Knowing the Holy Spirit
Pentecost Sunday. Acts 2:1-11; Ps 103; 1 Cor 12:3-7.12-13; Jn 20:19-23
Today we celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the birth of the Church. The visible results of that extraordinary event have been plain in the history of the world. From this moment the outward mission of the Church began, with the incredible result that within three centuries the Roman Empire, the mightiest empire the world had ever seen, was converted to Jesus Christ as God Incarnate and Savior of the world. The power of Pentecost cannot be doubted.
Yet the original event itself remains highly mysterious. What does the descent of the Holy Spirit mean? What is it to 'know' the Holy Spirit? At least part of the problem we have in understanding this is due to the modern conception of knowledge. In our culture we have developed the habit of thinking of knowledge as knowledge 'of' or 'about' a thing. So, for example, knowledge of a country is often measured in terms of knowledge of the vital statistics of the country, such as its GDP, languages or industries - all of which is very different from the experience of actually knowing the country. Similarly, knowledge of a person is often reduced to knowledge about a person, such as their curriculum vitae or history or a visual description, all of which is very different from knowing the person. Precisely because of this habit of thinking of knowledge as 'knowing about' a thing, we face a peculiar problem in 'knowing' the Holy Spirit. This is because of all the persons of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is unusually opaque to simply being known 'about'. Those natural symbols that Scripture gives us of the Holy Spirit, such as flowing water, flame or 'tongues of fire', are not easy to describe in terms of 'knowledge about'. How would one explain the indeterminate shape and experience of a flickering flame to someone who had not experienced such a thing? Furthermore, the very name of 'Holy Spirit' is mysterious and concealing. This name does not, unlike the Father and the Son, enable us to distinguish this Person from the others. After all, the Father is a Spirit and Holy, and the Son in His divine nature is a Spirit and Holy. Indeed, God Himself is a 'Holy Spirit'. How then can we know the 'Holy Spirit', the third person of the Trinity?
We can try to approach the problem indirectly by considering the effects of the Holy Spirit. The most important visible effect of the coming of the Holy Spirit is the Church itself, the only institution in the world to have survived from the Roman Empire and which today encompasses nearly a billion people of every nation, race, tribe and language. While remarkable even in human terms, the real mystery is the rather tenuous visible nature of its organization, which does not seem sufficient to support its continued existence. Seeing the Catholic Church is rather like viewing a wonderful and elaborate cathedral but with the roof and walls suspended off the ground with no visible means of support. This point was brought home to me indirectly at a lunch I had several years ago with a British diplomat. This man, who had a great deal of experience of international diplomacy, admitted to being deeply puzzled by the Church. At a fundamental level, how does the Church work? What makes things happen? Who directs its overall policy? I had to explain to him that, to the best of my belief, most of the important events that shape the Church are outside any human control and there is no 'master plan' for how things happen. Individual Catholics, to a greater or lesser extent, try to follow God's will and some are called to exercise a degree of authority. However, the ultimate direction of the Church is not a matter of human governance but comes from the Holy Spirit.
Nevertheless we may still be dissatisfied with knowing the Holy Spirit through even His most remarkable effects, such as the Church. How do we come to know the Holy Spirit in Himself? The question is not easy to answer but we may hope to make some progress by considering the condition of the disciples at Pentecost. First, it is very striking that the descent of the Holy Spirit comes at a comparatively late stage in their spiritual development. After all, these people had already had a Jewish upbringing, which would have set high standards for knowledge and practice, and which probably included committing significant parts of the Old Testament, such as the Psalms, to memory. Some of them had been disciples of John the Baptist, famous for his asceticism. Then they had met Jesus, followed Him and learnt from Him for three years. Then they had lived through the time of His Passion and death. Then they had experienced the Resurrection and Ascension - and still they had to wait for the descent of the Holy Spirit. While a person might not have to live through all these experiences to have some of the benefits of Pentecost, such as the Gifts of the Holy Spirit given in Confirmation, the experience of the Divine Person of the Holy Spirit happened late in the disciples' spiritual development and only after a great deal of preparation. It is also noticeable that the Holy Spirit only comes in this way to holy souls. While Jesus Christ ate and drank with sinners, including Judas who betrayed him, the Holy Spirit descended only to the eleven who remained and had been purified by Christ. To characterize what happens in human words is difficult, but to borrow a traditional title of Our Lady as 'Spouse of the Holy Spirit' (Pope Leo XIII, Divinum Illud Munus, 1897), I suggest that a kind of 'spiritual espousal' of the souls of the disciples took place at Pentecost. What happened cannot be described in ordinary human language but can only be experienced by those holy souls whom God has prepared.
What does this mean for us? How do we come to know the Holy Spirit? In a sense the lesson is very simple. With respect to our Pentecostal brethren, there is no evidence in Scripture that the Holy Spirit can be called down at our will, but only at God's will. Our task is simply to stay close to Jesus Christ by means of the sacraments, to learn about the Faith, to pray and to repent of sin so that our souls may be made ready as a Temple of the Holy Spirit. In essence, all we have to do is to follow the words and example of Our Blessed Mother, "Do whatever He tells you."
Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St. Patrick's Cathedral, Bridgetown, 27th May 2007
© Fr Andrew Pinsent. Academic Web Site.