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Terrance KleinMay 15, 2024
Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash

A Homily for Pentecost

Vigil: Genesis 11:1-9 Romans 8:22-27 John 7:37-39
Mass during the day: Acts 2:1-11 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13 John 20:19-23

The Holy Spirit might be called the “faceless God,” though we do not say that because it denigrates. We see the face as the portal to the soul, even if we sometimes fail to read what truly lies inside. To be a person is to have a face.

To speak of the third person of the Trinity as pure spirit leaves us without an image, even one imported from descriptive, relational nouns such as Father or Son. But that does not make the Holy Spirit an “unknown God,” whose altar St. Paul encounters in Athens (Acts 17:23).

No, the Holy Spirit is indeed like the simile we use for him. We cannot see the wind with our eyes, but its effects are clearly visible. Similarly, St. Ignatius Loyola suggested that our encounters with the Holy Spirit can be recognized by their emotional effects upon us. Ignatius saw those as double-sided, dependent upon whether we are moving toward or away from God.

In the case of those going from good to better, the good angel touches the soul gently, lightly, and sweetly, like a drop of water going into a sponge. The evil spirit touches it sharply, with noise and disturbance, like a drop of water falling onto a stone (Spiritual Exercises, “Rules for the Discernment of Spirits”).

For Ignatius, the presence of the Holy Spirit is easily overlooked without prayer. Why? Because in healthy souls, the Holy Spirit’s entry is frequent and therefore gentle.

But Ignatius goes on to note that we might be moving toward God in some areas of our lives and away in others. Consequently, we might also experience jarring entrances of the Spirit. These are associated with those areas of our lives still resistant to the Spirit.

T. S. Eliot called “Little Gidding” his Pentecost poem. Here the Spirit enters as purifying fire, one intended to break down barriers to divine life.

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error
The only hope, or else despair
          Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
          To be redeemed from fire by fire.

“Incandescent terror.” Sometimes the Spirit burns away our smug self-confidence. Some sudden adversity calls into question our compromises, our settling for less than who we were meant to be. The purpose is to “discharge from sin and error.”

Why is “the choice between pyre and pyre?”

Because the terror calls us back to the purifying love of God. We are “redeemed from fire by fire.” Eliot suggests that we either burn with love or we burn in sin. There is no in-between.

If fighting fire with fire sounds harsh, the Spirit sending suffering our way to set us free from self-inflicted suffering, Eliot summons the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich to support his contention.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hand that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
          We only live, only suspire
          Consumed by either fire or fire.

At the close of her book, Revelations of Divine Love, the Lord tells Julian that suffering can be an instrument of love, at least when it leads to our renewal. Indeed, that God’s great joy lies in calling sinners to himself. “For he beholdeth His heavenly treasure and solace in heavenly joy, in drawing our hearts from sorrow and darkness, which we are in.”

Elliot’s “intolerable shirt of flame” from which we cannot find escape may simply be the Lord’s embrace, his burning, purifying love at work in our lives. Why must the Holy Spirit sometimes be experienced as burning terror? Julian insists that her Lord drummed the answer into her.

Love was His meaning. Who shewed it thee? Love. Wherefore shewed He it thee? For Love. Hold thee therein, thou shall wit it more in the same. But thou shalt never wit therein other without end.

If the old English of Julian’s revelation is hard to follow, she closes with simpler prose.

Thus was I learned that love was our Lord’s meaning. And I saw full surely in this, and in all, that our God made us; He loved us, which love was never slacked nor never shall. And in this love He hath done all His works; and in this love He hath made all things profitable to us; and in this love our life is everlasting. In which making we had our beginning; but the love wherein He made us with in Him from without beginning. In which love we have our beginning. And all shall we see in God without end.

“He hath made all things profitable to us.” Sometimes, in the burning love of the Holy Spirit, that includes suffering.

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