Friday, June 05, 2020

The Sequence Veni Sancte Spiritus (Part 2)

Lost In Translation, #2

Last week we examined parts of the Veni Sancte Spiritus, the beautiful sequence that is being prayed at every Extraordinary-Form Mass all week during this, the Octave of Pentecost. Today, we take a closer look at just one stanza of this remarkable masterpiece, the sixth:
Sine tuo numine
Nihil est in homine, 
Nihil est innoxium.
Without Thy numinosity, 
Nothing is in man,
Nothing is harmless.
Sine tuo numine contains a word that is difficult to translate. Numen is one of the Latin terms for deity or divine majesty, but because it comes from the verb to nod or give approval, it also conveys a sense of command or will: numen is divine sway, divine power. Without your approval and support, our sacred poet is saying to the Holy Spirit, everything we have—our temporal goods, talents, efforts, etc.—ends up harming us. As Augustine puts it in the Confessions: “Without Thee [O Lord], what am I but a guide to my own destruction?” (4.1.1).
By the way, did you know that the motto for the state of Colorado is nil sine numine (“Nothing without Thy Divine Will”) and that it comes from then-Secretary of the Territory L.L. Weld, who was descended from a long line of English recusant Catholics? When asked what the new state’s motto should be, he suggested Nil sine numine, which was his family motto. Perhaps one of Weld’s ancestors had been inspired by the sequence verse Sine tuo numine as he assisted at a Whitsuntide Mass.
The rest of the stanza poses a mild problem. “Nothing is in man (homine)/ Nothing is harmless” is somewhat confusing, and so translators usually simplify it to something like “Nothing in man is harmless.” But why is the Latin here somewhat clunky in an otherwise eloquent poem? The answer is that, unfortunately, somebody along the way changed the wording. The original stanza had lumine (light) rather than homine (man) and thus read:

Without Thy numinosity,
Nothing is in [its proper] light,
Nothing is harmless.

The original stanza is much richer: it loses none of the moral claim that without the Holy Spirit nothing is harmless, and it adds an intellectual observation: without the Holy Spirit we cannot see reality properly, for to see things in their proper perspective is not simply to grasp their natural essences but to see them in light of how God sees them, or at the very least, to see them sub specie aeternitatis. “In Thy light we shall see light,” sings the psalmist (35:10), and rightly so, for if we only aspire to a natural knowledge of things, we will not see reality to the fullest; we will be blind to its providential meaning and its sacramental significance.
And it is the Holy Spirit who is instrumental in enabling us to see reality to the fullest. Several if not all of His seven gifts (especially wisdom, understanding, and knowledge) have as their aim a supernatural view of things. In one of his analogies of the Trinity, Saint Augustine writes that God the Father is He who is, God the Son is He who is understood (like the Word that He is), and God the Holy Spirit is He who makes all things understood (Soliloquies 1.8.15). The distinctions make sense, for as the Collect from the Ember Wednesday after Pentecost reminds us, the Son has promised that the Holy Spirit will lead us to all truth (see Jn. 16:13), and I take it for granted that when one understands all things, one is no stranger to the truth.

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