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Come down, O Love Divine — A meditation on a great hymn of the Church…

Come down, O Love Divine — A meditation on a great hymn of the Church…

Most of you know that I have just returned from Georgetown Hospital after 11 days in the ICU. Most who get COVID-19  experience some combination of fatigue, fever, cold-like symptoms, nausea, and vomiting, but do not require hospitalization. Some, mainly those who have a history of pulmonary weakness like me, experience respiratory failure and pneumonia. Such was my lot. I received wonderful care during my hospital stay and made steady progress, thanks be to God, to your prayers, and to the wonderful medical staff. I plan to write more fully about that experience in the future.

Today, however, I’d like to write about a hymn that was on my mind the entire time I was in the hospital. It is a hymn to God, the Holy Spirit. I have heard from others that it is hard to pray when seriously ill. The mind is dull, and it is hard to focus. I found this to be true for me. Just a simple act of the will, offering my sufferings, was often all I could muster. The Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet, along with my Breviary, were also a consolation to me as the words are supplied.

Among my prayers was the beautiful and powerful hymn “Come Down, O Love Divine.” As many of you know, I have committed the texts of numerous hymns to memory. It comes from my days as a church organist; in order to play a hymn well, one must have some familiarity with the text in addition to playing the notes. Lying in my hospital bed or sitting in the chair in my room, connected to oxygen, with two IVs attached, and with all sorts of wires dangling from me, I gently prayed its words.

Let’s ponder the words of this beautiful old hymn. It was written in the 14th century by Bianco da Siena and translated into English in the 19th century by Richard Frederick Littledale. As an English work, it is a minor masterpiece. Ralph Vaughan Williams set it to a stirring melody, which I love to play at the organ. Here are the words, along with some commentary:

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

Here, we seek not mere human love but Divine Love Himself. We give Him permission to seek our souls and enter therein. “Ardor” bespeaks vigor, energy, and intensity. He is call the “Comforter,” which in English originally meant something more than just pleasant things. The Latin root word is confirmare, which also means “to strengthen.” We ask that He seek our poor souls and then kindle our heart, to start a holy fire within us. As we shall see, this fire of love purifies us and configures us to the image of those reborn in Christ.

  • O let it freely burn
  • till earthly passions turn
  • to dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
  • and let thy glorious light
  • shine ever on my sight,
  • and make my pathway clear, by your illuming

Our hearts are broken and misguided. We desire earthly things more than heavenly things; we desire harmful things in abundance and avoid holy and healthy things. The Holy Spirit needs to convert our desires so that we desire more and more what God is actually offering. Earthly passions must be burned away and turned to dust under our feet. In my own journey I can say that I have gently experienced this. Many earthly passions I once desired are now of little or no interest. I have also experience the miracle of forgiveness; I discovered that many hurts and angers mysteriously melted away. I knew it was a gift of the Holy Spirit, for I, like many, find it hard to simply forgive and stop hurting.

This verse also speaks to the Holy Spirit’s role in renewing our mind. In our fallen state and on account of the influence of the passions, our mind can be quite dark. It must be illumined by the light of God’s truth. God, the Holy Spirit, is our teacher. Through the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church, He lights up our mind and shows us the way. He draws us from the ways of the worldly-minded, those whom St. Paul describes as walking in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardness of their hearts. Having lost all sense of shame, they have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity, with a craving for more (Eph 4:17-19).

Yes, Come, Holy Spirit, heal our wayward hearts. Enlighten our minds, and set us on the right and only path.

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

So beautiful is this verse that I hesitate to offer much commentary. Clearly, the gifts we seek here are a divine love for God and neighbor, an inner humility that recognizes our lowliness and need for God, and a true compunction, a full and proper sorrow that weeps for our sins and shortcomings. May God the Holy Spirit so provide! 

  • And so the yearning strong
  • with which the soul will long
  • shall far surpass the power of human telling;
  • for none can guess its grace
  • till we become the place
  • in which the Holy Spirit makes his dwelling.

There is a certain quality to deep union with God that is ineffable. As the Holy Spirit continues His work of drawing us deeper into the life and love of the Holy Trinity, our prayer deepens and becomes quieter, and our longing for God grows ever stronger.  But although words do not suffice, the reality of our love and longing for God is far more delightful than anything this world offers. In this way the Holy Spirit transforms us, deepening our desire for God and for Heaven, where joys unspeakable and glories untold await us. Knowing and desiring the prize is the key to the spiritual life and to winning the spiritual battles that we must wage throughout our life in this world. 

Such was my gift in an ICU not far from here. Though my own mind was weak, the Holy Spirit summoned me to remember this favorite hymn. God the Holy Spirit reached out to my human spirit and breathed life anew. Thank you, Lord. It is no surprise that when I returned home late last week, though physically feeble, I went went to the church, sat down, and played “Come Down, O Love Divine.”

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