By Ted Haynie
At a retreat on Saturday, the topic, “Who Is the Holy Spirit?” challenged the participants to focus on the Third Party of the Triune God. The people present, all Catholics, have said, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” thousands of times over the course of their lives. Yet, many of us haven’t spent much time, if any, considering who that Third Person of the Trinity is, let alone how we incorporate His existence into our daily lives.
The Franciscan Spiritual Center in Aston, Pennsylvania, is on the campus of Neumann University. The center is located in Our Lady of Angels Convent. The building itself impresses. Five stories, spotless, gorgeous grounds including a grotto, a labyrinth, Stations of the Cross, and beautiful, labeled trees. The environment provides a peaceful and welcoming setting for God-thought.
We didn’t see many nuns, and the ones we did see wore civilian (as opposed to habits) clothes. I assume the elderly, plump, short-haired woman greeting us at the dining hall was a nun. She represented what I now think of as a nun: genial, helpful, dedicated. Not at all like the nun I had in first grade who intimidated me. Then again, if I had seventy first graders in one classroom I would try to intimidate them into submission too. Perspective tells so much of any story. Of nuns and just about everything else.
Mid-morning we watched a video that suggested that one of the Holy Spirit’s jobs is to reveal God’s personal love for us. He also gives us “power to live the Christian life,” “speaks the truth to us,” “helps us to know God in prayer,” and “empowers us to help others to know Jesus.”
We broke into small groups to discuss our thoughts and impressions. It didn’t take long to get to some heavy theological issues. When asked if anyone had experienced the Holy Spirit directly, one woman told a story about literally feeling “hands on my shoulders” as she tried to stay awake while driving on the Atlantic City Expressway. Another woman shared a story about how she felt the Holy Spirit push her forehead at a moment when she needed it. Were these physical interventions the Holy Spirit? How does a guardian angel fit into these emblematic anecdotes?
We spoke of the difficulty of envisioning a spirit. “I pray to God and to Jesus; I’ve never prayed to the Holy Spirit,” one person said. Another asked, “How can a spirit be the third “Person” of the Trinity? The beliefs of the members of the group ranged from “I’ve always prayed to the Holy Spirit” to “It seems more like a force or a spirit than a person to me.”
But Jesus certainly indicated that the Holy Spirit is a person. In John 14, Jesus says He “will send a Counselor who will dwell in us” (and the world cannot receive). This Counselor (Chapter 15 of John) will come and bear witness to Jesus. In Chapter 16, Jesus makes it clear: “I will send him to you…When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” So, we are to understand the Holy Spirit to be a person and divine. A person because Jesus calls the Spirit a Counselor, and because the spirit speaks to us, helps us, empowers us. These are the actions of a person. Divine because the Spirit fully comprehends the thoughts of God, which He passes on to believers.
The Catholic Church teaches that the Father is in the Son and in the Spirit; the Son is in the Father and in the Spirit; the Spirit is in the Father and in the Son. This arrangement, according to the Baltimore Catechism, is known by the very cool word “circumincession.” The Spirit is the love of the Father and the Son as it acts in our world.
Did the members of the group walk out understanding everything there is to understand about the Holy Spirit? Definitely not. But they walked out informed. Informed about what others thought. Informed about church teaching.
Mostly though, we appreciated the mystery and splendor of our church. And we spent time thinking important thoughts. In fact, the most important thoughts. Are we supposed to comprehend everything? Probably not, but we are supposed to know the Holy Spirit’s role in the Trinity and in our lives. And as is true with so many faith issues, our own personal ratification of the contract made with God is necessary. “I ask you, Holy Spirit, to fill me and empower me to live as a son or daughter of God. I want to have your grace to truly live a new life.”
Not a bad way to spend a Saturday.