The Holy Spirit in Mbira, Basil, and Down Ampney

by The Rev. Craig Lemming

“[The Holy Spirit] is present as a whole to each and wholly present everywhere. He is portioned out impassably and participated in as a whole. He is like a sunbeam whose grace is present to the one who enjoys him as if he were present to such a one alone, and still he illuminates land and sea and is mixed with the air. Just so, indeed, the Spirit is present to each one who is fit to receive him, as if he were present to him alone, and still he sends out his grace that is complete and sufficient for all.”
– excerpt from St. Basil of Caesarea’s treatise ‘On the Holy Spirit’ (374 CE)

Orthodox Icon of Saint Basil of Caesarea

Last week’s Google Doodle celebrated the Mbira: the ancient musical instrument of Zimbabwe. What was even more enjoyable than playing the four Shona songs on the Doodle’s virtual mbira was journeying vicariously to my homeland thanks to this excellent “Behind the Doodle” short:

“To me it’s a cross between water and air.”
“It is uplifting, it is spiritual.”
“It tells a story. It fulfills something in you.”

These evocative descriptions of the unique timbre of the mbira and the meanings of its intangible music reminded me of a rudimentary lesson every postulant learns in their first year of seminary. Due to the limitations of human language, we have to use metaphors or symbols to make meaning of our ineffable experiences of God.

Symbols of the Holy Spirit have been on my mind this week as we prepare for the Feast of Pentecost. What metaphors or symbols adequately describe the indescribable?

I took Patristics classes at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity several summers ago. One unforgettable day, seated in a shaft of sunlight in the Archbishop Ireland Memorial Library, I was overcome by the sublime beauty of the ninth chapter of Saint Basil of Caesarea’s treatise On the Holy Spirit. A classmate came over to see if I was alright. All I could do, as I choked back tears, was to point to Basil’s famous rhapsody on the Holy Spirit being like a sunbeam. My colleague read the passage, smiled, handed the book back to me, sighed, and nodded. “That’s just… I mean it’s… it’s just so…” “True?” I interjected. “Yes. True. You’re lucky you got Basil. I got Tertullian.” I sympathized and then we chuckled after I wished him luck with “grumpy-guts.”

What happened between me and Saint Basil’s treatise On the Holy Spirit that summer is depicted perfectly by Alan Bennett in The History Boys:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.”

Words certainly do this. So does the language of music. In his landmark book, The Soul of Mbira: Music and Traditions of the Shona People of Zimbabwe, musicologist Paul F. Berliner describes the role of mbira music in the Shona people’s bira ceremony for communing with ancestors in the spiritual realm:

“the bira is a communal affair; its music is the sum total of the contributions of all the members of the village who choose to participate. The mbira usually provide the nucleus of the music. A well-known mbira player who performed for a powerful medium told me, ‘The mbira is not just an instrument to us. It is like your Bible… It is a way in which we pray to God.’ In the context of the bira, the people believe the mbira to have the power to project its sound into the heavens, bridging the world of the living and the world of the spirits.”

The same is true for me when singing my favorite Pentecost hymn – “Come Down, O Love Divine” by Ralph Vaughan Williams. A quintessentially Anglican hymn that harmonizes Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience in Words and Music that make meaning of the Holy Spirit. Sing it with me (and the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge) as we prepare to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. The hymn text is included below the video.

Pentecost Blessings,

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.

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 clothe me round, the while my path illuming.

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

And so the yearning strong,
with which the soul will long,
shall far outpass the power of human telling;
for none can guess its grace,
till Love create a place
wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling.

Words: Bianco da Siena (d. 1434?); tr. Richard Frederick Littledale (1833-1890)
Music: DOWN AMPNEY, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

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