Ipse Harmonia Est

Author: Francesco Aleo

Ipse Harmonia Est

Francesco Aleo

In search of Saint Basil's quotation on the Holy Spirit

In reference to the Holy Spirit, Pope Francis has often quoted the Latin expression ipse harmonia est, attributing it to Basil of Caesarea, and more precisely to the work that the great Church Father dedicated to the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, De Spiritu Sancto. The quotation is dear to the Pope and it has reappeared in several discourses and homilies: in his 15 March 2013 address to the Cardinals just two days after his election, then in his homily for Pentecost on 19 March 2013, in a homily in Istanbul on 29 November 2014, and in his address to the Roman Curia on 22 December 2014 — to say nothing of the occasions prior to his election in the Conclave, such as the discourses dating back to his episcopate in Buenos Aires or in the interview published in the November 2007 issue of the periodical “30 Days”. This citation has not been identified thus far, but now it is possible to state, with all due respect to malevolent critics, that the text of Basil the Great does exist.

The text cited by the Pontiff is in fact found in the Cappadocian Father’s De Spiritu Sancto, in Chapter 16 to be precise, towards the end of paragraph 38. It is found there in the Italian translation by Giovanna Azzali Bernardelli, while in the original Greek it is transliterated according to the text Sources Chretiennes curated by Benoît Pruche: “Do ‘all His angels’ and ‘all His hosts’ praise God? It is through the co-operation of the Spirit. Do ‘thousand thousand’ of angels stand before Him, and ‘ten thousand times ten thousand’ ministering spirits? They are blamelessly doing their proper work by the power of the Spirit. All the glorious and unspeakable harmony of the highest heavens [pàsan oun ten hyperourànion ekèinen kài àrreton hannonìan] both in the service of God and in the mutual concord of the celestial powers, can therefore only be preserved by the direction of the Spirit”.

The Latin aphorism ipse harmonia est cannot and does not seek to be, as such, a literal translation of the passage in question. An aphorism is in fact, according to the recently updated classical Italian language dictionary compiled by Giacomo Devoto and Gian Carlo Oli, provides a “briefly and effectively worded definition which encompasses and summarizes the result of considerations, observations and experiences”. And ipse harmonia est is indeed an aphorism in Latin which concentrates in a brief phrase the longer quotation of the original Greek, placed at the conclusion of an important paragraph of Basil of Caesarea’s De Spiritu Sancto.

This text is the only passage of the Basilian work in which the Greek term harmonìa is found. The fact, then, that in the first treatise by a Christian author on the Holy Spirit the word harmonìais an hapax, meaning it appears only once, and that in the entire body of writings attributed to the Bishop of Caesarea it appears only one other time attests to the importance and special relevance that this term assumes in the oikonomìa of the redemption, of which the author makes mention immediately afterwards, in paragraph 39.

Paragraph 38 of De Spiritu Sancto is densely packed with theologically important affirmations. The interpretation might be problematic and subject to debate if — as Jean Gribomont held in 376, the year in which Basil completed the treatise — it were still suspected to be heresy. Indeed, it was suspected by some intransigent Nicene monks belonging to ultraconservative circles, due to the close and longstanding friendship between Basil and Eustathius of Sebaste, his teacher of ascetic life, who, by then, had clearly joined the ranks of the Pneumatomachi, that is, literally, opponents of the Holy Spirit.

According to the Cappadocian Father, the communion between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is made manifest not only in things created and visible, but also in things increate and invisible. These things can be known only by analogy and it is the Spirit who permits this knowledge. It is the Trinitarian communion that reveals the divine Persons as causes: the primary cause is the Father, the operating cause is the Son, and the perfecting cause is the Spirit.

Quoting then a verse from Psalms, according to which “by the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth” (33[32]:6, read from the Trinitarian perspective by all fourth-century Greek Fathers), Basil could state that what creates is the Word, which is not a “significant modulation of air” but is that Word which “in the beginning was with God and is God”. However, analogy with the flatus vocis induced the Cappadocian Father to call the Spirit “the breath from the mouth of God” and, with the Gospel of John, “the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father” (cf. 15:26).

Basil passes from the causes to the divine Persons: the Lord ordains, the Word creates, the breath confirms. But all is made accessible through holiness which performs healing and transformation: as the cautery is not the flame and the flame is not the cautery, yet one without the other cannot induce healing, so are the heavenly powers unable to apply their salvific power without the holiness that only the Holy Spirit, in the Trinitarian communion, can enable them to manifest and communicate.

All the supernatural powers need the Spirit, so that holiness, a gift of the Spirit himself, may keep them distinct from those of evil, sin and vice. The Holy Spirit, in heaven and on earth, conforms everything according to the measure of holiness, God’s participating and participated presence in the visible and invisible universe, holiness that without the Spirit cannot be recognized, praised, confirmed and completed in those who receive his life-giving breath.

Therefore, it is important to consider the entire paragraph in order to understand the meaning of the Latin aphorism ipse hannonia est repeatedly cited and applied by Bergoglio to the Holy Spirit. Indeed this expression summarizes and sheds new light on Basil’s weighty affirmations, which the Pontiff, with his Magisterium, now renders timely for the whole Church.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
18 May 2018, page 6

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