Paulinus on dew: “The drops of our darkness”

Today is the feast of St. Paulinus of Nola (+431).  Could you go through this day without knowing what this great poet and letter writer (the ancient verison of a patristiblogger) said about "dew".  Of course not!!

In ep. 23,33 (CSEL 29:190), Paulinus explains what dew is.  He is talking about the Song of Songs and how the Christ figure’s hair is covered with dew.  Let’s lead up to the good stuff:

33. But the Church had done well to take the image of a sinner, so that even in her symbolism she might be consistent with her head, for Christ, too, took the form of a sinner.  But the Jew, who was to set neither his head nor his base in Christ, anointed neither the head nor the feet of Christ, whereas the woman of the Gospel steeped both in precious ointments.  So Christ confers neither the oil of grace nor the water of renewal on the synagogue, an image of which is represented by the Pharisee standing at the very fount of the oil and water of salvation; but for him the water and the oil of charity have run dry.

Christ was possibly foretelling this when His prophet said: The oil of the sinner shall not fatten my head, just as he was able to say to His Church: Thou hast anointed My head with oil.  She had brought ointment not only of costly manufacture but also in a precious container

WHAT??? A precious container??  Didn’t Paulinus know that people don’t know that that is?  After all, I doubt if it was encrusted with jewels.

The ointment was fragrant with the grace and properties of many herbs or blossoms combined.  Only the Church could perfect such a product.  Scented with the varied blossoms and juices of heavenly graces, she breathes out to God her manifold sweetness from different races.  Her breath is the prayers of holy men, like spices burnt on libation-bowls which are fragrant with the spirit of truth[SIMPLY GORGEOUS!!] Permeated with the fragrances of such flowers of their dewy juices, she is acclaimed by the Bridegroom Himself with the flattering verses He uses also in the Song of Songs: My dove, My undefiled, for My head is full of dew (the head of Christ is God, and His hairs are His chosen saints, in whole the father takes joy in Christ) and My locks are full of the drops of the night.

Someone once wanted to know what "dew" meant.  Well, Paulinus explains it this way: 

The dew, as we know, is not a wetness of rain but is of the chill, by which the grass, parched from the heat of the day is refreshed.  Only during a calm night is the earth sprinkled by the bright drops of this dew.  So we are given to understand that those drops of the night, by which Wisdom rejoiced to moisten His head and locks are the saints’ representation (forma) which the Apostle (Paul) describes as shining amongst the stars which, on clear nights, shine as beautifully the dew falls.  And so what is the night thought to be, in a spiritual interpretation, except the Passion of the Lord, which also made bright the day?  I think Scripture deals with this: “Night shall be a light in my pleasures.” 

Keep in mind that the Song of Songs was taken by the Fathers to concern Christ and His Church, the Bridgroom and the Bride in the wedding chamber.  Now Paulinus shifts gears and givs us a new idea.

But you can interpret it that way or else also as the night of this world, because it was cleared of cloud by the conversion of the Gentiles, whose earlier (false) faith caused shuddering in the darkness;  it was cleared up from its clouds, and now in the light of the Church – as if a full reflection of a perfect moon and by holy men as pure stars in a cloudless sky – are the (good) works of the faithful, like the dews in that night, as we have called it, of the world.  By which every living man refreshes his soul from the thirst of bygone dryness, as the dews, as we said, distilling in the night of the world.  This dew gives life to the soul of each believer, and refreshment after the previous arid drought.

Okay… Paulinus says that dew only shows up on calm, clear cool nights.  So, now that the Church has created new conditions for grace with the conversion of the gentiles, there is more chance for dew.  The dew drops are like the saints.  Dew collected in the hair of the Bridegroom in the Song of Songs.  Saints are around the Head of the Church who is Christ.  Christ’s hair is like the celestial hair of the Milky Way and the saints are like the stars in the sky.  In the ancient world the stars shone with divine light through the spheres.  Keep in mind ancient astronomy.

Know we find how Paulinus sees Christ has rejoicing in dew!  "Darkness" here is not the blackness of sins, I think, so much as it is the necessary condition for dew to form

34. So Christ rejoices that His head is steeped in such dew; though He brings light to our dark nights, He is nonetheless glad that His hair is sprinkled with the drops of our darkness (tamen guttis noctis nostrae crines suos gaudet esse perfusos).  For the good works of the faithful, which aid our brothers or cherish the needy, refresh and renew Him.  This is why He finally rejected the comment of Judas, who, when the spirit of the devil had entered his soul, begrudged Christ’s feet the ointment of the woman; for Christ is anointed, lent resources, and fed by works of love and mercy.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Patristiblogging, SESSIUNCULA. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Catholic Lady says:

    When you have completed your Dew series, it would sure be nice if you put them all in one spot with a link to them. I find them fascinating.

  2. Perhaps you can collect the links together.

  3. W. H. Wan says:

    Here’s another reference to “dew” I stumbled upon yesterday. St. John Cassian, on attaining the virtue of chastity:
    “We should therefore try to achieve not only bodily control, but also contrition of heart with frequent prayers of repentance, so that with the dew of the Holy Spirit we may extinguish the furnace of our flesh, kindled daily by the king of Babylon with the bellows of desire” (from the Institutes, as excerpted by the Philokalia)

  4. Excellent. Of course not all of these references to the “dew” of the Holy Spirit have to do with the Eucharist, but they do show the rich imagery about the action of the Holy Spirit.

  5. Catholic Lady says:

    I have collected the texts without the picture in a word document to date …. if I can assist in any way with this, I’d be happy to since I have a little extra time on my hands presently.

  6. Collecting the links to the posts might also be useful.

Comments are closed.