From: Come, Creator Spirit
By now it must be clear: the message of this part of the Veni Creator is all contained in the little word, “grace.” This is the “honeycomb” from which we need to “draw all the honey”; this is the key that will open for us the door to a whole new chamber in the treasure-house of revelation concerning the Holy Spirit. Grace is one of the words that we need to revive and restore to its original splendor, because it has been spoiled just as a fresco is spoiled by too many attempts at restoration, each imposing traces of the transient taste of the moment.
The first thing that jumps out at us when we read the New Testament, especially Paul, is the close similarity, not to say equivalence, between the Holy Spirit and grace. The two realities are actually linked together in one text, “the Spirit of grace,” (Hebrews 10:29). But the principal test rests in the often identical prerogatives attributed to each of the two realities, Spirit and grace. At times, where “Holy Spirit” is written we could read, “grace,” and likewise, for “grace” we could read, “Holy Spirit,” without in the least altering the meaning of the text.
The identification of grace as Holy Spirit and of Holy Spirit as grace is explicit in the Fathers from the very earliest reflections on the divine nature of the Paraclete: “Just as it is of the Father and of the Son, so grace is of the Holy Spirit. For how could there be grace at all, without the Holy Spirit, since every divine grace is in the Spirit?”
What is it about the Holy Spirit that brings this close relationship with grace to light? The first thing is the gratuitousness of grace. In as much as the Spirit is grace, the Holy Spirit is an absolutely gratuitous gift, totally unmerited, that God gives to humankind. The second thing is the historicity of grace, that is, its arising from the redemptive event of the death and resurrection of Christ. The Holy Spirit, by whom and in whom we live, is not some vague, atemporal reality that enwraps the believers’ world more or less like the atmosphere enwraps the Earth. The Spirit came into history with Christ and comes into the life of each Christian at the moment of that person’s baptism.
And in its turn, what is it about grace that brings its close relationship with the Holy Spirit to light? First, grace is not simply a benevolent disposition, a disposition of “good will,” in God toward us; it is not merely a matter of intention, but something real. Second, grace is an event, a very specific act, a new and personal intervention by God, of a sort comparable to God’s initial act of creation. Grace, according to the basic meaning of the word, is not something that God finds in a human being, or some kind of entitlement that would make a human being pleasing to God, but more radically still, it is that specific act of God that justifies this particular human person and so makes this particular person pleasing to him. Grace is, above all and before all, “God’s grace,” “divine grace,” and not our grace, not “human grace.” Once received by a human being, grace is then not merely a kind of juridical title to salvation, a sort of certificate of safe conduct, a passport; grace is a power that is real, in the same sense as the Holy Spirit is a power that is real.
Grace is an experiential reality. We do not merely have an idea or a concept of grace, or even a belief in grace (if we take belief to mean only an assent of the mind), just as we do not merely have an idea or a concept or a belief in the Holy Spirit. Grace is something we experience, and it is normal that we should experience it. Scripture makes this very clear. One day Jesus “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said…,” (Luke 10:21): the action of the Spirit was the wellspring of the joy that flooded the heart of Jesus and spurred him at that moment to bless and praise and thank the Father. We find the same sort of thing in Paul. When he writes, “Hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us,” (Romans 5:5), or when he says, “It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,” or, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness,” and, “intercedes with sighs too deep for words,” (Romans 8:16, 26). Paul is not making abstract statements about some principle. Rather, Paul is seeking to find words to convey something that he has experienced and that moves him to the very heart. Nor is this merely the experience of an individual; it is a shared experience. Expressions such as “God has given us his Spirit,” or, “You have received the Spirit,” or, “The Spirit dwells within you,” lead us quite clearly to see that these texts speak of an evident fact of which all were aware, and of which all were convinced.
Hence, the apostle speaks of the Spirit and equally of grace as a reality that we are able to experience, in a spiritual way of course and not in a material sense. It was precisely the experience of the Holy Spirit, as attested by the Christian community in its meetings for worship, in martyrdom, and in Christian life in general, that moved the ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381 to proclaim and define as an article of faith the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Athanasius was fond of repeating the argument: If the Holy Spirit makes us divine, there cannot be any doubt that the Spirit is God. First comes the experience, “The Spirit makes us divine,” or, “The Spirit sanctifies us,” and then follows the dogmatic proclamation, The Spirit is God.”
Now, where does the Veni Creator stand in relation to this view of the Holy Spirit and of grace? I have already referred to what the author of the Veni Creator wrote in another of his works on the matter of calling the Holy Spirit, “grace.” The Holy Spirit, he says, is called grace insofar as the Spirit is given gratuitously (gratis datus). Later, in scholastic theology, there was a marked change in the way these things were understood. The grace of the Holy Spirit came to be called grace insofar as grace is gratum faciens, that is, what makes us pleasing to God, while the specific quality of being gratis data, that is, gratuitously given, came to be applied to the charisms. In that way, charism, and not grace, would come to convey the initial idea and the strongest expression of grace. Thomas Aquinas writes:
The grace that makes us pleasing to God makes the soul ready to have the divine Person, and when we say that by grace the Holy Spirit is given, that is what we mean. However, the Holy Spirit is also the source of that same gift of grace, and when we say that “the love of God is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit,” that is what we mean.
It is clear that he holds firmly to the teaching that was formulated earlier by Augustine, who says that in grace we possess not only a gift distinct from the Holy Spirit, but also the very person of the Holy Spirit. From Thomas we have the pregnant phase, “the grace of the Holy Spirit,” meaning, “the grace that is the Holy Spirit.”
The fact that the Holy Spirit had come to be seen as grace “that makes us pleasing to God” would, however, lead to a growing emphasis on “created” grace: that is, on grace as that “quality” or “habit” inherent in the human soul that determines whether a person is in “the state of grace.” For it is in fact not possible to define sanctifying grace as “that which makes us pleasing to God” without necessarily including in that reality both the conferring of grace and what follows upon it, both God’s act and also that which we possess as a result of God’s act. And so it happens that interest becomes focused on the created effect of justification, and and not so much on the divine act of justification. All of this came very much to the fore in the polemic against the teachings of the Reformation. The Council of Trent says that the grace of justification is above all a created gift, that is, a supernatural effect produced by God in the human soul; a gift “the efficient cause” of which is God, and which for that very reason cannot be identified with the Holy Spirit.
We know that the difference is really a difference of perspective, or of one’s point of departure, because it is clear that the Council of Trent did not intend to deny that, in another sense, grace is identified with the Holy Spirit who indwells the soul. This notwithstanding, however, we have to admit that the polemics of the moment severely narrowed the general appreciation of the New Testament message. Whenever Christians allow divisions to separate them, something of their patrimony is fragmented, divided, and lost. It is as if a mosaic were to end up part in one museum and part in another: no one would any longer have the opportunity to see it and appreciate it as a whole in all its original beauty.
The arguments with the Pelagians had restricted the appreciation of grace to “healing” or “aiding” grace; the arguments with the Protestant Reformers restricted the field further, to “created” grace. The gift given to us, to live in the new climate brought about by ecumenical dialogue, is the gift of at last being able to put together again the various fragments of our heritage and to rediscover the original “whole” without having to forgo any of the great gains and clarities of perception that have come out of the many controversies on grace.
The Veni Creator is a great help to us on this road of rediscovery. It was written before the time of Scholastic theology and the subsequent controversies, and so it takes us very close to the Biblical basis and starting point. In the way it expresses the essentials, and in its conciseness, it allows us to appreciate the “original whole” in which Holy Spirit and grace appeared as it were fused together as one, yet not confused. And it allows us to appreciate and embrace the Holy Spirit and grace, not in a static way as something that happened once and for all and is now over, but as a coming-to-us, perennial and unceasing.