“Without the Holy Spirit,” wrote Ignatius of Laodicea, “God is distant, Christ is merely an historical figure, the Gospel is a dead letter, the Church is just an organisation, authority is domination, mission is propaganda, liturgy is only nostalgia, and the work of Christians is slave labour. But with the Holy Spirit, Christ is risen and present, the Gospel is a living force, the Church is a communion in the life of the Trinity, authority is a service that sets people free, mission is Pentecost, the liturgy is memory and anticipation, and the labour of Christians is divinised.”
The Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church. The feast of Pentecost is an annual invitation to the Church to look into itself and discover its soul. It is tempted, like all of us, to keep looking the other way. In a famous phrase, it is tempted "to lose its soul to save its face."
In one sense it’s more natural to forget about one’s inner life and to get on with living. If you are always worrying about your heart or your liver, etc., you will not take risks or do a lot of work. A healthy person just goes to it. The Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church, and there is a sense in which that Spirit likes to work unseen, undeclared.. Adapting Jesus's words (Matthew 7:21), “It is not those who say ‘Holy Spirit!’ who will enter the kingdom of heaven. It is those who live by the Spirit." During the 2nd Vatican Council an Eastern bishop complained that there was little mention of the Holy Spirit in the documents. The next document was full of it! But something tells us that talking about the Spirit is not the same thing as living by the Spirit.
However, we do have to pay attention to that inner place, to see by what spirit we are being driven. If you never paid any attention to your health you would be asking for trouble. Today’s feast is a reminder.
But obviously there is much more to it than this. Traditional images of the Holy Spirit are: Fire, Wind, Water, Cloud, Dove…. Why such strange images? All of them (except ‘dove’) have indeterminate boundaries or no boundaries at all. They are reminders that we should not dare to restrict the activity of the Spirit to a few things we can understand.
O Dove, O Flame, O Water, Wind and Cloud…!
O love that lifts us wholly into God!
The Holy Spirit lives in us but is not confined in us. The Holy Spirit is God and could not be diminished; rather it “lifts us wholly into God,” as the poet said. Any soul is for expansion, not constriction. Things that have no soul - sticks and stones - are restricted entirely to themselves; plants have a certain ability to reach beyond themselves, for food and for propagating their species; animals still more. But human beings are able to reach vastly beyond themselves and touch the depths of everything. This capacity is enlarged infinitely by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, so that we can touch even the depths of God. “The Spirit searches all things,” St Paul wrote, “even the deep things of God. For who knows the thoughts of a person except the person’s own inner spirit? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us” (1 Cor 2:10). O love that lifts us wholly into God!
The Holy Spirit is not the property of noisy people. In a daring image Jessica Powers wrote that silence is a sort of decoy of the Holy Spirit! Just as hunters attract the flying birds out of the sky by placing a plastic or wooden imitation of them on the ground, we call down God's Spirit by our silence.
The decoy of silence,
hope’s unuttered sigh,
that the Ultimate Silence
drift down from the sky.
Donagh O'Shea OP