Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: “O Holy Spirit, Root of Life”

History of Hymns: “O Holy Spirit, Root of Life”

By C. Michael Hawn

Jean Wiebe Janzen

“O Holy Spirit, Root of Life,” by Jean Janzen;
The Faith We Sing, No. No. 2121

O Holy Spirit, Root of life,
Creator, cleanser of all things,
anoint our wounds, awaken us
with lustrous movement of your wings.*

In her hymn, "O Holy Spirit, Root of Life," Jean Wiebe Janzen (b. 1933) has brought to life the vision and spirituality of one of the most intriguing figures in the Christian tradition, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179).

Hildegard was a visionary for any age, but especially as a woman living 900 years ago. She was a painter, a composer of songs, and a writer in the fields of science, theology, and healing. She was tutored from the age of 8 eight by Jutta of Spanheim, the leader of a Benedictine women's cloister in Mainz. When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard became the leader of the community. In 1151, she and her sisters moved the cloister to the present-day town of Bingen.

In recent years, Hildegard's writings have been translated into English, and have captured the attention of scholars, musicians, and those seeking spiritual guidance. Mennonite poet Jean Janzen (b. 1933) is among those inspired by her writings. Hildegard’s writings have expanded the ways in which Ms. Janzen imagines the work of the Holy Spirit. In correspondence with this writer, she noted:

"The committee for our hymnal [Hymnal: A Worshipbook, 1992] sent me writings by three medieval mystic women, choosing passages which seemed especially alive with images, and asked if I was willing to try to write hymn texts with these writings as inspiration. I had never written hymn texts before, although earlier in life I had written some poetry in formal meter and rhyme. The images of Hildegard of Bingen were fresh for me, so I was honored to shape them into lines for congregational singing."

Hymnologist Paul Westermeyer has detected three Latin texts from Hildegard’s works from which Janzen drew for her hymn: “De Spiritu Sancto” (“Of the Holy Spirit), “O Virtus Sapientia” (“O Strength of Wisdom”), and “O Vis Aeternitatis” (“O Power of Eternity”). Commenting on this text, he notes that the myriad attributes of the Holy Spirit included by Hildegard in this hymn ismake up a “dizzying list: root, creator, anointer who awakens; vigor, Saving One who frees us and restores all creation by the Word made flesh; Wisdom and power who encompasses and carries us, encircling the whole creation” (Westermeyer, 2010,p. 213).

Concerning the Trinitarian influence in this hymn, Ms. Janzen continues: "I see in retrospect that the Trinity is alive and active in this hymn. While more often we name and separate the Three in description and action, this hymn captures the interaction rather well, thanks to Hildegard. God as Creator-Spirit dominates and moves through time and space and matter, and also enters in the flesh, so that the healing and restoration wings through everywhere." Stanza two begins with "Eternal Vigor," and stanza three addresses God as "O holy wisdom." Wisdom, or “sapientia” in the Latin, is considered by many scholars today to be a feminine image for God.

The flowing grace of "O Holy Spirit" offers an image of God among us that moves beyond the traditional idea of an entity descending from above, to an eternal Being that "encompass[es] us with wings unfurled, and carr[ies] us, encircling all, above, below, and through the world." [Stanza three]

Since the 800th eight hundredth anniversary of her death in 1979, much attention has been given to Hildegard’s unusual gifts as a composer. Having received her music instruction from her tutor and predecessor as prioress Jutta, Hildegard began composing music as a part of the Divine Office when she assumed this position. Though there is no historical account that her music was heard or used beyond her own order, hundreds of recordings exist today. Musicologists find them distinct from other compositions of the era because of the elaborate and almost improvisatory nature of the melodies and their wider range, exceeding the octave used by her contemporaries, including Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). The following recording of “O Vis Aeternitatis” (“O Power of Eternity”), one of the Latin compositions upon which Janzen’s hymn is based, displays these characteristics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ef70x-TU0NY.

Ms. Janzen was born in Saskatchewan, Canada, and grew up in the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren Church, a Church church with which she has a strong connection with because of many Mennonite pastors in her family, including her father. She was educated in the United States at Tabor College (Kansas), Grace College (Nebraska), and Fresno Pacific College, California (BA in English). She received her master's degree in creative writing from California State University in Fresno (MA in English and Creative Writing). In 1995, she received a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts.

She has published poems in various magazines and journals and has seven collections including Words for Silence (18841984), Three Mennonite Poets (1986), The Upside-Down Tree (1992), Snake in the Parsonage (1995), Tasting the Dust (2000), and Piano in the Vineyard (2004), and Paper House (2008), as well as a text, Elements of Faithful Writing (2004). She taught poetry writing at Fresno Pacific College and Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., until her retirement. With her husband Louis, a physician, she raised four children. According to Julia Kasdorf, the Janzens “were charter members of the College Community Mennonite Church in Clovis [California], a kind of progressive alternative to the local M[ennonite] B[rethren] establishment.” (Kasdorf, 2008,p. 101).

Because she is first of all a poet, Ms. Janzen's efforts at hymn texts have come primarily as a result of requests. In the Mennonite Hymnal: A Worshipbook, she has eight contributions, some of these being altered texts. As a result of her debut as a hymn writer, she has been commissioned to write texts for events, memorials, or supplement books, and now has nearly 20 twenty hymns or choral-anthem texts. The hymn mhost often included in collections is “Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth,” inspired by another medieval mystic poet, Julian of Norwich (1342- ca. 1416). See https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-mothering-god-you-gave-me-birth.

Julia Kasdorf provides a wonderful domestic description of Jean Janzen’s life:

… I used to wonder how she did it, without getting mad (crazy or angry) – all those traditional forms of nurture and service – while still finding time to write in her tiny office, a pantry really, off that enormous kitchen. Now I see that it could not have been otherwise, given all the loves in her life. And there’s more to Jean than meets the eye . (Kasdorf, 2008,, p. 101-102).

*Words by Jean Janzen © 1991 Abingdon Press (Administered by The Copyright Company, Nashville, TN) All rights reserved. Used by permission.*Words by Jean Janzen © 1991 Abingdon Press (Administered by The Copyright Company, Nashville, TN) All rights reserved. Used by permission.

For Further Reading:

Stephen D’Evelyn with thanks to Julia Huttar Bailey, Lisa Neufeld Thomas, and M. L. Bringle. Fiona McAlpine. "Hildegard of Bingen." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed November 1, 2017, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/h/hildegard-of-bingen.

Kasdorf, Julia Kasdorf,. “Tribute to Jean Janzen,” The Conrad Grebel Review 26:1 (Winter 2008), 100-102.

Watson, J. R. Watson. "Jean Janzen." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed November 1, 2017, 2017, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/j/jean-janzen.

Westermeyer, Paul Westermeyer,. Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2010).


C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor and Director of the Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas.

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