Friday, June 12, 2020

The Sequence Veni Sancte Spiritus (Part 3)

Lost in Translation, #3:

One of my favorite seasons of the liturgical year is the Time after Pentecost. Although none of the propers during this season are especially pneumatological, the very name invites us to interpret what we are celebrating in the wake of the first Christian Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and breathed life into the Church. It is therefore appropriate to continue our contemplation of the sequence Veni Sancte Spiritus (see here and here for earlier reflections) even though it is not being used liturgically at this time.
We turn to three (nonconsecutive) stanzas that I am tempted to label by stealing the title “Opposites, More Opposites, and a Few Differences” from one of Richard Wilbur’s delightful books of poetry.

4. In labore requies,
In aestu temperies,
In fletu solatium.
In labor, Thou art rest,
In sweltering heat, Thou art the cool,
In tears, Thou art comfort.
7. Lava quod est sordidum,
Riga quod est aridum,
Sana quod est saucium.
Cleanse what is dirty,
Water what is parched,
Heal what is wounded.
8. Flecte quod est rigidum,
Fove quod est frigidum,
Rege quod est devium,
Bend what is rigid,
Warm up what is frozen,
Guide what is astray.

Saint Augustine writes that Jesus Christ is a Divine Physician who cures our sins sometimes through contraries and sometimes through similarities. A doctor sometimes applies a cold pack to an inflamed part of the body and sometimes applies a round bandage to a round wound, and so too, in a manner of speaking, does Our Lord. Regarding contraries, Christ heals man’s pride through His humility and defeats the serpent’s wisdom through His folly. Regarding similarities, “He was born of a woman to deliver us who fell through a woman, came as a man to save us who are men, as a mortal to save us who are mortals, by death to save us who were dead” (On Christian Doctrine 1.14.13).

Contraries rather than similarities are on full display in the Veni Sancte Spiritus, which is appropriate for the Holy Spirit since He did not become Incarnate and hence similar to us in the way that Christ did. Indeed in sacred art, although it is permissible to portray the Father and Son in human form, it is generally forbidden to portray the Holy Spirit anthropomorphically (remember, Andrei Rublev’s famous icon The Trinity portrays three angels appearing as men who are types for the Trinity). [1]

In the stanza In labore requies, the poet addresses the Holy Spirit as the counterpoint to his various negative experiences: “In labor, you are rest,” “in the heat, you are [literally] just the right mixture or temperature,” and “in tears, you are comfort” (a nice allusion to the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete or Comforter). The verb “to be” is implied in all three verses (common in Latin), and the context makes clear that the action is happening in the present tense. In other words, the poet is not saying that the Holy Spirit is rest after labor, but that He is rest in the midst of labor. He is not a cold drink when the hot day is done; He is a cool breeze during hard, sweltering work. And He is not going to wait to console us after we have dried our tears; He is consoling us right now, entering into our sorrow and providing sweet relief. Happily, even amidst the entanglements of this world, we can enjoy a foretaste of the total bliss which is to come, thanks to the Holy Spirit.
The other two stanzas consist of six urgent pleas to the Paraclete, again in terms of opposites. In my original post a couple of weeks ago, I translated Rege quod est devium as “Straighten out what is crooked” to capture a sense of deviance. Now, however, I agree with Gihr's commentary that “Guide what is astray” is the better rendering. Rege means “keep straight” while de-vius literally means “off-road” (etymologically, a “deviant” is someone who lives in an out-of-the-way place). Going off-road is fine when you are playing the weekend warrior and roughing it on your ATV, but spiritually it means that you are the lost sheep who has gone rogue, like Dante in the opening lines of the Comedy:
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
I like how the generality of these two stanzas invites self-examination. What is in my life that is dirty and requires cleaning? That is dehydrated and needs watering? That is wounded and cries out for healing? That is rigid when it should be flexible? That is numb, chilly, or cool and in need of warming up? That is wandering around and can’t find the way home? Fix us, O Holy Spirit: You are our Cleaner, Gardener, Healer, Chiropractor-Masseur, Warm Fire, and Park Ranger of our filthy, parched, bleeding, frozen stiff, and lost souls!

With its daily use of the Veni Sancte Spiritus, each of the seven days of the Pentecost Octave (not counting Trinity Sunday) invites us to answer these questions, but the vicissitudes of life being what they are, our answers will vary over time. What is too tight one year may be too loose the next or vice versa. (The traditional calendar gives us an annual barometer for measuring our progress as pilgrims, and this sequence is one example of how it does that.) The spiritual life is one of constant adjustment and re-calibration, and the Holy Spirit is the Master Mechanic with whom we collaborate in the fine tuning.

[1] One interesting exception is the fresco on the ceiling in the sanctuary of the Mission Santa Clara de Asis in northern California, completed by Mexican artist Agustin Davila in 1825 and portraying the Trinity as three young, bearded men sitting together. I have been told that the unusual depiction was an artistic attempt to explain the Trinity to the native converts. (Sorry, I can't find an image of it in the public domain.)

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