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We are Pentecostal people

30 November, 1999

Kevin Seasoltz OSB sees God’s gift of his Spirit as a continuous transformation of the world. The Spirit is woven into the fabric of human life; and, even though the anguish of life may remain, the Spirit always provides the possibility of healing and renewal.

In P.D. James’ novel Original Sin, a cynical character says dryly, ‘It’s easy to get a reputation for wisdom. It’s only necessary to live long, speak little, and say less.’ The Delaney sisters, however, would not agree. They wrote a delightful book, Having Our Say, which chronicles the lives of the two sisters, Sadie, who was 105, and Bessie, who was 103. Very independent women, they wrote of their childhood in Raleigh, North Carolina, the daughters of a slave who became the first African-American appointed a bishop in the Episcopal Church in the United States.

With humour and grace they recount how Bessie struggled to overcome the obstacles posed by her race to become a dentist and how Sadie quietly integrated the New York school system as a high school teacher. Asked the secret of her long life, Bessie said: ‘You have to decide. Am I going to change the world, or am I going to change me? Or maybe change the world a little bit, just by changing me? It took me a hundred years to figure out I can’t change the world. I can only change Bessie. And, honey, that ain’t easy either.”

God’s Spirit at work
Christians are called to interpret success in any form – whether in transforming the world or themselves – not simply as the result of moral character or strength of purpose, but rather as the result of God’s own Spirit woven and working through the fabric of human life and abiding above all in human hearts. John’s gospel assures us that God’s Spirit is always with us. Hence our lives are not meant to be voids of insecurity and paralyzing doubt. They are pervaded by God’s Spirit of wisdom and love. We are called to live by the power of one greater than ourselves. Jesus lives by the power of the Father; we live by the power of Jesus Christ present in our hearts through the power of the Spirit.

It is often remarked that the Eastern Christian churches have a highly developed theology of the Holy Spirit and a celebration of the liturgy in which that deep appreciation of the presence and power of the Spirit are apparent. It is further observed that in the West, we Christians have not had a well developed pneumatology; as a result we have often fallen into the trap of semi-pelagianism whereby we give the impression that we are capable of saving ourselves by our own efforts. We are prone to put excessive confidence in methods of prayer, ascetical programs, and the execution of rituals; hence we tend to take a quantifiable rather than a qualitative approach to our spiritual lives.

Sharing the Spirit
Eleanor of Aquitaine is reported to have once said to Henry II of England, ‘Love – in a world where carpenters get resurrected from the dead, anything is possible.’ Skeptics may find that hard to believe, but in faith we Christians believe that the Lord Jesus not only rose from the dead but that he also shared and continues to share God’s Spirit with all his faithful people. We take the Pentecostal mystery seriously because we believe that the Lord has sent his Spirit upon all of creation, especially on human persons and communities. We are in fact the bearers of God own life. We do not espouse pantheism in the sense that we believe that all of creation is divine; rather, we believe in what theologians call panentheism, whereby we affirm that the Spirit of God permeates all of creation but extends infinitely beyond all of creation. It is the awareness that we are the bearers of God’s Spirit that should give us a profound sense of dignity and worth and result in an awesome sense of reverence for ourselves, for one another, and for all of creation. Paul assured the Corinthians that Christ has become for us a life-giving Spirit, capable of empowering us with the forgiving Spirit that permeates the very life of God. Carl Jung, the eminent Swiss psychologist, had a remarkable inscription carved in Latin over his front door: vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit (‘bidden or not bidden, God is present’). The text was meant to remind his patients and himself of the powerful presence of God’s Spirit and that awe of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Pentecost completes the mission of Jesus. Our salvation is achieved within a human, earthly setting, but the agent is divine – Jesus Christ working through the power of the Holy Spirit. The feast is firmly rooted in Jewish tradition. Originally a simple agrarian festival, a thanksgiving for the harvest, by Jesus’ day it had changed a great deal and had incorporated elements of a covenant renewal ceremony commemorating God’s gift of the law on Mount Sinai.

Five moments of paschal mystery
In antiquity Ascension and Pentecost were one feast; both were originally subsumed within the fifty days of Easter, the oldest observance in the church year. We, however, follow in our liturgical calendar the chronology of Luke in the Book of Acts, and so we celebrate Ascension as an historical event on the fortieth day after Easter and Pentecost as the day on which Christ sent forth the Holy Spirit on the fiftieth day. Only Luke makes the distinction. He is in fact a sound psychologist. He knows that we can absorb only so much of the meaning of the Paschal Mystery at one time. There are really five moments in our celebration of the Paschal Mystery. There is the Good Friday moment when human life seems lost. There is the Easter Sunday moment when new resurrected life is received. There are the forty days after Easter when, perhaps like the Israelites in the desert, we long for the old life we lost through conversion, even though it was a life of slavery. It takes time to adjust to the new reality of life with God in the risen Lord. Then there is the moment of Ascension, a time when we learn not to cling to what must be left behind and to allow our own lives to ascend to new life in God. Finally, there is the time of Pentecost when we are empowered to open our minds and hearts to the gift of God’s own Spirit as we strive with God’s own power to live now as God lives, in unity and peace.

In Scripture there is never anything soft or flimsy about the Holy Spirit. Wind, water, and fire are the striking symbols of God’s Spirit. It was God’s Spirit that emboldened the warrior judges like Jephthah and Samson. It was God’s Spirit that overtook the prophets like Jeremiah and Ezechiel and empowered them to proclaim the Word of God, often at the cost of much suffering. Since Luke wrote the account of the Pentecost event, in iconography the dove, rather than tongues of fire, has been the dominant symbol of the Holy Spirit, apart from Celtic spirituality which saw the Spirit in the wild goose.

The Spirit in darkness and light
Pentecost is a feast of liberation and freedom, but the achievement of that freedom may be painful. Not everything about the Spirit’s work can be recounted in images of fertile, womb-like tenderness. Sometimes the elusive Spirit’s presence is recognized only in the breaking points of human life, the moments when the world and our lives in it seem to be unglued.

Flannery O’Connor’s short story ‘The Enduring Chill’ encourages us to think of the Spirit’s work in fierce ways. There we read of Asbury, a jaded young hypochondriac, who has tried his luck unsuccessfully as a writer in New York and then returns to his hometown in Georgia to ‘die.’ Since his life has no meaning, he has decided to die in the most dramatic way possible. He rules out suicide, because in a life riddled with disappointments, ‘suicide would not have been a victory…’ With cunning, Asbury constructs the scenes that will lead to his ‘most meaningful experience of himself’. He lies in bed, stares at a bird-like stain on the ceiling of his room, heaps sarcasm on everyone brave enough to come near him, including his mother, the doctor, and the priest, and waits for that final delicious moment – a defiant death that will reveal the ultimate absurdity of life. But death eludes him. A cold recognition finally dawns on him: he will live, robbed of his great moment. The stain on the ceiling reveals its terrible symbolism. O’Connor writes: ‘The fierce bird, which through the years of his childhood and the days of his illness has been poised over his head, waiting mysteriously, appeared all at once to be in motion. Asbury blanched… He saw that for the rest of his days… he would live in the face of purifying terror… The Holy Ghost, emblazoned in ice instead of fire, continues, implacable, to descend.’

In Asbury’s experience, the Spirit appeared not as consoler but as putifying terror. The Spirit fell upon him with unexpected violence to strip him of self-deception and to make him face his life for what it has become – a sham. The story is harsh: the Spirit is not only a source of solace, but a source of painful confrontation as well. Maturing in Christian faith implies the ability to recognize the presence of God’s Spirit even in the midst of our catastrophic limitations.

The Spirit gives and forgives
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul details the many gifts of the Spirit, but the experience of the Corinthian Church reminds us that Pentecost did not eliminate human problems. The greater the presence of the Spirit, the more gifted God’s people are. But gifts tend to make people jealous, defensive, and often aggressive. Wherever there are abundant gifts, there will be a need for forgiveness, as Jesus reminds us in the Gospel. In his Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton remarked that ‘It is only the fire of God, who is a consuming Fire, that can refine us like gold, and separate us from the slag and dross of our selfish individualities to fuse us into this wholeness of perfect unity that will reflect his own Triune Life forever. .. As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love involves the resetting of a body of broken bones. Even saints can not live with saints on this earth without some anguish, without some pain at the differences that divide them.’

Although Pentecost is a feast of unity and a celebration of peace, we know that harmony is not always the ordinary state of human affairs. The lives we live are often out of joint – which means that we always live with anxieties, antipathies, and tensions. We have staggered to the end of what is probably the bloodiest and most brutal century in history. Having witnessed so many horrors, we find it difficult to take seriously any programs of human perfectibility, whether proposed by classical philosophers, religious enthusiasts, or the confident theories of the Enlightenment. There seems to be something profoundly and dangerously wrong with us, a flaw that cannot be wished away, a deep darkness of the heart, a sickness of the soul.

Life stronger than death
But if there is something irreducibly wrong with us, there is also something inescapably and stubbornly right about us. Our own terrible century itself witnesses to a healing power that is stronger than death, and more luminous than the darkness of all the suffering and violence that encroaches on our lives. For example, the demonic fury of the Holocaust was followed by a theology of hope against hope; the destructiveness of the Second World War was followed by amazing economic and political rebuilding; the institutionalized violence against the colonized peoples of India led to the liberating protests of Gandhi; and the oppression of blacks in the United States stirred to eloquence the prophetic voices of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. It was Chesterton who remarked that the only problem more puzzling than the question of evil is the question of the good. Certainly in the gospels we have numerous examples of the triumph of good over prolonged suffering as Jesus heals the blind and those suffering from leprosy, cures demoniacs, and raises the dead to life. In our own time, Jesus asks us: ‘Do you want to be healed by the power of my Spirit? Or are you like the obdurate pharisees who are so perverse that they want suffering to perdure?’

Whatever the unintelligible onslaughts of life may do to a person, the human spirit can survive intact provided the spirit is the Spirit of God given to us in Jesus Christ. That is the basic gospel truth which confirms and strengthens us. Pentecost calls us to the work of completing creation, of fulfilling the promise of God’s reign in the world. All life long we await the gift of tongues – the ability to hear and speak the Word of God, each as we come to know it, understand it, and proclaim it in the uniqueness of our own hearts. The gift empowers us to interpret the meaning of Christ’s mission as it unfolds in our human experience. It is through that gift that we discover a common language so that our world is no longer a Babel of misunderstanding and confusion. In a world where so many people find life meaningless, meaning is what our hungry minds perceive and love and what our parched hearts understand.

A gift given to all
Writing of the gift of the Spirit on Pentecost, Bishop Kallistos Ware highlights three things that are particularly striking. First, it is a gift that is given to all people. ‘They were all filled with the Holy Spirit.’ The gift is not only given to bishops and priests. It is given to all who open their minds and hearts to the presence and power of God’s Spirit. This is vitally important today as the Church seeks effective ways to appropriate the many gifts of lay people in ministry and service, especially the gifts of women. All are Spirit-bearers.

Secondly, the gift of the Spirit is a gift of unity. ‘They were all with one accord in one place.’ The Spirit makes the many to be one in the Body of Christ. The descent of the Spirit reverses the human condition which developed at the tower of Babel. The Spirit transforms isolated individuals into persons capable of relating to one another. The Spirit brings unity and mutual comprehension, empowering people to reach consensus and to speak with one voice. Following the Pentecostal experience in the upper room at Jerusalem, the community is described as possessing ‘all things in common.’ They were one in mind and heart. Such unity should be a distinguishing mark of every Christian community at all times.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the gift of the Spirit is a gift of diversity. The tongues of fire are ‘cloven’ or ‘divided’; they are given to each one directly. This means that the Holy Spirit not only makes us one, the Spirit makes us all different. At Pentecost the various human languages were not abolished, but they ceased to be a cause of division. Each continued to speak in his or her own tongue, but by the power of the Spirit each could understand and accept the others. Just as there are different members in the human body, so there are different gifts among the members of the Body of Christ. To be a Spirit-bearer means that each person is called to realize the distinctive characteristics of his or her personality. Each is called to be unique. Life in the Spirit manifests itself in an inexhaustible variety. At a time when heterogeneity is often considered unorthodox in the Church, it is important to emphasize that the riches of God’s Spirit are not revealed in the sameness of people but rather in their wonderful diversity. A priest who used to spend many hours hearing confessions in an inner-city parish once remarked wearily, ‘What a pity there are no new sins!’ Sanctity is never boring or repetitive; there are always new forms in which God’s Spirit can be revealed.

As Pentecostal people, we are called to rejoice in the unity and peace made possible by God’s own Spirit. We are called to have deep faith in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ words, ‘the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! Bright wings.’


This article first appeared in Spirituality (May/June 2000), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.


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