“A pledge of eternal life”: Augustine on “dew”

AugustineI am sure you are really scratching your head about what “dew” could possibly mean in the Second Eucharistic Prayer:  “Hæc ergo dona, quæsumus, Spiritus tui rore sanctifica, ut nobis Corpus et Sanguis fiant Domini nostri Iesu Christi... literally… Therefore, we beg, sanctify these gifts by the dew of Your Spirit, in order that they become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  I am sure that were you to hear this in church, you might just have a nervous breakdown.  It would be far too taxing.  We are pretty stupid, after all.  We need baby-talk language that sounds just like the way we talk everyday. Everyone except, perhaps, patristibloggers.

But once upon a time, there was a shepherd of souls who thought he could explain things like “dew” and the Holy Spirit and the Eucharist to his flock.  We might not all be at the level of St. Augustine of Hippo (+430), but we can aspire nevertheless to do our best while standing on his titanic shoulders.  

Augustine delivered a sermon to his flock on these very things.  It was probably uttered during Augustine’s later years, so it dates more than likely after 420 and it seems to be a Pentecost sermon.   

In this sermon there is a connection between the Holy Spirit and His descent on the 120 who were gathered, dew, and the Eucharist.  Note the language of journeying and a homeland.  We are pilgrims in this life, far from our homeland, which is the joy of heaven with God.  We become marvelously wealthy on our journey away from home because the Spirit enriches us.  The riches He gives us, however, are like dew.  This wealth of precious dew, which is an “advance”, “an earnest”, ought to make us long for the fountain we will have in heaven.  In our sermon there is a distinction made between a pignus and a arrha… a pledge and an earnest  (cf. ss. 23,8 and 156, 16).  Augustine also connects dew (ros) and the Holy Spirit in other sermons, such as s. 23 where he also employs the image of the pignus and the arr(h)a (cf. s. 23, 8ff).

The language of “pledges” and “earnests” also makes us think of the Eucharist Itself.  We know the Eucharist as a “futurae gloriae pignus… a pledge of future glory”.  The Eucharist is also known as “viaticum… food for the journey”.   The Eucharist, as viaticum and pignus nourishes our faith, hope and charity here and at the same time opens up for us the possibility of heaven in the future and fulfillment of what the Eucharist promises: being face to face with God (cf. STh III, 79, 2, ad 1). With the Angelic Doctor we pray: O sacrum convivium, in quo Christus sumitur: recolitur memoria passionis eius; mens impletur gratia et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur.

Sermon 378 is very short, and so we may as well read the whole thing.  Let us listen to the great Doctor of Grace, a bishop with a deep zeal for souls, explain what “dew” means in the context of the Eucharistic liturgy of Pentecost.  The bishop and congregation would have listened to the readings which were sung.  Then he would have taken the scroll of the Scriptures onto his lap and taught the people as he sat in his chair (emphasis mine).

        1. God takes pleasure in a solemn festivity which is an expression of active piety and of fervent charity.  That is, after all, the effect of the presence of the Holy Spirit, as the apostle teaches us when he says, The charity of God has been poured in our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us (Rom 5:5).  So the coming of the Holy Spirit filled a hundred and twenty men and women gathered together in one place.  When the Acts of the Apostles were read, we heard that there were gathered together in one place one hundred and twenty persons, holding on to the promise Christ had made.  He had said, you see, that they should stay in the city until they were vested with power from on high.  For I, he said, will send what I have promised upon you (Acts 1:4; Lk 24:49).  Faithful in his promises, generous in keeping them (Fidelis promissory, benignus dator.).  After ascending into heaven, he sent what he had promised while on earth.
            We now have a pledge of eternal life (pignus futurae vitae aeternae) to come and of the kingdom of heaven.  He didn’t cheat us of what he had so recently promised, and is he going to cheat us of what we are looking forward to in the future?  When people enter into a business contract, and wish to have their minds set at rest by financial guarantees, they all, for the most part, receive or give an earnest (arrha).  And the earnest given creates confidence that the property of which an earnest has already been handed over will in due course follow.  The earnest Christ has given us is the Holy Spirit.  And the one who could not possibly cheat us has all the same given us security, when he gave us this earnest; even if he hadn’t given it, he would most certainly grant us what he has promised.  What has he promised us?  Eternal life, as the earnest of which he has given us the Holy Spirit.  Eternal life is the possession of those who have reached home; the earnest is the reassurance of those who are still on the way there.
            You see, it is better to call it an earnest than a pledge.  I mean, while these two things seem to be much the same as each other, there is still a difference between them that is not to be ignored.  Both when a pledge is given and when an earnest is given, the reason it’s done is to ensure the fulfillment of a promise; but when a pledge is given, you give back what you have received, once the matter has been settled for which you received the pledge (pignus); when an earnest (arrha) is given, though, it isn’t taken back, but is added to for the matter to be settled.
           So we have an earnest; let us thirst for the very fountain from which the earnest comes.  As an earnest (arrha) we have a kind of dew-fall in our hearts (aspersio … in cordibus nostris) of the Holy Spirit; if any are aware of this sprinkling, they should long for the fountain (fons).  Why, after all, do we have an earnest, if not to save us from fainting from hunger and thirst on this journey?  We are hungry and thirsty, you see, provided, that is, we acknowledge ourselves to be travelers.  Those who are traveling, and know they are traveling, long to reach home (patria); and because they are longing for home, they find traveling irksome.  But if they love traveling, they forget home, and don’t want to go back.  Our true home is not such that we should put anything else before it.
            Sometimes, you see, while people are traveling, they get rich.  They were needy at home, they travel and become rich, and don’t want to go back.  As for us, we were all born traveling a long way from our Lord, from the moment when he breathed the breath of life into the first man.  Our home country is in heaven, its citizens the angels (Patria nostra in caelis est, cives angeli).  Letters (= Scriptures) were sent to us from our home country, urging us to return, and they are read out every day in our congregations.  May the world grow cheap in our eyes, may we learn to love and prefer the one by whom the world was made.

 

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4 Responses to “A pledge of eternal life”: Augustine on “dew”

  1. Catholic Lady says:

    I’ve been thinking about getting a bumper sticker which says,

    “I dew, dew you?”

  2. Tomislav says:

    In Croatian we have “the dew” in the second eucharistic prayer. Here’s a short part of the prayer:

    Uistinu svet si, Gospodine,
    izvore svake svetosti.

    Tebe, zato, molimo:
    rosom Duha svoga posveti ove darove,

    da nam postanu Tijelo i + Krv
    Gospodina našega Isusa Krista.
    (http://www.katolici.org/molitve/redmise.htm)

    —————-

    I’ve always thought that “rosom Duha svoga” (Spiritus tui rore) is very poetic. Maybe in English you don’t think it is so nice, but still I don’t see why anyone would find it hard to understand. Also, as this is the eucharistic prayer I hear most often (probably because it’s so short) when I go to mass, I think it’s nice it begins in such powerful images (spring, dew).

    Thanks for the translation, I don’t think I understood all of it (especially the part about the difference between earnest and a pledge), but the part with “we have a kind of dew-fall in our hearts of the Holy Spirit; if any are aware of this sprinkling, they should long for the fountain” is very interesting.

  3. Clare Krishan says:

    I love how languages bring us closer. Here’s my 2 cents worth, another familiar word in English that derives from ‘ros’ or dew:

    rosemary

    http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=rosemary

    [.1440, earlier rosmarine (c.1300), from L. rosmarinus, lit. “dew of the sea” (cf. Fr. romarin), from ros “dew” + marinus (see marine). Perhaps so called because it grew near coasts, native to Mediterranean. L. ros is from PIE *ras-/*eras- “to flow, wet, moisten” (cf. Lith. rasa, O.C.S. rosa “dew,” Skt. rasah “sap, juice, fluid, essence,” Hitt. arszi “flows”]

    Wikipedia tells us that “it has a very old reputation for improving memory, and has been used as a symbol for remembrance (as in worn during weddings, war commemorations and funerals) in Europe” and

    “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance”

    says Ophelia in Shakespeare’s HAMLET. Let’s join her and pray that the other English speaking bishop’s remember Augustine when they come to vote on the texts in their countries!

  4. Rosemary is also a material proof that God loves us. I cook with rosemary a great deal and use it for all sort of other things as well.