Pentecost is approaching, and the church’s reflection on the Holy Spirit will shine brightly for a brief interlude in the Christian year. Clergy will get out their red stoles and paraments, and even the members of some churches will be aflame with the fiery color.
Too quickly this liturgical season is over; we do not linger over it as we do the seven weeks in Eastertide. Pentecost-tide would be a good season for churches who wonder if there is enough power and energy to be a faithful outpost of the Reign of God. I may invite myself to the next meeting of the lectionary committee, whoever that is.
Teresa of Avila wrote about becoming alive in the heat of the Holy Spirit. In her classic spiritual writing, The Interior Castle, she likened the kindling of the soul to that of a silkworm who undergoes metamorphosis to a graceful new form of life. I think she also meant that it is only when we are really tested that we are aware of our need for holy power beyond ourselves. When things heat up in our personal lives, in our vocations, in our congregations, in our political arenas, we know that we must have divine accompaniment to remain steady as flames threaten to engulf us. Yet the transgressive Spirit is always pulling us beyond stasis.
“We require the heat of the Holy Spirit to warm our imaginations toward justice, mercy and peace.”
What is the Holy Spirit up to these days? How should we pray in order to align our actions to the purposes of God who moves among us as Spirit? The Spirit is usually to be found where conflict is burning, for that provides an opportunity to move toward a new level of understanding and discourse. Whether it be the challenge to include Gentiles fully into the people of God, or the challenge to permit slaves and free to worship together with equality, or whether to recognize that gender is not determinant for spiritual gifts, these challenges find the Spirit tugging them into God’s egalitarian and diverse future.
I believe the holy nudge of the Spirit in our day is to cultivate respect for the lived religion of others as we continually encounter other ways of faith. Our religiously plural world requires a gentle curiosity and authentic hospitality as we welcome the “theological stranger.” The Spirit is also prompting us to find ways to engage in civil discourse with those with whom we disagree. This would be a sign of Christian maturity, to be sure, especially as we consider full inclusion for all expressions of human sexuality. Clearly, the Spirit wants us to understand the complexity of what it means to be human, with all its pain and promise.
The Spirit does not lead us to attempt simple things. We cannot achieve the radical transformation required to follow Jesus closely by confiding in our own strength. We are too curved in on ourselves. We require the heat of the Holy Spirit to warm our imaginations toward justice, mercy and peace.
“Fully alive people, lit from within, are instruments of grace in a groaning world.”
A diminished view of the Spirit leads to a diminished view of humanity. Recently, I visited the Byzantine and Christian museum in Athens, which houses a stunning collection of icons. If the guards had not insisted that there was an actual closing time, I might still be there! With wonder I slowly made my way through the exhibit, lingering especially at a version of “The Hospitality of Abraham,” a precursor to Andrei Rublev’s famous icon of the Trinity [public domain] that adorns so many covers of theological reflections these days. I keep a copy of this icon at both my office and home study as it inspires me to think of God’s intimate relations and capacious welcome to enter this holy conversation.
Moving beyond this iconic rendering, I saw another vision of Trinity: it is an old man, a young man and a bird. While a descending dove has long represented the Spirit, drawing from the narrative of the baptism of Jesus, this portrayal has tended to limit our thinking of the Spirit as less than fully divine or fully personal. The Spirit is actually the most personal expression of divine presence, inhabiting our interiority, praying through us and providing energy for igniting holy initiatives in the Realm of God. This indwelling nearness with intimate access to all that makes us uniquely human forms us after the likeness of Jesus, making us present to others and ourselves in surprising ways.
When thinking of Teresa’s aphorism, it is important to recognize what makes us fully alive. It is the vivifying, animating presence of the Spirit calling us to become our true selves. It requires a lifetime to craft the identity God summons, but it is a worthy pursuit. When we are fully alive, we fund God’s reveling glory. Fully alive people, lit from within, are instruments of grace in a groaning world.