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?”