Monday, August 24, 2009

Come Down, O Love Divine – A Reflection on a Prayer to the Holy Spirit

“Pray to the Holy Spirit, Daniel,” were the sage words were offered to me by a dear friend and mentor, the late Bishop Henry Hill. Interestingly enough, offering prayer to the Holy Spirit might not seem like the most natural thing to those of us raised in the Western Tradition, and particularly, within Anglicanism. Many of us were raised to think of prayer as to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Many of our collect prayers in the Anglican tradition honour this prepositional partitioning. Yet sometimes I wonder if this encourages an unintentional partitioning of the Godhead, and indeed, an unintentional ascription of the importance of one person of the divine Trinity over another. I have often sensed a kind of iconoclasm in certain trajectories of the Western Tradition, namely, a fear of articulating the notion of Christ as God in our prayer. He may be “Lord,” or “Son,” but our prayer often lacks the boldness of that of our Orthodox brothers and sisters who unabashedly offer prayers to “Christ our God.” If we seem reserved about offering prayer to Christ our God, even more elusive are prayers to the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it is because the Spirit is more elusive as a “person” than the more readily identifiable “Father” and “Son.” Prayer to the Spirit, though, encourages to move beyond the masculine metaphors that are so limiting to many, and while the concept of the Holy Spirit includes much of the feminine divine, we are encouraged to move beyond even that and into the deep well of God in which all human gender and identity finds its loving birth. Prayer to the Spirit invites us into the depth of the ground of our being.

So, where are our prayers to the Holy Spirit? They do exist in our tradition, and while they may at first be hard to locate, I suggest that a fertile ground for exploration is our hymnody. Consider for example, the hymn that is sung at all ordinations (ordinations of all three orders - bishops, priests, and deacons) immediately preceding the consecration of the ordinand, the Veni Creator Spiritus: “Come Holy Ghost our Souls Inspire.” It is a hymn invoking the Holy Spirit to descend not only upon the ordinand, but also upon the whole people of God, that we might be transformed and conformed to the divine image. This is a powerful hymn to use devotionally. It is the sort of thing dear Bishop Hill heartily commended.

But my favourite hymn is the one authored by Bianco de Siena in the 14th century and translated in the 19th century by Richard Frederick Littledale, and set to the deeply mystical but melodic tune, Down Ampney, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Come Down, O Love Divine. I, like many clerics before me, chose this hymn as the processional hymn at my ordination to the priesthood. It is a longing, beautiful prayer offered to the Holy Spirit. I can never pray it or sing it without feeling the Spirit softening my hardened heart with holy fire.

Come down, O Love divine,
seek thou this soul of mine,
and visit it with thine own ardour glowing;
O Comforter, draw near,
within my heart appear,
and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.

The first verse speaks to the supreme reality that God is Love, as written in 1 John. Whatever metaphor we choose to use about God, this is the metaphor that eclipses all others; and when we forget this fact and become consumed with remaking God in our own image, we must turn again and again to this truth, God is Love. God is the Love that seeks us out and searches us … and more precisely, seeks us out individually, “seek thou this soul of mine,” we long in our singing. What a remarkable, unfathomable thing: Love seeks me! As human beings we find ourselves, so often, feeling unlovable, rejected, and desolate. And yet! Love seeks me out! As love finds me, I know the presence of the Comforter. Traditionally this is a feminine image, but one that must be reclaimed at part of our full humanity, or men will ever remain emotionally and psychologically unrealized as human beings. As the comfort of divine love draws near to and into our hearts – hearts hardened by the pain of the world – these wounded hearts are kindled with the fire of divine love and something new and wonderful begins to burn with us: we become carriers of the divine flame, itself.

O let it freely burn,
till earthly passions turn,
to dust and ashes in it heat consuming;
and let thy glorious light
shine ever on my sight,
and clothe me round, the while my path illuming.

The language of divine exuberance begins to take over. The fire burns freely and consumes all the dark passions that lead to destructive behaviour. The Christian life is too often characterized as one in which the darker passions must be suppressed, but what is suppressed must eventually burst forth. In contrast, we sing and pray to the Spirit that consumes such darkness with the pure light and warmth of Holy Love and replaces it with divine illumination, divine insight. And as our interior is transformed so is our exterior, what burns inside becomes visible on the outside and lights the path in a way in which it was never so illumined before.

Let holy charity
mine outward vesture be,
and lowliness become mine inner clothing;
true lowliness of heart,
which takes the humbler part,
and o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.

But our outward vesture it not simply something of beauty to behold but is something beautiful to be shared – lovely, beautiful, generous caritas! Holy Charity is the vesture of the Fire of Love. When we say Love transforms the world this is what we mean. When one person has been sought out and found by Divine Love, the heavens and earth rejoice for creation meets its consummation! Divine action is met by human response, frail though it may be, reflecting the glory of God. Such light, and such love, constantly shine light into the dark places and illuminate them, allowing us to see with ever more clarity our own shortcomings and need of divine Love. Such clarity, such reflection, compels us to ask more fervently and more passionately that the fire may burn more deeply and more warmly within us that we might ever journey the road of divine transformation.

And so with yearning strong,
with which the soul will long,
shall far out-pass the power of human telling;
for none can guess its grace,
til they become the place
wherein the Holy Spirit finds a dwelling.

That yearning is not our yearning, but the yearning of the Holy Spirit that first gave us life, that enlivened us in Baptism, that goes with us all our days. It is the Spirit about which St. Paul speaks in Romans 8 that prays for us, through us, when we have not the words or language of our own, with sighs too deep for words. It is a divine yearning that is made our own, by the grace of God, that is beyond human voice and the frailty of human words. It is the longing of pure Love. The weeping heart is the longing embrace that divine Love seeks. Heart speaks to heart and the Holy Spirit finds its home.

Copyright 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express written permission of the author.

Come Down, O Love Divine
Text: Bianco de Siena (1350?-1434?), tr. Richard Frederick Littledale (1833-1890), alt.
Tune: Down Ampney, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
(found in The Anglican Church of Canada, Common Praise, hymn 645)


hillschurch said...

Thanks Dan

Anonymous said...

Personally, Ifind greater comfort & solace by praying in the Spirit rather than to the Spirit. Especially relevant when I am unable to find words of my own to adequately express myself. This is promised to us in the Holy Scriptures.