Friday, June 19, 2020

The Sequence Veni Sancte Spiritus (Part 4)

Lost in Translation, #4
“Thou… art glorified in the assembly of the Saints… By crowning their merits, Thou crownest Thy own gifts” (Gallican Preface, All Saints’ Day)
In the realm of study, the mind is in “focused mode” when it concentrates and learns new information; only afterwards, when it is at leisure, does the mind goes into “diffuse mode” to ruminate on the data and connect it to the larger framework of what it already knows.  Diffuse mode may sound like the less important, but it is not. As we see in the classical case of Archimedes and the baths, it is in diffuse mode that new breakthroughs occur, and it is in diffuse mode that a mystery is infused more deeply into the soul.
Unlike Ordinary Time in the new calendar (which, as I point out here and here, has a different rationale), the traditional Time after Pentecost functions as a diffuse mode for the focused mode that is Paschaltide, when we have the opportunity after the intensity of Easter and Pentecost to ruminate quietly on the mysteries we have just encountered. And so we unabashedly continue (and conclude) our reflection on the Pentecost sequence Veni Sancte Spiritus by examining its last two stanzas.

Da tuis fidélibus,
In te confidéntibus,
Sacrum septenárium.
Grant to Thy faithful,
Who confess to Thee,
The sacred sevenfold [gift].

The last line of this stanza is particularly intriguing. Septenarius in Latin is an adjective for sevenfold, and sacrum (sacer is the adjective for “sacred”) is used here as a noun. “Give us your sevenfold sacred thing,” the poet implores. The reference, of course, is to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, with a focus on their unity. As Augustine explains, “The Spirit is sevenfold (septenarius) and the Spirit is one, one by a sevenfold operation” (Sermon 8.11.13).
But why does the author say sacrum septenarium (“sevenfold sacred thing”) and not something clearer like septiformis munere (“by the sevenfold gift”), as does that other great hymn to the Holy Spirit, Veni Creator Spiritus? The answer may be that he has in mind a wry word play.
Septenarius in Latin can also refer to a line in poetry that consists of seven feet, and indeed this is the definition of the English word “septenarius, n.” Further, word order is not as important in Latin as it is in English. Putting these pieces together, sacrum septenarium can just as easily be translated “sacred septenarius.”
But what on earth is a sacred septenarius? Perhaps it is a sacred poem that only consists of seven-syllable verses, a poem like (you guessed it) Veni Sancte Spiritus. By asking the Holy Spirit for a poem that he has already written, the poet may be alluding to the paradoxical nature of prayer. Sometimes, our very petition to God contains the answer.
Da virtútis méritum
Da salútis éxitum,
Da perénne gáudium.
Amen. Allelúja.
Grant the reward of virtue,
Grant an exit with salvation,
Grant joy unending.
Amen. Alleluia.
The last stanza of this remarkable sequence marvelously encapsulates in just three lines 1) a good Christian life, 2) a good Christian death, and 3) a good Christian afterlife.
A good Christian life involves moral, intellectual, and religious excellence, that is, it is resplendent with moral, intellectual, and theological virtues. Our sacred poet is asking for the reward of virtue, but because he knows that such a reward is a consequence of virtue, he is essentially asking for a lifetime of virtue. And he needs to ask because man cannot become virtuous without God. It is a lovely if paradoxical arrangement: God helps us grow virtuous and then gives a reward for being virtuous! As the Gallican Preface for All Saints’ Day puts it, when God crowns the merits of His saints, He is crowning His own gifts. Unfortunately, many a Protestant brother does not understand this paradox and falsely accuses Catholicism of having a “works righteousness” doctrine of salvation, as if the Church had never condemned Pelagianism in all its forms early on.
A good Christian death is one that overcomes the final assaults of the Devil, who often makes a last-ditch effort at the dying by inducing fear or despair or even defiance. And how does one exit with salvation? By persevering with the Holy Spirit who, as we learned from the Collect on the Ember Friday after Pentecost (when the Veni Sancte Spiritus was still being used liturgically), keeps us from being disturbed by every assault of the Enemy. “He that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved” (Mt. 24:13).
Finally, a good Christian afterlife is one that consists of union with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the Beatific Vision. St. Augustine defines happiness as “joy in truth” (Confessions 10.23.33-34), but the truth only brings joy when you are in love with it. Seeing the truth causes the damned in Hell pain, for they hated the truth in life, and they hate the truth when it exposes their wicked lives. But when the saints in Heaven see the Truth, they experience pure joy, for they have at last attained what they have loved. As we learned in the Gospel reading on Pentecost Monday (likewise when the Veni Sancte Spiritus was being used in the Mass): “For every one that doth evil hateth the light, and cometh not to the light, that his works may not be reproved; but he that doth truth cometh to the light, that his works may be made manifest, because they are done in God” (Jn. 3:20-21).

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