Pastor’s Weekly Musing

April 10, 2024

Dulcis, that is, sweetness

When my kids were younger, they would ask for “a sweet,” meaning a cookie or piece of candy.  Their vocabulary has changed, as has their ability to fetch their own desserts from the pantry, yet the memory sparked my curiosity about the etymology or history of the word.

Old English swete referred to a pleasant disposition in a person. Latin suavis also backs this nuance, meaning a sense of kindness or graciousness rather than a taste. Only in the fourteenth century did the adjective sweet refer to food or drink.

I did a little more research. It turns out that dulcis, often translated as “sweetness,” has a history of describing a religious experience—the sudden feeling of deep and sacred connection to the grandeur and beauty of the world. Dulcis could mean a mystical sense of harmony and resonance with a divine presence.

This led me to reflect on the solar eclipse last Monday. I realize it was only partial in Chapel Hill, perhaps 75% of totality. Annie Dillard likened the experience of a partial to a total eclipse to riding in an airplane versus falling out of one.

Still, watching the sun wane into a crescent, I felt rooted and grounded in the moment by an awe as far beyond my knowing as the stars above. Helen Macdonald wrote there were no words to describe the experience of an eclipse; it made her feel both “tiny and huge all at once, as lonely and singular as I’ve ever felt, and as merged and part of a crowd as it is possible to be.” In the presence of my fellow parents in the school parking lot, before our kids emptied out of the school and we all rushed on with our day, I felt a bond of fellowship that was indeed sweet.

A medieval mystic, Bernard of Clairvaux, wrote a hymn of praise, “Dulcis Iesu,” that described God’s love as a refreshing power of the soul or spirit. In our time, “Sweet Jesus” is an imprecation, often uttered out of frustration. But I have a taste for the older, religious nuance,  and I described the feeling of last Monday “sweetness” to my kindergartener, who looked thoughtful before replying, “After the eclipse, we did eat cookies.”