I want to share with you something extra this week, an engaging and powerful essay by Anthony Esolen, a regular contributor to Magnificat and translator and editor of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House). The following begins with the traditional Novena prayer to the Holy Spirit (which begins to be prayed on May 10) and continues with Esolen’s beautiful commentary on the prayer.
O Holy Spirit, divine Spirit of life and love, I consecrate to Thee my understanding, heart and will, my whole being for time and for eternity. May my understanding always be submissive to Thy heavenly inspirations, and to the teaching of the Catholic Church, of which Thou art the infallible guide; may my heart be ever inflamed with love of God and of my neighbor; may my will be ever conformed to the divine will, and my whole life be a faithful imitation of the life and virtues of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to Whom with the Father and Thee be honor and glory forever. Amen.
“It would take many pages to do justice to the beauty and the wisdom of this prayer to the Holy Spirit. Its threefold dedication of the understanding, the heart, and the will encompasses all that a human being is. To understand is not simply to possess some fact, but to know by penetrating into the heart of something; it is infinitely beyond the capacity of any computer, which is as dull as a block of wood by comparison with the ever-gazing eyes of a mere child. Similarly, the heart is not simply the symbolic seat of a person’s emotions, but the core of his personal being. If a man says to a woman, ‘I love you with all my heart,’ he is confessing much more than palpitations. He is declaring a wish to give himself without reserve. The will, then, takes its direction from the understanding and the heart: from the wisdom embraced by a human person in all his capacities.
“We could try to plumb the depths of those three things, but instead I should like to discuss three words in the prayer that we seldom hear these days without a sniff of contempt. They are submissive, conformed, and imitation.
“Human beings, we are taught by the most effectual tutor the world has known–that blank and daft thing called mass entertainment–are supposed to follow their own vision, to be what they want to be. The word submissive suggests a not very bright dog, cringing and fawning. Yet Jesus himself submitted to Mary and Joseph in his humanity, and in his divinity submits to the Father: the Son does nothing but what he sees the Father do. A spoiled brat, a worthless lug, a shiftless husband, a wayward wife, a preening peacock, a mutinous sailor: these are the sorts who say, in their selfishness, non serviam, I will not serve, I will not submit. To submit to genuine authority is not to cringe but to assume a share in that same authority. We can see the principle at work in Jesus’ parables. The servant who acts energetically on behalf of his master, returning ten talents for five, is rewarded with both authority and love: ‘Come, enter into the joy of your master!’
“It is thus better, even in a human sense, to be Michelangelo’s servant, sharing in the painting of the Sistine ceiling, than to be shut up in one’s own ignorant pride and learning nothing. But make no mistake. The question for man is never whether to submit, but to whom. One may serve the almighty Father, who commands nothing but what is good for us and forbids nothing but what is bad, and who wishes by our obedience to set us free; or one may serve the Ruin Below, who promises liberty in order to imprison us forever. There is no third choice.
“That being so, we pray for submission to the Holy Spirit, so that our wills may be conformed to the will of God. A conformist, we are advised by that same popular herd of lemmings, is a perfect dullard, afraid to be himself. Well, that may be so, if we are talking about the conformity of sin, for sin is like a sludge into which souls are immersed and rendered indistinguishable. The saints, by contrast, show us the way of finding oneself, and that is by giving oneself away to God: he who loses his life will save it, says the Lord. We are made in the image of God; we are God-formed. So when we pray that we will be conformed to the divine will, we are praying for the discovery of ourselves, that is, the saints God has called us to be, each one unrepeatable and sweetly distinct: a scholarly Thomas Aquinas, a begger Benedict Labre, a mother Monica, a king Louis IX, a soldier Ignatius, a visionary Therese. To use C.S. Lewis’ happy phrase, it is then that we will finally have faces.
“But that conforming in love implies the imitation of Christ. And why should we be ashamed to imitate the Lord, the hero? We don’t want to imitate Christ too closely, not because it would be dull, but because it would be far too adventurous for our nerves; we cannot bear so much courage, so much love. Well, that is why we pray to the Holy Spirit. He knows our weakness. He is the Comforter: meaning, the Strengthener. He consoles us in our times of fear and sorrow, but he confirms us also for the battle, teaching our fingers to fight, and bringing us the joy of the risen Christ, a joy the world knows nothing of. If we have become true imitators of Christ in his death, he will complete the good work, and make us imitators also in his rising.”
(Text used with permission from Anthony Esolen, copyright Magnificat, May 2013 issue)