This is such an amazing offering! Hymnary.org tells us that the inspiring words of this, one of my all-time favourite hymns, were written by Bianco da Siena, a 14th century Italian poet and wool worker from an Italian city I love dearly, and where I have met the Lord deeply. Bianco was a member of an order of laymen that was instituted by John Colombinus of Siena, who followed the rule of St. Augustine.
This order was suppressed by the authorities, however, quite possibly because they feared they could not control its mystical fervour – a pattern we have seen repeated time and again after the Spirit has been poured out on a church or movement, and when the authorities fear losing control and set out to rein it in – or even to suppress it altogether.
It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that Bianco’s hymns were published, and then it was in Lucca, another city that means a great deal to me personally. From there it came to the attention of Richard Frederick Littledale, an Irish scholar who served for a time as an ordained priest in the Anglican church, before being obliged to lay that ministry down as the result of a chronic illness. Richard spent the rest of his life authoring many books and pamphlets on Anglican liturgy, theology, and the Church’s engagement with society.
We can be particularly grateful to him for completing the work that his friend John Neale had done in translating many of the really great ancient hymns from the Latin. Praise God that he did – and that the Lord used even his indisposition to set him apart for a work he might well have not been able to complete had he still been caught up in the regular ministerial round.
The opening stanza calls on the Holy Spirit, who is both ‘Love divine’ and ‘The Comforter,’ for more of His presence in our lives. It then goes on to ask the Holy Spirit to consume all vestiges of pride and evil passion in us; to purify our love and to light our path. As a result of this longing for greater purity, the final stanza goes on to anticipate the greater love for God that will ensue from such purification, and recognises that, as Paul wrote, “our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within us” (1 Corinthians 6:19) – and that none can guess the amazing grace God has in store for us as the Holy Spirit makes His dwelling in us.
Praise God for Linda Entwistle, who set the words of this wonderful hymn to a new melody, which those of us who know and love it consider to be even better than the well-known one by Ralph Vaughan Williams.