The Comforter’s Fire

The worthy Ronald Knox, in his Enthusiasm, a work that describes the long and sorry and sometimes bitterly comical history of self-confirmed mouthpieces of the Holy Spirit, says that the enthusiast “is so sure of being in the right, that he would hold it as an infidelity to countenance the scruples of those who disagree with him.” Or rather, with her, for “from the Montanist movement onwards, the history of enthusiasm is largely a history of female emancipation, and it is not a reassuring one.”

In any case, the enthusiast tends to assume, with rather too much ease, that he is a fit and ready trumpet for the Spirit to employ, particularly if he is conspicuous in his contempt for material reality—whether to reject it contemptuously, or to revel in it contemptuously, or to do either by turns. For, as Knox says, “your traditional enthusiast over-emphasizes the distinction between ‘the spirit’ and ‘the flesh’; but the flesh is not matter, it is human nature, whether material or immaterial, unredeemed.”

Let us be honest. We are not worthy that the Spirit should dwell within us. We pray that the Spirit himself will make us so, and we must not suppose he will always or even typically accomplish our full cleansing at a flash. He is the patient and quiet doctor of our souls. That is the sense we get from a fifteenth-century Italian hymn by Bianco da Siena, translated into English as “Come Down, O Love Divine”:


Anthony Esolen is Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Thales College and the author of over 30 books, including Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius). He has also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House) and, with his wife Debra, publishes the web magazine Word and Song ( He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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