At some point during the Black Lives Matter protests, it struck me as more than just coincidence that the protests broke out during our Christian celebration of Pentecost. So if you’re up for another read about racism (and I know you may well have your plate filled with other good reads and deeds), I invite you to join me in reflecting on the presence of the Holy Spirit within our current crises. I say reflecting, since that’s my purpose, but my writing is also part remembrance, part stories, part my typical sermonizing, and as always too long.
1. “Come Holy Ghost and fill the hearts of Thy faithful.” That’s the way I remember the opening line of a prayer we Catholics said quite often back when I was a child.
These days Her name is officially “The Holy Spirit” and there’s been of late much good theological and spiritual writing about this too-often “forgotten Person of the Trinity.” Yet strangely, of so it seems to me, while the leadership is paying more attention, so-called “ordinary Catholics” pray less often and less poignantly to the Holy Spirit than they did in the good old days. Perhaps I’m wrong about that.
The prayer continues: “Enkindle in [the hearts of Thy faithful] the fire of Thy divine love. Send forth Thy Spirit and they shall be created. And Thou shalt renew the face of the earth.”
Memory also calls up the hymn “Come Holy Ghost,” sung full-throated by the whole congregation, creating an upswell of sound like a gust of the Spirit’s breath on the congregation. It was sung, if memory serves, at the end of Mass or some other ceremony. Here (courtesy of Google) are its words:
Come, Holy Ghost, Creator blest, And in our hearts take up Thy rest;
Come with thy grace and heav’nly aid to fill our hearts which thou hast made,
To fill our hearts which Thou has made.
O Comforter, to thee we cry, Thou heav’nly gift of God most high;
Thou fount of life, and fire of love, And sweet anointing from above, and sweet anointing from above.
I was going to highlight some of the phrases in these texts, but it would be better, if you’re interested, to re-read the texts and find words and phrases you’d highlight and take in.
2. I’m far from the only one who has seen a co-incidence, some actual spiritual or spirit filled connection, between what we celebrate in Pentecost and what we’re experiencing on the streets and more generally in our public life.
Here’s the way I see that co-incidence. The Holy Spirit has indeed burst forth again in our streets and sermons, in public debate and private reflection. She has filled many hearts with the fire of her divine love, given sweet anointing to many for a holy work, called all to renew the face of the earth. This I believe.
Of course, the Holy Spirit is always with us, always filling hearts with divine love, often with consolation, often with challenge. Yet from our human perspective, it is at special times or moments that the Holy Spirit is most obviously filling human hearts with the fire of Divine love. Pentecost itself was such a moment in the life of the earliest church. Theologians speak of these as kairos moments in contrast to the day-by-day passage of chronos or ordinary time. I’m suggesting that we are living within such a Spirit-shaken and spirit-shaking moment.
Many talk about these days as a turning point – a definitive or at least major turning point in the life of our country. I believe and hope that this is true. Yet even more I hope that within this turning point in our history, most have been radically opened to the movement of God’s Spirit (however unreflective or unconscious that openness) as it seeks to lead all towards active and even angry love of neighbor. This would make any turning point a true metanoia – a deep conversion of spirit for God’s people.
3. Examples are everywhere.
Perhaps most obviously in the new and growing public ritual of kneeling. “Taking a knee” probably means many things to many of the kneelers. Perhaps for some, its sports meaning stands out: taking a rest, stepping back to the sidelines, away from the struggle. Yet its religious roots are inescapable, especially when we are kneeling seriously before unjust death. So I do belief that the Holy Spirit has been moving through this new ritual, especially through the many who kneel before the mystery of life and death, good and evil, and allow, in effect if not intentionally, the Spirit of God to move within them.
I wish I knew what music is being sung in the streets and will grow into popularity through this moment. Whether it might create beautiful and challenging rhythms for the Holy Spirit’s movement in our hearts and minds.
I remember that the music accompanying and growing around the civil rights and anti-war movements of “the 60’s” often expressed spiritual hopes. Often even with explicitly religious words. This was especially in the civil rights movement. Indeed, I think that the Black Church in its many forms remains today, as it did then, one of the major sources of openness to and expression of God’s Spirit in this country, for the good of all of us.
As a different kind of example of the movement of the Holy Spirit during the present moment, I note the many ways that something has moved so many to “speak out” again — perhaps not in diverse tongues, but in new ways with friends and neighbors, and within that community of public conversation which our media, at their best, can be.
I note specifically a recent and seemingly orchestrated campaign of messages to the US from Francis and the Vatican in response to this moment of brutal murder and COVID-19 death rates among black Americans . Francis’ communication affirms Christian belief that the Holy Spirit speaks especially through the Church, and Catholic belief that the Holy Spirit speaks especially through the Pope. Yet I also believe that the Holy Spirit is speaking and moving today through many in different churches and synagogues and mosques.
The particular point of Francis’ media blitz seems to be to use the current moment to remind all Americans, but especially American Catholics, that the defense of life must be broad – not limited to the defense of the unborn, but including the defense of black lives and immigrant lives, the defense of lives limited by poverty and unjust working conditions. His speaking is explicitly directed to those “conservative” Catholics in the US – especially among the rich with their media connections, among many well-connected US Bishops, and among many “ordinary” Catholics – who have waged a campaign to discredit Francis’ papacy since it’s first day. And who, not at all coincidentally, have funded and voted for Trump and are doing so again. Francis especially challenges bishops like New York’s Cardinal Dolan, now national chairperson of Catholics For Trump. Dolan supports Trump, as he has explicitly said, since nothing else matters but stopping abortion. Yet the Pope’s words directly contradict and seek to correct that narrow, one isssue war cry of the US Catholic right.
The Pope’s messaging is one among many examples of the fire of Divine Love informing our public conversation.
4. As a final reflection, I recall the Ignatian or Jesuit emphasis on “the discernment of spirits.” For if I believe that the Holy Spirit is present and active at this special moment, I also know that many other spirits, some downright evil, are at work among us.
Racism and a wider spirit of intolerance and exclusion, as well as the deep joy of hatred and our culture’s love of violence – these are but a few of the spirits at work in us and in the body politic. Greed is always there too, as also power-lust, arrogance, narrowness, narcissism, willed ignorance, escapism. Such spirits are always active in human life, at every level and location – from the President to the prison guard to the guy next door, and probably among protesters as much as among police.
Thus we need, individually and collectively, to be involved in discerning among the spirits that move us – in asking which are truly of the Spirit and which not.
That’s, of course, what I believe Francis and the Vatican are trying to help American Catholicism think about. It’s what the best public discourse and the best zooms with friends are in-effect helping us with.
It’s what we need lest this moment lose direction and then momentum. We need to discern the spirits and struggle to follow the voice of the Holy Spirit.
As a concluding twist to the story, I further note that Holy Spirit Herself nourishes in us the gifts we need to discern and follow Her today.
5. Here, then, as a conclusion, I list the traditional Seven Gifts of the Spirit (which I had to look up) with my own brief “explanation” of each:
1) The gift of Wisdom can be stern like Solomon’s or playful and joyful like Sophia. It’s needed in both both streets and senates.
2) Understanding is like a Spirit-grounded liberal education, with breadth, openness, critical ability, and reasoned response.
3) Counsel is needed when standing before the mirror, talking with sons and daughters, listening to friends….
4) Fortitude is the courage to acknowledge the past and sustain the long road ahead.
5) Knowledge means getting the facts right, even with confusing media and the fog of a war like this.
6) Piety no longer means pious obedience but deep loyalty — to family and friends, to fellow citizens, to the best of our nation. Piety should inform the kinds of patriotism which are expressed in daily civic life, not in mostly superficial song.
7) Fear of the Lord is the most needed gift, and the most misunderstood. The Hebrew Bible constantly urges “fear of the Lord,” yet a Greek source has led me to substitute the word “reverence” for the misunderstood “fear.” It suggests that “Reverence is the matrix of nobility.” A fundamental attitude of reverence — for the good, for creation, ultimately for the gods and God — is the the sustaining ground of those other gifts of courage and wisdom and knowledge. Without reverence — which does involve fear but also an equally fundamental love, of beauty and goodness — without reverence, an openness to the Spirit cannot be sustained.
PS. I hope my reflections may help. As always, I’d love to hear your disagreements, agreements, additions….