- “The way up and the way down is one and the same.” So reports Herakleitos of Ephesus from his spiritual experience. What ought a soul to do when it finds that it is not where it was before, neither up or down, but perhaps wondering on the ground? Is it perhaps necessary at times to take the same way up one has taken before? If so, then one must remember the way taken, and explore it yet again.
- We hear many answers, including in the Church. But the first question is: What is the question? Or what are the best questions to ask? How does a human being return to what Brother Lawrence called "the practice of the presence of God?" How does a human mind regain its openness to divine Presence? "That is the question."
- James Madison wrote in what became The Federalist that the first problem of politics is to govern the people, and that the second is intimately related to the first: the government must govern itself. Hence, “power must be made to check power,” “ambition must check ambition,” and so on: a balanced and limited government that checks itself from abusing its powers. The spiritual problem for every human being is similar, for what is government, but the soul of man written large? The first spiritual problem is for the soul to be open to, and immerse in, divine Presence; the second problem, intimately related, is for the soul to be ever aware of divinity beyond what can be experienced. Many err by being unaware of mutual participation in divinity; some err by assuming that their experiences constitute something like a comprehensive knowledge of God.
Leaving aside the approach of technical, doctrinal theology to “the Holy Spirit” as “the Third Person of the Trinity,” let us briefly consider meanings of the symbol “Holy Spirit” (or simply “the Spirit”) in Christian experience.First, from earliest Christian experiences, evidenced in the letters of the Apostle Paul, “Holy Spirit” is a name for the presence of God, and especially of the Risen Christ, in the soul (consciousness) of a believer. As St. Paul writes, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” “Did you receive the Holy Spirit by works of the Law or by hearing with faith?” In this sense, through openness to the living God (faith), a human being experiences divine Presence; and this experience is often called “the Holy Spirit,” or through referring to the death and Resurrection of Jesus, called “Christ.” Usually, when the experiences are more personal, such as “You are mine,” and “I am in you and you are in me,” the Presence is named “Christ.” When the experiences are impersonal--love, joy, peace, forgiveness, and such gifts as “tongues,” healing, and so on--they are usually symbolized as “the Holy Spirit.”
Second, in the lives of every human being, there are many experiences which may well be attributed to actions by “the Holy Spirit” that lie beyond “religious experiences” in the usual usage. Among these I note four distinct types of experiences of “the Holy Spirit.”
Distinct experiences of the mind, and especially of the highest uses of reason and intuition: questioning, searching, longing for God or truth, the desire to gain wisdom, moments of sudden insight or clarity. In speaking with a genuine philosopher many years ago, I asked him, “What is the Holy Spirit?” His answer brought understanding: “What do you think is moving you to ask your questions?” Such insight is available to every human being, for all of us are “sharers in the Divine nature.”
In conscious perception of Beauty, a spiritually sensitive soul is aware of the divine Presence or Holy Spirit at work: In sudden moments when one does not just see a flower, for example, but glimpses the Beautiful in and through this particular flower; when one feels drawn to appreciate the mystery of Beauty in nature; when a soul is moved by the experience of awe or wonder or joy at Beauty beyond what words can convey. Such awareness is most often through sight or hearing. These experiences are indeed movements of “the Holy Spirit,” the divine Presence, in and through and with a human being.
In a sudden or renewed sense of energy, as one feels “empowered by the Spirit,” by a force from outside oneself flowing in, renewing, energizing, giving life.
And finally, in “the greatest of these” experiences, in love: when one delights in the beauty and goodness in another, and seeks the good of the other, rather than one’s fleeting desires or interests. In true love that defies death, the Spirit is at work.
The Solemnity of the LORD’s Ascension presents challenges to the faithful, and to preachers. If one were preaching only to children, perhaps one could rely on a retelling of the picture-stories of the Ascension in the Gospels and especially in the Acts of the Apostles: Jesus was lifted up behind a cloud, and became invisible to them. (Such an image is easily depicted in art, requiring little imagination or understanding.) Children need such sensuous images to grasp anything of Christian teaching, but as our minds mature, we become restless with such images, and desire to understand the meaning of the event celebrated. Indeed, faith requires a searching mind, not a mere child’s ascent to “the truths of the faith.” And if we exercise faith, then we begin to ask questions, which may at first seem clumsy, but with practice, improve: Did Jesus Christ physically leave the earth? Where is he now? Could Christ have left physically, in order to be more present in spirit? And to what did Jesus ascend? Is he now one with God? Is Christ still distinct from God, or has he somehow merged with the Divine that in Christian tradition is called “the Father?”
Begin with the basic experience of faith: the presence of God, often symbolized as Christ, in the soul of the inquiring mind. If Christ were not present, how could one believe? If Christ were not at work in the believer, how could his words be recognized as true? For he said (MT 28): “Behold, I AM with you always, even to the end of the age.” If you truly believe, then you are aware that God / Christ is with you. And if Christ is with his faithful ones, then he is not really absent except physically. Although absent bodily, Christ is present spiritually, to the mind of the inquiring man or woman, to the loving heart. “If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father....”
Just as when one’s beloved dies, the one remaining on earth must “let go” as a gift of true love, so it is with Christ: In our love for Christ, we do not seek him out in time or place, or try to contact him physically or with a real emotional experience. We do not hold a seance to hear Jesus speak to us. Rather, our hearts must rise by the practice of trust in God, as we acknowledge that Jesus Christ, the One, is now to be found, not here or there, but fully in the Unknown God. And one enters into the presence of God only through “faith working by love.”
“Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me....?”
Not many important words in the English language are as over-used and as abused as“love,” which is, according to one pop song, “just a four-letter word.” Each of us knows how powerful the word can be in the right context, used in the right way, with truthfulness behind it. But we also know how trite, how meaningless, how deceitful “the l-word” can be. Who knows what the Beatles meant when they chanted repeatedly, “It’s easy. All you need is love.” What kind of love? Love for whom? Love from whom? What they meant was “to learn how to feel inside,” which is essentially different from the love Christ embodies.
Even in contemporary Christianity, ”love” has often been overused to the point of being trite and virtually meaningless. To say, “God loves you” can be a highly significant statement. But to repeat it endlessly and mindlessly, and without explaining the nature of this love and what it demands in response, can be misleading and at worst, spiritually deadening. Long ago have I learned that among Christians and in pop culture at large, repeatedly speaking of “love, love, love” can be used as a cover for deceit and foolishness. A sentence such as “God loves you just as you are” can be both profound and dangerously misleading. If it is taken to mean, “Because God loves you just as you are, there is no reason to repent, to change, to get your act together” the teaching is destructive of any true life. Those who say, “Just love him, forgive him, forget it, and and move on,” are perhaps seeking to hide their own wrong-doing from the light of truth. Love and forgiveness can, simply stated, be used to cover up wrong-doings and leave serious evils unaccounted for, uncorrected; and worse, leave the human being unrepentant and unchanged. Hence, I try to avoid over-using “love-talk” in homilies and in teaching.
And then we have the second reading and the Gospel proclaimed this morning. On a quick glance, I counted some twenty uses of “love” (and the related word, “friend”) in these two short readings. The love-word appears to be over-used, to say the least. In the case of the evangelist John, however, “love” (agape, philia) is profound, for the rich meaning flows from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Such love is highly costly--costing God his own “Beloved.” This “love” is no mere feeling or desire, but self-giving action on behalf of others. To love someone in this sense means to seek his or her eternal well-being, true and lasting happiness; to love means to spend oneself for the other’s life in God and growth in holiness into eternity. Love sacrifices, love often hurts the one who loves. For love indeed contains agony and ecstasy. To love another in truth is to give of oneself even to death. True love costs you everything, and brings God.
Among the many fruitful symbols that the Apostle Paul employed to communicate our life in Christ, one of the richest is “the body of Christ,” of which the faithful are “members.” The image is obviously derived from the human body being one, yet composed of various organs and limbs, or “members.” The Apostle Paul uses the symbol of “the body of Christ” when writing about the church--the fellowship of disciples of Christ--and also when writing of the Eucharist. Hence, he calls both the Church and the Eucharist “the body of Christ.” The Apostle teaches us that by participating worthily in the Eucharist, human beings become more truly living members of Christ. In time, Church Fathers and the Magisterium (teaching authority in the Church) have tended to use “Body of Christ” for the Eucharist (and especially for the consecrated bread), and “mystical Body of Christ” for the living communion of all who are in faith-union with the crucified and risen LORD, Jesus Christ.
One often hears it said that “the Church is not a democracy, but a hierarchy” (literally, rule of the holy). That is true to an extent, but one can also justly maintain that the mystical body of Christ is more truly “democratic” than any democracy on earth. For “we are all members of one body,” and “all are one,” and “in God there is no distinction.” In other words, within the mystical Body, although we have “gifts that differ,” and various “ministries,” yet “all are one in Christ Jesus,” so that we are all equal before God--equally loved by “the God and Father of all.” In other words, “we all have a share in the one Spirit,” “who gives gifts as the Spirit wills.”
This conception of the Church, briefly outlined, is what I try to keep in mind and in practice in serving as a parish priest. Although I am ordained as a priest in the Church and given administrative oversight in parishes to which I am assigned, I need to respect the Spirit at work in all of us as God wills. None of us has a monopoly of goodness, wisdom, insight, justice, and so on. On the contrary, we truly need one another to be the human beings the LORD wills us to be: fully alive members of Christ. Hence, in making important decisions affecting our life together, I desire to seek and to draw on the wisdom of the Spirit at work in all of us. Although we are required in church law to have a functioning finance council, when it comes to a parish council--especially given our small size--my preference would be to consult the whole body on occasion, not merely a few voices. “To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
Hence, from time to time, I will summon all members of St. Mark’s (with missions) or Holy Trinity who wish to attend, and consider various issues affecting our life together. In effect, a common gathering at St. Mary’s will be completed when the Bishop visits us there. St. Mark’s with missions is invited to gather on 16 May for a consulting session. Then in about a month--with due notice--members of Holy Trinity and I will consider matters affecting our life together. Such communal councils may not be the neatest or easiest way to proceed, and they require all of us to try to act and speak responsively; but because we believe in the Holy Spirit, it should benefit us all to “listen to what the Spirit says to the Churches.”
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