Come Holy Spirit : expressing the inexpressible

The feast of the Holy Spirit, the feast of Pentecost

Pentecost is nearly upon us, the feast or celebration of the Holy Spirit. Who is this third person of the Trinity, the one who proceeds from both the Father and the Son, the third side of the triangle?  This is the one usually represented in art by a dove (I have seen it referred to as the ‘holy pigeon’).

This Holy Spirit looks endearingly like a duck

The Paraclete, the Advocate, the Comforter. Lots of abstract titles, but this most shadowy member of the Godhead (itself a difficult subject to grasp) remains unclear. The more we try to put it into words, the more it escapes us, and for once Jesus isn’t much help; he is responsible for some of those abstract nouns which we adopt to hide the fact that we are groping in the dark here. But this is the Holy Spirit who teaches ‘little ones to think and understand’, the one whose fruits are wisdom and understanding, not fuzz and confusion. So it’s worth putting some work in.

The Holy Spirit is not male

One of the reasons I particularly appreciate the Holy Spirit is that it is the least male Person of God.  Although God has no gender, he is overwhelmingly referred to through male metaphors, including by Jesus, and although there are references to God as a mother in the Bible (e.g. Isaiah 66:13),  these tend to get lost or ignored compared with the weight of male metaphor (but thank God for Mother Julian of Norwich).   Jesus himself is incarnate as a human man (though one without the sexist assumptions of his contemporaries, which is pretty miraculous in itself, if you think about it), and he always talks of God as his Father.   The Bible occasionally uses female imagery for God (Isaiah, Hosea), but does not refer to him as ‘she’.  Some people use the feminine pronoun for the Holy Spirit, which I find tempting but a bit of a cop-out, as there is no evidence or tradition to justify it.  I’m using ‘it’ to refer to the Holy Spirit precisely because it is odd and specifically non-specific, and one of the most important aspects of the Holy Spirit is its mysteriousness.

Numinous accounts of experiencing the Holy Spirit

All the accounts of the Holy Spirit are vague and baffling, and even the authors of them are frustrated by their vagueness.  It is ‘like’ the rushing of a mighty wind.  It comes down ‘as’ or ‘as if’ tongues or flames of fire (which is impressively inept as a description; as opposed to flames of water?).

The holy Spirit as dove and flames
Baptising with the Holy Spirit and with fire, in a musical manuscript

It comes with a whoosh and  completely fills the place it comes to, just like the cloud of God in the Old Testament, and it is most evident in its effect, making people speak and understand languages they do not know, in a reversal of Babel.  (in a beautifully appropriate coincidence, Pentecost Day Mass is one of the incredibly few occasions when everyone with an Anglophone Lectionary sings exactly the same words at the Alleluia verse.)  What they cannot do is explain coherently what happened to them, because the Spirit has not been sent for that, but to enable the important message to be passed on.

Illumnated capital showing Pentecost and a dragon
An unusual Holy Spirit as dragon : flames of fire with a vengeance!

Even someone as brilliant, articulate and educated as Blaise Pascal, after an experience which sounds very much like the Holy Spirit, is reduced to an impressionistic babble of emotion and conviction, though the Pensees as a whole are almost forensic in style.  Pascal is a mathematician, a philosopher, a physicist.  This is like Stephen Hawking being reduced to incoherence and trails of dots on the page.

Experiencing the Spirit through wonder

This means that writing about the Holy Spirit does not get us very far.  It is precisely the mysterious and ineffable aspect of God which we would be tackling.  What seems to work better is to develop and express our sense of wonder.

Beautiful dawn
This is ‘ just’  the sky from my garden, and I could have taken lots of different photographs equally beautiful

Children tend to be much better at this than adults, because they accept the new amazing things that happen to them as new and amazing, without the cynicism which adults employ to prevent them looking silly when they come across something new.  But we miss so much when we think like that.  Creation can be the source of so much wonder, if we let ourselves feel it.  Never mind the Northern Lights, dawn and sunset are totally amazing, and they happen every day.  No-one before you has ever seen that new shoot in the herb bed that has come up overnight. Every new flower or fruit or leaf is as exciting as a baby, only we don’t appreciate it because there are so many of them.   Tides, mountains, storms, creatures: all these are evidence of God’s Spirit moving, because the Spirit brings light, warmth, noise; it brings life.  The Catechism calles the Spirit ‘God’s artisan’ (CCC#741  and #1091) and ‘the master of prayer’, as well as helpfully defining it as inexpressible. (That always makes me smile, because ‘inexpressibles’ was a Regency euphemism for trousers, but as I said, the Holy Spirit is in fact the least male Person of God.)

Abstract Pentecost centred on dove
Bird’s eye view
Expressing the Spirit in words (and music)

When I was thinking about the Holy Spirit, I realised that a lot of my ideas come through the Holy Spirit hymns, and when I looked for illustrations for this piece, I was delighted to notice how many Pentecost illustrations are on musical manuscripts.

Even if we restrict ourselves to English translations of the Golden Sequence, the Veni Sancte Spiritus, this is a rich collection of images and ideas, and these hymns make good prayers.   Throwing up lots of images and letting them float in the air together is one way to approach the unsayable  – this is what George Herbert does in his sonnet which attempts to define prayer, and it works better than anything else I know.  If we put poems together with music, we are finding ways to tap into other ways of perception, and this also helps.

The Psalm for the Vigil and the Day Mass: same psalm but different

So we have Psalm 103/104, in different versions for the Vigil and for the Day Mass.  The Response is the same both times, but the verses are different, enough so that I have set the psalms as though they were completely different.  The emphasis for the Vigil is on God the Father, his greatness, the riches of his creation, and how well he looks after it.  It’s like one of those beautiful pictures of the Peaceable Kingdom, with all God’s creatures disposed around, coexisting happily and being taken care of as a well-ordered household.  God here is his own agent; he creates everything in the second strophe, feeds it in strophe 3, and the spirit only comes in the fourth strophe (once for US, coupled with ‘breath’, twice for everyone else; but no capital S).   I’ve tried to keep some of the feeling of mystery by starting the Response with some growly chords and letting it move on and up as it renews the face of the earth.

The Day Mass psalm

I wanted to develop this more in the day psalm.  The Response and the first two lines are the same as for the Vigil, but then instead of dwelling on God as Creator, we move on immediately to creation itself.  There is now a slight problem in the verses for the US, because the order 1,2,3 in Year A is changed to 1,3,2 in Years B and C.  I’ve had to alter the music so that the movement is still felt as forward throughout.  I’m not sure whether the order change is deliberate, as it goes against the running order in the psalm itself, but both my Missal and the published Lectionary do it like this, so I have followed them.  Everyone else stays with 1,2,3 for all three years, and the effect is strongly cumulative, as the second strophe (third for US) makes it clear that the Spirit is the source of life for all living things, not the food which God provides in the Vigil version.

God sending out multiple flames and doves

The Day psalm is shorter, only three strophes:  1 is about God making everything, 2 is about the spirit being the only source of life, so its absence means death, and 3 is a paean of praise, like a mini-Doxology.  That seemed to me to give a beautiful narrative arc, so I decided to make the music grow in the same way.

Making the music move

Most people can only sing comfortably in quite a narrow range, so when I wanted to move up the keys, I was very limited.  I wanted to start deep and quiet, and I knew this would be the simpler music, so I could put this into a key I wouldn’t normally dare to tackle (all those flats).  Each verse lifts into the next key up, and I still had to be able to play and sing it once it became more cheerful and more elaborate, so that’s why it starts where it does and ends where it does.  The music at the beginning is meant to give the sense of the Spirit brooding over the face of the waters like in Genesis, dark and inchoate, and if you miss any of the flats here, it doesn’t matter because here we have primeval chaos.  Accidental discords are a plus!

2nd strophe, and the Spirit goes out and starts working.  Harmonies start coming into the accompanying parts, and even the voice part begins to move more freely.  The recorder gives little twirls of dance : I’m trying to show things starting to grow, to sprout and to move.

3rd strophe and even more so : everything is beginning to dance and sing together and in patterns.  Trying to give the feeling of ‘free form’ in a Responsorial Psalm is very difficult without the whole thing coming off the rails and the congregation giving up, so I’m suggesting, rather than going for the full effect here, but you should be getting a feeling of expansion, light and freedom.  That’s what I’m aiming for, anyway.

Apostles and Mary at Pentecost
Don’t trust any Pentecost picture that omits Our Lady (and note the stave lines here)

The downside of this is that I can’t produce compacts, because I can’t stack the verses if they are in different keys.  So I’m sorry about that, and you will need someone to turn over for the instruments, but I hope you will feel that it’s worth it.  Think of it as a musical version of one of those little videos that people send instead of cards at Christmas or birthdays, where the picture is built up, bit by bit, or like a timelapse photograph of a plant coming into flower.  Only this is Creation, and it’s a whole rose garden.

Come, Holy Spirit, the most mysterious Person in the Trinity, and possibly the most exciting.  It is the one who starts things.  Who knows what they will go on to be?  Pentecost is the feast of unlimited potential.


© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



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The Gentle Guide to my Holy Week music

The hill of the skull, a mountain to climb?
Icon crucifixion
The central, not final, event

Holy Week is a daunting prospect for church musicians. There is so much to do, so many different services, several extra musicians if you’re lucky, because it’s the holidays, and a bad time of the year for coughs and colds.  It’s like Christmas but on a much bigger scale, and it’s not remotely cosy and cuddly, but elemental and dark. This is not an attempt to tell anyone how to do it; I just thought I would walk you through the options in my musical settings, and hope that someone finds it helpful.

I find it helpful to think of it as a walk, because you only have to take one step at a time.  Don’t worry about the Vigil while you’re doing Maundy Thursday; don’t worry about Isaiah while you’re responding to Genesis.  We’re all travelling together, and the Church has laid out the path clearly over the last two thousand years.  We just have to walk along it, one step at a time, and we’ll get there.

Maundy Thursday

We have already had Palm Sunday (hosanna), so the next liturgical event is the Chrism Mass on Maundy Thursday, which most parishes don’t need to worry about, as it is for the assembled clergy of a diocese and happens in cathedrals. Here you would have much more in the way of musical resources than most parishes have, so I imagine most people will go for big four-part settings.  But I have set the Chrism psalm (88/89) just in case anyone wants a simpler setting.  It is the same psalm as for the feast of St Joseph last week, which feels appropriate, but with a different response. Instead of ‘the son of David will live forever’ to emphasize Jesus’ parentage through Joseph (slightly odd, because Joseph is not part of the direct line, but never mind), we have ‘Forever I will sing the goodness of the Lord’, which is a wonderfully encouraging note to strike before we go down into the valley of the shadow.

The Sacred Triduum (the holy three days) only starts after the Chrism Mass, with the evening Mass on Maundy Thursday. We call this ‘the Mass of the Lord’s Supper’, but I was delighted to hear a non-native English speaker refer to it as ‘the Mass of the Holy Dinner’, because that is exactly what we mean, only we are so used to ‘the Last Supper’ as a phrase that we don’t think about its original meaning.

Last Supper, Cranach the Elder
Holy Dinner at a round table

This is a long, complicated and very beautiful service.  With the first reading we have the original Passover story, because this is the reason why Jesus is holding a formal dinner with his friends.  The psalm (115/116) neatly picks up this reference (responding to God’s goodness, celebrating formally with the cup of salvation), and carries us across to the story of the Messiah, connecting him to the sacrificed lamb of the Passover, ‘precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his faithful [..] I am your servant, the son of your handmaid’, and then moves brilliantly to the Eucharistic Sacrifice by using Paul’s line in 1 Corinthians 10 ‘our blessing cup is a communion with the blood of Christ’ as the Response.  Thus we have the whole circle, and I could draw a lovely diagram if I knew how to do it with this software.  It is elegant and economical, liturgically speaking, and a three-verse psalm has done the whole job.  It’s quite a long Response, and it’s not out of the psalm itself, and I know I fulminate against both those things occasionally, but here is an example where it works superbly well.

Then we have the Gospel, the footwashing, Communion and the transfer of the Blessed Sacrament.  There are ancient and modern hymns and anthems for these parts of the liturgy (Pange lingua, Wash me throughly, Ubi caritas etc) but no more psalms till the next day.

Good Friday

An unexpectedly serene and confident psalm (30/31) for Good Friday, when we have a Liturgy of the Word and Communion and other parts of a special service (the Adoration of the Cross, the Reproaches), but no Mass.  But this psalm does have a dreadful middle section, and the two moods within the psalm are so different that I had to write it as two tunes, as I was saying in my last post.  The US and CAN versions have four verses, with v2 as the terrible part; UK and OZ divide that verse into two, so there are five verses overall.  This means that I can start on a positive note, dip into the middle verse(s), and come out again for the last part, so the two tunes seem to work with the congregation, especially as the Response stays the same.

Trying to get this psalm onto fewer pages is really difficult, and I couldn’t improve on 4 pp for CAN.  But you do only need 2 pp at once; once you’ve finished p2, ditch those sheets and use the second pair, as I have put the Response on again at the end.  By careful squeezing I got everyone else’s version on to 3 pp.  Although it’s Good Friday, this is actually an easier psalm to sing than Palm Sunday (and you’re already the other side of that one):  the psalmist is so confident and serene that he even has time to think of others in the last verse, and encourage them to be brave (which is of course exactly what the Lord does in Luke’s Gospel, ch 23 : ‘This day you shall be with me in paradise’).

Saturday night, the Vigil

And on to the Easter Vigil.  Lots of music, lots of choices, some of the best words in the whole year.  Many parishes do shortened versions (understandably), but I’ve tried to pace and pitch the music so that it’s not too much to manage.  You will not be hoarse at the end even if you have to cant all the psalms, as I’ve used the instruments to bring in the colour of high notes where I wanted them.   I’ll just go through and make a couple of comments on each.

First Reading psalms : either 103/104 or 32/33

This is a real choice, as both psalms include beautiful nature poetry, as you would expect after the reading of the Creation.  I’d probably choose 32/33 myself, because I like the swing of it.  That one has twinkling stars, the other one has twittering birds, so you choose.  I do like the stars being made by God’s breath in the earlier psalm.  I was once waiting for a tram, under a streetlight in Prague, with the temperature at minus 25 degrees, and if you puffed out a breath all the moisture in it instantly froze and reflected the light as separate sparkles.  I created stars with my breath, and it was wonderful.  CAN and UK please note that the final flourish on the recorders is only printed in the extended version as I couldn’t fit it into the compact.

Second Reading psalm 15/16

This follows the reading on the nearly-sacrifice of Isaac, which is a difficult one to respond to (I know it’s about representation and archetypes, but I still respond to it as a parent rather than anything else).  The US words are a bit unwieldy, but all the other country versions are a lullaby, because of the confidence in the words.

Third Reading, Exodus

These are glorious words, but hopelessly irregular (the words were outsourced to prophets rather than psalmists).  I cannot find any way that works to telescope the pages, so you will need someone to turn over for the person on the piano/organ/keyboard, even with the piano copy.  This one was great fun to set and to sing.  It is exciting, and a wonderful story, so make sure the words are clear.

Pharoah's horses in the Red Sea
The horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea

Fourth Reading psalm 29/30

Another joyful psalm.  Emphasize the contrast words, because that is what drives the movement (night/day, mourning/dancing, anger/ favour, moment/life, tears/joy, life/grave).  The US version has two instruments, because we were lucky enough to have them available when I was writing it.

Fifth Reading, Isaiah

This is a fun psalm in all the versions even if they get their water of salvation differently.  UK and CAN have to pump from wells (so the music does), the US has springs (so the music bubbles up and runs over), and OZ confusingly has both, so I just concentrated on making it watery.  This time I managed to get the final flourish even into the compact format (not US).

Peaceful holy well
Holy well where you would need a bucket

Sixth Reading psalm 18/19

This nearly came badly off the rails, as I mixed up my everlasting with my eternal and thought OZ and CAN had the same words, but they are not the same, and luckily I spotted it in time.  We had this psalm in Lent, so there might be a folk memory of the tune in the congregation if you are lucky.

Seventh Reading psalm 41/42 +42/43 or 50/51

Another one where you get an alternative (unless you live in Australasia).  41/42 + 42/43 is a lovely psalm (as well as having the longest label in the book), but it’s also good to be offered the positive verses of Psalm 50/51.  The mood has darkened again slightly with these psalms, away from the ebullient joy of the psalms in the middle section, because we are now coming up to the big moment.  This is the last OT Reading, so we go back to thinking about how much we are longing for the Redeemer and how sad we are at our part in causing his death.  Yearning and patient waiting is the note here.

Easter Vigil Mass psalm 117/118

Now we have arrived at the psalm we are going to use repeatedly  for a couple of weeks, sometimes with a different Response, sometimes with different verses (this is a big psalm).  Here the Response is the ancient triple Alleluia, incantatory and soberly joyful (note the full stops, not commas or exclamation marks).  This is your first proper Alleluia since before Lent began, and you have to warm up into it.  This is why the Easter Vigil is so long.  Enormous joy has to be approached with care.  We kindled a tiny flame at the beginning of the Vigil: now it is a proper bonfire, a feu de joie,  a conflagration of celebration.

and Sunday morning, the day after the Sabbath

Easter Sunday Mass psalm 117/118

Same psalm, different Response : now we can do more than just stutter our Alleluia, we have a story to tell and we can frame it in words.  We can rejoice ourselves, and we can call others to come and rejoice with us.

So much emotion, so much music.  It’s not surprising we feel exhausted by the end, but it’s positive exhaustion which will keep on giving.  It has been a long walk up the hill, but the view from the top is sublime.  Well done all choirs, church musicians and especially music directors, who have to remember to congratulate and thank everyone else but might not get thanked themselves.  I am extremely grateful to you, especially of course if you have used any of my music!  Happy Easter, alleluia, alleluia.

He hath op’d the heavenly door/And man is blest for evermore

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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