The Holy Spirit is much too subtle to be seen.

Wouldn’t it be nice to see the Holy Spirit? Or, at the least, to see something like those tongues of fire? There are two dilemmas for this desire. The first is the nature of God. Because God is pure spirit, there is, quite literally, nothing for the eyes to see. One can’t directly see a spirit any more than one can see spiritual realities such as love, beauty and wisdom. We do see such things in the pattern the world weaves, but we can’t distill love out of an embrace, or beauty from the flower. There are truths, which are not seen by the eye, or, perhaps better put, not seen by the eye alone. God is such a truth.

The second dilemma emerges from our human nature. The quintessence of our humanity is our freedom, our ability to choose. However narrow the straights of our selections may be, we still decide whether to give ourselves over to life, or not to do so. We either embrace the good, which we find in the world, or we reject it.


If God were something before our eyes, like the sky itself, God would no longer be the source and summit of human freedom. Put it this way: God would be more than an established fact; God would be the only fact that mattered. There would be no human drama of decisions.

So, if there is nothing to see, why search for God? St. Ignatius of Loyola is very helpful here. He suggested that one doesn’t directly see God, though one can, in faith, trace the impression, which God leaves in human life. Ignatius suggested that when the Holy Spirit comes to a soul that is open to God, it does so like water entering a sponge. There’s nothing to hear and little to see because there is no obstruction.  However, in a soul resisting God, the Spirit enters like water falling on a stone. There’s a violent splash, both seen and heard (Spiritual Exercises, Week II, Rule 7).

The Holy Spirit is much too subtle to be seen. Yet meeting a saint is something that can only be explained by the presence of the Spirit. You don’t see the Holy Spirit, but how else do you explain, or even understand, the sanctity of the saint? Evil, in contrast, is so clearly evident, so easily comprehensible. Understand selfishness and you’ve almost mastered it.

Flannery O’Connor wrote a short story that wonderfully illustrates the teaching of St. Ignatius. It’s called, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The plot of the story is simple enough, though my summary does it no justice. A grandmother accompanies her son and his family on a road trip through the South. She’s the original “Church Lady.” Prejudiced, judgmental, she is a hard-to-please, know-it-all. She’s constantly correcting others, second guessing, and insisting that everything, and everyone, was better when she was a girl. That’s why, today, grandma is convinced, “a good man is hard to find.”

A murderer, called “the Misfit,” and his gang have escaped from prison. Because the story is something of a parable, it’s not surprising that the family encounters them when their car breaks done, and modern readers probably aren’t shocked that the criminals kill the family members, one by one.  

At the end, as the Grandmother pleads for her life, it’s with no little irony that she does so, insisting that the Misfit must be a good man.

“Jesus! the old lady cried. “You’ve got good blood. I know you wouldn’t shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people. Jesus, you ought not to shoot a lady. I’ll give you all the money I’ve got (151-52).


But the Misfit wryly reminds her, “There never was a body that gave the undertaker a tip.” He rambles about not knowing what to make of Jesus or the claim that he rose from the dead, because these things didn’t unfold before his eyes.  One might say, he’s a firm believer in believing only what he can see.

“I wasn’t there so I can’t say He didn’t,” The Misfit said. “I wisht I had of been there,” he said, hitting the ground with his fist. “It ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had of been there I would of known. Listen lady,” he said in a high voice, “if I had of been there I would have known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.” His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother’s head cleared for an instant. She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them (152).


Flannery O’Connor insisted that this was a story about the triumph of grace, the work of the Holy Spirit. How so? Because this relatively wicked old lady takes a good look at the Misfit and realizes that he is “one of her babies.” Evidently her past isn’t as proper as previously proclaimed. And yet, in this terrible moment of recognition and judgment—her recognition, God’s judgement—she reaches out in true love to her lost son. Her whole life has been one of isolating pride, yet it ends in an act of tender love.

The Holy Spirit crashes into her life, like water against a stone. You never see the Spirit in the story. You simply see the effect. God finds a way to give a soul the grace that it needs to die well. Or, as the Misfit puts it, “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Acts 2: 1-11  Romans 8: 8-17 John 20: 19-23

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Monica Doyle
2 years 10 months ago
This is an astoundingly different way to understand Penetecost. I think I have been stuck at a 6th grade level of understanding this my whole life. Thank you.


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