After thirty-five years of functioning as a Benedictine brother and priest in the Catholic Church, it is evident that the faithful are often fairly aware that they do not understand well what is meant by “the Holy Spirit”? In general, the entire mystery of God—symbolized as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”—baffles our people, and that is good, for in speaking of God in any way, we are entering into the realm of divine mystery. That means that we are speaking about reality that lies beyond our physical and mental grasp, beyond our mortal understanding.
Even our human condition—and particularly what it means to be a human being—is far more difficult to understand than we often assume. For we dwell in shadows, between light and darkness, but often mistakenly believe that we are in the light. Far wiser is the saying inscribed above the portal at Delphi in ancient Greece: “Know thyself—that you are a human being, and not a god.” One cannot know what it is to be human without knowing the divine; and the divine is ever beyond our under-standing. Superficial minds and the intellectual elites of our day flatten out human existence so much that they think they know who or what we are. In effect, they seek to bring our common humanity down to their shrunken level. They even think that they know what “the self” is, or what you mean when you say, “I.” Do you really know what you mean when you say, “I”? Herakleitos said that he could not find the borders or limits of his soul, so great is its divine depth. On a practical level—for action in this world—yes, you have an initial grasp that allows you to act. But if you keep still, and seek to find who or what you are, and if you are open-minded (a very big “if” indeed in this day and age)—then you will discover that you do not know what you think you know. All of one’s knowing about oneself, the world, and what we call “God” is far more unknown than known, and largely beyond our understanding, and surely beyond our ability to grasp or to control. The way of wisdom begins as one wakes up and realizes, “I really do not know what I have been talking about—myself, you, or what is called “God.” Like Job, one realizes: “I did not know what I was talking about.” So begins the journey into wisdom.
If one is led to realize, “I do not truly know myself well, and I barely know who or what God is,” then one is being led by the Holy Spirit. That is called humility; and “humility is endless.” The Spirit shows us that we do not know as we ought to know, nor do we know why we have so much difficulty understanding “the things of God.” If one thinks, “I know who I am, and I know God,” then one is truly self-deceived, and is living in darkness unenlightened by the divine presence. If one claims, “I know that there is no God,” one deeply immersed in an impenetrable cesspool of self-deception, and remains imprisoned in that muck.
The way into the realm of the Holy Spirit begins with a penetrating insight into one’s own ignorance—and with an awareness that one has shared in this ignorance by pretending not to be in darkness. We deceive ourselves more than we like to admit. When one has been “in the Church” for many years, and still has a weak insight into the workings of the Holy Spirit, one would do well to admit, “I know far less than I have thought I knew.”
When I was a young man, speaking with a leading philosopher to understand the spiritual experiences of the Apostle Paul, we mentioned St. Paul’s frequent recourse to writing about “the Holy Spirit.” I asked the philosopher, “What is the Holy Spirit?” He looked me in the eyes and asked, “What do you think is moving you to ask your questions?” His question was a gift of the Spirit; and my questioning was a sharing in the Spirit. The Spirit provokes wonder and questioning.
How refreshing it is when we in the Church become aware that we do not grasp well the divine mystery to which we often give lip service.
Who or what is “the Holy Spirit?”
The “upper room discourse,” comprises chapters 13-17 of the “Gospel of John,” and has no real equivalent in any of the other Gospels. It is by far the most extended conversation between Jesus and his disciples found in any of our four canonical Gospels. By style and content, this dialogical discourse clearly appears to be a composition by the author whom we know as “John.” The man wrote the discourse out of his mystical experience of the presence of Christ to him, with him, in him. If one doubts the origin in a mystical union, read the passages slowly and prayerfully, and see if they do not speak to your own union with Christ; they cannot be understood by private, secular, inner-worldly “reason,” but are communicated by the Spirit to a man or woman attuned to “the Spirit of truth.” Apart from spiritual attunement (which is a living union with God), these words make little or no sense. A truly spiritual human being from any tradition who reads these words will feel at home in them. They are one of the mystical masterpieces in all of literature.
That the discourse is set on the verge of Christ’s death is highly significant: they are presented as his parting words, his final conversation with his inner circle of disciples—and hence with those of us who are his intimate friends, living on the edge of eternity. And these words have much meaning to a man or woman who is aware of existing between time and eternity, and striving to live in communion with Christ, with the divine reality that he makes present. If your heart and mind are set primarily on fulfillment in this present life—possessions, wealth, status, family—these words will sound like “double-talk,” or “nonsense,” as I have heard one clergyman characterize them. Again, what is engendered out of communion with God must be understood by someone living in that same spiritual tension—life stretching into eternity beyond death. Otherwise, they are only words to be believed or not, rather than an analysis of existence in Christ—that is, of a genuine spiritual life.
The discourse spoken and heard between time and eternity leaves no doubt that the genuine Christian life, lived in accordance with the spirit of truth, the holy Spirit, is not what is often peddled by the churches: “If you believe in Jesus, you are saved; if you do not believe in Jesus, you are going to hell.” The variations of this over-simplification and distortion of spiritual truth depend on the particular denomination; the Catholic variety is more often “receive the Sacrament, and be saved; miss Mass and be damned.” If verses in John’s Gospel can be lifted out of context and be used by peddlers of a vulgarized Christianity, the dialogical discourse spoken by the Word within the attentive, loving mind serves to reground the disciple in the truth of divine-human communion: “Yet a little while and the world will behold me no more, but you will behold [or, gaze upon] me, because I live and you will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I in you.” The word “behold” or “gaze upon” is not a seeing with bodily eyes, but an inner awareness of divine presence. The mutual indwelling or communion of the divine with the human is accomplished not by “religious beliefs,” or even by faith alone, but by mutual love. On the human side of the partnership, this love is not a sentimental feeling, but utter obedience to will of God: “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me…If one loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him, and make our home with him….”
God is at home in the one at home in God. The dwelling place of God is in the soul or consciousness of the faithful-loving disciple, who humbly contemplates the word of Christ, who keeps his word, doing God’s will. The cult of worshiping God in the Temple has been replaced by the simplicity of reverencing God in one’s heart through listening to the Word and incarnating the word in the world through loving action. The Creator-God is also the Saving-God, at home and at work in the obedient disciple, through whom Christ continues his transforming Presence in the human community. Truth is not a collection of doctrinal formulations, but a process of becoming one in faithful love with the one who “loved us to the end.”