THE HOLY SPIRIT: The Holy Spirit And the Creatures’ Return To God by Raniero Cantalamessa

Meditations on the Veni Creator

The Holy Spirit And the Creatures' Return To God by Raniero Cantalamessa

From: Come, Creator Spirit

The last two lines of the first verse of the Veni Creator say, “Fill with Heavenly grace the hearts that you have made.”

In the New Testament we find three words and three images that are used to express the coming of the Holy Spirit to us: to be baptized in the Holy Spirit, to be clothed with the Holy Spirit, and to be filled with the Holy Spirit.  This last is the one that is most frequently used.  We are told that Jesus left the Jordan “full of the Holy Spirit,” (Luke 4:1); John the Baptist, Elizabeth, and Stephen are all said to be “filled with the Holy Spirit.”  But this word “filled” is above all the word used to describe the miracle of Pentecost: “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit,” (Acts 2:4).

So it is that this particular line of the Veni Creator evokes the Pentecost event.  The word “grace” in this line refers to the Holy Spirit in person.  The author of our hymn says in another place that the Paraclete is called grace “in as much as he is given freely, not for any merit of ours, but simply because God wills it so.”  Thus, what we are asking the Holy Spirit to do is to fill us with the Spirit’s own self, not with one or another of the Spirit’s gifts, however wonderful they may be.  In an ancient hymn attributed to Ambrose, the Holy Spirit is asked “to pour himself out and fill our hearts with himself.”  Through the influence of the Veni Creator, this manner of speaking became quite common in later times.  The Sequence of Pentecost addresses this prayer to the Spirit: “Light immortal, Light divine, visit thou these hearts of thine, and our inmost being fill.”  An antiphon dating from the tenth century, still in use in the liturgy, says: “Come, O Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in them the fire of your love.”

The author of the Veni Creator, too, could have said, quite explicitly, “Fill with your own self the hearts of your faithful,” but by using the word “grace” he introduces a whole new dimension to the message and enriches it tremendously.  He has drawn all the work of Christ into the orbit of the Spirit.  He has pointed out the unbreakable bond between Pneumatology and Christology.  Grace is, in fact, the point where the work of Christ and the work of the Spirit converge: Christ is the author of grace; the Spirit is, so to say, its content.  “What does it mean, to say that Christ gives grace to humankind?  It means that he gives the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, what we are asking for in these lines of the hymn is nothing less than this: that there should be, for us, a whole new outpouring of the Spirit, a whole new Pentecost.  Here we see again how the hymn is able to draw on an immense Biblical and theological background and with scintillating clarity reveal its practical application, bringing theology and spirituality, doctrine and experience, together for us in a way that is most telling.  We ought to try once again, therefore to be clear about the underlying theological insights, in order fully to make our own the decision expressed, in crescendo, in the three words, “Come, visit, fill!”


After he had written of the Holy Spirit’s part in the work of creation, Saint Basil started the next chapter of his book with these words:

As far as concerns the matter of the salvation of humankind by the work of our great God and Savior Christ Jesus, (Titus 2:13), brought about by the goodness of God, who could deny that it is put into effect by means of the grace of the Holy Spirit? (On the Holy Spirit)

These words contain the first glimmerings of one of the great developments of our faith-understanding concerning the Holy Spirit, an understanding that little by little came to be formulated with greater and greater precision.  Diachronically, that is to say, in relation to time, the Holy Spirit was at work first in creation and then in redemption; synchronically, that is to say, in relation to space, the Spirit is at work in the church and also in the world.

This insight was taken up by the Latin world, where it was given further precision.  Ambrose, after he had written on the Creator Spirit, devoted a whole section of his work to the Spirit in the economy of salvation.  There we read: “The Spirit is the author of spiritual regeneration, by which we come to be created on the divine level, in order to become children of God.”

By the first creation we are God’s creatures; by the second creation we are also God’s children.  The new creation, therefore, is nothing other than the new birth “from on high” or “of the Holy Spirit” of which Jesus speaks in the Gospel, (see John 3:3-5).  Augustine says that by the first creation we are human beings; by the second we become also Christians.  The very gift of being created is itself already grace, insofar as it is gratuitously given, but the grace by which we are Christian is a very different grace.  In the first case we have no merit by which we might have deserved the gift, but in the second we do indeed have many demerits that make us unworthy of the gift.  This is why we do not refer to creation as a grace, or if we do, we use the word only in a generic sense, and we reserve the term grace in the strict sense for redemption.

The Spirit, then, is at work both in the order of nature and in the order of grace.  This patristic view was taken to the peak of its development by the medieval theologians.  On the subject of creation and redemption Saint Bonaventure writes: “Both of these works are suffused with the power of the Holy Spirit: the works of creation are kept in being by him, and the works of redemption are brought to perfection by him.”

Saint Thomas Aquinas put together the whole of his Summa Theologiae on the schema, “How all creatures come from God, and how all creatures return to God.”  He writes: “It is fitting that for the reasons that creatures came from God in the first place, they should for the same reasons return to God.  Thus, just as we were created through the Son and the Holy Spirit, through them, too, we are taken to our final end.”

If, in this context, a certain distinction ought to be made between the Son and the Spirit, it must consist, according to one of the first Latin theologians to write on the Trinity, in the fact that the coming (progressio) of all creatures from God is attributed more particularly to the Son, and their return (regressus) to God, more particularly to the Spirit.

Thus, the Holy Spirit’s activity extends through all of the stages and events of salvation.  Like the sun, of which it is said that, “Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat, (Psalm 19:6),  the Holy Spirit was at our side from the very beginning, in every one of God’s plans for us, foretelling the future, showing forth the present and recalling the past.

There is no question of linking only certain special areas of competence to the Spirit, seeing the Spirit’s work as confined to them alone, as some have tried to do in the past.  On the contrary, the whole cosmos and all of history belong to the Spirit, and everything falls within the Spirit’s sphere of competence, just as the whole extent of reality falls within the ambit of the Father and of the Son.  The aim, rather, is to discern the special “imprint” of each of the three Persons on each of the works of God.

There is simply no basis for the thesis, commonly attributed to Joaquin of Fiore, that the Spirit’s concern is the third and last epoch of history.  The notion of a third era would seem to be justified only if it is applied not to the reality and activity of the Spirit, but to his revelation and the way he has been manifested to humankind.  This is how Gregory Nazianzen applies the idea.  In fact, Nazianzen distinguishes three phases in the revelation of the Trinity: in the Old Testament the Father is fully revealed and the Son is promised and announced; in the New Testament the Son is fully revealed and the Spirit is announced and promised; and in the final era the church at last knows the Holy Spirit fully and rejoices in the Spirit’s presence.

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