Friday, May 29, 2020

“Lost in Translation” : The Sequence Veni Sancte Spiritus (Part 1)

“Lost in Translation” is a new regular column by Dr Michael Foley, in which he takes passages from the 1962 Missale Romanum and tries to uncover the nuances of the original Latin. Foley is no stranger to the task: his translations of St. Augustine’s first two works (Against the Academics and On the Happy Life) came out last summer and the next three (On Order and The Soliloquies/On the Immortality of the Soul) will be out this fall.

It is our hope that these brief reflections will foster your appreciation of the much-celebrated genius of the Roman Rite and its wondrous ability to communicate truths succinctly and beautifully.

The Sequence Veni Sancte Spiritus, Part 1
Composed in the thirteenth century, the Mass sequence for Pentecost and its Octave, Veni Sancte Spiritus, is not as well-known today as the equally fine hymn Veni Creator Spiritus. In the Middle Ages, however, this liturgical poem was nicknamed the “Golden Sequence,” for even amidst hundreds of sequences in use at the time, it stood out. The sequence captures the ineluctability, so to speak, of Him who appears in the Scriptures under mysterious guises: flames, a dove, a cloud, etc. In thirty tight verses, the Holy Spirit emerges as a Perfecter through contraries, and we learn to draw closer to Him through paradox and juxtaposition. Recognizing the value of this sacred composition, the Holy See used to grant a plenary indulgence to anyone who devoutly recited the Veni Sancte Spiritus for a month. Although this indulgence unfortunately no longer exists, the practice is still worthwhile.

The Holy Spirit; alabaster window in the apse of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1661. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Dnalor_01, CC BY-SA 3.0 AT)
An ideal companion for extended reflection on the Golden Sequence is Fr. Nicholas Gihr’s An Explanation of the Veni Sancte Spiritus (Loreto, 2009), an impressive 54-page, line-by-line analysis. I do not aspire to surpass Gihr’s achievement, but in the coming weeks I hope to shed some light on a few of the sequence’s stanzas. Let’s start today with a translation and an observation about one of its images.

Translating is a tricky business, and translating poetry especially so. Because poetry is a condensed and powerful combination of meaning and emotion (often through lots of word play), translators are faced with a choice: Translate with an eye towards the words’ literal meaning and lose some of the emotional impact, or translate with an eye towards emotional impact and lose some of the meaning.

Most hand Missals have translations that privilege emotional impact, that is, they try to make the translation beautiful and moving while doing their best to keep as much of the meaning as possible—and rightly so, for our hearts should be moved during solemn liturgy. The translation in my Missal of the Veni Sancte Spiritus, “Come Holy Ghost, send down those beams/ Which sweetly flow in silent streams” is a good example of this noble effort. Still, there are some beautiful insights into the Holy Spirit that are inevitably left out by such a strategy. So here is my ugly literal translation, which I hope brings out a little more of the meaning.

Veni, Sancte Spiritus
Et emitte caelitus
Lucis tuae radium.
Come, Holy Spirit,
And send forth from Heaven
A ray of Thy light.
Veni, Pater pauperum,
Veni, dator munerum,
Veni, lumen cordium.
Come, O father of the poor,
Come, O giver of gifts,
Come, O light of our hearts.
Consolator optime,
Dulcis hospes animae,
Dulce refrigerium.
O best of comforters,
O sweet guest of the soul,
O sweet refreshment.
In labore requies,
In aestu temperies,
In fletu solatium.
In labor, Thou are rest,
In sweltering heat, Thou are the cool,
In tears, Thou art comfort.
O lux beatissima,
Reple cordis intima
Tuorum fidelium.
O most blessed light,
Fill the cockles of the hearts
Of Thy faithful.
Sine tuo numine
Nihil est in homine,
Nihil est innoxium.
Without Thy numinosity
Nothing is in man,
Nothing is harmless
Lava quod est sordidum,
Riga quod est aridum,
Sana quod est saucium.
Cleanse what is dirty,
Water what is parched,
Heal what is wounded.
Flecte quod est rigidum,
Fove quod est frigidum,
Rege quod est devium,
Bend what is rigid,
Warm up what is frozen,
Straighten out what is crooked.
Da tuis fidelibus
In te confidentibus
Sacrum septenarium.
Grant to Thy faithful
Who trust in Thee,
The sacred sevenfold (gift).
Da virtutis meritum,
Da salutis exitum,
Da perenne gaudium.
   Amen, Alleluja.
Grant the reward of virtue,
Grant an exit of salvation,
Grant joy unending.
   Amen, Alleluja.

As for the poem’s imagery, note the prominence of light. The Holy Spirit has a light which sheds rays from Heaven (first stanza) and is a Light of hearts (second stanza), indeed, a most blessed Light that we ask to fill the cockles of our hearts (fifth stanza). The author toggles between two different Latin words for light, lux and lumen. Originally, lux was light (daylight in particular) and lumen was a source of light, like a lamp or torch. Over time, however, the two became interchangeable, so it is difficult to say whether our author has a particular meaning in mind for each. (Today, by the way, lux and lumens are two different ways of measuring light: lumens (in the Anglicized plural) is how much light is emitted by a light source while lux is how much light falls on a surface. If that doesn’t make sense, click here and look at the cool graphic.)

One thing we know: Jesus Christ is the Light of the world, but so in a way is the Holy Spirit. Saint Augustine explains it this way: If the sun is God the Father, then the sun’s shining is God the Son, and the sun’s illumination is God the Holy Spirit (Soliloquies 1.8.15). I wonder if Augustine’s distinction between shining and illuminating is similar to the aforementioned use of lumens and lux, but I hesitate to say. One thing is certain: by using this analogy, Augustine is not promoting a modalist heresy, but trying to deepen our love of the Holy Spirit as He who wakes us up (like the rosy fingers of dawn) and sheds light on the world around us and above us.

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