Sunday 24 May 2015

'We wurðiað þæs Halgan Gastes tocyme': An Anglo-Saxon Sermon for Pentecost

We wurðiað þæs Halgan Gastes tocyme mid lofsangum seofon dagas, forðan ðe he onbryrt ure mod mid seofonfealdre gife, þæt is, mid wisdome and andgyte, mid geðeahte and strencðe, mid ingehyde and arfæstnysse, and he us gefylð mid Godes ege.

We honour the coming of the Holy Ghost with songs of praise for seven days, because he inspires our minds with sevenfold gifts: that is, with wisdom and understanding, with counsel and strength, with knowledge and devotion, and he fills us with awe of God.

This is an extract from a sermon for Pentecost by the Anglo-Saxon homilist Ælfric, written at the end of the tenth century. The sermon, which can be read in full here, covers a lot of ground: Ælfric explains the Old Testament origins of Pentecost and the reason it falls fifty days after Easter; translates into English the account of the descent of the Holy Spirit and subsequent events from the Acts of the Apostles; recaps the story of Babel and the cause of the multiplicity of languages on earth; and finally interprets the symbolism of the Holy Spirit appearing as a dove and as tongues of flame. It's an ambitious work of teaching and translation, appropriate for the event it commemorates, at which, as he puts it:

eal se halga heap Cristes hyredes wæs sprecende mid eallum gereordum; and eac þæt wunderlicor wæs, ðaða heora an bodade mid anre spræce, ælcum wæs geðuht, ðe ða bodunge gehyrde, swilce he spræce mid his gereorde, wæron hi Ebreisce, oððe Grecisce, oððe Romanisce, oððe Egyptisce, oððe swa hwilcere ðeode swa hi wæron þe ða lare gehyrdon.
'all the holy company of Christ's followers were speaking in all languages, and, what was more wonderful, when one of them preached in one language, it seemed to each who heard the preaching as if he spoke in his own language, whether they were Jews, or Greeks, or Romans, or Egyptians, or whichever nation they were from who heard that teaching.'

Even Anglo-Saxon England.

This is the final section of the homily, which makes a nice companion to this homily for Candlemas - there Ælfric also talks about doves and kindling, but for a different purpose.

Se Halga Gast waes æteowod ofer ða apostolas on fyres hiwe, and ofer Criste, on his fulluhte, on ante culfran anlicnysse. Hwi ofer Criste on culfran hiwe? Hwi ofer Cristes hirede on fyres gelicnysse? On bocum is gerædd be ðam fugelcynne þæt his gecynd is swiðe bilewite, and unscæððig, and gesibsum. Se Hælend is ealles mancynnes dema, ac he ne com na to demenne mancynn, swa swa he sylf cwæð, ac to gehælenne. Gif he ða wolde deman mancynn, ðaða he ærest to middangearde com, hwa wurde þonne gehealden? Ac he nolde mid his to-cyme ða synfullan fordeman, ac wolde to his rice gegaderian. Ærest he wolde us mid liðnysse styran, þæt he siððan mihte on his dome us gehealdan. Forði wæs se Halga Gast on culfran anlicnysse gesewen bufan Criste, forðan ðe he wæs drohtnigende on ðisre worulde mid bilewitnysse, and unscæððignysse, and gesibsumnysse. He ne hrymde, ne he biterwyrde næs, ne he sace ne astyrede, ac forbær manna yfelnysse þurh his liðnysse. Ac se ðe on ðam ærran tocyme liðegode, þam synfullum to gecyrrednysse, se demð stiðne dom þam reccleasum æt þam æfteran tocyme.

Se Halga Gast wæs gesewen on fyrenum tungum bufon ðam apostolon, forðan ðe he dyde þæt hi wæron byrnende on Godes willan, and bodigende ymbe Godes rice. Fyrene tungan hi hæfdon, ðaða hi mid lufe Godes mærða bodedon, þæt ðæra hæðenra manna heortan, ðe cealde wæron þurh geleaflæste and flæsclice gewilnunga, mihton beon ontende to ðam heofenlicum bebodum. Gif se Halga Gast ne lærð þæs mannes mod wiðinnan, on idel beoð þæs bydeles word wiðutan geclypode. Fyres gecynd is þæt hit fornimð swa hwæt swa him gehende bið: swa sceal se lareow don, seðe bið mid ðam Halgan Gaste onbryrd, ærest on him sylfum ælcne leahter adwæscan, and siððan on his underðeoddum.

On culfran anlicnysse and on fyres hiwe wæs Godes Gast æteowod; forðan ðe he deð þæt ða beoð bilewite on unscæððignysse, and byrnende on Godes willan, þe he mid his gife gefylð. Ne bið seo bilewitnys Gode gecweme butan snoternysse, ne seo snoternys butan bilewitnysse; swa swa gecweden is be ðam eadigan Iob, þæt he wæs bilewite and rihtwis. Hwæt bið rihtwisnys butan bilewitnysse? Oððe hwæt bið bilewitnys butan rihtwisnysse? Ac se Halga Gast, ðe tæhð rihtwisnysse and bilewitnysse, sceolde beon æteowod ægðer ge on fyre ge on culfran, forðan ðe he deð þæra manna heortan ðe he onliht mid his gife, þæt hi beoð liðe þurh unscæððignysse, and onælede ðurh lufe and snoternysse. God is, swa swa Paulus cwæð, fornymende fyr. He is unasecgendlic fyr, and ungesewenlic. Be ðam fyre cwæð se Hælend, "Ic com to ði þæt ic wolde sendan fyr on eorðan, and ic wylle þæt hit byrne." He sende ðone Halgan Gast to eorðan, and he mid his blæde onælde eorðlicra manna heortan. Þonne byrnð seo eorðe, þonne ðæs eorðlican mannes heorte bið ontend to Godes lufe, seoðe ær wæs ceald þurh flæsclice lustas.

Nis na se Halga Gast wunigende on his gecynde, swa swa he gesewen wæs, forðan ðe he is ungesewenlic; ac for ðære getacnunge, swa we ær cwædon, he wæs æteowod on culfran, and on fyre. He is gehaten on Greciscum gereorde, Paraclitus, þæt is, Frofor-gast, forði ðe he frefrað þa dreorian, þe heora synna behreowsiað, and sylð him forgyfenysse hiht, and heora unrotan mod geliðegað. He forgyfð synna, and he is se weg to forgyfenysse ealra synna. He sylð his gife ðam ðe he wile. Sumum men he forgifð wisdom and spræce, sumum god ingehyd, sumum micelne geleafan, sumum mihte to gehælenne untruman, sumum witegunge, sumum toscead godra gasta and yfelra; sumum he forgifð mislice gereord, sumum gereccednysse mislicra spræca. Ealle ðas ðing deð se Halga Gast, todælende æghwilcum be ðam ðe him gewyrð; forðam ðe he is Ælmihtig Wyrhta, and swa hraðe swa he þæs mannes mod onliht, he hit awent fram yfele to gode.

'The Holy Ghost appeared over the apostles in the form of fire, and over Christ at his baptism it appeared in the likeness of a dove. Why did it appear over Christ in the form of a dove? Why over Christ’s followers in the likeness of fire? We read in books about that species of bird that its nature is very meek, and innocent, and peaceful. The Saviour is the Judge of all mankind, but he did not come to judge mankind, as he said himself, but to save. If he had chosen to judge mankind then, when he first came to earth, who would have been saved? But he did not want to condemn the sinful by his coming, but wanted to gather them into his kingdom. He wanted to guide us first with gentleness, so that he might afterwards save us at his judgement. This is why the Holy Ghost was seen above Christ in the likeness of a dove, because he was dwelling in this world in meekness, and innocence, and peacefulness. He did not cry out, nor was he inclined to bitterness, nor did he stir up strife, but bore the wickedness of men in his gentleness. But he who at his first coming was gentle, so that the sinful might be converted, will give a stern judgement at his second coming to those who do not heed.

The Holy Ghost was seen as fiery tongues above the apostles, because he caused them to be burning with God’s will and preaching about God's kingdom. Fiery tongues they had when with love they preached the greatness of God, that the hearts of heathen men, which were cold through faithlessness and bodily desires, might be kindled to the heavenly commands. If the Holy Ghost does not teach a man's mind from within, in vain will be the words of the preacher proclaimed without. It is the nature of fire to consume whatever is near to it, and so ought the teacher to do who is inspired by the Holy Ghost: first to extinguish every sin in himself, and afterwards in those under his care.

In the likeness of a dove and in the form of fire God’s Spirit was manifested, for he causes those whom he fills with his grace to be meek in innocence and burning with the will of God. Meekness is not pleasing to God without wisdom, nor wisdom without meekness; as it is said of the blessed Job, 'he was meek and righteous'. What is righteousness without meekness? And what is meekness without righteousness? But the Holy Ghost, who teaches righteousness and meekness, should be manifested both as fire and as a dove, because he causes the hearts of those men whom he enlightens with his grace to be blameless through innocence, and kindled by love and wisdom. As St Paul said, 'God is a consuming fire'. He is a fire unspeakable and invisible. Of that fire, the Saviour said 'I come because I wish to send fire on earth, and I want it to burn.' He sent the Holy Ghost on earth, and he by his inspiration kindled the hearts of earthly men. The earth burns when the heart of an earthly man is kindled to the love of God, which before was cold because of fleshly lusts.

The Holy Ghost does not exist in his nature in the form in which he was seen, because he is invisible; but for the sake of the symbol, as we have described, he appeared as a dove and as fire. In the Greek language he is called Paraclitus, that is, Comforting Spirit [Frofor-gast], because he comforts the sorrowful who repent of their sins, and gives them hope of forgiveness, and lightens their troubled minds. He forgives sins, and he is the way to forgiveness of all sins. He gives his gifts to whomever he will. To some men he gives wisdom and eloquence, to some good knowledge, to some great faith, to some the power to heal the sick, to some the power of prophecy, to some the power to distinguish between good and evil spirits; to some he gives various languages, to some interpretation of various sayings. The Holy Ghost does all these things, distributing to everyone as seems good to him; for he is the Almighty Maker, and as soon as he enlightens the mind of a man, he turns it from evil to good.'

The dove and the flame

The rest of the sermon can be read here. The passage on the gifts given to different individuals by the Holy Spirit, which is based on 1 Corinthians 12:4-13, might be compared to a section in the Old English poem Christ II, ll.664-683:

Sumum wordlaþe wise sendeð
on his modes gemynd þurh his muþes gæst,
æðele ondgiet. Se mæg eal fela
singan ond secgan þam bið snyttru cræft
bifolen on ferðe. Sum mæg fingrum wel
hlude fore hæleþum hearpan stirgan,
gleobeam gretan. Sum mæg godcunde
reccan ryhte æ. Sum mæg ryne tungla
secgan, side gesceaft. Sum mæg searolice
wordcwide writan. Sumum wiges sped
giefeð æt guþe, þonne gargetrum
ofer scildhreadan sceotend sendað,
flacor flangeweorc. Sum mæg fromlice
ofer sealtne sæ sundwudu drifan,
hreran holmþræce. Sum mæg heanne beam
stælgne gestigan. Sum mæg styled sweord,
wæpen gewyrcan. Sum con wonga bigong,
wegas widgielle. Swa se waldend us,
godbearn on grundum, his giefe bryttað.

To one he sends wise speech
into his mind’s thoughts through the breath of his mouth,
fine perception. One whose spirit is given
the power of wisdom can sing and speak
of many things. One can play the harp well
with his hands loudly among men,
strike the instrument of joy. One can tell
of the true divine law. One can speak of the course of the stars,
the vast creation. One can skilfully
write with words. To one is granted success in battle,
when archers send quivering arrows flying
over the shield-walls. One can boldly
drive the ship over the salt sea,
stir the thrashing ocean. One can climb
the tall upright tree. One can wield a weapon,
the hardened sword. One knows the expanse of earth’s plains,
far-flung ways. Thus the Ruler,
God's Son on earth, gives to us his gifts.

This is a mixture of the Biblical and the specifically Anglo-Saxon - climbing trees and sailing ships not being among the gifts listed in Corinthians! There's also a whole Old English poem on this theme known as 'The Gifts of Men', sadly too long to translate here, which adds to this list such varied skills as architecture, swimming, metal-working, looking after horses, tasting wine (!), hunting and hawking, and gymnastics. Anglo-Saxon poetry loves to praise craft and skill, the technical ability and power of thought which goes into making beautiful and useful things, and these poetic lists of 'gifts' paint an appealing picture of a society in which everyone's contribution, from the greatest to the least, is unique and valuable, however mundane it might seem. In the king's hall, in a smith's forge, in a monk's cloister, 'there are many gifts, but the same Spirit'.


Katherine said...

Oh, lovely ... thank you. One could spent the whole of the seven days poring over this wondrous sermon.

You know how much delight you give to us who read you here, bringing these treasures of the word-hoard to light, with your own sensitive reflections.

I grieved over your last post even as I was moved by its eloquence; I am an historian, but the issues are similar for us. Your generation faces a hard road in the scholarly world, certainly harder than mine did. Academia should be a kinder and more civilized world than it too often is, and the ability you have, to make the world of the past attractive to students and the non-specialist (which is really essential to the future of our fields and scholarship within society), should be more valued than it is.

I, too, hope you will not abandon the idea of academia too quickly, for you clearly have so much to give, and it would be the loss of those who would be your colleagues and students. But I know that many people have found a path forward outside academia, enabling them to build a life that is satisfying on a human level while continuing to be scholars. You are right not to see it as ‘giving up’, and should not feel in any way a failure if that is the path you choose, but seek ways to maintain your place in the community of scholars, without apology. Modern technology makes that easier, but it is an old and honorable tradition that includes people like Helen Waddell.

So, happy Whitsun, and be of good courage.

Anne said...

Thank you for your faithful blog posts from the last 7 years. I wish you well as you start on a path with an uncertain end. As you set out, please know that many people have been enriched by your blogs. I always look forward to finding a new post and the connection it gives me to the thread of art, spirituality, daily life of people and the natural world that weaves a community out of the old saints, historians, poets, and the others you bring to life. And you include us in that community, as we find roots and common humanity. I like the way you use the calendar and church years.

I have been thinking about the "haven of healing" and being "securely anchored" from the Christ II poem; and now with the Spirit's bringing the fire of Pentecost, the Spirit as comforter and gift-giver, sending us out of ourselves. It is a tension we all feel; and it reminds me of a poem by C.P. Cavafy. I am thinking of "Ithaka, " translated by Keeley and Sherrard. Cavafy wishes the reader a long journey, with adventure and discovery, going in and out of harbors, barely arriving, getting old.

I join your other readers in encouraging you to take heart. You have gifts as a scholar and communicator, which should be appreciated in academia. You also have a gift of humanity, which may not be seen or appreciated by academia, but which those of us on the fringe identify and love. Take care.

Thomas Hillman said...

I first came to your blog not long ago. I don't even recall how I discovered it, but I am glad I did. As one who is renewing his acquaintance with Old English after many years, I find it an invaluable resource linguistically. But it is far more than that. The texts you discuss are interesting in themselves, and they open up a world that is fascinating. If all I read were Beowulf, what a different idea of Old English and the Anglo-Saxons I would have. Thank you for that.

I am a former academic, and I found myself nodding in recognition at so much of what you describe of academia and at so many of your feelings about the way it is today.

You should take heart, as a previous comment encouraged you to do. You do good work here. Be confident about that. Take pleasure in that. And keep doing it.

I recently gave a paper at a conference. It was the first time I had done so in many years. A woman on the panel with me, whom I believe was an established academic, asked me if I had any plans to publish my paper, and generously offered to get it published for me. She had an avenue for that, she said. I declined, saying that I used to engage in the whole "publish or perish" battle -- oddly enough I contrived to do both -- but that I wasn't interested in that any longer. What I wrote now I wrote because it interested me, because I thought it was worth saying, and because it was fun. I would just put the paper on my blog and let be. I don't know whether she found my indifference to the academy admirable, contemptible, or simply inexplicable, but she gave me an odd look, the one we give people when we don't get a joke we were expecting to get because the punchline was strange.

The scholarly world is indeed now larger than the academy. But I know how much a life within the academy can mean to us. Whatever you do, I wish you happiness, and hope that you will continue the excellent work you have done here.