THE HOLY SPIRIT: The Holy Spirit’s Very Own Name by Raniero Cantalamessa

Meditations on the Veni Creator

The Holy Spirit’s Very Own Name by Raniero Cantalamessa

From: Come, Creator Spirit

This meditation will focus on the title of the Holy Spirit that, as we have it in the version of the hymn now in common use, is “gift of God most high,” (donum Dei altissimi).  I think, however, that a copyist’s error has crept in at this point in the text: the original would probably have read donum Dei altissimum, that is, “Most high gift of God.”

The difference is not insignificant.  In the phrase, “gift of God most high,” the adjective, “most high,” in the specific context of this hymn, would appear superfluous if it is to be taken simply as referring to God, or else it would seem to be a kind of “filler” tucked in to pad out the meter.  Now, in a hymn every word of which has been chosen with great care and precision, that is very unlikely, for in that case “most high” would be saying nothing whatever about the Holy Spirit in particular, but merely recalling an attribute of divinity in general.  However, if “most high” refers to “gift,” it is making a very precise observation about “gift” that, from Augustine onward, was frequently repeated by Latin writers: “there is no more excellent gift than love,” that love which is the Holy Spirit.  Consequently the Holy Spirit is “the greatest gift that God can give.”  We find the concept in the very text from which the author of the Veni Creator drew inspiration for many of the titles he chooses and applies to the Holy Spirit.  It is significant that one of the ancient commentators on this hymn, after having cited the title in the form in which we traditionally have it – “gift of God most high” – carries on to interpret it in the sense of “most outstanding gift.”  On this point there are variations even in the ancient manuscripts of the hymn, showing that there was some uncertainty about the correct reading.

However, the uncertainty on that point does not have any bearing on what is fundamental to the message carried by the line we are looking at; that is conveyed in the substantive, “gift,” rather than in the adjective, “most high.”  The title gift throws light on an important aspect of the person of the Paraclete, and it carries a message of very special significance for Christian spouses and also for people in religious life.  This title expresses the reality in which they can feel the Holy Spirit closest to them; it would be no surprise to me if for many of them it were to become their favorite title for the Holy Spirit.  But before we come to look at the ways we can apply these things to our own lives, we ought, as always, to lay the doctrinal foundation, because our devotion to the Holy Spirit must not become something snipped away from our faith, but must rather grow from it as its most exquisite fruit.


In many passages of the New Testament the Holy Spirit is presented, directly or indirectly, as the gift of God.  “If you knew the gift of God,” said Jesus to the Samaritan woman, (John 4:10), and he goes on to speak of the living water.  It has always been understood that in this context Jesus is alluding to the Holy Spirit, (see John 7:38-39).  Whatever the case, the Acts of the Apostles clearly defines the Holy Spirit as “gift of God”: “Repent, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  “Gift of the Holy Spirit” signifies either that the Holy Spirit is the giver of the gift, or that the Holy Spirit is the gift.  “He is given as the gift of God, in such a way that he, as God, is himself the giver giving himself.”

In this case, the gift of the Holy Spirit is nothing else than the Holy Spirit.  In other texts, however, the subject, giver, and the object, gift, are distinct, and the Holy Spirit appears as the gift that the Father, or Christ, gives to believers.  “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit,” (1 John 4:13).  The Spirit is also called, “the Heavenly gift,” (Hebrews 6:4), or quite simply, the “gift” that God gave to the apostles at Pentecost,” (Acts 11:17).

Irenaeus was the first to adopt and make use of this Biblical title of the Holy Spirit: “The gift of God was given to the church, as once the breath was given to the creature newly formed, in order that all the members, partaking of that gift, should be enlivened.”

The title “gift of God,” however, found its greatest acceptance in Augustine and following him, in the Latin church, in the evolving doctrine of the Spirit, which to a large extent was a development of Augustine’s work.  This appears also in the differences between the Latin and the Greek Fathers; on the Greek side, “gift” played a much more modest role as a personal title of the Spirit.

Augustine saw “Gift” as the precise and proper name of the Holy Spirit: the name that expressed the Spirit’s relationship with the Father and the Son, and that causes us to recognize that the Spirit is a distinct divine person.  Neither “Spirit” nor “Holy” can support the same conclusion, for the Father is also “Spirit” and “Holy,” and the Son, too, is “Spirit” and “Holy.”  The name, “Holy Spirit,” could also be used of the other two persons; it is given especially to the Third Person of the Trinity because it expresses “the ineffable communion between Father and Son.”  As Augustine points out, “The relationship itself, however, is not indicated by this name, but it is indicated when we call him the gift of God.”  It would in fact be possible to call the Holy Spirit, “Spirit of the Father,” and, “Spirit of the Son,” but the converse would be quite incorrect: we cannot call the Father, “Father of the Spirit,” nor the Son, “Son of the Spirit.”  We cannot indicate the reciprocity of the relationship when we use the names Father, Son, and Spirit, but the reciprocity is clear in the terms “Gift” and “Giver.”  We can in fact call the Holy Spirit “gift of the Giver,” (that is, of Father and Son together), and we can also correctly look on either the Father or the Son as “giver of the gift.”

How does all this that is said of the Holy Spirit as gift accord with all that is said of the Spirit as love?  This is the answer Saint Thomas Aquinas gives, following Augustine’s lead:

The first gift we give to someone we love is love itself, which makes us long for the good of that person.  Thus it is that love itself is the primary gift, in the strength of which we offer all other gifts that we are able to give.  And so it is that from the moment the Holy Spirit proceeds as love, he proceeds as the primary gift.

From all of this it follows that the Holy Spirit, by pouring the love of God into our hearts, infuses into us not only a virtue, even though it is the greatest of all virtues, but pours his very own self into us.  The gift of God is the Giver himself.  We love God by means of God himself in us.

In this same line of development, insights gained in the theology of gift would lead to significant advances when applied to the doctrine of grace.  Grace is nothing other than the Holy Spirit who, given to us as gift, is the “new law” written on living hearts, the principle of the new life in us.  Sanctifying grace is not merely a “created quality” infused into us, and neither is it merely an uncreated “energy” accorded us; it is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, himself in person and, with the Holy Spirit, the whole Trinity, in the soul.  “Through grace which disposes us to have God is us, the soul is given the uncreated gift of the Holy Spirit himself.”  This does not exclude the “created” gift, that is, grace understood as a habit or disposition toward God that is distinct from God himself, which readies us for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and, at the same time, is caused by this indwelling.

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