The Holy Spirit, comforting and mysterious, is ‘never neat’

By Pat McCaughan
Posted May 17, 2013

[Episcopal News Service] The Holy Spirit comes, for some, as a comforting presence. For others, it’s a disturbing upsetter. And still, for others, it is mysterious, even scary.

But don’t confuse it just with Pentecost – the 50th day after Easter – which the church observes this Sunday (May 19) and which “challenges us to focus at least one day on the Spirit’s activity in our life,” according to the Rev. Janet Broderick, rector of St. Peter’s Church, in Morristown, New Jersey.

“That’s what’s wonderful about the lectionary, it has us focus on this,” Broderick said during a May 16 interview. “I wish it were more, because the Spirit is outnumbered in the prayers, in the lectionary.”

While the Spirit hovered over the deep during creation (Genesis 1.1-7), it still hovers today but “we are so often afraid to talk about it,” Broderick added.

“Take a thing like someone who has a revelation or a word. People suddenly know something. They know suddenly their mother died. Or, their child would be safe or found. They knew. But they tell you in whispers; years later. They’re ashamed to say it because the idea is, if you talk about the Spirit, you’re crazy or worse than crazy, you’re presumptuous, you think you’re better than others.”

The Rev. Bill Countryman, professor emeritus of biblical studies at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California, said the Spirit defies definition. Its dual nature “can’t be pinned down. We don’t have control, therefore it requires a lot of reflection for individuals and community to discern what the Spirit is doing, and it’s never neat.”

The Spirit speaks to us through Scripture and sacrament, through gifts of ministry and in the experience of daily life and through other people and in conflict, he said.

It is “as simple as the strength we get from receiving the Eucharist again and again, which shapes our lives and tell us God is constantly with us, nourishing us, guiding us, giving us a sort of pattern to rely on in our lives,” he said.

But it can also be chaotic, upsetting and usher in change.

“The big changes in the Episcopal Church in my adult life have been responses above all to that,” Countryman said. “It became harder and harder to see any reason why women couldn’t be ordained, because there were women who had received gifts of ministry and who had great holiness of life, so why was it that only men could be ordained?

“The same thing happened again, with regard to gay and lesbian people,” he added. “It became harder to maintain the idea that same-sex attraction is simply an evil because there were so people who manifested holiness and gifts within the church who happened to be gay and lesbian. That’s an aspect of the Spirit’s work that we have most particularly been responding to and that’s been difficult for us.”

He added that “the Spirit is leading us into the truth of what Jesus already told us. It’s also the way in which the Gospel transforms our lives and no one generation is ever going to get that right. The whole history of humanity won’t get it right but the good news is, there’s hope even in our nastiest situations.”

Discerning the movement of the Spirit
Linnea Collins, manager of a Sun Valley, Idaho dental office, felt the Spirit’s powerful presence a year ago when she was finally able to answer a haunting question: “What is my ministry?

“I always thought I was on a track for ordination, priest or deacon,” Collins said during a recent telephone interview. “I went through discernment and they asked me about my ministry. I said I don’t know, I guess to walk with the people of God. It kept coming back to me, what is my ministry.”

Then last year, she “had a significant birthday and my son-in-law asked me ‘what is the one thing in your life you’d like to accomplish’.”

Suddenly, the answer was right there: “to work in a free medical or dental clinic.” After voicing it, the next step was obvious, especially when she learned of an available comparable position at the Boise-based Genesis World Mission (GWM), a nonprofit healthcare solutions agency.

Surprisingly, the agency offered her not one, but two jobs – as dental office manager and fund development director, because she had directed the annual Trailing of the Sheep Festival, honoring the local sheepherding tradition, for several years.

“What I think might be the right time is not necessarily God’s time,” said Collins, 60. “All of our patients live at or below 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines, without Medicaid, without benefits; they are low-wage earners. One medical bill will break their budgets.

“But now, I have a ministry of action, a ministry of serving, and I think our patients do feel a difference, that they’re not a number. We wrap our arms around them. We do help them access medical and dental health and it is free.”

The Holy Spirit “works in great ways when you least expect it,” she added. “Sometimes you think God and the Spirit aren’t there, and you think ‘the heck with that, I’m going to power through this my way. It never works. It just doesn’t.”

Now, participating in the process of “creating a new program working with emergency rooms for folks with dental emergencies who have nowhere to go, I couldn’t be happier,” she said. “This may not be ‘the church’ but it is an extension of the church where we live daily our faith, compassion, love and ministry for those who need us most, the vulnerable and many times invisible.”

“Now, I’ve got a perfect match of putting all those pieces of my life and experience together. It sounds like a crazy story, but it’s my story.”

The Spirit’s gift of peace
Although he wasn’t familiar with any church, Jon Finley, 48, of San Diego knew instinctively he was in the presence of the Holy Spirit 16 years ago, during a moment that changed his life forever.

He’d just been diagnosed with full-blown AIDS. “I was devastated, because I hadn’t told anyone, even my closest friends, that I was gay,” he said during a recent telephone interview.

“I was scared, I wasn’t responding to any treatment or medication. I was losing weight. The doctor told me I had to quit work and go on disability. All I could think about was ‘how am I going to live? My whole world felt like it was turned upside down and I couldn’t tell anyone what was happening.”

With family in another state and the future uncertain, he contemplated suicide. “I was sitting in a chair sobbing,” he recalled. “I could hardly catch my breath. I was in a very dark place.”

Then, suddenly, “this feeling of calm came over me, a calm that I’ve never ever experienced before,” he said. “I still get cold chills when I think of it. It was like a weight was lifted off me and I knew that somehow everything was going to be OK.”

He knew it was the Holy Spirit because “it wasn’t me. I was hysterical. I really can’t describe it in words, I just knew. That was the start of my pursuit of religion.”

Although he still didn’t respond to the medication “my attitude changed. I was like a new person. The doctor said ‘whatever you’re doing, keep doing it,’” said Finley, who was confirmed at St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego at the March 30 Easter vigil this year.

Before his confirmation, he shared his story publicly, for the first time, with the congregation.

“This is a whole new chapter for my life and I’m putting it out there for everybody,” he said. “It’s just amazing to realize where I was before and to see where I am now. I feel like the Spirit guided me here, has guided me through that dark place and led me to the cathedral and to the point where I could finally speak the truth.

“Before, I thought I would rather die than let anyone know any of these things about me, I was so ashamed. Now I can say, this is my story.”

Accessing the Spirit
The Rev. Mary Crist, priest-in-charge at St. Michael’s Mission Outreach Center in Riverside, California, describes a Pentecost-like experience when she encountered a grief-stricken mother in the neonatal intensive care unit at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles.

“She was Latina, and she was crying. I greeted her in Spanish, but I only speak a little Spanish. She didn’t speak English. There were no other Spanish speakers around at all,” Crist recalled during a May 16 telephone interview.

“She told me that she had given birth to 23-week-old twins and that her baby boy had died the previous day. Her baby girl was going to be removed from the ventilator in the morning.

“I call it a Holy Spirit moment because it was pastoral for all of us,” Crist said. “I sat down and we held each other. I felt very deeply I was given the tools to communicate, to listen, to act compassionately, to be of comfort to her.”

The second twin died during that night but the moment “changed me forever,” Crist said.  “It gave me that sense [that] I don’t have to always have words or to be able to do what I think I should say or do.

“It was just immersing myself in the love of God through that comforter. I believe we can access it because it was promised to us on Pentecost and I believe we can access it when we’re open to it.”

The Rev. Judith Favor, who teaches at the Claremont School of Theology in California, is ordained in the United Church of Christ and is a spiritual director, says one way to tap into the Spirit’s presence is through “mindfulness meditation.

“Contemplative focus on the breath and/or repeating a single word in centering prayer cleanses the lens of perception, scrubs the mind clean of toxic worries and opens the heart to receive the subtle invitations from the sacred,” she said.

Another way is to “slow things down,” she added. When offering spiritual direction, “I invite the speaker to pause in the usual rush of talk, to notice subtle nudges from the beloved, to name delicate emotions, to linger with touches of presence and to savor them.”

She adds that: “The path of love can be rigorous, demanding and difficult. Saying yes to God and each other is always challenging, especially if the other person is rooted in a different culture, language or religious tradition. Letting go of ‘otherizing’ is very hard but the contemplative path awakens us and invites us to keep showing up for sacred and human encounters.”

Says Countryman: “The Holy Spirit will always remain a mystery to us and that’s good. It’s a reminder that we don’t know it all, that we still have more to learn, a lot more growing to do in the faith. That, and all these things are great protections against idolatry. It’s so easy for us to take the faith as we happen to know it, and to treat it as if it were identical with God. But God is always greater than what we have.”

–The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. She is based in Los Angeles.

Comments (4)

  1. Rev. David Starr says:

    This is a very interesting article especially in the light of this Sunday being Pentecost. The personal stores are moving. The only question I have is how the Holy Spirit became an “it”. Should the Holy Spirit be a she (or maybe a he)? I always think of the Spirit as one of the three expressions of God. Anyway, I like the article very much.
    Thanks for the inspiration as I write my sermon for this Sunday.

  2. Diana Severino-Saxon says:

    Wow! I have felt these things but failed to recognize them as the Holy Spirit, fortunately most of the time I have followed them and they have led me on a wondrrois path. Thank you for bringing clarity to my visions.

  3. Ted Garvin says:

    Wow! is right!

    I had a Holy Spirit moment when I went to a Jesus Prayer event and learned, that in the larger charismatic/pentecostal churches, they were too large for laying on of hands, so they did it aurally. Worked.

    My neck doesn’t bother me any more.

  4. Martha O'Hehir says:

    I am thrilled and moved by the way each of these writers refers to their “story.” Just as they described, there are parts of my story that are troubling, some that cause deep pain or regret, and some that I or others have kept hidden out of shame or embarrassment. What is intriguing to me is how in each of these stories, the Holy Spirit sanctified the whole story for each individual and helped each one love themselves in total, and then brought forth the whole story into an integrated act of ministry, of incarnated salvation, for both the person speaking and now, for everyone they are serving. Who but the true Spirit could do such a thing? I pray for the courage to let this happen in my life.

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