How to keep the Holy Spirit from becoming a slogan

In the summer of my fifth- or sixth-grade year, I began to say the rosary daily. I can’t specify the calendar year, but I am sure that the season was summer. The decision to pray the rosary was not a burst of devotion on my part. It was my calculated attempt to atone for a grievous sin, for that was the summer that I had played a very bad game of strip poker on a Boy Scout camping trip. It was a “bad” game on so many levels. I am not sure that we truly knew how to play poker; no one took off more than his shoes, socks or shirt; and, when a Sammy Grubb pointed out that this was an immoral game, I suddenly realized that I had sinned grievously in playing it.

Half a century later, the memory seems slightly silly, but at the time I was convinced that I had seriously sinned against the sixth commandment, and I honestly feared “the fires of hell.” I can smile at my younger self, but I am not denigrating what was a true movement of grace in my young life. You see, the Holy Spirit does not wait for adulthood or theological sophistication or any stage of maturity before entering our lives. Indeed, it is in childhood that the wound of sin and the balm of the Spirit both begin. We were too young to play strip poker in order to titillate, but we were old enough to seek to humiliate one of us by means of the game.

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The Holy Spirit does not wait for adulthood or theological sophistication or any stage of maturity before entering our lives.

Later in that fearful summer, I remembered that a priest, while preaching our parish mission, had said that even great sinners could be saved by the rosary. So I began to pray it daily. It would lead to confession, and, indeed, to my priestly vocation.

There is something architectonic in the male middle school mind. In the final, glorious years of childhood, before puberty sweeps it all away, we build baseball card collections, collect matchbox cars, become expects in the superpowers of DC and Marvel heroes. No doubt the collectibles have evolved and video games now dominate the imagination, but system building remains a mark of middle school.

Maybe that is why I decided that I would dedicate my rosaries to the members of the Most Holy Trinity, whom I, unfortunately, thought of as more committee than mystery. Monday would be for God the Father; Tuesday, for God the Son; Wednesday, for God the Holy Spirit. Repeat, and you’ve got six, not seven days. I solved the problem by giving the Blessed Mother Saturdays. I thought the divine guys would applaud my creative and—so I thought—rather gallant solution.

What I discovered is that on two days of the week, it was very difficult for my middle school mind to draw any picture of the person whom I was addressing in my prayer. Even then, I knew that I wasn’t praying to a bird. I did not know what to imagine, which is maybe why my system of dividing the week among the denizens of heaven quickly faded.

It seemed as though people could use the faceless, storyless Spirit to assert just about anything they wanted.

A few years later, I was actively considering the priesthood, but even then, the Holy Spirit seemed to be associated more with movements and ideas that I found suspect rather than with those that I found attractive. It seemed as though people could use the faceless, storyless Spirit to assert just about anything they wanted. Later, in seminary studies, I would learn how common this was in the long history of the church.

Ponder, for a moment, the Triune God whom Christianity preaches. The first person of the Trinity, the one whom we call Father, is transcendent, pure spirit, utter mystery. The Hebrew Scriptures insist that this Father is not like us, that his ways are not our ways. He is far enough above us as to be truly unknown.

We recognize Jesus the Christ to be God the Son, the second person of the Trinity. Here we have a face, a message and a story, each of which bespeaks God’s self-emptying: God taking flesh, God assuming our human history. In Jesus, we encounter an icon, who points from the heart of humanity into the mystery of the divine.

What meaning does the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, have for us?

And finally we have the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, who is without face, without story. Here God so empties self into human history as to be translucent. Anyone can see the history, but only some can recognize the Spirit.

So then, what meaning does the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, have for us? How is the Spirit different from the Father, who is equally faceless and who transcends history? It is the Son who stands difference. The Father is the mystery, from whom the Son comes. The Spirit is the mystery, whom the Father and the Son send.

But what is to keep any slogan, any movement or any ideology from claiming the authority of the Spirit? Simply this: The Holy Spirit is not Christ, any more than the Holy Spirit is the Father, but the Holy Spirit is always “Christic,” which is to say that the Spirit testifies to the Son, draws men and women into the Son and makes possible their union with the Son.

The Spirit draws us into the Christ and, through him, to adoration of the Father.

If the one called the Holy Spirit bears no apparent relationship to the Father and the Son, then be assured that a slogan has replaced the living God. Yes, the Spirit is utter mystery at work in the world, often confounding and surprising. Yet the Spirit enters our world with target and mission, a clear identity. The Spirit draws us into the Christ and, through him, to adoration of the Father.

The Trinity is not three alternative versions of God offered to our personal predilections. The Trinity is the Spirit within us, within our human history, drawing us into the Son and toward the Father.

It was the Holy Spirit who pierced my middle school heart with an awareness of my sin; the Holy Spirit who urged that I turn to prayer and seek out the sacrament of confession. I was not working with a committee, among whose members I had to divide my attentions. No, touched by the Spirit, I was being led into the redemption wrought by the Son back to the Father.

The Holy Spirit has neither face nor story of his own, but the Holy Spirit is always Christic, always—as the New Testament often puts it—“the Spirit of Christ.” The person and mission is different; the message is the same.

Readings: Acts 8:5-8, 14-17 1 Peter 3:15-18 John 14:15-21

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