The Holy Spirit is the artist who fashions our humanity
A Reflection for Pentecost Sunday
Our problem with the Holy Spirit is our inability to form a proper image. That is, if one can even speak of having trouble with one of the three divine persons, who together form the Holy Trinity. Of course, that difficulty is not unique to the Holy Spirit; it is only more pronounced. God the Father is not an old man with a long, white beard, and God the Son, who once walked among us, was no doubt darker in his features than many of us imagine.
In trying to picture the Holy Spirit we cannot summon to mind, even inaccurately, someone who corresponds to our own humanity. Maybe that is the point. Perhaps in making the Paraclete known to us, Jesus deliberately blocked our attempts to create a picture. Pictures, as the great philosopher once noted, can hold us captive. Perhaps, in speaking only of “the Holy Spirit” the Good Lord intended to spare us one more misleading image of God.
Our problem with the Holy Spirit is our inability to form a proper image.
In her newest novel Payback (2020), Mary Gordon does not draw a picture of the Holy Spirit, but there is a passage that might indeed circumscribe the Spirit. While living for many years in Italy, Agnes Vaughan becomes a licensed restorer of artistic masterpieces. When an entire country is one large treasure chest, it is an essential profession. Agnes prefers working on medieval statues: “The objects to be repaired nearly always sacred...nearly always the object of prayer...the sense that they contained in them the urgencies and needs of people year after year, asking for help.”
Those are the contours of the Holy Spirit, the place where the human—our cares and concerns—reaches up to the divine. Better put, it is the place within the divine wherein the human nestles. Of course, God cannot be divided, even conceptually. We can only sketch the outline of the Holy Spirit by looking at the edges of our own humanity.
Repairing works that were made from the most natural, least costly of materials: wood, works that were prayed to, kissed and caressed and believe to cure plague or infertility or heartache...no painting could replicate what these works achieved; the etched grief on the mourning mother, the lift of the hip of the young Madonna carrying her child, the child’s playful grasping of the mother’s chin...these sculptures she felt were unparalleled in what they said about life’s fragility, and in the face of it an unquenchable vitality. But missing hands or gaps or abrasions...her sculptures could absorb them and still present the viewer the possibility of elation that came from great works of art humbly conceived. And how she revered the artists who did not feel the need to leave their names, who worked with assiduousness on the unseen backs of pieces that would be attached to a wall or placed so high that no eye could see the perfection of detail.
An antique wooden statue, carved to express the longings of the human heart, is an exceptionally good trace of the Holy Spirit because, when we are truly elated or dejected, our humanity opens itself to that which is more than the human. It opens to God. Whatever else might be said about them, jubilation and pain reveal that we are created, that we rest in something larger than ourselves.
We see the Spirit at work on the masterpiece we call the human.
Michelangelo is believed to have said that when he carved, he simply took away everything that did not look like the finished masterpiece he had envisioned. That is how the Holy Spirit carves us. We are the work of art. We are what emerges from the action of the Spirit.
St. Augustine said that if we want to see God, we need not climb a mountain, far above the madding crowd. No, God has told us to examine the ragged edges of the heart.
He is near those who have crushed their hearts (Ps 33:19).
What a wonderful thing; he dwells in the heights and draws near to the humble. He looks on the lowly, while he knows what is high up from afar (Ps 83: 137:6).
He sees the proud from afar, and the higher they think they are, the less he draws near to them. So, were you looking for a mountain? Come down in order to reach him. But you want to ascend? Ascend, by all means, but do not look for a mountain. The mountains were in his heart—says the psalm—in the valley of weeping (Ps 83:6-78) (Homily 15:25 on the Gospel of John).
Art reveals the artist. To see the human heart is to see its creator. We see the Spirit at work on the masterpiece we call the human. Look to the edges of your own humanity. You will still be unable to picture the Holy Spirit, but you will nonetheless know who this anonymous, humble artist truly is.