Clearing the Heart to See the Truth
Oh Holy Ghost, whose temple I
Am, but of mud walls, and condensed dust
And being sacrilegiously
Half wasted with youth’s fires, of pride and lust,
Must with new storms be weatherbeat;
Double in my heart they flame
Which let devout sad tears intend; and let
(Though this glass lanthorn, flesh, do suffer maim)
Fire, sacrifice, priest, altar be the same.
Anyone who’s ever taken a class or read a book on the Trinity knows that the Third Person in God is characterized by pure receptivity/passivity. He is the source of no one in God, but finds His source in the love of both the Father and the Son. He’s the breath they both breathe together, prompting St. Bernard of Clairvaux to call Him the “kiss” between the First Two Persons.
Theologians have come up with many ingenious ways to describe the processional structure of the Trinity (i.e., Who comes from Whom) including different verbs for how each procession is lived out by each Person. So, for instance, in the procession of the Son from the Father, we say the Father generates and the Son filiates. And in the procession of the Spirit from Father and Son, we say the Father and Son actively spirate together, while the Spirit passively spirates from the Father and Son.
What does all that tell us about the Holy Spirit? Not much. To say that the Spirit spirates and is spirated is kind of like saying that John-Mark johnmarks; it doesn’t lend a lot of clarity, although it may be handy in technical discussion (“Hey, anybody know what John-Mark’s up to?” “I don’t know, probably johnmarking again”). All the same, it remains a fascinating point that the Third Person, whose identity consists in receiving, is the very Person that we receive in the endowment of sanctifying grace. It is the Spirit who is given to us by the Father and the Son; He who is gift in Himself becomes gift to us.
It’s strange that the Holy Spirit, the one associated with the most intimate of God’s engagements with the human person, i.e., divinization/participation in the divine life, should be the Person to whom we often feel least connected. Probably it’s because, like our own eyes, He’s too close to see; like our own skin, He’s too close to feel. We have a hard time acknowledging the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives because He’s so pervasive. We don’t recognize his action because He’s doing everything.
How is the Holy Spirit made manifest?
I think also that the Holy Spirit is hard to feel close to because of the way He appears in sensible form. After all, we read in the gospels how the Father sometimes makes His voice heard, and the Son of course stands before us in the flesh, but the Holy Spirit comes as wind, cloud, a tongue of fire, a dove. How do you have a relationship with a cloud?
Another factor that makes the Spirit mysterious has to do with the way the different members of the Trinity are revealed. A Trinitarian Person is revealed by the Person He sends. So, for instance, the Father sends the Son, and is not revealed unless it’s by the Son, “No one knows the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal Him” (Mt 11:27). Because the Son is sent by the Father, the Father cannot be known except insofar as the Son reveals Him. Likewise, the Son sends the Spirit into the world, and unless the Spirit reveals the Son, the Son’s identity will not be known: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (I Cor 12:3)
But now the question arises, who will reveal the Spirit? The Spirit doesn’t send the Father or the Son; and the Spirit won’t reveal Himself. So how is He revealed? The Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses the question as follows:
Now God’s Spirit, who reveals God, makes known to us Christ, his Word, his living Utterance, but the Spirit does not speak of himself. The Spirit who “has spoken through the prophets” makes us hear the Father’s Word, but we do not hear the Spirit himself. We know him only in the movement by which he reveals the Word to us and disposes us to welcome him in faith. The Spirit of truth who “unveils” Christ to us “will not speak on his own.” (CCC #687).
So how is the Spirit made known? In the work He performs in us. In His effects on the human being. But that means that the greater the work the Spirit performs in us – the more we allow Him to do His will in our souls and in our lives – the more manifest the Spirit will be.
Now we can understand why the Catholic Church canonizes saints. It’s not to celebrate a fringe group of high-achievers. It’s so that we can come to know the Spirit through those who have answered His call.
By canonizing some of the faithful, i.e., by solemnly proclaiming that they practices heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace, the Church recognizes the power of the Spirit of holiness… (CCC #828).
In other words, the saints aren’t some kind of accessory to our relationship with God. They aren’t just an elite group of friends who are ready to step in and assist us when we care to ask (although they’re that too). The saints are the site where the manifestation of the Spirit happens. Just as you can get a sense of intimacy with a great composer by listening to his best symphonies, or a with great author by reading his best novels, you can get a sense of intimacy with the Spirit by meditating on the lives of the saints. They’re His self-expression. They’re the way He shows Himself to us.
And, of course, this holds above all for the Blessed Mother. She is the Holy Spirit’s one, perfect, human production, the one through whom He can express Himself most vividly. She is the masterwork of the Spirit’s mission (cf. CCC #729), since only she gives the Holy Spirit the artistic space He requires to make beauty without the restrictions of human sinfulness. If you want to familiarize yourself with Michelangelo, it’s probably a good idea to look at the pietà. If you want to familiarize yourself with the Holy Spirit, it’s probably a good idea to look at the pietà – and think of Mary.
What does the Holy Spirit do in our lives?
Of course the Holy Spirit wants to make saints out of all of us, not just the people with feast-days. He’s engaged in trying to make all of us live and act on the divine level. That’s why only the Spirit can bring to completion the salvation wrought by the Son in Jesus Christ.
Ever wonder why Our Lord didn’t remain in human form on earth? Well, He tells us it was precisely so this divine life and divine activity could take charge of us. Against all our intuitions, He tells us that it’s better that He’s not still in our midst the way He was during those brief years in Israel, “But I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (Jn 16:7).
If Christ had stayed among us, the perpetual temptation would always have been to keep the relationship at the external level, to sit and watch while Jesus did everything. But now, with the Invisible Spirit inside us, we realize that we are supposed to live with God’s life, to act with God’s action.
Which is to say that our being and our action must become holy. And that’s precisely the work of the Spirit, especially in Baptism and Confirmation.
When God breathed His Spirit into Adam (Gen 2:7), it made our first father holy in the core of his being. He breathed with the breath of God; he lived with God’s life. Though Adam lost his ontological holiness, Christ won it back for us, and we reacquire that original holiness at Baptism. What we are is holy again, because the same Eternal Breath that the Father and Son breathe in God’s inner life has been blown back into our lungs. Baptism is where the Spirit issues our birth certificate in God’s family, so that the Son can become our Brother and the Father our Father.
When the Spirit descended upon the Apostles (Acts 2), He made the first Christians holy at the core of their action. He came not as breath but as wind and fire, impelling and inflaming the apostles and their followers. It was time to do something, time to preach as Christ had preached, to carry the cross as Christ had carried it, to live as Christ had lived. This divine power, force, energy is given to us in the sacrament of Confirmation, where the Spirit enlists us in God’s army. When we mature in the faith, we move from citizen to soldier, we begin to fight for our birthright. We witness, we suffer, we conquer. Confirmation isn’t just when we reach a certain age; it’s where we reach a certain agency, and this agency is given us by the Spirit. Failure to respond to this mission is Catholic cowardice.
Hosts of the Holy Spirit
So we know the Holy Spirit lives inside us. We know our bodies are supposed to be “temples” of the Holy Spirit. This all sounds fairly unintimidating at first hearing, but it becomes a shocking thing to realize that you can trash the Holy Spirit’s home. You can eject the Third Person from His own residence.
More than that, given that the Holy Spirit has so joined Himself to us, has so knit Himself to our inner fibers, interwoven Himself with us, it becomes horrifying when we realize the level of blasphemy that can be committed against God by human degradation. When we choose perversion instead of goodness, we don’t just violate ourselves; the Trinity who dwells within us is somehow defiled too (c.f. I Cor 6:15-20).
Because the Son took on human flesh and because the Spirit dwells in human flesh, when the evil one is victorious over us, when we give in to filth and vice, it is God who is debased. This unfathomable fact is set forth in all its horror by the great Catholic novelist, Georges Bernanos, in his book Under Satan’s Sun:
God throws us between Himself and Satan as if we were his last rampart. It’s through us that for centuries and centuries the same hatred has been trying to reach Him, through our poor human flesh that the ineffable murder is consummated… There’s that obscure, incredibly subtle, and stubborn being, like nothing else at all except bitter irony and cruel laughter. God surrendered Himself to that creature for a time, and it’s in us that He is seized and devoured. He is torn out of us… Priests! Have they never had to look at the ravaged faces before them? Never seen one of those unforgettable looks coming over the face of someone already full of hatred for God, for whom they can do absolutely nothing? Or the miser eaten up by his cancer, or the lecher like a corpse, or the ambitious man with a single dream, or the envious person who never sleeps? Is there a priest who has never wept at his helplessness when faced by the mystery of human suffering, a God abused in man, His refuge!
If we can’t have some sense of our own dignity, if we can’t have some sense of our own goodness, let’s think at least of the dignity and goodness of the Spirit who resides within us. Let’s fortify the defenses of our spiritual castle so that the Guest may be preserved from the shame Satan so monstrously wishes to inflict on Him.
John Mark Miravalle, S.T.D.