Listen to what the Spirit is saying
Who is the Holy Spirit? The woman who asked me this question recently attended a seminar I gave at which I had touched on this important aspect of our faith.
The Holy Spirit isn’t easy for us to come to terms with. I believe that is the way it is meant to be. For God is not something we can domesticate to bring fully within our grasp. This is in fact one of the most consoling things about our faith. Sometimes we are accused of having ‘made up’ God as a simplistic answer to questions that science will one day address. Where that argument falls down is in our experience of God. If God were made up we would have constructed one who is comprehensible to human beings, fits within predictable patterns, and (quite frankly) does as he’s told.
But that is not the Christian God. We believe in a God who has revealed himself to be One God, manifest in Three Persons. Just how we can get our head around that is beyond me…which is the point. I often say to people that we will spend eternity coming to understand who God is and, as a result, who we are in response to God. Heaven won’t be you and me sitting on clouds playing harps. It will be each of us expanding into infinity as we encounter the extraordinary reality that is God and allow ourselves to be transformed by that encounter.
Eternity starts now. In the Christian experience, God is already at work in us bringing about this transformation. The great Catholic mystics speak of ‘darkness’ as intrinsic to this experience. This is necessarily so as God leads us beyond our desire to be in control and challenges our predisposition to try to contain God within our preconceived boundaries. That which we believe we see is soon either rendered inconsequential, or just a foretaste, as God leads us forward into that which we cannot see.
Darkness is inconvenient. People stumble in the dark. When darkness descends many either abandon ship or, with the best intentions in the world, seek to return to where they believed they were in control. This is true for us individually and collectively. The history of the Church is, in many ways, the history of a people being led forward by God, with some stretching forward into the dark (the prophets and the saints) and the rest of us reluctantly following along behind or attempting to go back to what we knew and understood. Just look around you at what is happening in the Church at the moment. There is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
For this reason, the Holy Spirit has been given to us to lead and to guide. The Holy Spirit is the great consoler, but also the fire in which we are refined and transformed. I believe this is one of the reasons why so many Catholics effectively abandon their faith after confirmation. The sacrament of confirmation is closely associated with the Holy Spirit. It is where we commit ourselves to becoming adults in the Christian faith, and open ourselves to learning what it means to live in, and be guided by the Holy Spirit. That always sounds fine in theory but, if the experience of the Chosen people (e.g. Exodus 13-14), Jesus (e.g. Matthew 3-4) and the Church is anything to go by, it takes us places we would rather not go (see John 21:18). It is understandable that many of us fail to stay on that journey, for it costs us everything and is, at least initially, incomprehensible to us.
We all know that the Church needs renewal and reform, although we possibly disagree on the elements that should go into that. As we continue to prepare for the 2020 Plenary Council the ideas on what ‘the Church should do’ are coming thick and fast. That’s a good thing. But there are questions lurking around behind all this. For example: what are you going to do if your convictions are not enough to sway the direction of the Church? How will you respond if something that appears to you to be an obvious solution doesn’t even make it on to the floor of the Council? Or to look at it from another angle: what if we all got what we wanted but, as a result, we were no closer to more authentically living our Christian vocation? After all, many other Christian denominations have implemented the changes a number of Catholics are currently aspiring to: are they necessarily any more authentic in living the Christian vocation as a result? What would be the point of any change, if by the end of it all we weren’t any better at allowing ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit, or to becoming more active in our service of the poor and those in need (Matthew 25:31 – 46).
For here is the thing about the adult Christian faith. While we look to the Church for support and guidance, and rightly so, in the end there is nothing stopping you and me living the faith we have received now, and allowing God to transform us in Christ, through the Holy Spirit. Renewal will always be required, and we must get on with that. Yet, enough has already been given to allow you and me to begin the journey into eternity now, without having to wait for ‘change’. No excuses.
Shane Dwyer is the Director of the National Centre for Evangelisation and the Catholic Enquiry Centre.