The best selling record, "Chant," sung by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo the Silos includes the twelfth century poem traditionally sung in Catholic churches on the feast of the Holy Spirit. Known as the Pentecost Sequence, the hymn, "Veni Sante Spiritus," musically celebrates the power of the Holy Spirit to sanctify believers.
Fifty days after Easter, Pentecost Sunday commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles. Jesus had risen to heaven, but promised his followers that he would not leave them "orphans." He would send the Paraclete, the Consoler, the Comforter, the Advocate who would guide them in all things. Since Jesus had left no concrete statement of beliefs and no constitutional structure, Christians have viewed the advent of the Holy Spirit as the "birthday of the church." With his coming, the third face of God (more traditionally, the Third Person of the Trinity) inspired and inflamed Christians with the love and wisdom needed to continue Jesus' work on earth. Pentecost parallels the Jewish festival of Shavout which commemorates God's giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. For Jews as God's Chosen People, the Torah celebrates a unique covenant with God. For Christians, the descent of the Holy Spirit opens another path for people to participate in God's plan.
The Acts of the Apostles, the fifth book in the Christian scriptures, records the tentative beginnings of Jesus's followers as they established his church. While many Christians interpret this book differently, they all agree that the Holy Spirit inspired the new organization. The Paraclete, frequently symbolized as a dove, guided believers in accepting the 27 canonical books which comprise the "New Testament." In the Catholic and Orthodox tradition, the Holy Spirit also used the early ecumenical councils to protect the church from false teachings and to establish a more formalized structure for his church.
Traditionally, the Holy Spirit is not merely the guide of the corporate group, but the inspirer of individual believers. The weakness of human beings and their organizations -- even church organizations -- means that Christian history is no stranger to scandal and corruption. Despite this, Christians recognize that the Holy Spirit continues to inspire individuals and church groups to reform their lives. The Pentecost Sequence addresses itself to this struggle to lead a Christ-like life, to the problems of perseverance and to the promise of eternal reward.
Unfortunately interpretations of this poem are frequently very stilted and consequently most Catholic congregations, which include this hymn in their Pentecost liturgy, no longer use it. In fairness, no English translation of this carefully crafted Latin poem can capture the sublimity of its measured cadence. Many years ago, however, a priest of the Congregation of the Mission, Father John Conway, led a group through a simpler translation and what follows is basically his analysis.
On the modern recording, the monastic cantor intones "Veni Sancte Spiritus, Come Holy Spirit" and the Benedictine choir continues "send the rays of your heavenly light. Come, Father of the poor, come Giver of gifts, come Light of hearts." The medieval author uses the traditional metaphor of light and darkness, night and day. Breaking the coldness of the night, the Holy Spirit warms and enlightens believers and brings the spiritual gifts necessary to triumph over darkness. As the Protector of the poor and the Creator who has given his gifts to all men and women, the Counselor has a paternal love for those who suffer want and deprivation. His comforting rays inspire those who have accumulated riches to share their gifts with those less fortunate. The true gifts of wealth are found in the warmth and light of love, not in the darkness and coldness of material things.
The hymnist continues, "O great Consoler, sweet Guest of the soul, sweet Refuge, you refresh us in our work, cool us in the heat and console us in our tears. O most blessed Light, fill the intimate hearts of your faithful." In these words the poet reminds believers that the Holy Spirit is not far off, indeed, he is in the very souls of all who love him. Jesus has said (in John 14:15), "Anyone who loves me will be true to my work and my Father will love him; we will come to him and make our dwelling place with him...The Paraclete, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name will instruct you in everything... Live in me as I do in you." Christian teaching emphasizes that the body is the temple of God and God dwells in man. The monks who came into choir to sing this hymn bowed to one another recognizing the image of God in each other. The hymnist celebrates this indwelling as the source of peace, but as someone who has aspired to lead a spiritual live, the author knows its pitfalls. His poem continues.
"Without your blessing, there is nothing worthwhile for people, nothing that is not dangerous. Wash what is unclean, water what is arid, heal what is ill, bend what is rigid, warm what is icy, and guide what is deviant." Aware that excess can lead to aberrations, the hymnist asks the Holy Spirit's blessings on those who seek to follow divine guidance. Humans are not perfect and need the waters of forgiveness to ash away sin. Even those successful in minimizing sin become arid or rigid or cold or self-righteous. What the mystics called "the dark night the soul" can leave a believer feeling alone and estranged from God. The challenge of human relationships as well as the call to perfection can make people feel tired and depressed. The poet affirms the traditional belief that these are tests sent by God and the Holy Spirit will renew the warmth of his love if people persist in asking for his assistance.
The choir concludes the hymn singing, "Give to those who believe in you, your seven gifts. Give them the reward of virtue. Grant them happy death. Give them eternal joy. Amen. Alleluia." The traditional seven gifts of the Holy Spirit which the poet requests are wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, piety, fortitude, and fear of the Lord. Empowered with these, the faithful could look forward to persevering in God's love and ultimately to receiving the eternal peace promised after death.
When most Christian churches following the liturgical year celebrate Pentecost, they continue to use fire and light to symbolize the working of the Holy Spirit. In the modern world, the words of a twelfth century poet may seem anachronistic, but they beautifully express a very deep spirituality and promise of hope. Many generations found peace and love in this beautiful hymn sung by the Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos. To find this music and its message on a best selling compact disc is truly amazing.
Dr. John Leopold, Chair of the Department of History at Western Connecticut State University, teaches the history of Christianity.