“The Holy Spirit is fire; whoever does not want to be burned should not come near him.” ∼ Pope Benedict XVI
From the earliest moments of Christian existence, organized and sustained by a Church born from the side of Christ as he hung upon the Cross, there appeared a body of catechesis containing everything we need to know about faith and life, belief and behavior. Think of it as a kind of owner’s manual, about which the Church was not prepared to compromise. Does one throw up walls about a castle of straw? Not these structures—they were meant to endure. Most especially the two bookends, between which everything else fell into place; these two overarching realities, as it were, on which our lives depend. First is the truth of God the Father, who fashioned the world out of nothing. Second is the truth of God the Son, whom he sent into the world to suffer and to die.
Blessed John Henry Newman, for example, in a widely acclaimed poem that Sir Edward Elgar would later set to music, i.e., The Dream of Gerontius, identifies these two pivotal elements in a series of stunning and lyric-strewn affirmations that harness both the mind and will of his saintly protagonist. “Firmly I believe and truly,” declares the old man, whose soul, poised on the very cusp of eternity, is about to embark with resolute confidence upon its final journey:
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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God is Three and God is One;
And I next acknowledge duly
Manhood taken by the Son.
And I trust and hope most fully
In that Manhood crucified…
It is a compilation both lovely and lucid, in which both truths are given pride of place in the great symphony of the Church’s faith. And on their acceptance hangs not only the salvation of Newman’s old man—who, professing them in the last moments of his life, is thus fortified by God’s mercy to walk serenely through the door of death—but Everyman. The Scriptures are very clear about this. “Now this is eternal life,” we are told in John 17:3: “that they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” There is no other way to obtain salvation save through the portal that leads from the Son of God to his Father in heaven.
“You know where I am going,” Jesus tells his disciples in John 14:4, “and you know the way there.” This at once strikes not a few of them as passing strange, since they clearly haven’t a clue about the way. But let it pass. St. Thomas Aquinas, in commenting on this text, tells us that, “the entire knowledge of the faith refers to these two objects.” That is to say, both the divine and eternal Godhead, which is the place where we hope ultimately to go; and the humanity of Christ, who is the way we hope to get there. Our prayer, of course, is that the way to the Father will not prove roundabout. Yet how can we be misled on the matter when it is Jesus himself who reveals the Father, even as he remains eternally rooted in the Father? Just as we know nothing of Christ apart from God, who is the deepest secret of his life, so too we really cannot know anything finally important about God unless Jesus chooses to reveal it to us.
“The God-Christ is the home where we are going,” says St. Augustine in a splendid bullet point taken from one of his sermons; “the Man-Christ is the way by which we are going. We go to him, we go by him; why then do we fear that we should go astray?”
So where does that leave the Holy Spirit? Isn’t he supposed to be the Third Person of this Blessed Company? Not any sort of Junior Partner, either, but one who equally and eternally shares the same divine substance. It is surely heretical to suppose that, quoting the language of Nicaea, “the one who proceeds from the Father and the Son,” is somehow deficient in divinity.
Besides, wasn’t it the Holy Spirit whose blazing Pentecostal descent so inflamed the early Church that not even the powers of pagan Rome could succeed in putting out the fire Christ had come to set? When St. Paul, traveling through Ephesus as Luke tells us in the Acts of the Apostles (19:1-7), comes across certain disciples, he puts the question to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” And when they announce that they’d never even heard of the Holy Spirit, he at once lays hands on them, releasing the gift of prophesy and tongues, of which this heretofore unheard Spirit remains the indisputable source.
And not only back in the first century, amid those first blooms planted by the Apostolic Church. Even today, at this moment, in a Church that, for all it may appear institutionally sclerotic, has not lost a single layer of its original Pentecostal sheen. One does not need to be a Super-Catholic, armed with the most advanced charismatic credentials, to qualify for possession of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. Unless, of course, one wishes to fall into “ultra-supernaturalism,” to borrow a coinage used by Msgr. Ronald Knox, which he applies with ample pejorative effect to people of highly spiritualized persuasion, for whom regular sacramental practice is never enough to slake the ethereal hungers on which their souls feed. They require far loftier gifts than the mere Body and Blood of Christ.
This is all bosh, of course. The rite of Baptism and Confirmation will endow the soul with quite enough holiness to conquer not only the weaknesses of the self, but the wickedness of the universe as well. Yes, even when one is blessedly unaware of the explosion of grace taking place under the hood. Certainly that is true for us Cradle Catholics, for whom there is no recollection whatsoever of the transmutations wrought by the grace of Baptism. “We had the experience,” to quote T.S. Eliot, “but missed the meaning.”
Wasn’t it Pope Benedict who, in an arresting phrase, described the event of becoming a Christian as nothing less than “the final mutation in the evolution of the human species”? He was not being hyperbolic. When one puts on Christ for the first time, one’s very ontology undergoes a change no greater than which can be imagined. It simply does not get any better this side of the Beatific Vision. Indeed, the grace of baptism provides the launching pad for all the promised glory to come. So how can we possibly leave out the Holy Spirit? God knows, there are enough unholy spirits roaming about that need to be put to flight.
Nor is it possible to overdo the homage and praise we owe him. Who, as the poet Hopkins put it, “over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
But where exactly does he fit? I mean in the architecture of the Absolute? The short answer is that he belongs to the whole mystery of spiration, whereby the Father who gives, and the Son to whom all is given, unite in their mutual love to breathe forth the Spirit, who is the Gift given. Regarding whose movements in time, incidentally, which is the only evidence we have on which to reference the eternal processions, one can scarcely improve on these imperishable lines from Eliot. In Four Quartets, we read:
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.
Here is poetry of the first intensity, designed for a size fifteen shoe while most of us are shaped more or less like pigmies. But such is the nature of that refining fire we call the Holy Spirit. Charged with purifying the hearts of men, it is he who will renew the face of the earth. So be careful. The Holy Spirit is fire and while Christ came to cast it upon the earth (“…and would that it were already kindled!” he exclaims), no one will be set on fire without giving assent. But refusal comes at a cost. “Faith is a tongue of fire that burns us and melts us,” Pope Benedict has said, “so that ever more it is true: I am no longer I…. When we yield to the burning fire of the Holy Spirit, being Christian becomes comfortable only at first glance…. Only when we do not fear the tongue of fire and storm it brings with it does the Church become the icon of the Holy Spirit. And only then does she open the world to the light of God.”
If all life is to be given away—freely and recklessly lavished upon others—here is where it starts. With the Gift of that Wholly Unsurpassed Spirit, who just keeps on giving.
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from Corrado Giaquinto’s “The Holy Spirit” painted in the 1750s.