“A genuinely good heart is a heart that is open and alight with understanding. It listens to the sorrows of the world. Our society is wrong to think that happiness depends on fulfilling one's own wants and desires. That is why our society is so miserable...” (Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Into the Heart of Life, Snow Lion: 2011, Chapter 9 ‘Practicing the good heart’)
Sunday, May 27, 2012
The Anonymous Spirit
Ask any ordinary Christian to name the two most important feasts of the Church year. The response will likely be: “Christmas and Easter”. I guess there’s a certain logic to that, but I think that a more appropriate response might be “Easter and Pentecost”.
We read in Acts 19:2: “[Paul] said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ They replied, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’” Up to maybe 35 or 40 years ago, that would’ve been most Christians’ typical response. Someone has referred to the Holy Spirit as “the forgotten God”. Even if we have heard of the Holy Spirit, chances are that many of us aren’t at all sure what that means or, rather, who that Person is. If you had to describe what image comes into your mind when you think of the “Holy Spirit”, it wouldn’t be unusual if you visualized a sort of blur.
There are at least a couple of reasons why our understanding of the Holy Spirit is so nebulous. For openers, the Christian Scriptures don’t say a great deal about the Holy Spirit. There are only some 19 references throughout the four Gospel accounts. Even what is said there isn’t always clear, leaving us with a somewhat vague image of the Holy Spirit. Secondly, it’s hard for us to distinguish what is characteristic of one Person of the Trinity from that of the other two Persons. Normally, it’s easier for us to relate to one God, rather than to the individual Persons of the Trinity. Theologically, that’s sound. St. Thomas Aquinas, great medieval theologian and doctor of the Church, says that the only difference between the three Persons-in-one-God is in the relations they have to one another. The Father begets the Son; the Son is the only-begotten of the Father; and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. That, of course, sounds very technical and confusing. What Aquinas means to say is that the Spirit’s mission is inseparably bound up with the mission of the Father and of the Son. Finally, the Holy Spirit is nebulous because of a sort of “anonymity” of the Spirit. The Spirit works in us, according to St. Paul, but it’s sure hard to tell just when or how the Spirit does this.
It’s a bit like when we eat food or take medicine. The energy burned up when we work comes from the food we take into our bodies. But in lifting a box or dashing up the stairs, we don’t say: “That’s good granola from breakfast causing this to happen.” If you have a headache or some other pain and take an Advil, usually the headache or pain goes away. But you don’t trace the medicine through your system in order to track each and every stage of its effects. It works “anonymously”. We know that only through its overall results.
So it is with the Holy Spirit. In the Creed we profess to set our hearts on “the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.” This Spirit of God and of Christ is Holy precisely because the Spirit gives us wholeness of being: the Spirit is creative and life-giving. Being in relationship with God the Holy Spirit gives me a new and conscious awareness that I’m alive in the Spirit. That’s a source of tremendous hope. Additionally, being in relationship with God the Holy Spirit gives me a new orientation to everyone and everything around me, a truly enabling and transforming experience.
Two questions from the Outline of the Faith, found in the Book of Common Prayer (p. 852) are quite relevant to all this: 1) “How is the Holy Spirit revealed in the New Covenant?” and 2) “How do we recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives?” The answers given to these questions, surely not the “last word” by any stretch of the imagination, may stimulate our thinking and prayer during the “long, green season” of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit’s whole mission is to “lead us into all truth” and to “enable us to grow in the likeness of Christ”. Over the course of our lives, through all the ups and downs, we gradually come to recognize and experience the Holy Spirit’s presence when we finally truly “confess Jesus as Lord” of our lives. The other side of that coin is that the only way we can come to such recognition and experiencing of the Spirit is by finding true peace, shalom, as it’s expressed in Hebrew. That involves learning how to become integrated, made whole, made ever increasingly one with, God, ourselves, the other people who come into our lives, and the creation around us. It’s what Jesus was hinting at when he said: “I repeat, you’ll be able to tell them by their fruit.”
Perhaps the most moving and beautiful testimony to the reality of the Holy Spirit for me is a poem written by St. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross/Edith Stein (1891-1942), Jewish philosopher and Carmelite nun, whose canonization as a saint in Rome in 1998 I was privileged to witness. The poem, “And I Remain With You: From a Pentecost Novena”, was apparently one of her last, if not the last, having been written at the Carmel in Echt, The Netherlands, in the summer of 1942 (she died in August at Auschwitz). I urge you to read the whole poem, from which I’ll share just two stanzas below.
Who are you, sweet light, that fills meAnd illumines the darkness of my heart?
You lead me like a mother’s hand,
And should you let go of me,
I would not know how to take another step.
You are the space
That embraces my being and buries it in yourself.
Away from you it sinks into the abyss
Of nothingness, from which you raised it to the light.
You, nearer to me than I to myself
And more interior than my most interior
And still impalpable and intangible
And beyond any name:
Holy Spirit--eternal love!....
Are you the sweet song of love
And of holy awe
That eternally resounds around the triune throne,
That weds in itself the clear chimes of each and every being?
That joins together the members to the Head,
In which each one
Finds the mysterious meaning of being blessed
And joyously surges forth,
Freely dissolved in your surging:
Holy Spirit--eternal jubilation!”
(The Collected Works of Edith Stein, The Hidden Life: Essays, Meditations, Spiritual Texts, Translated by Waltraut Stein, Ph.D., ICS Publications, 1992, pp. 141 & 145)