By James Dennis, O.P.
Growing up as an Irish Catholic, I was aware that the Trinitarian formula was woven into every fiber of my being. Crossing myself and repeating “the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” are perhaps my earliest memories of church.
Even so, for a very long time, I felt estranged from – even a little distrustful of – the Holy Spirit. As a boy back in Odessa, I encountered plenty of Pentecostals and members of the Assembly of God and others in the charismatic movement; and I knew those stories about people writhing around on the floor, speaking in tongues, and even handling snakes. I’m not kiddin’ – snakes. And people acting crazy. At best, I figured the Spirit was intangible; at worst, the Holy Spirit made people act downright loco. Right around that time, I decided that if that’s what the Holy Spirit was all about, I’d just stick with the Father and the Son. It took a while for me and the Spirit to make our peace.
In part, coming to terms with the Spirit meant coming to terms with the gospel. There was no ignoring the events after Christ’s resurrection, as told in the Gospel of John (20: 21-23) when he returned to the disciples and showed them the marks of his entry into human history, adding, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, John says, “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” Something about the Spirit, I realized, breathes life into our faith, new life which is capable of forgiving the pain and injury of the past.
I came to understand something else about the Spirit. Earlier in John’s gospel, Jesus told the disciples that he would be leaving them. But he offered them a bit of comfort. He said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you” (John 14: 15-17).
Now, I had read each of these passages before, many times. But I suppose they never meant much to me until I felt the real need for forgiveness, until I knew I needed an advocate, and until I felt a powerful thirst for the Spirit of truth. Among all the aspects of the Trinity, the Spirit embodies God in motion: moving, breathing, flowing. The Spirit brings me to the Father, teaches me of the Son, and reaches into me to draw me into the life that they share.
In his proclamation of the work of the Spirit, St. Basil’s language gives us a feeling of continuing movement: the Spirit restores, the Spirit leads, the Spirit adopts, the Spirit gives, and the Spirit calls. When we feel led or called, we observe and feel the work of the Spirit (although we do not physically see the Spirit). We know the Spirit’s movement when we see creation restored or broken relationships set aright.
We invoke the Holy Spirit at every baptism and every Eucharist. Just as God revealed himself to us in the life of Christ through the work of the Spirit at the Annunciation, every Sunday God enters again into our lives in the Eucharist through the power of the Holy Spirit. Because of the Spirit, knowledge of the Father and the Son is available to each of us – not second or third hand, but directly, and personally.
In this sense, one I’m much more comfortable with, we are all called to be Spirit-bearers, all called to be charismatic. And one of the most powerful gifts of the Spirit that Scripture reveals is the story of Pentecost. But it is more than the coming of the Spirit upon individuals; the gift of the Spirit is also the gift of unity. Scripture reports that the disciples were “with one accord in one place” (Acts 2:1). The followers of Jesus were of “one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32).
The Holy Spirit then is also a Spirit of unity. It helps us to break through the divisions that tear at us, that work to separate the children of God. We are right to refer to the Spirit as the comforter because we experience the Holy Spirit most often as an overwhelming feeling of love. The Spirit works through our diversity to unite us, to bind us together and to bind us to the Father and the Son.
It’s been a long time since I lived in Odessa, and I no longer have nightmares about snake-handling. I’ve come to terms with the Holy Spirit and discovered that Spirit to be both love and the source of love. And one day, not all that long ago, I decided I needed more of that in my life.
James R. Dennis is a brother in the Order of Preachers (Dominican Order) and a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio TX. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2013 edition of Reflections magazine. To read the entire issue, click here.
James says that for him “coming to terms with the Spirit meant coming to terms with the Gospel.”
What does he mean by that?
How do we “come to terms” with the Gospel?