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O Holy Spirit (May 2021)

Dear Friends

One of the great hymns of our faith begins like this: “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.”

It’s the genius of the Italian, Bianco da Siena (born in Anciolina, circa 1350; died in Venice, circa 1434). Bianco was a poet and wool worker. At the age of 17 he entered the Order of Jesuates, consisting of unordained men who followed the rule of St. Augustine. His poetry was widely shared in the Middle Ages, with 122 of his poems being published. We know very little else about Bianco except what he has left us in his words, and this familiar hymn may be one that we know best.

Sunday 23rd May will be Pentecost; the celebration of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit captured in Acts 2. Inspired and empowered by the gift Jesus promised they would receive (see Acts 1: 4-5), his followers find it within themselves to proclaim the gospel in public in Jerusalem accompanied by signs and wonders. The Church is born. Our churches, like our own personal faith, can trace their origins to this moment.

Bianco’s hymn, though, beautifully captures the reality that the Holy Spirit is energetically at work within and amongst us now as much as ever. Indeed, receiving the Spirit is portrayed here as something for us to seek and encourage; a gift worth receiving and a powerful presence worth longing for. In this poem/hymn, we see something of the spirituality of St. Augustine (354-430) who said: “O Holy Spirit, descend plentifully into my heart. Enlighten the dark corners of this neglected dwelling and scatter there Thy cheerful beams.” 

What I love in this is the sense of joy about the Holy Spirit’s touch. That might be an important antidote to some of the ways in which the Holy Spirit can be used almost to divide and rank Christians. Maybe we even do this to ourselves as we look at other congregations and imagine that they are more filled with the Holy Spirit than we are, or that another person’s prayers are more spiritual than our own (maybe because they pray in tongues and I, at least, don’t). Surely we must heed Paul’s alarm, so very early in the Church’s life, at ways in which the Corinthians were letting signs of the Spirit be abused to categorise and judge one another (1 Corinthians 12). Surely we must follow Paul as he lands upon love as the single greatest gift of the Spirit and sign of the Spirit’s work (1 Corinthians 13). And we must also look to Paul in Galatians: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Gal. 5:22-3).


Behind Paul’s teaching, of course, lies Christ’s teaching. Jesus was clear. The Holy Spirit is sent to everyone who turns to him (not to a select few super saints). And the Spirit will: be our advocate to help us for ever (John 14: 16); teach us (John 14: 26); testify within us and amongst us about the truth (John 15: 26); work in the world to convince people about Christ (John 16: 8-11); guide us into all truth (John 16: 13); glorify Christ (John 16: 14). And that’s just in a few chapters of one gospel!

As we move forward with the agendas of our congregations, as we meet together to think and to plan, as we worship together and as we dwell on our own upon the faith, it is the Holy Spirit who is the guest at work in, with and through us all. My prayer for myself and for you is that we can keep singing Bianco’s words, and let them speak our deepest truth.

Yours in Christ,