The Forgotten Person

Some theologians have referred to the Holy Spirit as the Forgotten Person of the Trinity.

Christians are hardly likely to forget the Holy Spirit, since they make the sign of the cross thousands of times a year. But the question is: what do we know about *him*?

The Holy Spirit is not so much forgotten as hidden. By *his* very name, the Holy Spirit is the most esoteric, the most abstract, and consequently the most difficult to understand of the Trinitarian persons. For us, the other Two Persons are more approachable: Jesus, first of all, because He became one of us, sharing totally in our humanity. The Father is described intimately as our Abba (Daddy), the One to whom Jesus constantly refers. But the Spirit? Words will consistently fail us when speaking of the Holy Spirit.

In the Gospel, the Holy Spirit slowly but powerfully emerges, but only in symbols or metaphors because He is not material and therefore not visible. The New Testament’s first referral to the Spirit is when Mary is found “with child through the holy spirit” (Matthew 1:18), or in Luke when Gabriel tells Mary how she can become a mother, the mother of the Messiah.

The Spirit as a dove hovers over Jesus at his baptism, a symbol of his calling to bring the good news of salvation to all.

When Nicodemus comes secretly at night to question the new Rabbi, Jesus attempts to describe how a person can be “born again” in the spiritual sense. He refers to the Spirit as “wind”, an unseen but powerful force, only perceivable by its effects.

The Samaritan woman at the well is bold enough to question Jesus as to where God must be worshiped. We too think certain conditions must be met before we worship: there’s a right place to worship, a right person to preach to us, a right congregation to worship with, a right style of liturgy to be observed. If we can find all of these in one place, that’s where we’ll worship. Jesus simply corrects both us and the Samaritan woman with a few words:

God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.”
(John 4:24)

Unfortunately, that leaves us with no more excuses!

Perhaps the most troubling references to the Spirit are made after the Last Supper. Seeking to comfort his disciples, Jesus tells them:

“. . . grief has filled your hearts. But I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:6b-7)

How could Jesus’ absence be better? How could the invisible Spirit comfort the disciples who were losing the visible Christ?

Recall the first stirrings of creation:

The earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters. (Genesis 1:2)

In the beginning of our spiritual life (and for much of it throughout), we too are formless and void. In order to become spiritual beings we need to be emptied of all that prevents God from shaping us into his image. The emptying process can be almost unbearable. We don’t even know how to pray! But St. Paul encourages us with words from his letter to the Romans:

The Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes [for us] with inexpressible groanings.

We are constantly being emptied, separated from things or persons we love and consider absolutely necessary to our existence: parents, spouses, children, siblings, dearest friends, homes, our life work, and finally from our health and life itself. Such separations leave us destitute, desolate, abandoned. At moments like this we might question God’s love for us.

This reaction is so totally human, and therefore Christ totally understands. He knows that we are incomplete until, ironically, we are emptied – even of his own physical presence. Space must be created in us, making room for the Spirit of God who will accomplish the final act of our divinisation. The coming of the Holy Spirit in our lives is Christ’s crowning achievement for us, since it enables us to transform even an evil world into a place of love and truth.

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you. (John 14: 16-18)

I love the words of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in “God’s Grandeur.” He traces the beauty of the world as God created it, followed by its near destruction by man’s greed and materialism, but ending in sure hope through the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, the One who renews the face of the earth.

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast
and with ah! bright wings.

Trinity 1

Who Will Pray for Them?

Almost exactly a year ago, I posted my thoughts during convalescence from a potentially life-threatening illness. [I can say this now that I’ve been cured!]

I had visited a reading from Exodus and wrote the following:

Amalek has come to wage war against Israel. Moses tells his general, Joshua, to engage in battle while he, Moses, climbs the mountain overlooking the battle. Moses keeps his hands raised to heaven in prayer and while he does so, the Israelites prevail. But Moses, after all, is merely human. His arms tire and fall to his side, leaving the Israelites to flounder in battle.

Moses’ brother Aaron and his friend Hur come to the rescue. They position themselves on either side of Moses, supporting his raised arms so that they can remain steady until sunset and the successful end of the battle. . .

God has given me the equivalent of Aaron and Hur. Family on the one side, friends on the other; these keep my arms lifted up to the source of strength.moses-and-help

Last year, it was I who needed support from family and friends. During this past year, however, it has been my closest friends who have needed me, whether from illness or other challenging situations in their lives. The little I’ve been capable of doing has been not just an opportunity to return a favor (how shallow that sounds!), but a Grace to illustrate to others, to a truly minor degree, the kindness of Christ, the practicality of his teachings, the fact of God’s unfailing providence.

This year, I’ve been blessed to be one of those arms, even weakly as I’m able, holding them up.

This last month has been fraught with hardships around the world, some of them natural disasters, but others — such as the Las Vegas massacre — man-made. We have all been urged to pray for the victims of these tragedies and we very readily comply.

But I can’t help but think of the thousands or even millions of people who are considered (and surely are) our enemies. And so I anxiously wonder: if we crave peace and love, who will pray for them?

Our Father: A paraphrase

Our Father,
Our heaven is in You!

Your name is Love, Your name is Mercy.
Your name is sacred beyond understanding.

You welcome us into Your kingdom even in this life,
if only in part, not needing to wait for death.
You open it to us who Love You, who Love Your will.
It is when we Love that we see ourselves imaged in You.

Oh merciful and generous Father,
Give us now and each day whatever we need
to grow into Your image, the image of Christ.

Teach us to promptly forgive those who we think have injured us,
Just as we hope from You your generous pardon.

Protect us from the lure of evil.
Keep us from all attachments that hide Your Face from us.

For You are Love, Truth, and Life for all creatures in all ages.  Amen

 

Ramblings . . .

About a year ago I decided to start this blog. According to a message from WordPress, SpiritMuse now has 50 published posts. There are several more in draft form which I suppose I may use some day. At the beginning of this spiritual exercise, so many ideas were swirling around in my head that it seemed the natural and necessary thing to write them down and try to figure out what they all meant to my spiritual growth.

I confess that lately it’s been quite difficult. Ideas aren’t exactly rushing in to help me out. In describing prayer, Teresa of Avila uses the analogy of watering a garden. Sometimes we struggle with a bucket to draw up water from what seems to be a very dry well. Which is how I’ve been feeling lately — and am sure to feel again! I readily recognize that anything I write that might be worthwhile to anyone is due solely to  the Holy Spirit who is this blog’s Muse. If it doesn’t come from there, I’m just babbling.

Which is why, last week, I let the Scripture speak for itself on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi. Searching for a way to express the mysterious connection of Word with Bread was like fishing: I’d feel a nibble on the line and impatiently, prematurely, set the hook. Of course the thought simply wriggled free and was gone. For all I know it’s still there in the murky pond of my mind, waiting for me to clear up the debris, the busy stuff. Maybe by next year’s Solemnity I’ll be able to express something minimally worthwhile about this holy sacrament.

That’s the thing about the spiritual life: it’s all around us, but grabbing at it hardly ever accomplishes anything. On the contrary, there’s a need for  an attitude of passivity, of receptivity. For at the same time that God, the Spirit, is around us, we are IN Him.

A spiritual director once suggested that I not try so hard. That was so utterly counter-intuitive! How does one not try to achieve, to attain? Our fierce attempts are the only way to let God know that we’re really dedicated, and that we’re really serious about this adventure he’s called us to! As if God doesn’t know what to feed us, and when! We instinctively think that if we’re hungry, we’re the ones to put food into our mouth.

Not in the spiritual domain. There, we’re the nestlings with open beaks, crying for nourishment and utterly incapable of giving ourselves what we need. 

So here I am, rambling again. Some of these ramblings came to me this morning as I was cleaning off my porch, wondering if I’d be given any ideas for a post. I was wondering if I could say anything worthwhile — maybe on the topic of prayer. I was in a doing mode or, should I say, a do-it-yourself mode, in that delusional state of mind where I think I might have real answers of any value.

I started by thinking of how we need to reserve a time for quiet prayer, meditation, contemplation – whatever we choose to call our intimate connection with the Lord. Quiet solitude is essential to spiritual growth. “Maybe that’s what I should be doing instead of this unspiritual task, sweeping a porch,” say I. “There’s never enough time! ” Sorry; that excuse won’t wash.

I attempt to put order -maybe even routine- into my life. Let’s look at our day, the 24 hours each of us is given. Subtract time for sleeping and eating, including prep time, and we’re left with about a dozen hours. Continuing the math, deduct time at work where we need to earn a living (or keep doctor appointments), plus time to interact with family and friends. By the time we get to that “special” time of being alone with the Lord (if indeed we get there at all), our mind is often so cluttered with distractions that it’s nearly impossible to clear it. Like the stuff on my porch.

Brother Lawrence, a 17th Century Carmelite monk, knew how to handle this issue. It’s similar to the adage: if you can’t beat them, join them.

As Lawrence went about his assigned and unloved kitchen chores, he simply took the Lord with him. He saw himself always in the presence of God: he in God and God in him, praying his way through whatever “unspiritual” tasks he did throughout the day. All of it became  one seamless prayer. 

Thérèse of Lisieux did something similar in her handling of distractions. Even in a cloister there are troubling events revolving around people, situations and chores, that will simply stick to us like burs on a hiker. Typically, all this stuff comes to mind just when we most need to be quiet. Thérèse’s solution was totally practical. She simply met these distractions head on and made them the substance of her prayer. Oh, how unsophisticated!

Her patron saint, Teresa of Avila, had much deeper suggestions and explanations about prayer – which is why she was named a Doctor of the Church. “Little” Thérèse was also named a Doctor of the Church, but had a spiritual method (if you’re the type who needs a method) that was much less impressive and didn’t include levitating (such an embarrassment for Teresa!).

Ho-hum. Isn’t there a line in the Gospel that says something about becoming like little children? Isn’t there another line or two about seeking the first place at the table, being the important  one to sit at the right hand of the Lord, etc., etc.? The rest of us, lowly as we are, like Lawrence and Thérèse, just pick up the crumbs that fall from the tables of the spiritually elite.

And all of this while I was sweeping the porch. Welcome to my world!
Sweeping floor 1

When Words Fail

Would that the Lord would give me (along with Isaiah) a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to answer the weary a word that will waken them! 

First, I would like to be awakened myself. Lent is over and has left me weary. Even Easter has not fully roused me. And as with other events in my life, I try to figure out why.

Maybe that’s the problem right there: trying to figure out what’s going on in my head and spirit. When I once complained about this to a wise friend, she answered with a question: “Can you simply rest in the mystery?” She may as well have been speaking Greek to me. Mysteries, to me, are puzzles meant to be solved. So, like Jacob, I spend my soul’s night wrestling with enigma, wearying myself with unending questions.

  • Since Christ has come, why is the world still in such bad shape?
  • Why do the innocent suffer?
  • Why am I so often empty and dry?
  • What does it mean to “rest in the mystery”?
  • And why on earth am I sending this useless message into cyberspace?

OK, time to close the text book, Rosalie. The answers aren’t there. This is one of the many exams I can’t and won’t ace.

No, the very nature of mystery is that one can’t solve it with whys and hows.

Because of the restlessness produced by not having answers, I was reminded of Augustine (our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee) and then, in turn, to comments about Augustine by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury. Williams refers to Augustine’s being “deeply, even disturbingly, affected by music” so that where words fail, music steps in to supply the soul’s need for expression. The music of the heart surpasses the music of instruments.

Commenting on the Psalms, Augustine writes of “jubilant” singing:

This kind of singing is a sound which means that the heart is giving birth to something it cannot speak of . . . the ineffable God – ineffable because you cannot talk about him. And if you cannot talk about him, and it is improper just to keep silence, why, what is there left for you to do but “jubilate” – with your heart rejoicing without words, and the immense breadth of your joy not rationed out in syllables?

It seems that such “jubilance” comes from the heart having discovered the beauty and love of God, unable to express it in any way resembling words.

But of course, though this teacher (moi) is no longer in the classroom, the classroom has not left her. What’s the lesson here? What does this all mean to me? I timidly raise my hand:

Could it be what Augustine discovered? That our hearts – my heart – is restless until it seeks its rest in a simple, quiet and even brainless leap into the heart of Christ?

Rowan Williams* and Augustine say it better:

The violent love of God breaks through deafness and blindness; the violent desire of human souls for God breaks through dumbness. The heart has no words, but it cannot contain itself in silence.

 *The Wound of Knowledge, Rowan Williams. Cowley Publications, Cambridge, Mass. Pp. 98-99

And Augustine, in Expositions of the Psalms, writes that the only way to calm our restlessness is to love and desire always:

There is a kind of prayer that never ceases, an interior prayer that is desire… Your continuous desire is your continuous voice. You will only fall silent if you stop loving. Love grown cold is the heart’s silence; love on fire is the heart’s clamor. If your love abides all the time, you are crying out all the time; if you are crying out all the time, you are desiring all the time; and if you are desiring, you are returning to rest.