THE HOLY SPIRIT: The Sanctifying Work Of The Spirit by Raniero Cantalamessa

Meditations on the Veni Creator

The Sanctifying Work Of The Spirit by Raniero Cantalamessa

From: Come, Creator Spirit

Saint Seraphim of Sarov said to one of his disciples:

We need to keep praying up to the moment when the Holy Spirit comes down upon us and grants us Heavenly grace in a measure known only to him.  As soon as he visits us, we should stop calling upon him to come.  For indeed, what purpose could it serve to keep on pleading, “Come, you who are goodness itself, make your dwelling in us, purify us of every stain and save our souls,” if he has already come?

To behave differently would be like inviting someone to your house, and when he arrives meeting him at the door and letting him stand there while you repeat over and over with monotonous insistence, “Do please come and visit me!”  People who behave that way merely show that they are paying no attention to what they are saying.

For us, too, the time has come to be done with saying to the Spirit, “Come, visit us, fill us with Heavenly grace!” and to believe that in a way and in a measure known only to him, the Spirit has come and is in each one of us.  In fact, from this point onward in the Veni Creator, the place of the invocation of the Spirit is given over to contemplation of the Spirit.  If we can think of the Veni Creator as a symphony, this would be the beginning of the second movement, which is usually adagio or largo, a calm, peaceful melody following on the mosso or impetuoso mood that pervaded the opening verse of the hymn played fortissimo.

The second verse of the Veni Creator literally reads:

You whom we name the Paraclete,
are gift of God most high,
Living fountain, fire, love
and spiritual anointing.

This is the start of a long and moving contemplation of the Holy Spirit in the church.  The hymn now speaks, intentionally, of the Spirit who is the Spirit of grace, of the return to God, the Spirit of the redemption who in fullness is at work in the church.

Even from a literary point of view the hymn changes its key signature.  First came the epiclesis or invocation (Come, visit, fill!); now follow the eulogy, the formal praise-song to the Spirit.  In the traditional form the eulogy starts with the words, “You who…” and is made up of a list of the titles and the good qualities and the achievements of the person addressed, that as praise-singers we put forward as the grounds on which we are confident that we will be heard.  At the same time these titles and qualities are mentioned in recognition and acknowledgment.  That is, we do not recall them in an attitude of adulation, simply to try to get the Godhead to see us in a good light, but rather, as moved by a genuine impetus of grateful admiration, praise, and enthusiasm.  It is certainly so in the case of this hymn.

The eulogy in our hymn is made up of a series of titles or symbols of the Holy Spirit taken without exception, from the Bible.  And it is in this that their power lies.  The Veni Creator is like a large-meshed net thrown into the great ocean of scripture and drawing out of it only the “big fish,” that is to say, the most precious pearls.  All that the author does with them is string them together on the unobtrusive thread of the meter in a precise theological pattern.  In this sense, there is a close affinity between the Veni Creator and Mary’s canticle, the Magnificat.  With its titles and expressions also drawn almost without exception from the scripture, Mary creates a prayer so fresh, so new, so personal that no one other than Mary herself will ever be able to make it her own.  It is the inimitable quality of the scripture, to say new things with old words, and to express, with few short words, truths of infinite depth.

The contemplative part of the Veni Creator takes up its second and third verses.  Yet there is a most important difference between these two verses, and simply to point it out will be enough to show how profound is the theology and how exquisite the Biblical inspiration of this hymn.

In the Bible two lines of action emerge, one after the other, concerning the manifestation of the Spirit.  The first, which we could call the charismatic line, is the one that presents the Spirit as a power that on certain occasions breaks in upon special people, giving them the ability to do things and to explain reality in a way that is not humanly possible.  The Spirit comes upon someone and fills that person with wisdom or artistic giftedness for the embellishment of the Temple (Exodus 31:3; 35:31); the Spirit fills another with the gift of prophecy (Micah 3:8) or gifts of extraordinary ability in governing (Isaiah 11:2) or supernatural physical strength to use in saving the people (Judges 13:25).

On the other hand the second line, that of sanctification, began to be seen in the prophets and the psalms after the Exile.  For example see Ezekiel, where God announces : “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you.  I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances,” (36:26-27).

Or again in Psalm 51 where, for the first time, the Spirit is given the title “Holy,” associating him with the process of being made clean and renewed in heart, (see 12f.).

The fundamental difference is that the charismatic action of the Spirit passes through, without remaining in, the person who receives it; its aim is not the betterment of the particular person but rather the good of the community as a whole.  The particular person may not be made any better through the charism he has received; he may even abuse the gift and turn it into reason for his own reprobation.  On the contrary the sanctifying action of the Spirit remains within the person who receives it, who is renewed by it and transformed from within.

The first line will again come to the fore in the New Testament revelation concerning the charisms, the gifts and the works of the Holy Spirit that are seen first in Jesus of Nazareth and later, after Pentecost, in the church.  The second line finds its apex in what will be called “the sanctifying action of the Spirit,” consisting in new life in the Spirit and, more concretely, in charity.  Paul would make a synthesis of these two lines of action of the Spirit, speaking in order first of the charisms and then of charity (see 1 Corinthians 12–14).  He stresses the superiority of charity, but recognizes that both lines are necessary to the church, as coming from the same Spirit and intended for the same purpose, which is the building up of the body of Christ.

These general remarks will help us better to understand the two verses of the hymn that we are setting out to ponder.  The titles we read in the second verse, starting with “Paraclete,” all refer without exception to the sanctifying and illuminating work of the Spirit, and it is clear, right from the start (You are sevenfold in your gifts), that the third verse is dedicated wholly and exclusively to the Spirit as the one who distributes the gifts and charisms.

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