Saint of the Day – 25 September – Blessed Herman of Reichenau/the Cripple OSB (1013–1054) Benedictine Monk, Confessor, Scholar, Scientist, Writer, Hymnist, Poet, Musical Composer, Teacher – born on 18 February 1013 at Altshausen, Swabia (in modern Germany) and died on 21 September 1054 at Reichenau abbey, Germany of natural causes. Also known as Hermann Contractus, Herimanus Augiensis, Hermann von Reichenau.
In his own day, the heroic cripple who achieved learning and holiness was called ‘The Wonder of His Age’. He composed works on history, music theory, mathematics and astronomy, as well as many hymns. Composer of the “Salve Regina” Hail Holy Queen, “Veni Sancte Spiritus” Come Holy Spirit and “Alma Redemptoris Mater” Nourishing Mother of the Redeemer. He was renowned as a religious poet and musical composer. Among his surviving works are officia for St Afra and St Wolfgang. When he went blind in later life, he began writing hymns and these have carried the Church and still do for a 1000 years in joy and glory!
Blessed Herman was the son of Count Wolverad II von Altshausen. Being a cripple (born with a cleft palate, cerebral palsy and possibly spina bifida – though today it is thought that he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or spinal muscular atrophy) from birth (hence the surname Contractus) he was powerless to move without assistance and it was only by the greatest effort that he was able to read and write but he was so highly gifted intellectually, that when he was but seven years of age his parents confided him to the learned Abbot Berno, on the island of Reichenau.
His great love and sincere devotion for the “Mother of the afflicted ” secured him peace of soul and even lightened his bodily sufferings. We are told, however, that he continued to pray to his beloved Mother for restoration to health and strength, if it should be pleasing to God. Pious legend informs us, that when he had prayed thus for some months, the Blessed Virgin appeared to him and offered him the choice between two gifts, namely, health or wisdom. Herman, without hesitating a moment, chose the gift of wisdom. He made a wise selection, for notwithstanding his bodily infirmities he became one of the most learned men of his time. Under the poor form of a deformed body there dwelt a noble soul, a clear and richly gifted intellect and a humble and charitable heart.
Herman spent his entire life in the monastery Reichenau as a teacher, researcher and musician. Herman was bound to a carrying chair and was completely dependent on his servants. He could only write with difficulty and one may assume that he has dictated a large part of his works. And even that might have been difficult, as his biographer writes that he could only speak with difficulty and was barely understandable. But if we are allowed to believe Berthold, his charisma, his cheerfulness and his modesty of intelligence were so impressive that everyone had to love him.
A good student of theology, he could also produce works of spiritual depth. For a readership of nuns he wrote a discourse “On the Eight Principal Vices.” It was cast in poetry and he handled the versification with great lyricism. He also knew how to give serious matters a light touch. The treatise for nuns was witty and he even began his world chronicle with a touch of self-depreciation: “Herman, the rubbish of Christ’s little ones, lagging behind the learners of philosophy more slowly than a donkey or a slug … ”
Herman was not just a music theoretician but, with that, he took on a special position – he himself created melodies – and he may be considered one of the first known composers of Gregorian chants. In contrast to the strict Gregorian chant, his music show an almost romantic melody. His “Salve Regina” is clearly the work of a master.
Herman gave instructions on how to measure the circumference of the earth at a time when there was not even clarity about the spherical shape of the earth. One of Herman’s inventions was the pillar sundial , which he called the horologium viatorum.
His iron will overcame all obstacles and it was not long before his brilliant attainments made him a shining light in the most diversified branches of learning, including, besides theology, mathematics, astronomy, music, the Latin, Greek and Arabic tongues. Students soon flocked to him from all parts, attracted not only by the fame of his scholarship but also by his monastic virtue and his lovable personality.
We are indebted to him chiefly for a chronicle of the most important events from the birth of Christ to his day. It is the earliest of the medieval universal chronicles now extant and was compiled from numerous sources, being a monument to his great industry as well as to his extraordinary erudition and strict regard for accuracy. While it is not improbable that this work was based on a previous state chronicle of Swabia, since lost (called “Chronicum Universale Suevicum”, or “Epitome Sangallensis”), it has nevertheless a significance entirely its own. But the full measure of his genius appears from the objectivity and clearness with which he wrote the history of his own time, the materials of which were accessible to him only by means of verbal tradition.
In later life he became blind and had to give up his academic writing.
He died on the island of Reichenau, Lake Constance, 21 September, 1054. He was Beatified in 1863 by Pope Pius IX.
Three of five symphonies that were written by Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya are based on his texts.