Monday, May 28, 2007

The Gift That Must Be Given Away

Today in the Christian calendar is Pentecost, the commemoration of the gift of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus at Easter. As lector at the 8:30 mass this morning, I read the passage from Acts of the Apostles which describes the descent of the Spirit:
They were all in one place together.
And suddenly there came from the sky
a noise like a strong driving wind,
and it filled the entire house in which they were.
Then there appeared to them tongues of of fire,
which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to speak in different tongues,
as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.
In the Gospel reading from John, Jesus appears to his disciples after the crucifixion, and tells them that "the Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you."

Something happened to the followers of Jesus after his death in Palestine two millennia ago. They tried to explain it with stories that were poetic mixtures of analogy and metaphor rather than factual reports. These stories were written down a generation later and today the various Christian churches largely treat them as descriptive and historical.

The priest today spoke to us as if we were in agreement that all this rhad eally happened exactly as the words say. "You will never be alone," he told us, "because the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the Advocate, was given to us by God at Pentecost." The assembled congregation, many of whom wore red, the liturgical color of Pentecost (under my red shirt I wore the black "Heretics: In Good Company" tee shirt which includes the name of Jesus), understood by this that the Spirit, one person of the Trinity, is essentially co-equal with God and Christ. To have one is to have the other. They perhaps found this a comforting thought, that God=Christ=Spirit is always with us, an beneficent imaginary friend, so to speak.

In my new role as a recovering theist and Roman Catholic, I did not find this explanation at all helpful. It was aimed at the priest's listeners, faithful Catholics who come to mass on Sundays to hear the word of God and partake in the Eucharistic meal of bread and wine magically transformed into the body and blood of Christ. They would leave the church certain that they had done the right thing by participating in the weekly ritual of story, song and communion.

I've never really understood the doctrine of the Trinity or why God must be "three who are one in heaven," as we recite at the Hermitage. Of the three, however, I am most drawn to the Holy Spirit, or the "Holy Ghost" as some churches say. In my current understanding of the ultimate mystery, I believe all humans, perhaps all of creation, contains the divine spark, and this I can identify with the Spirit. I think Jesus exemplified this to his followers, but he meant to show them that we were all divine, Gentile and Jew, man and woman, free and enslaved. He never meant to say that he was the only Son of God.

And just as this Spirit is given to us, by birthright and only symbolically confirmed by baptism (at least in the Christian understanding), we are meant ourselves to give it away through service and love to others. The divine is not separate from creation but totally implicated in it. We express this by saying that we are the hands of God. Only through us can God act. And in acts of justice and love between human beings, God comes to be, by co-creation.

What was missing from the Pentecost homily this morning was a coherent explanation of the response we must make to the gift of the Holy Spirit. While the priest did speak of the air that grows stale in a bottle when it is not shared, he did not explain how we can pass the Spirit on to others through justice and mercy. By comforting us with the information that none of us is alone because of the presence of the Holy Spirit, he neglected to impress on us that the Good News does not happen in a vacuum.

There is entirely too much comfort being given in churches. We should be discomforted by the realization that sitting on our asses in the pews feeling good is not enough. We must be alert to the needs of others, all of them. Jesus broke down all barriers between human beings, including the walls between religions and sects. As long as people are dying from hunger and disease, and from violence in wars, justified or not, we should feel uncomfortable. When we sit silently in church, humbling receiving our weekly spiritual fill-up, the divine spark within us is dim, nearly extinguished. We must fan the flames by our actions, not by nice comforting thoughts and habitual rituals.

The gift of the Holy Spirit is the gift that must be given away, and only by giving can we continue to receive.

Of course, this is only a Christian perspective, using language and stories with which I am somewhat familiar. I have no doubt that a similar explanation for the presence of the divine within, and how we must form communities of justice and mercy, can be given by all the other religious traditions.

Here is what Benedictine sister Joan Chittister, a persuasive spokesperson for peace and justice issues, says about other traditions in the June issue of that fine magazine, The Sun:

At the very end of an interview with her, after the writer asks her, "What's the biggest personal question for you now?", Sr. Joan replies:
That would be something like: In what way do all the great spiritual traditions of the globe intersect and require the presence of all the others? What great gifts do we each bring, without which the other religions are incomplete?
For me Catholicism brings to the world a tremendous awareness of the sacredness of life, the notion that all life is holy, can be made holy, must become holy. What does it lack? The wisdom of the Upanishads, for example, which say that the individual person is face to face with God, that the institution of religion does not mediate God but points the way to God. The fact of the matter is that the Catholic believer comes to God through the instrument of the Church, rather than simply throuugh the tradition. I admire the spiritual depth of Hinduism and Buddhism. I admire the communal nature of Judaism and Islam. These other faiths stretch my mind and make me think deeply about the insights that Catholicism gives me.
We need to get to a point where we can say, no matter what religion or spiritual tradition we belong to, that we are all a part of the mind of God.
Amen to that, Sister.

And this just in from Cyprian, a quote about the Spirit from Ewert Cousins' Christ of the 21st Century. "After dealing with the Neo-Platonic idea of the World Soul and Teilhard de Chardin's adaptation of it, he goes on to write about the theology of the "cosmic Spirit," saying that
the presence of the Spirit in the Universe overcomes any ... dualism; for there is no realm of the universe where the Spirit is not present and working. Therefore, there is no autonomous nature that stands apart from God, as a Deist world-machine or a purely isolated mechanical process. For the Spirit works in electrons and atoms as well as in mystical ecstasy. Hence there are no purely natural laws. This does not introduce a supernaturalism or magic in the cosmic process; rather it means that what the scientist discovers as natural laws are manifestations of the energy of the cosmic Spirit. In this light, Darwin's principle of natural selection would be seen as a scientific way of charting the Spirit's selection of the species that will survive in the evolutionary process. Furthermore, the religious counselor cannot merely dismiss the findings of depth psychology as belonging to the "natural" realm; for even here in the depths of the unconscious, the Spirit works. In a theology of cosmic Spirit, the theologican can see that at the bottom there is no radical split between the sacred and the secular; for the Spirit works in the economic and political structures of society and in the ongoing scientific enterprise.
The ubiquity of the cosmic Spirit is a worthy replacement for the theistic God that Bishop Spong would like to consign to the dustbin of history. Nuff said.

1 comment:

Unknown said...


About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages . God LOVES me so much. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17]. God sent his Son into the world to reconcile us to Himself (Col 1: 20.) Jesus Christ came not to tell us the answer to the universal problem of evil, but to overcome evil, sin and death by His everlasting love. Division and dissension, hatred and fear, aggressive power and exploitation could be conquered only by a gentle, suffering love unto death. By freely sacrificing his human life in dying for us, Jesus in His humanity was raised to glory by His Father’s Spirit and is now able to live within us.

Peace Be With You