Sometime ago as I stood at the back of a parish church following Mass greeting members of the parish, a family approached and its youngest member, a boy of about 5, asked me, “Why do you call us brothers and sisters? You’re not my brother.”
I said to him, “There is a sense in which we are all brothers and sisters because we are all members of God’s family.” He looked at me then looked back at his mother who was standing behind him. When she shook her head affirmatively he turned back to me and said, “Wow, I didn’t know that. That’s cool.”
So much of what we know—almost all of it, in fact—comes from what we are told, what we learn from others. Education at levels from kindergarten through doctoral studies engage us in our own appropriation of the human experience from what other generations have sifted, distilled and passed on. That information helps form our vision of life.
But we also count on other sources of enlightenment. One of these we know as inspiration—the gift that allows us to see beyond the confines of the moment. We also speak of insight as the ability to grasp the even richer spiritual dimension of reality. Then for some, there is the light of faith that brings with it a fuller vision.
I am reminded of those inspiring and complex Caravaggio paintings that depict a scene illumined by a source of light that comes from outside it but is still intrinsic to the whole picture. We can see so much more in the interplay of shadows and light. In fact, it is precisely because of this contrast in shades of light that the whole scene in the picture takes on full and rich dimension and we see a greater meaning. All of us have this power, this ability, to see so much more, to see more than what is just physically present.
All of this wider insight is what Isaiah the Prophet refers to when he speaks about the gifts of God, the gifts of the Spirit of God that are showered upon us. In chapter eleven that we just listened to the Prophet envisions “the one on whom the Spirit of the Lord shall rest so that not by appearance shall he judge nor by hearsay shall he decide.”
This is more than a metaphor. One of the identifying qualities of human beings is the capability of recognizing more to what we see around us than is visible just to the eye. We realize an action of mind and heart, of conscience and inspiration that comes at times unbidden but forceful and impelling.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit poet of the last century, spoke of the moments of insight in almost mystical terms when in his master work “God’s Grandeur” he saw the effects of the presence of the Holy Spirit, “Like shining from shook foil…” He went on to point out that our inner gift—the blessing of inspiration and intuition, of wisdom and insight is because “the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with, ah! bright wings.”
The scriptures are ripe with stories of those whose lives were completely transformed by the working of the Spirit within them. The response of Abram to the voice of God that called him to set out to a new land and become the father of a great nation was the movement of the Spirit.
Moses recognizes, as he stands on hallowed ground before the burning bush, that it is the Spirit of God touching him. He even dares to ask his name. On another occasion, after another encounter, he comes down from the mountain, his face aglow, holding the Tablets of the Law and burning within from that same Spirit.
When Samuel anointed David as the future ruler of Israel, we read in Sacred Scripture that, “The Spirit of the Lord rushed upon David” (1 Samuel 16:13). In the sacred texts cited here the gift appears as God’s decisive intervention in history and in individual lives. It is profoundly influential in the events that follow.
Of the figures who bridge the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament, none is more prominent than John the Baptist. His very coming is recognized through the power of the Spirit. He is nurtured in the Spirit and retreats into the desert lead by the Spirit so that he might be completely transformed in the power of the Spirit.
Clearly the most dramatic example of being enveloped by the Spirit—being anointed in the Holy Spirit—is Jesus stepping into the Jordan as the heavens opened and the Spirit in the form of a dove comes over him with the voice announcing, “This is my beloved Son, hear him.” (Mark 1:10-11; Luke 3:22)
How do we experience that same outpouring? In what way is the Spirit present to us? The answer to that question is why we are here and why we come every year to the Red Mass. We know that we need, and so we ask for, the gifts of insight, inspiration, of right judgment, of wisdom—gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Here again we turn to Isaiah, where we find one list of them. This is the same enumeration that is prayed for at every celebration of the sacrament of Confirmation. It is one of the standard questions I ask knowing that every youthful candidate for the sacrament has been told that’s what I ask. And so they, as you and I, can name the gifts: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear or reverence of the Lord.
One of these gifts is knowledge. Here we ask to be able to reflect on what we apprehend so that we can come to know more than just what we can hear or taste or touch. We pray for the ability to discern the right path—the ability to reflect so that we can learn from what we have experienced. As my little interlocutor exclaimed with new appreciation and awareness of fresh insight, “I didn’t know that!”
We also pray for the Spirit of understanding—discernment—the sweet gift of the awareness of enlightenment. This is the gift that helps us decide our future steps. The Second Vatican Council spoke of this gift as the ability “to read the signs of the times.” Pope Francis describes it as a grace that only the Holy Spirit can infuse and which awakens “the ability to go beyond the outward appearance of reality…” It allows us according to its etymology to “intus legere”—“to read into.” The Spirit of discernment is that quiet voice within us that helps us sort out the various options and claims on our heart and on our actions.
We invoke as well the Spirit of piety—of a sense of wonder and awe, an awareness of God’s closeness. This is the silent assurance that prompts us to have confidence that we stand on sacred ground when we open our hearts to the Spirit in prayer. For some this is the reason for the so called “Francis effect”. The Pope’s ability to mirror God’s love for all people seems to call forth a positive reaction in so many people. His confidence in the Gospel message brings forth the best in people of all faiths.
Courage or fortitude is another of the gifts of the Spirit. It is the blessing we seek in times of trial, of travail, of difficulty. It allows us to recognize what we should do if we are to be faithful to the Spirit within us. This is the claim of conscience on us to do what we ought to do, not just what we can do. It seems all the more appropriate to note and pray for the gift of counsel at a Red Mass. This is the gift that enables us to see and choose correctly what will redound to the glory of God and our own salvation.
Then there is the magnificent gift of wisdom. In fact, Holy Wisdom, Sancta Sophia, Hagia Sofia is the very personification of God’s presence and providential guidance of all creation. Of all the gifts we invoke, we look to wisdom to be able to be at peace with ourselves, our choices, our life. It is the wisdom of God that fills up what is lacking in our limited understanding. It is wisdom that allows us to “savor” the things of God.
Again we turn to Pope Francis who tells us that this is the first gift—in the traditional listing of these blessings of the Holy Spirit. It is the gift Solomon said he wished to receive beyond wealth, success, fame or even a long and happy life. He pleaded for “the grace to see everything with the eyes of God.”
The beauty and insight of poetry is much like the grace of wisdom. It sees so much more. Elders were always held in such respect in generations past precisely because more than the accumulation of facts they had acquired wisdom. It is the gift we hope to see reflected in our leaders, judges, confessors, spiritual directors and parents.
In concluding these few thoughts on the Holy Spirit, it is important to note that probably the most significant cumulative effect of all of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is the power to change, to transform, to make new, to heal—or as we pray, “to renew the face of the Earth.”
Unlike the youngster who excitedly exclaimed, “I didn’t know that,” we are here because we stand in both the conviction and expectation that it is possible to make a better world.
We begin so many great public events, including the inauguration of a president, the opening of Congress, or the beginning of the judicial year, by recognizing the presence and power of God and at the same time what we are all capable of accomplishing with the grace of God.
Today then all of our invocation is directed to that power of God, that presence of the Spirit, those gifts of God working within us, that inner light that illumines our pathway together as we make sense of the human condition. No wonder then we pray—with confidence—“Come Holy Spirit and fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in them the fire of your love.”
2014 Red Mass Homily by His Eminence Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl
Archbishop of Washington
Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle
Sunday, October 5, 2014
Cardinal Wuerl is in Rome for the Synod of Bishops on the family. His homily was read by Msgr. Peter Vaghi.
PHOTO: Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington and U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts talk last October as they depart the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington following the annual Red Mass in 2013. The Mass traditionally marks the start of the court year, including the opening of the Supreme Court term. (CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)