During the summer of my fifth or sixth year, I began to say the Rosary every day. I can’t specify the calendar year, but I’m sure the season was summer. The decision to pray the Rosary was not a surge of devotion on my part. It was my calculated attempt to atone for a serious sin, as it was the summer that I had played a very bad game of strip poker on a Scout camping trip. It was a “bad” game on many levels. I’m not sure we really know how to play poker; no one took off more than their shoes, socks or shirt; and, when a Sammy Grubb pointed out that it was an immoral game, I suddenly realized that I had seriously sinned while playing it.
Half a century later, the memory seems a little silly, but at the time I was convinced that I had seriously sinned against the Sixth Commandment, and I honestly feared “the fires of hell.” I can smile at my young self, but I don’t deny what was a real movement of grace in my young life. You see, the Holy Spirit does not wait for adulthood or theological sophistication or any stage of maturity before entering our lives. Indeed, it is in childhood that the wound of sin and the balm of the Spirit begin. We were too young to play strip poker in order to titillate, but we were old enough to seek to humiliate one of us through gambling.
The Holy Spirit does not wait for adulthood or theological sophistication or any stage of maturity before entering our lives.
Later that frightening summer, I remembered that a priest, as he preached our parish mission, said that even great sinners could be saved by the Rosary. So I started to pray to him daily. This would lead to confession, and even to my priestly vocation.
There is something architectonic in the minds of male college students. In the last glorious years of childhood, before puberty swept everything away, we build baseball card collections, collect match cars, become expectation of DC and Marvel heroes superpowers. There is no doubt that collectibles have evolved and video games now dominate the imagination, but systems building remains a mark of college.
Perhaps that is why I decided to dedicate my rosaries to the members of the Most Holy Trinity, whom I unfortunately considered more of a committee than a mystery. Monday would be for God the Father; Tuesday, for God the Son; Wednesday, for God the Holy Spirit. Repeat, and you have six days, not seven. I solved the problem by giving Saturdays to the Blessed Mother. I thought the divine guys would applaud my creative solution and – that’s what I thought – kinda gallant.
What I discovered was that on two days of the week it was very difficult for my quorum mind to draw a picture of who I was addressing in my prayer. Even then, I knew I wasn’t praying to a bird. I had no idea what to imagine, maybe that’s why my system of sharing the week among the inhabitants of the sky quickly faded away.
It seemed like people could use the Faceless and Untold Spirit to assert just about anything they wanted.
A few years later, I was actively considering the priesthood, but even then the Holy Spirit seemed to be associated more with movements and ideas that I found suspicious than those that I found appealing. It seemed like people could use the Faceless and Untold Spirit to assert just about anything they wanted. Later, while studying in seminary, I would learn how common this was in the long history of the church.
Think for a moment about the Triune God that Christianity preaches. The first person of the Trinity, the one we call Father, is transcendent, pure spirit, absolute mystery. The Hebrew Scriptures insist that this Father is not like us, that his ways are not our ways. He is high enough above us to be truly unknown.
We recognize Jesus Christ as God the Son, the second person of the Trinity. Here we have a face, a message and a story each of which bears witness to the stripping of God: God incarnating, God assuming our human history. In Jesus we meet an icon, which points from the heart of humanity into the mystery of the divine.
What meaning does the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, have for us?
And finally we have the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, who is faceless, without history. Here God throws himself into human history so much that he is translucent. Anyone can see the story, but only some can recognize the Spirit.
So what does the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, mean to us? How is the Spirit different from the Father, who is also faceless and transcends history? It is the Son who makes the difference. The Father is the mystery, from which the Son comes. The Spirit is the mystery that the Father and the Son send.
But what is it that prevents any slogan, movement or ideology from claiming the authority of the Spirit? Simply this: the Holy Spirit is not Christ, any more than the Holy Spirit is the Father, but the Holy Spirit is always “christic”, that is to say the Spirit testifies. of the Son, draws men and women into the Son and makes their union with the Son possible.
The Spirit draws us into Christ and, through him, to the worship of the Father.
If he who is called the Holy Spirit has no apparent relationship with the Father and the Son, then rest assured that a slogan has replaced the living God. Yes, the Spirit is an absolute mystery at work in the world, often confusing and surprising. Yet the Spirit enters our world with a target and a mission, a clear identity. The Spirit draws us into Christ and, through him, to the worship of the Father.
The Trinity is not three alternative versions of God offered to our personal predilections. The Trinity is the Spirit in us, in our human history, drawing us into the Son and towards the Father.
It was the Holy Spirit who pierced my high school heart with an awareness of my sin; the Holy Spirit who exhorted me to turn to prayer and to seek the sacrament of confession. I did not work with a committee, among whose members I had to share my attentions. No, touched by the Spirit, I was led in the redemption effected by the Son towards the Father.
The Holy Spirit has neither a face nor a history of its own, but the Holy Spirit is always Christic, always – as the New Testament often says – “the Spirit of Christ”. The person and the mission are different; the message is the same.
Readings: Acts 8: 5-8, 14-17 1 Peter 3: 15-18 John 14: 15-21