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….
14 thoughts on “The Fire of Divine Love — Pentecost and Black Lives Matter”
John, thank you for this very powerful evocation of the theology and spirituality of the Holy Spirit, and what it says to us at this Pentecost moment. I am co-translating a book of essays on spirituality by the late Johann Baptist Metz, and just happened to be translating one two weeks ago entitled, “Courage for Interruption: Pentecost Theses.” Your own thoughts seemed to me to echo Metz’s own, so with that in mind I share the first few sentences of that essay: “The shortest definition of the Spirit of Pentecost goes like this: interruption. And the gift of this Spirit, which we Christians name grace, is above all also this: a capacity for interruption and the courage to bear the experiences of pain and powerlessness that come with these kinds of interruption.”
Thanks John for your timely reflections. Before our retreats in the Society of Mary we invoked the Holy Spirit with the hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus”. Of course discernment is necessary in judging the presence of the Spirit. Discernment itself is a work of the Spirit!
I question whether the Black Lives Matter is a work of the Spirit. Certainly affirmation of each person’s dignity is at the heart of the Gospel. But BLM has as its principle that a person has value simply because they are black. Katie Grimes article “Antiblackness” is very good on this. She also explains the radical difference between the enslavement of black people and other types of enslavements.
I myself think the “taking of the knee” at sporting events counterproductive. Play should be a unifying event. Cementing our unity through things such as sport, song, liturgy should give us the strength to confront our differences, in the proper time and place, without being confrontational. When making love is not the time and place for a couple to argue over the children or finances! It should give them the strength to work out solutions with patience and imagination rooted in love and respect and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
PS: Grimes article is in the March issue of Theological Studies.
Rhett, thanks as always for your response. You will not be surprised that I disagree. BLM is many things, as I said, but to deny the movement of the Holy Spirit in this and related movements on your false claim that it’s only about people having dignity because of skin color strikes me as massive and deliberate (?) ignorance of systematic racism. And I think you totally miss my point about taking a knee, while I totally agree with your emphasis on the importance of communal celebration in sports, song, liturgy, etc. But thanks for the reference to Grimes article which I will read, but it seems that you’ve been so taken with that article that it led you to misread what I actually wrote — unusual for you. Still, thanks.
Actually, John, I don’t assert that BLM says that a person has value “only” because they are black. What I assert is that BLM says “…a person has value “simply” because they are black.” The way Grimes put it is: “Rather than seeking to widen purportedly universal categories of value such as “human” or “citizen” and ensure that black people be fully included in them the Movement for Black Lives demanded that we care about certain lives simply because they are black. It reversed the usual moral calculus: black lives do not matter because all lives matter; all lives matter only if black lies do.”
Obviously in my last sentence quoting Grimes the word is “lives” and not “lies”!
John–I enjoyed your blog on the Holy Spirit very much. Brought back memories. Illustrates how memory works and how much not being exposed to such things leaves the young on the other side of a memory divide.
I fully agree with your point about reverence vs. fear. I have always found the idea of “fear of the Lord” problematic. Even when I was a kid. I haven’t looked into the timing of the list of “gifts of the Spirit.” I suspect it may have been a product the 12 or 13th century but very likely in the 16th Century when printed vernacular catechisms became possible. Maybe some of both, i.e., devised as a memory aide in Latin in the middle ages and then translated into English when they started making catechisms in the 16th C. The translation appears odd etymologically. I think it has to come originally from a semantic context where the word has some meaning closer to reverence than to dread. On the other hand, we have Luther and Kierkegaard, and such usage could fit them. I’m not sure what the Latin might be–some form of timor perhaps. –Randy
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I always liked substituting the word “awe” for “fear” when reading Scripture. Now “reverence” adds a richer dimension. Thanks John.
John, you have written an inspiring and thoughtful piece. It strikes me as more of a “meditation” than essay. You make no claims, but offer avenues for your reader to explore.
And while, with you, I celebrate the emergence of societal “fortitude,” I must confess that I fear a counter-reaction by people fearful of street demonstrations and apparent disorder. In a word, Trumpism may benefit in the end; especially since showing up at polling places in local elementary schools in Nov. will not seem nearly as engaging as marching with others in June–and that’s where “Spirit” will be “incarnated.”
I too fear the coming backlash which Trump will stoke in all his devious ways.
Thanks for this evocative piece, John. I do believe the Holy
Spirit is at work in this racialized timed and hope for racial justice. As Fr. Pat Dolan, priest at Church of Our Precious Blood in Denver preached two Sundays ago, when people ask why do we say “Black Lives Matter when All Lives Matter”. Fr. Pat said that would be like wondering that when we pray for the unborn children, we are not saying why are we not praying for all the children who are born? Or when we pray for the saving of the rainforest, why do we not say we are praying for saving all forests.
Natalie I think the analogy with the unborn and the rain forest clarifying. However, so far as BLM being a work of the Holy Spirit, I don’t think that can be squared with its statement of belief on its web site.
Here it is:
“We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and “villages” that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.
We foster a queer‐affirming network. When we gather, we do so with the intention of freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking.”
Perhaps the Kairos of the moment is simply an affirmation of our sinfulness manifested in on going white supremacist attitudes..
Rhett, I never said that BLM was “simply” a work of the HS. And I was talking about the movement in the streets which the media and most of us are calling BLM. I was certainly not referring to an ideological statement by the “leaders” of an activist group calling itself BLM. All I said was that I believe that the Holy Spirit is working in and through the movement in the streets and it’s cultural and political ripples. I also clearly asserted that other spirits, evil spirits, are also at work in and through this public movement. Thus the need for discernment of spirits. Yet even the ideological program of the self-named BLM group is also, I believe, having read their words which you cited, a vehicle for the operation of the Fire of Divine Love. Perhaps we disagree about LGBTQ issues, but I find both their concern to break away from nuclear family’s isolation from and even deliberate separation from the rest of the human village, as well as their wishing to lessen the tight grip of “heteronormative” thinking (though I’ve never heard that word before), compatible with the the movement of the Holy Spirit today. Not saying I buy all the jargon about sex and about human dignity being shouted out these days from all sides of race and sex/gender issues. But I find your absolutized rejection of this group wrongheaded, even if much of your instinct is right. John