Notes from BenMonthly musings from the Choirmaster


Veni Creator Spiritus

                Congregational hymn-singing is really not in the Anglican tradition – or at least not in the way that it became an integral part of the Lutheran Reformation.  This is still reflected in the different ways in which Lutherans and Anglicans approach hymns which are new to them.  A Lutheran congregation, presented with an unfamiliar hymn, cheerfully and robustly sings wrong notes or sort of shouts the words in rhythm until, after several verses, they figure out the tune, more or less, seeming to enjoy themselves and whatever the musical novelty is.  The Anglican worshiper simply closes the hymnal on the second verse, sticks it back in the pew rack, folds his arms across his chest and glares in the direction of the organist, if sight-lines permit.  This is because the Lutherans had Luther himself, a musician, who adapted many secular tunes and medieval chants for congregational use in the German language from the very beginning of the Reformation in Germany.  We had no equivalent.  Although the Book of Common Prayer Noted (meaning “with music” or “set to music”) was published in 1550, and many of us remember using the Merbecke Communion Service from it with the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, there was a remarkable absence of hymns in English, as opposed to liturgical texts from the Prayer Book set to music.

                One of the few exceptions was the medieval Veni Creator Spiritus, which made it into the Anglican Ordinal of 1550.  As in the Roman Catholic Church, it was associated with Whitsunday (Pentecost) and ordinations.  The Latin original was probably written during the ninth century, possibly earlier. It has been in continuous use in England as part of every royal coronation ceremony, as least since the accession of Edward the Second in 1307.  Here is the 1550 version in English thought to be by Thomas Cranmer himself:

                                Come holy ghost eternall God procedinge from aboue,

                                Both from the father and the sonne, the God of peace and love:

                                Vysyte oure myndes, and into us, thy heavenly grace inpsyre;

                                That in all trueth and godlynesse, we maye have true desyre.

                                Thou art the very comforter, in al woe and distresse:

                                The heavenly gyfte of God most highe, whych no tongue can expresse.

                                The fountayne and the lively springe, of joye celestiall:

                                The fyre so brighte, the love so clere, and Unction spirituall.

                                Thou in thy gyftes art manifold, whereby Christes Churche doth stande:

                                In faythfull heartes wrytynge thy lawe, the finger of Goddes hande.

                                According to thy promes made, thou gevest speache of grace;

                                That throughe thy helpe, the prayse of God, may sounde in every place.

                                O holy ghoste, into oure wittes, sende downe thyne heavenly lyght;

                                Kyndle our heartes wyth fervent love, to serve God daye and nyght.

                                Strength and stablishe all oure weakenes, so feble and so frayle:

                                That neyther fleshe, the worlde, nor devyl, agaynste us do prevale.

                                Put backe oure enemie farre from us, and graunte us to obtayne:

                                Peace in our heartes with God and man, withoute grudge or disdayne.

                                And graunt O Lorde that thou beyng, our leader and oure guyde;

                                We may eschewe the snares of synne, and from thee never slyde.

                                To us such plentie of thy grace, good Lord graunt we thee praye:

                                That thou mayest bee oure comforter, at the last dreadfull daye.

                                Of all stryfe and dissencion, O Lorde, dissolve the bandes:

                                And make the knottes of peace of love, throughoute all Christien landes.

                                Graunte us O Lorde, throughe thee to knowe the father most of myght;

                                That of hys deare beloved sonne we may attayne the syght.

                                And that wyth perfect fayth also, we may acknowledge thee;

                                The Spirite of them both alwaye, one God in persones three.

                                Laude and prayse be to the father, and to the sonne equall:

                                And to the holy spyryte also, one God coeternall.

                                And praye we that the onely sonne, vouchsafe hys spyryte to sende;

                                To all that do professe hys name, unto the worldes ende.  Amen.


                The poetic meter of Cranmer’s version prevents the use of the original Gregorian melody. The old melody from the Latin version is retained in our current hymnal for two translations into English which preserve the meter of the Latin text.  The first is by John Cosin (1594-1672), and begins:


                                Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,

                                And lighten with celestial fire.

                                Thou the anointing Spirit art,

                                Who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart.


                                Thy blessed unction from above

                                Is comfort, life, and fire of love.

                                Enable with perpetual light

                                The dullness of our blinded sight.


                Many of us grew up with that version.  The more modern translation in the same meter, appearing first in the Hymnal 1982, is by John Webster Grant (b. 1919), a professor of church history in Toronto:


                                O Holy Spirit, by whose breath,

                                Life rises vibrant out of death;

                                Come to create, renew, inspire;

                                Come, kindle in our hearts your fire.


                I especially enjoy verses two and four of Grant’s version:


                                You are the seeker’s sure resource,

                                Of burning love the living source,

                                Protector in the midst of strife,

                                The giver and the Lord of life.


                                Flood our dull senses with your light:

                                In mutual love our hearts unite.

                                Your power the whole creation fills;

                                Confirm our weak, uncertain wills.


                The two translations, set to the Gregorian melody, are at numbers 502 and 503 in our hymnal.


                It is odd that none of those three translations make use of the word “Creator” in the first line, even though the Latin and English words are the same.  For that, we have to turn to Hymn 500, which is a paraphrase of the hymn by the English poet John Dryden (1631-1700):


                                Creator Spirit, by whose aid

                                The world’s foundations first were laid,

                                Come, visit every humble mind:

                                Come, pour thy joys on human kind;

                                From sin and sorrow set us free,

                                And make thy temples worthy thee.


                                O Source of uncreated light,

                                The Father’s promised Paraclete,

                                Thrice holy Fount, thrice holy Fire,

                                Our hearts with heavenly love inspire;

                                Come, and thy sacred unction bring

                                To sanctify us while we sing.


                                Plenteous of grace, come from on high,

                                Rich in thy sevenfold energy;

                                Make us eternal truth receive,

                                And practice all that we believe;

                                Give us thyself, that we may see

                                The Father and the Son by thee.


                Omitted from the hymnal are Dryden’s third and fifth verses.  Here is the fifth:


                                Refine and purge our Earthly Parts;

                                But, oh, inflame and fire our Hearts!

                                Our Frailties help, our Vice control;

                                Submit the Senses to the Soul;

                                And when Rebellious they are grown,

                                Then, lay thy hand, and hold ‘em down.

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