After considering how the Trinitarian God as a whole responds to suffering, then examining the help that comes from the Serene Center of the Father and the Compassionate Son, Chapter 11 turns to the very different role of the Holy Spirit. God of Our Silent Tears is available for order on line from the Cathedral Bookstore (Los Angeles) http://www.godofoursilenttears.com
giving life to all life,
moving all creatures,
root of all things,
washing them clean,
wiping out their mistakes,
healing their wounds,
you are our true life,
awakening the heart
from its ancient sleep.
– Hildegard of Bingen
And we know when Moses was told
in the way he was told,
“Take off your shoes!” He grew pale from that simple
reminder of the fire in the dusty earth. . .
Like the moment you too saw for the first time,
your own house turned to ashes.
Everything consumed so the road could open again.
Your entire presence in your eyes
and the world turning slowly
into a single branch of flame.
– From “Fire in the Earth” by David Whyte
We have seen that the Father’s wise serenity can be our eye in the hurricane. We have seen that the Son’s compassion consoles us and gives meaning to suffering that might otherwise be for nothing. But there is more to God’s redemption yet; it is the reviving, empowering, restorative action of the Holy Spirit. In this chapter we will consider how the Spirit raises us up from desolation and despair.
A. WHAT DO WE MEAN BY “THE HOLY SPIRIT?”
The Greek word for “spirit” is pneuma which means breath or wind. “The wind (pneuma) blows where it wills and you hear the sound of it, but you do now know whence it comes or whither it goes.”[i] We know the Holy Spirit through its actions in our midst. It blows through us like a Chinook wind through a western canyon, speaking with mysterious voices.[ii] It will be nigh unto impossible to see how the Spirit responds to our affliction, unless we liberate our understanding from a widely held way of thinking of the Spirit, a way too small for our purposes.
Many people today confuse the Holy Spirit with religious emotions, especially ecstasy. I am not denigrating religious emotions; however, there is a serious problem with interpreting any feeling as being the Holy Spirit. One of the very fathers of emotionally charged religion in America, the 18th Century evangelist Jonathan Edwards came to a sober appreciation of the place of feeling in faith. On one hand he said, “True religion consists in great part in holy affections (feelings).” But that does not make our feelings, even our holy feelings, the same as the Holy Spirit which is God.[iii] Our feelings are too flimsy, too flighty, and too easily manipulated to be equated with the eternally faithful God. When our feelings are strong and good, they may be our response to the Holy Spirit, but they are not the Holy Spirit. It is especially important for suffering people to know the Spirit is more than their feelings. Being depressed or overwrought with grief is a long way from religious ecstasy – but that doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit is not present in those situations actively working to heal and redeem.[iv]
The Spirit is the divine force that gives and restores life. At the Council of Constantinople in 381 C. E., the Church named the Spirit “the Lord, the Giver of Life.”[v] The Nicene Creed affirms the Spirit’s presence in the life-giving sacraments and concludes with our hope for resurrection, which is also the action of the Spirit. God gave Adam life by breathing into his nostrils God’s own ruach/breath/spirit. Duke theologian Geoffrey Wainwright finds three roles of the Spirit in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Spirit issues from God first, to create; second, to give life; and third, to empower prophets, judges, kings, and warriors.[vi]
St. Paul teaches that the Spirit dwells in us, but we also dwell in the Spirit.[vii] We experience the Spirit inwardly, but the Spirit is not limited to our interiority. The Spirit fills us just as breath fills our lungs and infuses our blood with oxygen, but the air we breathe extends around the world and far into the sky. The Spirit is vastly larger than we are. It permeates us but we cannot contain it.
B. THE SPIRIT REVITALIZES AND EMPOWERS US
Sometimes I feel discouraged and like my life’s in vain.
But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.
-- Balm In Gilead
Now that we have an idea what we mean by “the Holy Spirit,” we are ready to consider how the Spirit responds to human suffering. When Jesus lay dead in the tomb, the Spirit breathed life back into him. Just so, The Spirit restores our life when we are in death. When we are dead, physically, spiritually, morally, or emotionally, the Spirit breathes life back into us. The Spirit is the force that raises us from death.[viii] When we go to the cross of our own affliction, the Son goes with us. Because he has gone with us, the Spirit, who raised Jesus, raises us too. This is the force Paul calls the “Spirit of Life” and the Creed calls “the Lord, the Giver of Life.”[ix] The afflicted are restored by this animating, vivifying energy of God stirring within our souls and all around us.
Life is often more than we can bear. And yet, to our utter amazement, people do rise from their ashes and walk on, sometimes heroically, wisely, compassionately – occasionally, even joyfully. When this happens, we know we are witnessing a miracle and a mystery. Human beings are not this resilient. No one could be. And yet, it happens.
Ultimately, our hope lies in the final resurrection[x] in which all the broken, bruised, crushed, and disheartened will be healed, made whole and glorified. Every tear will be wiped away from every eye. All will be forgiven, restored, and resolved. But we don’t have to wait that long to see the work of the Spirit. Those who suffer know full well we cannot wait that long. Resurrection happens – and it must happen if we are to have hope to carry us forward – now, in the midst of this mortal life, when the sufferer whose life seems to be over gets up and takes the next step, draws the next breath. This is the action of the Holy Spirit, the divine breath, the wind at our backs, carrying us forward. The Holy Spirit dwells within us, but the Spirit is bigger than we are. It would have to be for the miracles it must perform.
Sometimes when disaster or disappointment strike, we say, “it knocked the wind out of my sails.” A loss, a discouragement can sap our energy to live. The French term is envie de continuer – the will to go on. When we lose that will, it is like losing God’s spirit. That is why the psalmist prayed in Psalm 51, “Take not your holy spirit from me . . . .Sustain me with your bountiful spirit.” Again think of lifeless Adam in creation or lifeless Jesus in the tomb vivified by God’s breath of life blown into their bodies.
In Ezekiel 37, the prophet surveys the Valley of Dry Bones. The bones represent the despairing people of Israel in exile in Babylon. Israel says “Our bones are dried up and our hope is lost.” But the Lord says to the hopeless, forsaken exiles, taken from their homeland and enslaved, “I will put my Spirit in you, and you shall live.” Both Paul and Ezekiel give us images of the Spirit as breathing life and hope back into us. St. John gives us a different figure of speech. In John’s account of Jesus’ farewell discourse, Our Lord says,
I will pray to the Father, and he will give you another
Paraklete (variously translated as Comforter,
“Advocate or “Counselor” to be with you forever,
even the Spirit of Truth.[xi]
William Temple emphasized that “Paraklete” means a strengthener more than a consoler.[xii] John Macquarrie says the work of the Holy Spirit in humankind is to “enlighten and strengthen” us.[xiii] The Spirit empowers us to stand up on our feet and live.
This Spirit gives us life when we are in death, empowers us to do what must be done. Just as the Spirit empowered the prophets, judges, kings and warriors of Israel, the Spirit inspires us to do more than our own strength could accomplish. In the face of affliction, we need power. Sometimes it is the power to show up for another round of chemotherapy; sometimes, it is the power to fight an injustice; sometimes it is the power to resist an addictive impulse. We often don’t have that power within ourselves. But the Holy Spirit has deep wells of power available to strengthen us for our challenges.
The Spirit affects our own spirits, reviving of our souls, imbuing us with inner strength. But the Spirit is more than what happens inside us. The Spirit is the life force of all creation, not limited by our subjectivity, not homebound in our interiority. Some theologians seem reluctant to acknowledge the place of gracious serendipity in our lives. Perhaps it comes too close to religious naiveté and superstition for their liking. However, even the generally skeptical and rationalist theologian Gordon Kaufman acknowledges creative serendipity as God’s hand in the on-going development of the cosmos and in human history.[xiv] Gracious serendipity happens in our individual lives too. Someone says the right word. An unexpected opportunity comes along. The right book falls into our hands when we weren’t looking for it. Healing happens by ordinary or extraordinary means. “The wind blows where it wills . . . “
This is not to say the Spirit is orchestrating everything that happens; but the Spirit is present in every situation, not controlling it, but calling it, inviting it, luring it toward mercy, justice, and reconciliation. How the Spirit acts in gracious serendipity is utterly beyond explanation. But, God as my witness, it does happen. The Spirit acts in the circumstances of our lives to smooth a path, to open a door, to give us a word of encouragement to meet our need at that moment. That grace in our outer circumstances joins with the grace happening inside us to give us strength and courage to live boldly, creatively, and lovingly.
C. LIVING BEYOND SELF
Earlier, I told the story of a woman who lost her daughter in the crash of TWA Flight 800. She asked me “why” and I had no answer. But she found an answer not to the question “why” but to the more important question of “how then shall we live”? Another woman in our congregation, a lonely person with no family, was dying of renal failure. Someone had to care for her. So the grieving mother got up from her grief and took food to the dying woman. She joined with others in the congregation to give the care a family might have given if there had been one. The mother says today that the dying woman saved her life by needing her.
When the Spirit raises us from despair, it does not just restore us to our old life. We do not just carry on as before. Life in the Spirit is new life with a new agenda. When the Spirit of God fell upon prophets or kings, it was not just to cheer them up, but also to empower them for a mission of service to others. Paul is emphatic in I Corinthians 12 and 13 that spiritual gifts aren’t for the benefit of individuals. Life in the Spirit means life for others. Jesus, applying the words of 2nd Isaiah to himself, said:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor . . .
to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind
to set at liberty those who are oppressed
and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.[xv]
The Spirit draws us outside ourselves into concern for and service to others, particularly the afflicted. Christians and non-Christians alike equate spirituality too much with practicing the right meditations or holding the right beliefs so we can maintain a pleasant mood. But that isn’t how the Holy Spirit works. Spirit-filled persons are not that interested in their own mood. They are thinking about “the poor, the blind, and the oppressed.” [xvi]
The Spirit calls and empowers people to help those who are poor, blind, oppressed, held captive or subject to any form of affliction. The Spirit serves the suffering through the hands of flesh-and-blood human servants. And the Spirit lifts us out of our suffering by transforming us into servants.
When we are wounded, it is natural to become focused on our own pain and loss. It is natural for our attention to turn inward. It is even natural to identify with our status as an innocent victim. Natural as these responses are in the immediate aftermath of a loss, they are the very responses that cripple us and prevent us from moving on to experience new life. Liberation from this disabling identification is part and parcel of restoring our wholeness.[xvii] The Spirit sets us free from obsessive thinking, from the power of systems, from old patterns of feeling and acting that keep us trapped in lives less than God wants for us. The Spirit liberates us by converting our self-focus to service. Our own pain can become the raw material of compassion for others. That transformation is a healing in itself and it opens our hearts to further healing over time. The Prayer Of St. Francis says, “It is in giving that we receive; it is in forgiving that we are forgiven . . . “Just so, it is in healing others that we ourselves are healed.
Life in the Spirit is life for others. Life lived for self is the spiritual death from which the Spirit raises us. When Paul contrasts flesh and Spirit, he is not contrasting bodily instincts with intellectual or ascetic values. He uses flesh as a metaphor of egocentricity. Some modern translations by-pass the metaphor by translating sarx (literally, flesh) as self-indulgence. Paul says the works of the flesh or self-indulgence are fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, partisanship, envy . . . . But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”[xviii] The Spirit sets us free from self-obsession and opens our hearts to care for others through active service.[xix]
D. CONNECTING THE DISCONNECTED
Severe suffering breaks our connection with reality at a fundamental level. We may deny the reality of our loss; or we may be swallowed up by it so that we cannot appreciate what we have left or take in new life as it unfolds. We are cut off. The Spirit reconnects us. Rowan Williams says, “the Spirit connects us to reality in a way that bridge[s] . . . the gulf between suffering and hope . . . confronting suffering without illusion but also without despair.”[xx] It does not lift us out of our experience. It directly connects us with the reality at hand, which may actually lift us out of our subjectivity, our personal myths and habitual ways of interpreting things. The Spirit links us to the reality of our pain, but also to the reality of our hope. It connects us to the present moment, but it also connects us to eternity.[xxi]
The ultimate action of the Holy Spirit is to connect us with God. The Spirit draws us into the Trinity, into the swirling vortex of Trinitarian Love. The Spirit’s power to reconnect us to the realities at hand in our lives is part and parcel of the Spirit’s role in the inner life of God. There is dynamic tension between the Father and the Son – the Father’s “still point” serenity and the Son’s passion. The tension between them is creative and alive. That tension vibrates like the rhythm of African drums. And in that tension is the dance. The Holy Spirit is the dance. We might think of the Job Description Trinity, in this context, as the Dancer (the Son), the Still Point (the Father), and the Dance (the Spirit).
When the Spirit gives us direct awareness of the Present Moment in which the Son manifests, and of Eternity in which the Father manifests; and when the Spirit empowers us to live into the dynamic tension of those two poles, we have joined the dance, we are living in the Spirit and participating in God. We need as much consolation and encouragement as we can get in the course of life, especially when there is sorrow. But ultimately we need more. We need redemption. We need to reach a destination that justifies the journey, “the bitter road we’ve trod.” That redemption is our union with God in the cosmic dance. Another way to express this redeeming action of the Spirit is Paul’s image of adoption:
All who are led by the Spirit are sons of God . . .
When we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself
bearing witness with our spirit that we are children
When we are raised from our spiritual death by the same Spirit that raised Christ, drawn by the Spirit beyond our self-focus, and empowered by that Spirit to serve others, to “proclaim good news to the poor and release to the captives . . . ,” then we stand as brothers of Christ and children of the Father. The Spirit’s response to affliction is not a sedative, not a soothing reassurance, but a profoundly new life. As David Whyte says:
Like the moment you too saw for the first time,
your own house turned to ashes.
Everything consumed so the road could open again.
Your entire presence in your eyes
and the world turning slowly
into a single branch of flame.
God’s response to human affliction is rich and complex. If we think of the redeeming work of all three persons of the Trinity, each playing its own part in our healing and restoration, we recognize that God pours out a variety of graces. Each of us partakes of those graces in our own way according to our own unique nature and our own particular need. But, for all of us, all three persons of the Trinity are working to sanctify our distress, to heal us, and to lead us into the ways of wisdom and compassion.
The Father/Mother God is the Serene Center of our reality, unshaken by whatever has happened. This God manifests as Eternity, as the ocean or the Ganges River, placing our hardships in a vast perspective. This God manifests as the sky over a battlefield, untorn by the bullets, unscathed by the artillery, untainted by the blood.
When people turn from the anxiety and turmoil of life to a still place, a centered awareness of inner peace, is that escapism? Is it fantasy? Is it infantile delusion? Yes – unless it is reconnecting with the deepest level of reality – unless the Father God is the Serene Center of Reality. Because God is that “still point of the turning world,” we can find peace in the midst of anxiety. We can look up from the battlefield’s carnage and see that the sky is still blue.
The Son and the Spirit are both modes of God’s presence with us in the midst of our lives, on the battlefield, at our side. But they are with us in different ways. The Son is with us in each and every successive present moment, as fellow sufferer. He shares and understands our experience. This sharing makes him a consoling companion, but he is more than that. He has been through the ordeal and has won the victory. He gives us not just sympathy but hope. By loving us enough to join us in our affliction, the Son grounds our identities in being beloved of God. We are not just perpetual victims. By joining us in affliction, the Son makes a bridge between our human passion, our mortal suffering, and the Serene Center. The Son connects us to the Father by “liv(ing) and dy(ing) as one of us . . . to reconcile us to . . . the God and Father of all.”[xxiii]
We face affliction with the Son on our right hand and the Spirit on the left. While the Son goes with us to our cross, the Spirit raises us up from our tombs. The Spirit breathes life back into us. We stand back up like the bones in Ezekiel’s valley. The Holy Spirit restores life and gives us power, real strength not only to endure, but also to overcome.
The Spirit draws us outside obsession with our wounded selves and opens our hearts to care for, value, enjoy, appreciate, and serve others. We “gain our lives by losing them,” find ourselves by forgetting ourselves, and are raised to a larger life than we had previously imagined. The immense and incomprehensible power of the Spirit moves in us subjectively, and it moves around us in the circumstances of our lives. In both movements, the Spirit renews our hope and courage. This more abundant life, now lived for others in the Spirit, is a new way of being in the world. It is nothing less than a way of being in God, for we are now living the Son’s manner of life; we are now living as children of God.
The combined action of the Triune God is mysteriously greater than the sum of its parts. The Serene Center, the Fellow Sufferer, and the Empowering Spirit together work in us a change that begins with the miracle of facing another day and ends in the joyful promise of the Resurrection into the New and Endless Day.
1. In responding to your own life challenges or in helping others, have you ever found yourself doing or saying helpful things you didn’t know you had in you? How do you explain that?
2. Has suffering ever opened your heart to understand and care for others more deeply? If so, how?
3. Has serving others ever eased the pain in your own life? How did that happen?
4. When you pray, how does the Holy Spirit participate in your prayer? How do you recognize the movement of the Spirit during prayer? Have you ever been surprised by thoughts or feelings during prayer?
5. Have you experienced what this chapter calls “gracious serendipity,” the right person, word, book, or opportunity coming along at just the right moment to give you hope or somehow sustain you in a hard time?
[i] John 3: 8.
[ii] The word from the Latin versions of the Creed, immensus, is used to describe the Spirit as incomprehensible, meaning it “cannot be measured or contained in the categories of finite thought.” John Macquarrie, Paths In Spirituality. (Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 1992) p. 42.
[iii] Edwards said,
The affections are no other, than the more vigorous and sensible exercises
of the inclination and will of the soul . . . And though the affections have
not their seat in the body, yet the constitution of the body, may very much
contribute to the present emotion . . . And the degree of religion is rather
to be judged by the fixedness and strength of the habit that is exercised
in affection, whereby holy affection is habitual, than by the degree of the
present exercise. . .
Jonathan Edwards, “A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections,” in A Jonathan Edwards Reader, ed. John E. Smith, Harry S. Stout, and Kenneth P. Minkema (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995) pp. 141, 146.
[iv] Another too-small view of the Holy Spirit appears in Barth’s evangelical theology,[iv] in which the Word (Scripture, Jesus, and Preaching) is seen as the be-all and end-all of God’s manifestation to us. Barth reduces the Spirit to the role of a receiver inside us. “The Spirit is the subjective side of the event of revelation.” Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.1 trans. G. W. Bromiley. (Edinburgh, 1975) p. 449. True enough, the Spirit is essential to a holy interpretation of the revelation we receive. Barth’s view is just an incomplete picture. First, it limits the Spirit too much to what happens inside us and fails to account for the Spirit as a larger force in the world. Second, it defines the role of the Spirit as too passive. If we look back ever so briefly to Scripture and the Christian Tradition, we will see that the Spirit plays a far larger role in our healing and restoration than that of a passive receiver of revelation.
[v] Paul calls the Holy Spirit “the Spirit of life”[v] (echoing Genesis 1:2) and attributes the resurrection to that life-giving Spirit. “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies through the Spirit which dwells in you.”Romans 8: 11. Psalm 33:6, says, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their hosts by the breath of his mouth . . .“ Breath (ruach) is the word for Spirit.
[vi]Geoffrey Wainwright, “The Holy Spirit,” in The Cambridge Companion To Christian Doctrine. Ed. Colin E. Gunton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) pp. 274-275. In Luke-Acts, the Spirit motivates and empowers Jesus’ ministry, then continues the same ministry of healing and reconciliation through the Apostles.
[vii] Romans 8:9.
[viii] “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. “Romans 8: 14-17.
[ix] In John Macquarrie’s words, “The breath is the invisible . . . characteristic that distinguishes a living man from a dead one; . . . Spirit is the active, formative, life-giving power.” John Macquarrie, Paths In Spirituality, p. 41.
[x] On the one hand, making such an ultimate claim for the resurrection seems to require some clarification of what the resurrection actually is. On the other, that question calls for a book unto itself. Certainly there is the view of the resurrection as bodily in a literal sense. That could be a matter of sheer miracle and mystery, or it could be a matter of God crafting a new and perfected version of us from the form of our being preserved eternally in the Divine Mind. Or it could be a spiritual resurrection, the resurrection of the spiritual body of which Paul speaks in 1st Corinthians. Or it could be a life in the Whole in which individual identity falls away. Certainly much theology, especially Catholic theology, thinks in terms of union with God. This book will not take a position beyond this: resurrection is of the person but to a new way of being, perhaps a transpersonal state somewhat as God is transpersonal; the resurrection is to a new order of life that transcends suffering.
[xi] John 14: 15.
[xii] William Temple, Readings In John’s Gospel. (Wilton: Morehouse Barlow, 1939) p. 231.
[xiii] John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology, p. 333.
[xiv] Gordon Kaufman, God In The Face Of Mystery (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993) pp. 264-280.
[xv] Luke 5: 13-19.
[xvi] “Spirit” . . . may be described as the capacity for going out of oneself and beyond oneself, . . . for transcending oneself . . . The more man goes out from himself, the more the spiritual dimension of his life is deepened, the more he becomes truly man, the more he grows into the likeness of God who is Spirit. On the other hand, the more he turns inward and encloses himself in self-interest, the less human does he become.” John Macquarrie, Paths In Spirituality, pp. 44-45.
[xvii] David Kelsey, pp. 55-59.
[xviii] Gal. 5: 19, 22.
[xix] “The Spirit is not only the bond of love, but also the one who breaks the bonds of self-love . . . . In this way the Holy Spirit indeed perfects the love of God, immanently and economically (as Family and Job Description Trinity): immanently, by completing it as love . . . .; and economically, by being the differentiation, and perfection of divine
love “outward,” whereby, graciously, it opens out to address freely . . . the otherness of creation, and invest it with boundless difference, endless inflections of divine glory.” Hart, The Beauty Of The Infinite, p. 176.
[xx] Rowan Williams, p. 124.
[xxi] Suffering turns us inward into a spasm of solitude. But the Spirit expands our awareness and concern into the diversity of others. The Spirit opens our hearts to experience the diversity of creation as redeeming beauty. An example would be the joy of observing the delightful multiplicity of form and color among the species of fish at an aquarium. In this sense, Jonathan Edwards called the diversifying Spirit, “the beautifier, the one in whom the happiness of God overflows, the one who bestows radiance, shape, clarity, and enticing splendor. . . .” Jonathan Edwards, Miscellanies, in The Philosophy of Jonathan Edwards ed. Harvey G. Townsend (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1972) p. 260; paraphrased by Hart, The Beauty Of The Infinite, p. 178.
[xxii] Romans 8: 14-15.
[xxiii] Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church USA, Eucharistic Prayer A, p. 362.