in the peace of the sanctuary created years ago by women of vision and strength.

Psalm 131 savours a maternal image of divine love. While it is said to be by David, the song sounds as though it may have been written by a woman. Her experience of the divine is described as relating directly to a mother rather than father, affirming the mother’s strong and beautiful role in nurturing confident, content and independent children.

But I have calmed and quieted myself,
    I am like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child I am content.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord
    both now and forevermore.

On the other hand, when male prophets are mentioned by name, the psalms sometimes omit some courageous women. An example appears in Psalm 99, also notable for its declaration that God “established justice and equity” in verse 4. Only a couple of verses later:

Moses and Aaron were among his priests,
    Samuel was among those who called on his name;

Sure, but their big sister Miriam, she who watched over baby Moses in the bulrushes and is mentioned in other early texts as present with Moses and Aaron at critical events (eg Micah 6:4), is ignored in this psalm. Yet in Exodus 15 we read:

19 When Pharaoh’s horses, chariots and horsemen went into the sea, God brought the waters of the sea back over them, but the Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground. 20 Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing. 21 Miriam sang to them:
“Sing to God,
    who is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
    were hurled into the sea.”

And note in this text, slightly edited from the NRSV, how easy it is when referring to the divine to change just a few words to remove linguistic gender bias.

This song sung by Moses and Miriam appears amongst the Canticles, sisters to the psalms. Among the more commonly-used canticles, the Marian tradition dominates with many settings of the Magnificat or Song of Mary.

The Magnificat, followed by an antiphon, in the Howard Psalter, British Library

🎵

As to the settings, while the work of women was grievously ignored in the annals of early music, many modern refrains and psalm tunes have been composed by women.

Hildegard

The New Century Hymnal includes works by Emma Lou Diemer, Elaine Kirkland and Jane Marshall to name but a few. Women authors are well represented in Psalms for All Seasons, while settings by Linnea Goode have a strong following.

To recognise IWD in years gone by, we have featured abbreviated chants by Hildegard of Bingen, an early prophet, poet and visionary from the Rhine Valley in the 12th century. These are frequently allegorical sung tales and hymns to Mary and other female saints rather than psalms, but the content often overlaps.

Ps 117 (116 in Vulgate), the shortest psalm at two verses, is addressed simply to omnes gentes, ‘all people’ and all nations. It honours enduring love and truth. Here we see a melismatic Gregorian chant — few words, many notes.

For those addicted to four-line staves and square notation of the Gregorian Chant, the work of two women is a useful slim reference for the cantor, music director and chorister: Mary Berry of Newnham College Cambridge has published chants for various liturgical seasons and hours. Her publication ‘Cantor’ includes modern English translations by Rose Mary McCabe. (The chant illustrated is from Liber Usualis, not ‘Cantor’]

We cannot rewrite history. However, an inclusive linguistic, contextual and poetic interpretation —  and recalling the esteem with which Jesus regarded women as recorded in John’s gospel — helps balance and fill in the gaps for modern sensibilities.

The feminine touch may be well veiled and indirect in the Psalter. Such were the norms when these songs when written. It should not be so today. Without constant attention to equity (Ps 99:4 rings out again) the same dangers of disrespect are always present.

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