Cambridge, MA. As you know from many ‘fusion’ blogs, I do not neatly separate out my weekend ministry as a priest, and my work as a Catholic theologian who tries to learn deeply from Hinduism. Another crossover moment is our current feast, Pentecost. As we hear in the first reading, the Spirit comes as wind, and then as tongues of fire — and then the men and women gathered in the upper room begin to speak aloud, recounting the great deeds of God. Not only is their Spirited speech not mysterious or unintelligible but it is stressed that each listener hears the message in her or his own language. Clear understanding is a fruit of this Holy Spirit.
As a scholar of Hinduism, I cannot help but think of all kinds of parallels in the Hindu tradition, and here I will mention just two. First, perhaps tapping also into a natural insight into how speech works, ancient Hindu texts emphasized a deep connection between breath — life’s breath (prana) — and sacred speech. No breath, no spirit, no speech: breath, spirit, is for the sake of speech. This is clear in the oldest Upanisads, such as the (rather difficult) section I.3 of the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, where everything that we do and see and say begins in that sacred breath. Later Upanisadic texts shift the emphasis from breath to the inner self (the atman, what we might call soul), but even that atman too is a breath of life. This seems an insight quite friendly to what we celebrate on Pentecost: breath is for speech, when we are alive, we speak, and the world of sacred practice lies in the fruitfulness of breath, speech. Just as wind and fire are hard to pin down as “my wind” or “your fire,” it is probably helpful for us, as a starting point, to avoid worrying too much about who owns the Holy Spirit, which “blows where it will.”
Second, you may recall that this semester I was teaching a seminar on devotional poetry in the Tamil-language Hindu tradition. Many of those poems are accompanied by a story about the saint who is the composer — Tirumalisai Piran, Antal, Nammalvar, Karaikkal Ammaiyar, Abhirami Bhattar — and many of those stories stress how the presence of God would overwhelm the poet in such a way that she or he would begin to compose beautifully and at length. Thus, Karaikkal Ammaiyar, the 6th century woman poet who praised Siva, when she encountered her somewhat fickle husband (who was afraid of her holiness and abandoned her), prays for freedom, and even for physical ugliness, that she might exist only for Siva. He grants her prayer, and she bursts in song, singing the 100 verses of her Arputha Tiruvantati (“Amazing Linked Verses.”) Or, the first three Vaisnava saints — Pey, Bhut, and Poykai Alvars — each composed 100 linked verses, under extraordinary circumstances: during a fierce storm, one by one they took refuge in a small shed, and when it become crowded even for the three of them, they recognized that their God, Visnu, was there with them: and each sang his 100 verses immediately. Nammalvar, about whom I blogged several times, was wakened from a meditative trance in which he thought only of Visnu, and when he awoke, the tradition is that he beautifully sang all 1102 verses of his Tiruvaymoli, and other works as well.
And just one more example: Abhirami Bhattar, the 18th century devotee of the Goddess Abhirami (“The Beautiful”), was pushed by the local king to prove that his faith was real and he was not insane: when he was about to fall into a fire and perish, his Goddess appeared to him, and he too burst into song, singing the 100 verses of his Abhirami Antati, that begins this way: “Rising, bright, radiant, / auspicious mark on high, / jewel prized by the discerning, / pomegranate bud, / splendid vine praised by the woman on the lotus, / pool of fragrant kumkum paste — thus is Your form described, Apirami, / ever my best help,” (1) and “My help, / the divinity I worship, / my own mother, / the sacred word’s branch, shoot, spreading root, / in Your hands, a fresh-flower club, cane bow, tender net, goad: / O beautiful lady of the three cities, / You’re all I know.” (2)
What is of interest to me is that these Hindu saints found themselves surprised by God, infused with divine presence, and thereafter sung beautiful verses with great eloquence — just as the disciples in the Upper Room, on fire with the Spirit, spoke with far greater power and eloquence than they knew they had.
We could of course starting thinking of Biblical examples: Miriam, sister of Aaron, who sings praises of God when Israel has been delivered from Pharaoh (Exodus 15); Deborah, who sings a song of triumph after Israel was delivered from Canaanite enemies (Judges 5); Hannah, who praises God when her son Samuel is born (I Samuel 2) — just as Mary bursts into the Magnificat when greeted by Elizabeth (Luke 1). To experience God’s power firsthand is to find a voice, by which to sing a new song, as did the Tamil saints too.
None of the above is expressed with theological precision; we would have to sort out more deeply how the Spirit, which we believe to be the Spirit of Jesus, is the Spirit alive in these Hindu saints too — as the Spirit of God, not in a merely second-class way. Lots of conundrums to ponder. Rather, what I have written here is simply what occurs to this priest who is a Catholic theologian who studies Hinduism. But the main points for all of us now, this Pentecost, are two: First, we must reflect deeply, again, on what we are asking for in praying for the Spirit. That Spirit can be many things for us, of course, but in keeping with the outpouring of Spirit and Speech in Acts 2 and in these examples from Hinduism, we should at least expect that when we are touched by the Spirit, we will receive the gift to speak boldly of God’s great deeds. Second, this seems not to be a narrow Spirit, as if only we can be touched by it: songs that come from within are a gift, and at Pentecost it would seem stingy to imagine that only we receive the Spirit and sing by its fire. So we need to pray, speak, and even listen for a Spirit that blows where it will.
Francis X. Clooney, S.J.