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History of Hymns: "Wellspring of Wisdom"

"Wellspring of Wisdom"
by Miriam Therese Winter
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 506

Miriam Therese Winter

Wellspring of Wisdom, hear our cry.
The way ahead is parched and dry.
We seek a source to satisfy
our thirst for sanctifying waters,
wisdom for your faith-filled sons and daughters.*

Dr. Miriam Therese Winter (b. 1938) has been a prophetic voice in liturgical studies and feminist ritual for several decades. “Wellspring of Wisdom,” commissioned by the Hymnal Revision Committee for The United Methodist Hymnal (1989), reflects both.

A native of Passaic, New Jersey, the author was born Gloria Winter. At age seventeen she became a Medical Mission Sister and is now professor of liturgy, worship, spirituality and feminist studies at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. In addition to her teaching responsibilities, Dr. Winter directs the Women’s Leadership Institute at Hartford, composes liturgical music, and writes on the topics of biblical women and women’s liturgy.

“MT,” as she is known by her students and colleagues, implemented the reforms of Vatican II (1962-1965) by introducing folk music into the Catholic liturgical tradition. She is perhaps most recognized for her recording Joy is Like the Rain (1966), a series of biblical narratives in an accessible folk style, and Mass of a Pilgrim People, which was recorded live at Carnegie Hall in 1967.

Following her graduation from high school, Winter entered the Medical Mission religious community, planning on becoming a physician and providing medical assistance to those around the world who needed it the most. But her love for music was not to be denied. Sister Winter and ten other Medical Mission Sisters recorded Joy is Like the Rain, their first album in New York City in the mid-1960s in a seven-hour recording session -- an album that went Gold. When asked what she was trying to accomplish through her music, she stated, “Singing is part of healing, it’s medicine. It’s tonic to the spirit!”

She did not pursue healing through medicine, but through music, receiving a Bachelor of Music degree from Catholic University and a Master’s Degree in Religious Education from McMaster Divinity College. Her Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies is from Princeton Theological Seminary.

“Wellspring of Wisdom” draws upon Dr. Winter’s understanding of feminist ritual reflected in publications such as Woman Prayer, Woman Song (1987), and Defecting in Place: Women Taking Responsibility for Their Own Spiritual Lives (1995). This hymn reflects the deep tradition of Wisdom as a source of knowledge. O Sapientia, the beginning of one of the stanzas of the “O Antiphons” (the Latin poetry upon which the hymn “O come, O come Emmanuel” is based), provides a context for understanding the role of Wisdom in Christian spirituality:

O come, thou Wisdom from on high,
and order all things far and nigh,
to us the path of knowledge show,
and cause us in her ways to go.

Proverbs 1:20-22 offers insight into the nature of Wisdom, not as concept, but as a feminine prophetic being: “Wisdom cries aloud in the street; in the markets she raises her voice; on the top of the walls she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: 'How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?'” (RSV)

With this context we can sing “Wellspring of Wisdom” with more understanding. She is a “source to satisfy our thirst for sanctifying waters,” perhaps a reference to the waters of baptism in which we were reborn as Christians.

Stanza two is the language of petition, a prayer for Wisdom to “put to flight the terrors of a nuclear night.” Rather than the scorching heat of a nuclear disaster, Wisdom offers hope and warmth as we “huddle closer to your fire.”

Stanza three draws in an ecological understanding by alluding to creation narrative as the “Garden of Grace”: “the whole of earth is holy ground.” Wisdom teaches us that “We learn . . . from all of life” and can restore earth and humanity by “sowing seeds of blessing.”

The final stanza uses the language of petition again: “Call to Compassion.” Wisdom reminds us of “our burning need for nurturing.” Wisdom offers us the possibility of bringing “the emptiness of everything to [her] embrace.”

Throughout the hymn, Dr. Winter reminds us through the use of upper case designations for Wisdom, Grace, and Compassion, that these are not abstract concepts, but take on life as attributes of wholeness and healing embodied in the actions and patterns of our lives. The author offers this reflection on her hymn and our society:

“Access to all kinds of knowledge is now at our fingertips via the Internet. Wisdom, however, abides in the heart and it heralds the dawn of a new day in a world seeking justice and peace. Wisdom, at the core of all faith traditions, is known also by its maiden name, love.”

Winter has traveled the world as a Medical Mission Sister, ministering to homeless and helpless people in places such as the Thai-Cambodian border, and to starving children in Ethiopia. At home, she has ministered to the women at the Niantic State Correctional Institution since 1988. Her publications continue to inspire and challenge. In Paradoxology: Spirituality in a Quantum Universe (2009), she draws upon science and spirituality to offer insight into the significance of faith in all of life. The Sacred Folk Song Project of Saint Bernadette Institute in Albuquerque is in the process of releasing a five-CD set of more than 100 of the songs by the Medical Mission Sisters sung by performing artists from many faith traditions entitled Loving You: A Celebration of All Creation, the first of which was released in 2012. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mL4y08JKonc for an introduction to this project by MT. In December 2013, Audible released an audiobook version (both digital and in a six-CD boxed set) of her 1999 book, The Singer and the Song,narrated and sung by Janis Ian.

* © 1989 Medical Mission Sisters. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.