The Power of the Spirit/Chapter 1

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The Power of the Spirit by Percy Dearmer
Chapter 1 : Military virtue



By nothing have we drawn the sinews out of Christianity more effectually than by our common misinterpretation and disparagement of the doctrine of God's holy Spirit. The word Comforter is in itself a record of the deterioration.

'If ye love me, keep my commandments,' so runs one of the greatest of our Lord's sayings, as recorded in the Fourth Gospel;[1] 'And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; even the Spirit of truth;' and then, 'I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.' 'If you love me, you will keep my commands' is the rendering in modern English by Dr. Moffat; 'And I will ask the Father to give you another Helper to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth;' and, 'I will not leave you forlorn; I am coming to you.' In the original Greek, the word for 'Comforter' is that which we have anglicized as 'Paraclete', and which has the same etymological meaning as the Latin 'Advocate' one who is called to one's side to help; one, that is, who in some great struggle comes in, to strengthen on the one hand, to defend on the other, 'meeting formidable attacks': this meaning, says Dr. Westcott, is alone adequate. The most striking example in recent human history of such a 'paraclete' was the intervention on the side of the Allies, in 1917, of the tremendous moral power and physical force of America. And in that great spiritual movement of succour, there was, may we not say? yet another advent or coming of Christ to judge the world, and to convict it—to bring demonstration to it—as the Paraclete was to do, of sin, of righteousness, and of judgement.

The meaning, then, could not be more beautifully clear. Jesus was to leave his followers, but he would come again as that other divine manifestation, the Spirit of God or Paraclete, who is the mighty ally of those who struggle for the right, who is indeed with them always, but will now be in their very hearts; who is the Spirit of truth, and who will—not indeed make them instantaneously infallible but lead them into all truth.

The translators of our English Bible, however, gave us 'Comforter' instead of Paraclete, which is the word of the Latin version as well as the Greek: nor did the Revisers assist us very much; for they retained 'Comforter', giving us the alternative of 'Advocate' and 'Helper' in the margin. 'Helper' would at least avoid misapprehension, though it is weak indeed compared with the original: 'Advocate' will not do at all, because it is juristic, and suggests a man in a wig who is paid to make special pleading.

The word 'Comforter' might have served once upon a time; for its etymological meaning is 'one who strengthens very much'. Confortare used not to mean anything soothing: it is recorded of a schoolmaster in the Chronicles of the Monastery of St. Edmund that he confortavit pueros baculo, 'he comforted his boys with the stick.' But 'comfort' has suffered a steady deterioration, and only retains its original meaning in legal usage, as of those who bring comfort to the king's enemies. It was used in this sense by Hooker—'doth not a little comfort and confirm the same.' But already by the time of Shakespeare and the Authorized Version the word had come to stand generally for consolation or relief, the sense of 'fort', 'fortify ', and 'fortitude' having dropped out.

'Had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do,'

says Constance in King John.[2]It had already acquired also its bottom meaning, as when Othello says:[3]

'I prattle out of fashion, and I dote
In mine own comforts.'

This is the only sense retained in the adjective to-day, as when we say 'a comfortable armchair'; though in Shakespeare it still retains that of our own 'Comfortable Words' in the Prayer Book, as in the injunction of Bertram to Helena in All's Well that Ends Well[4]—'Be comfortable to my mother, your mistress, and make much of her.' We can then only conclude that the wonderful body of men who gave us the Authorized Version did use a word already in their time inadequate, and used it because they had themselves come to think of the Holy Spirit, not as a mighty Ally called in to arm us in the eternal battle between right and wrong, but as one who soothes and consoles us.

Such is the meaning that the word Comforter has for us to-day; and it has done enormous harm. Religion is regarded as an arm-chair instead of a fortress, and the Knights of the Holy Spirit have become carpet-knights.

This process of decrepitude in men's idea of the Holy Ghost had already been going on for centuries before the Reformation eating into the stronger conception, of which we shall speak in the next chapter. We can read it easily in the hymns we use; for nothing illustrates the real character of men's religion so well as the songs they make about it. The Golden Sequence, beautiful as it is, already in the thirteenth century was stressing the sweet and soothing aspect of inspiration. There is, indeed, a reference to the 'power to guard and guide', but the general tone is illustrated by the second stanza:

'Come, of comforters the best,
Of the soul the sweetest guest,
Come in toil refreshingly:
Thou in labour rest most sweet,
Thou art shadow in the heat,
Comfort in adversity.'

And both the tunes, the proper, and Webbe's Veni Sancte Spiritus, fully sustain the dulcet character of the words.

If we take the most famous hymn of all, Cosin's paraphrase of the Veni Creator, the emasculation is far more noticeable.[5] I have often been distressed by the use of this version so systematically at retreats and other religious gatherings, and of the Mechlin tune, whose saccharine quality is quite unlike the marching vigour of most of these modernized plain- song melodies. The Prayer Book, incomparable in its prose, has been attended by Cranmer's ill-luck in the matter of verse; and Cosin, in supplying a greatly superior alternative to the doggerel of the longer version [6] in the ordinal, was not at his best. What he did was to leave out the strongest parts of the original altogether, and to give a weakened rendering of the rest.[7] The original, which belongs to the ninth century, and is therefore earlier and stronger than the Golden Sequence, has five stanzas (not counting the original Doxology) to Cosin's three. Let us set Cosin side by side with the very fine and very accurate translation by our present Poet Laureate,[8] marking the lines omitted by Cosin and taking the liberty of reading 'Paraclete' with the original for Dr. Bridges' 'Comforter':

Dr. Bridges

Come, O Creator Spirit, come,
And make within our hearts thy home;
To us thy grace celestial give,
Who of thy breathing move and live.


Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,
And lighten with celestial fire;
Thou the anointing Spirit art,
Who dost thy 'sevenfold gifts impart:


O Paraclete, that name is thine,
Of God most high the gift divine;
The well of life, the fire of love,
Our souls' anointing from above.


Thy blessed unction from above
Is comfort, life, and fire of love;


Thou dost appear in sevenfold dower
The sign of God's almighty power;
The Father's promise, making rich
With saving truth our earthly speech.


Our senses with thy light inflame,
Our hearts to heavenly love reclaim;

Enable with perpetual light
The dullness of our blinded sight:

Our bodies' poor infirmity
With strength perpetual fortify.


Anoint and cheer our soiled face
With the abundance of thy grace:


Our mortal foe afar repel,
Grant us henceforth in peace to dwell;
And so to us, with thee for guide,
No ill shall come, no harm betide.

Keep far our foes, give peace at home;
Where thou art guide no ill can come.


May we by thee the Father learn,
And know the Son, and thee discern,
Who art of both; and thus adore
In perfect faith for evermore.


Teach us to know the Father, Son,
And thee, of Both, to be but One;
That through the ages all along
This may be our endless song,
Praise to thy eternal merit,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

How has the fire and strength gone out of the original—just the lines which Cosin ignored are those which speak of added mental powers, of burning love, of strength and courage! Perhaps even Dr. Bridges has not recovered quite all the force of the original 'living fount, fire, love', for, example, fons vivus, ignis, charitas (we have long damped the fire out of charity); nor can virtute firmans perpeti be quite translated—it might have been written by an old general of Imperial Rome—and Cosin turns it into 'anoint and cheer our soiled face'. Again, hostem repellas longius … ductore sic te praevio, vitemus omne noxium, just suggests the pioneers of a legion pressing their way through some hostile forest. One might pursue the subject with profit, noting how Dryden[9] still further converted the sturdy old hymn into religious platitudes, set in excellent verse:

'From sin and sorrow set us free,
And make thy temples worthy thee.'


'Make us eternal truths receive,
And practise all that we believe.

Or one might descend to the maudlin atmosphere, 'soft as the breath of even,' of mid-Victorianism. But my object is achieved, if I have illustrated the progressive deterioration in men's conception of the work of the Holy Spirit during a thousand years. Our next illustration must be from ecclesiastical art - the traditional representation of the Apostles, with S. Mary in their midst, sitting with their hands folded on their breasts, faces seraphically upturned, each wearing his halo, and a little flame burning peacefully 'on every sainted head'; this, too, has been made part of our popular religion in Keble's hymn, where the softness is no longer that of the breath of even, but of 'morning prime'; and where, in accordance with many Old Masters, but in defiance of Holy Writ, the Dove is introduced to complete the gentle picture.

If only our translators had ventured to translate περισгερά by its better rendering, 'pigeon', we should have escaped so much; for 'pigeon' does not rhyme with 'love' and 'above'. We might in that case never have missed the force of the description of Christ's baptism. 'Pigeon' may sound less dignified to our ears, but this is only due to the associations of art (including the art of rhyme): the dove, though a soft and pretty bird, is extremely stupid, and was never in Holy Writ meant to typify Wisdom. I remember one of these birds in my Indian bungalow, who beat himself nearly to death against a window just over the door of the bath-room, though I left the door open for him throughout the day. The dove - let me hasten to say, lest I share the curse of the heretic Severus, who was anathematized by the second Council of Nicaea, for condemning this representation—he dove is a beautiful and appropriate subject of Christian art; it is naturally, because of the Baptism of Christ, one of the most ancient symbols in the Catacombs of Rome and the earliest mosaics. In the very earliest Christian art, of the second and third centuries, the dove represents most generally the soul of the departed set free by death; sometimes also the dove, familiar to those ancient craftsmen as the bird of Venus, becomes the dove of Noah, and thus the messenger of peace after the sufferings of this life; lastly, it appears in frescoes of the baptism of Christ, and even by analogy in representations of the baptism of neophytes. Later, the symbol became restricted, because of this association, to the Holy Spirit; but in the sarcophagi and mosaics of the fifth and sixth centuries the Apostles are still sometimes represented as doves, and doves sometimes stand on the arms of the cross to represent the souls of the faithful.

There is no other representation of the Holy Spirit whatever until the Middle Ages, and hardly any other then: we can applaud the artists of nearly two thousand years, and rejoice they had at hand a figure which was so obviously a mere symbol. None the less, this symbol has really become the subject of something very like idolatry among Christians; and we cannot wonder at the remark of the inquiring Japanese: 'I can understand about the Father, and I can understand about the Son; but I do not understand about ō hato—honourable bird.' And all this has come about from a simile of S. Mark. (Let us use a modern and exact translation, substituting a neutral word for 'pigeon'): 'At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan; and forthwith on his coming up out of the water he saw an opening in the sky, and the Spirit like a bird coming down to him.'[10]

After this necessary digression, let us return to the subject of Pentecost. In S. Luke's account the round haloes and flaming tufts are absent, as is the dove; but we are told of a sound like the rushing of a strong wind, and 'tongues parting asunder, like as of fire; and it sat upon each one of them':[11] such was the reminiscence of the people who told S. Luke long after, a little vague—as lightning is vague—and not easy to translate; there are perhaps two accounts, woven together, of the speaking in different languages, and we cannot lay much stress upon that incident: but the effect was remembered clearly enough. The artists have given us gentle placid scenes, which they thought edifying; but so far was this from being the case that there was an uproar, so great that the people outside came rushing in, and were all 'amazed and quite at a loss'; and some asked what it all meant, and others said that the disciples must be drunk. Then S. Peter got up and made a speech of amazing enthusiasm and audacity: 'Men of Judaea and residents of Jerusalem, let every one of you understand this—attend to what I say: these men are not drunk as you imagine. Why, it is only nine in the morning! No, this is what was predicted by the prophet Joel—"In the last days, saith God, then will I pour out my spirit upon all flesh, your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, your old men shall dream dreams. …" This Jesus … you got wicked men to nail to the cross and murder; but God raised him by checking the pangs of death. Death could not hold him.'[12]

I think it is true to say that, whenever we trace our ideas of the work of God's Spirit back to the origins, we find the same phenomenon. 'Out of the strong has come forth sweetness': there is abundance of honey now because the lion is dead. 'Blessed be the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, who strengtheneth us all,' says the very ancient Ethiopic Liturgy: 'And his the gentle voice we hear,' says the modern hymn. It is right that the Church to-day should make so strong an appeal to 'womanly' women though it be so strong that Italy and France lagged behind the rest of the world in granting woman suffrage, for fear of clerical domination—right that it should offer consolation to the lowly and bereaved; but once the Church appealed equally to men—even the ruffians and swashbucklers respected her, as to-day they respect the State, for she was 'terrible as an army with banners'. She was beautiful, but puissant also:

'Not more fair the moon in her loveliness,
Not more bright the sun in his majesty,
Like an army splendid and terrible,
Ranged for battle.'

sang Adam of S. Victor, some eight centuries ago.[13]

We have seen the appeal that strength and courage make. Before the war, military experts doubted whether fighting in the air would be possible; even the marvellous fund of human daring would, many thought, be exhausted by such a concentration of terrors. The question has never arisen. Boys have crowded into the air service, as they have swarmed to the sacrifice of the trenches and the perils of the sea, five millions of men without compulsion. It is proved that, though there are limits beyond which less civilized races will not go, there is no limit to the valour of the Christianized peoples of the West.

The bulk of mankind will not be drawn by the appeal of mere softness and sweetness, but they will rise up to the call of danger; they will not follow the dove, but they will follow the eagles.

Why is this? Is it a bad thing, or a good thing? But is it not the very spirit of the heroism of the Cross? Is it not the very fire of the Holy Ghost, which drove the Apostles forth to meet prison, and storm, and shipwreck, and the sword? Is it not the spirit of the missionaries to-day who lay down their lives every year, and the spirit of those Christians who but last year perished at the hands of the Turk by the hundred thousand rather than renounce their faith?

War is most horrible. But one thing is worse— unrighteous peace, the peace of selfishness, carelessness, luxury, injustice, the peace of the oppressor and of the men who grind the faces of the poor; and one thing only is better—the peace of God, which is itself a war, a ceaseless spiritual war against unrighteousness and all the lies 'that comfort cruel men'. It is a war—

'In ire and exultation,
Aflame with faith and free.'

Our fair young men crowded out to the hideous battlefields; and their parents, agonizing, had to let them go. They laid down their twenty years, of life without a doubt or question. Is not this most truly religion, whatever else it may be? Yet human war is unchristian, devilish, loathsome. How can these things be? Why is the appeal of battle so universal, so deep in the human heart, that nations riven by dissension become as one man, and men the most diverse agree in the one cause?

It is not that men are unchristian, or attracted to cruelty. They love Joan of Arc most of all because she was a saint; and in England they made General Gordon almost into a legend, because with all his faults he was a converted man. The heroes of to-day, Foch, Haig, Beatty, Wilson, are the more popular because they do not hide their religion.

It is that man is at heart a fighter, that men as well as women adore the knightly spirit, and long for the uplifting thrill of battle. And the human instinct is right; for each man's life is a battle, and the progress of the race is one long struggle: foes are ever about us, and giants that have to be slain. Not from brutality, but for the love of chivalry, of generous sacrifice, and the glory of championship, of tranquil strength, of modest war-battered courage, men sing of battle, and salute the 'Veray parfit, gentil knight', the Happy Warrior. So the Crusaders came back, broken and futile, but went out again and again, and gave England a new half-mythical patron saint, in the place of that holy weakling, Edward the Confessor. They had not got the Holy Sepulchre, in the end, but they had got S. George— S. George, for merry England; and his red cross flutters still from half the ships of the world. Now Christianity took this instinct, and pointed out that it was foolish to use your courage in cutting the throats of other poor silly fellows, besides being wrong; and that there were other enemies better worth fighting against, such as the 'despotisms and empires, the forces that control this dark world the—spiritual hosts of evil arrayed against us in the heavenly warfare'.[14]

And for some centuries all went well. The despotisms and empires showed fight; and Christians found that they needed the sword and shield and breastplate and helmet and the whole armour of God. They died in many forms of mortal agony, they proved then: courage to the utmost; Christianity had found the 'moral equivalent of war', long before William James asked for it.

Men, after all, only want to be men. They want the strong simple things, they want comradeship; and they want the fire of the Spirit to burn at white heat sometimes.

'One of the lessons I learnt,' says General Smuts, speaking of his experiences in the Boer War, 'was that, under the stress of great difficulties such as we were then passing through, the only things which survived were the simple human feelings, feelings of loyalty to your fellows and feelings of comradeship and patriotism, which carried you through dangers and privation.'[15]

It is not hate that men seek after, but love, the love of comrades and of country. They will seek that noble life of 'great difficulties', and will get it somehow. Has Christianity then nothing to offer them nowadays but consolation, and—to use an expressive word which our soldiers have invented—a 'cushy' feeling? Has the Church no remembered echo of that Sursum corda, which is the oldest phrase in the Christian liturgy? Does she seem to speak to them only of mothers' meetings, and snug parsonages, and charming cathedral closes, and big episcopal palaces, of green old churchyards, and prim churches, and the scent and rustle of clean clothes on Sunday morning?

The martyrs were followed by the monks, heroic pioneers, who fought their way among the fierce barbarian tribes, and turned the vast wildernesses of ancient Europe into farms and gardens: we still use their prayers, hardly marking the constant note of danger—the assaults of our enemies in the morning, the fear of our enemies in the evening, and the perils and dangers of the night—we who do not even lock our front doors in the country! For a thousand years the struggle went on, and still Russia and Lithuania, Prussia and Scandinavia remained to be won; but the romance of the struggle had already gone out in the settled nations. Military orders arose, but they were shadowy for want of opposition. Foes there were, but they were far away; and Christendom in the Middle Ages became a walled city, her provinces shrinking before the advancing hosts of Islam. Then quarrels within the walls supplied the test of manhood, and martyrs were found again, and wars in the sixteenth century became wars of religion. That evil was great, but with all the horror of it there was life: the name 'ironside' did not seem a strange description of religious men. But thereafter the fighting spirit in Christendom sank very low, perhaps because it had warred so long, and used the arm of the flesh. The wearied Church sank back into comfort, and was wellnigh fading away a hundred years ago.

Now, a wonderful substitute for war has been found on the physical side. Games as we know them are a quite modern invention, and their present almost universal extension in advanced Christian nations has largely been made possible by the discovery of rubber—therein lies the difference between the prince's game of tennis and the people's game of lawn-tennis. In old times men fought for exercise, and because there was nothing else for a gentleman to do: life in a mediaeval keep was intolerably boring, and the pleasures of the hunt did not suffice to relieve the tedium; so men forayed and fought, princes of innumerable lands quarrelled and plotted, and dragged their retainers into the fray with them. But now we have the mimic warfare of many games, extending, though not yet sufficiently, among all classes; and they are a perfect substitute for the clumsy recreation of war, in nerve and skill and muscle, and in some moral qualities also.

Yet we cannot find a spiritual equivalent for war!

To suggest that the Church can supply that equivalent seems ridiculous. Yet it is true, and the whole truth, and the only truth. The State, which now alone evokes the highest passions and the united loyalty of men, has given them war upon war; and in peace-time the paltry substitute of party-politics, which have owed whatever life they at any time possess to the Christian principles which are sometimes at stake.

But the Church is at war with all things worth fighting against, with all things hateful and strong, with dragons and beasts and devils, with the cruel and careless and proud, with ignorance and vice and oppression, with the demon within and the demon without, with Mammon and with Babylon; and her warfare is an Apocalypse, as it was in the first days, of awful horsemen and hosts armoured with fire and jacinth, of the Dragon and the Beast, of Michael and his war, of trumpets and voices and thunders and smoke.

But what a Church that would be! Where is she now? What have we done to tear her down, to quell the beating of that mighty heart?

Call we upon God to give us fellowship again, the fellowship of the Holy Ghost! Seek we the invigorating fount, fans vivus, ignis, charitas; grasp we again the one sword that will never be beaten into ploughshares, the Sword of the Spirit!

Then, seeing the Church of the living God as she will be, men will find a better warfare at hand; and young men will then come out undoubting and undivided, to join the fight against that ancient triple alliance, the World, the Flesh, and the Devil.

For men are homesick in their homes,
   And strangers under the sun,
And they lay their head in a foreign land,
   Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise;
But our homes are under miraculous skies,
   Where the yule tale was begun.

This world is wild as an old wives' tale,
   And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
   For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings,
And our peace is put in impossible things,
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
   Round an incredible star.'[16]

  1. John 14:15, A.V.
  2. King John, III. 4.
  3. Othello, II. 1.
  4. All's Well, 1. 1.
  5. Mr. H. G. Wells,, missing perhaps some of its real merits, has criticized this hymn unkindly, but not quite unjustifiably, in The Soul of a Bishop.
  6. This C.M. version is a real disgrace to us. It should be removed at the earliest opportunity, its place being taken by Cosin's paraphrase, Dr. Robert Bridges' translation being put in the first place (with 'Comforter' altered to Paraclete').
  7. The original is as follows (scholars now attribute it to Rabanus Maurus, who died in 856) :

    Veni, creator Spiritus,
    mentes tuorum visita:
    imple superna gratia
    quae tu creasti pectora.

    Qui Paraclitus diceris,
    donum Dei altissimi:
    fons vivus, ignis, charitas,
    et spiritalis unctio.

    Tu septiformis munere,
    dextrae Dei tu digitus:
    tu rite promisso Patris,
    sermone ditas guttura.

    Accende lumen sensibus,
    infunde amorem cordibus:
    infirma nostri corporis
    virtute firmans perpeti.

    Hostem repellas longius,
    pacemque dones protinus:
    ductore sic te praevio,
    vitemus omne noxium.

    Per te sciamus da Patrem,
    noscamus atque Filium:
    te utriusque Spiritum
    credamus omni tempore.

  8. In the Yattendon and the English Hymnal.
  9. In his paraphrase, 'Creator Spirit, by whose aid.'
  10. Mark 1 9-10. S. Luke adds the words 'in a bodily form', after the mention of the Holy Spirit; but these are not in the original source, being only his own commentary, which does not and is not meant to provide any new particulars. S. John adds that the Baptist also saw the manifestation.
  11. Acts 2 3, R.V
  12. Acts 2 12, 14-17, 23-4 Moffat's translation.
  13. This hymn Jerusalem et Sion filiae is ascribed to him and dates from, the twelfth century.
  14. Eph. 6 12, Weymouth's translation.
  15. Speeches, 1917, p. 27.
  16. G. K. Chesterton, The House of Christmas.