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From the May/June, 2013
issue of Touchstone

 

Our Quiet Lord by Anthony Esolen

ILLUMINATIONS by Anthony Esolen

Our Quiet Lord

The wise men of our day have been busy inverting our commonsense perception of things. They tell us, with the hair-tossing flippancy of a sophomore, that a thing is nothing but the aggregate of matter that composes it. I illustrate for my students the madness of that instance of the compositional fallacy by scratching my arm. There go fifty thousand cells. "I'm not the man I used to be," I say. So determined are the wise men to deny God, they will gladly deny also the existence of perduring things, and even of real personal identity.

They can squint for quarks if they like, but we Christians can rout them on their own microscopic ground. For we look to the God who is not only infinitely beyond all things. We look to the God who is infinitely within all things. Even if a quark were nothing but a nondimensional point, our God would fill it with his fullness. Smaller even than the quark, infinitely smaller, dwells the boundless freedom of God, who gives to things and to persons both their determinate limits and their liberty. And the Person of the Trinity through whom this truth is most sweetly perceived is the Holy Spirit.

When the Spirit descended upon the apostles at Pentecost, there was a great rushing wind, and tongues of flame appeared above them; and that is the most obvious thing the Spirit does in Scripture, if we look only to what can be reduced to measurements; and even at that, the fire does not devour, and the wind is visible only in its effects. "The wind bloweth where it listeth," says Jesus to Nicodemus, explaining and not explaining what it is to be born again, "and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit." There's nothing to see; and all at once we look up, and there are men reborn, crying, "Abba!" and a royal priesthood, a holy nation, called out of darkness into God's marvelous
light.

The Spirit at Work

A woman named Harriet Auber (1773–1862) captured a sense of the quiet power of the indwelling Spirit in her hymn for Pentecost, "Our Blest Redeemer."She chooses a variation on the simple English ballad meter, but instead of giving the final line three beats, she gives it two—setting it apart, and stressing both the smallness and the boundless potency of the Spirit at work in the Christian soul:

Our blest Redeemer, ere he breathed
His tender last farewell,
A Guide, a Comforter, bequeathed
With us to dwell.

The word that ends the stanza rings throughout the poem: dwell. Where is God? Here, now; abiding in the soul of the Christian, not as some abstract principle of being, but personally and intimately.

Mrs. Auber finds that lesson, too, in the manner of his descent at Pentecost:

He came in tongues of living flame,
To teach, convince, subdue;
All-powerful as the wind he came,
As viewless too.

We shouldn't hear an "although" in there. The viewlessness and the omnipotence of the Spirit are one. That is how he works, imperceptibly speaking within the soul, teaching us, convincing us (and, with us, that may take some time; well it is that the Spirit is so patient), and subduing us to the truth, so that we may be free.

The Holy Spirit is, we might say, too meek for the proud man to notice. His accents are too gentle for the fanfare of self-promotion. Not in the earthquake or the whirlwind is he to be found, but in the still small voice that Elijah encountered upon the mountain. His work is truly "sweet," says Auber, mingling the senses of taste and touch and hearing; suavis, as a Latin poet would have it, softly persuasive, if we would be still and
listen:

He came sweet influence to impart,
A gracious, willing Guest,
While he can find one humble heart
Wherein to rest.

And his that gentle voice we hear,
Soft as the breath of even,
That checks each fault, that calms each fear,
And speaks of heaven.

The Spirit, that friendly Guest—God humbling himself to ask for lodging in the inn of the pilgrim's heart—is the breath that steers the soul, the wind that allays the storm, and the voice that speaks of a world beyond the world.

To him then belongs the credit of all the good we do:

And every virtue we possess,
And every victory won,
And every thought of holiness
Are his alone.

The simplicity of the stanza reflects the simplicity of the truth. There are no exceptions. Our virtues, our victories, indeed the least movements of our souls toward holiness are the work of the Spirit alone. "My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways," says the Lord to the prophet, so the Spirit whispers, "And therefore my thoughts shall be your thoughts, and my ways your ways."

What does the Spirit then require from us, but love? For love, on the part of the creature, is not so much a giving as a willingness to be given a gift; gratitude, for grace. But on our own we cannot even sweep the floors and dust the furniture to give the Spirit a proper welcome. So in the final stanza of her hymn, Auber begs the gracious Spirit not only to dwell within us, but also to prepare and to transform the dwelling:

Spirit of purity and grace,
Our weakness, pitying, see:
O make our hearts thy dwelling-place,
And worthier thee.


Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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“Our Quiet Lord” first appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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