The Holy Spirit alive in our lives
‘SPIRITUALITY’ is a word that the famous and very popular Jewish Rabbi, writer, and broadcaster Lionel Blue said he felt uneasy and uncomfortable to use, “because,” he wrote “I am not a see-through spirit.” It is easy to see what he meant. Spirituality can seem to exclude all the normal human pleasures and practicalities of human life, and can be an unfortunately woolly word sometimes cloaking some pretty woolly religious thinking. Yet we need the word to cover the spiritual needs of human life, and to prevent us from being overwhelmed by our secular culture.
Jesus himself is naturally the fundamental model for any and all Christian spirituality. But the Gospels alone do not offer us much more than the basic spiritual ideals he calls us to live by. The Gospel writers were primarily concerned to display how God was working and speaking through Jesus.
Jesus’ parables and teaching do reveal a dry and ironic sense of humour as well as a warm humanity and a particularly keen sense of justice, which could sometimes result in flashes of anger, like his reproofs of Peter and the disciples, and the ‘cleansing of the temple’. What is described as ‘righteous anger’ is therefore not to be seen as a sign of human moral weakness, but simply what is anthromorphically described as the ‘anger’ of God (meaning acting contrary to the manifest will of God). We know how Jesus fasted and often went without meals, and yet he often accepted invitations to wine and dine.
Whatever kind of spirituality we adopt, we are not called to dismiss all the things that make us human, or the normal human weaknesses that remind us how much we need the grace of God. In the person of Jesus God is seen as present in the full range of human emotions. Seeing Jesus as our human model is therefore for Christians the highest form of humanism, but providing only that it includes a truly complete forgiveness for those who have not lived up to its ideals, as well as our complete acceptance of those who seem simply unable to do so for various reasons of nature and nurture.
The Holy Spirit is vital for the steady growth of our awareness of the life of Christ within us to renew our humanity in his image and likeness. During Holy Communion we receive the Body and Blood of Christ as the bread and wine of the soul – the spiritual life that alone can transcend the eventual death of our bodies. But we have to grow spiritually for this to happen, especially to grow in our capacity to love in the way Christ has loved us.
This most vitally means a gradual conversion of heart away from those values that lead to our spiritual death. It is a gradual conversion, wholly dependent on our acceptance of the forgiving and re-creative love of God in our lives. This is the dynamic activity of the Holy Spirit which gives us emotional sensitivity to the pain and suffering of others.
Spirituality is primarily concerned with the way in which we show our love of God and our love of neighbour.
Our love of God is mainly shown through our prayer and our religious practices. We are told Jesus spent long periods alone in prayer, but know remarkably little about the content of his prayer. Jesus does however teach us that our prayer to God should always be simple, and above all to pray to follow the will of God rather than our own. He calls us normally to pray alone in our own private room as a ‘secret place,’ trusting that God will hear us ‘in that secret place.’ But once we overcome any self-consciousness we may feel about praying in a church, most churches are good places to pray.
There was once a man who went into the church everyday, and the parish priest suspected him of stealing. So he set out to watch him secretly. But all he ever saw was the man sitting alone in a pew looking at the altar. Eventually he challenged him. “You seem to be praying a lot in the church. Is there anything you think you need to discuss?” The man smiled and said, “Oh no Father. I just come in and sit looking at God, and God just sits and looks at me.”
Many find real solace in contemplating single words or images like ‘peace’ or the Cross, or the two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus. Wordless prayer is often all we may need. Our simple awareness of the presence of God before us, with us and within us is of course prayer in itself. We need not put anything into words. Anything we may do in trying to follow Christ in our lives and in seeking his help in doing so, is in itself prayer, even if what we do seems to have been weak and ineffectual, is in fact always being completed by the grace of God. No prayer really remains unanswered, whatever form it may take.
Because so little can be given us about Jesus’ own forms of prayer, Christian spirituality came to depend much more on the prayers and teachings of saints, especially those who founded different rites of worship, or religious orders according to the needs of the Church at different times and places in its long history. In the same way our love of neighbour is demonstrated according to the different social, cultural and economic needs of human life in any nation at different periods of history, especially the needs of the weakest and poorest.
Authors who themselves belong to religious orders and who write about their founding saints will naturally emphasise the merits of their subjects and minimise their faults. The unwary reader can be led thus to feel genuine holiness is out of reach for ordinary mortals, and therefore despair. It is important when writing of saints to take pains to include their faults and their weaknesses. It is precisely because of their normal human weakness that they became aware of their own need for the forgiveness, love and strength of God to bring them and us the grace and light they give us in our own attempts to follow Christ in our lives.
A truly Christian spiritual life enables us to see more clearly our own faults and weaknesses, and simultaneously to wonder with love and gratitude at the compassion of God so clearly manifest in the life of Jesus. He is the Word made flesh among us to pass on the Spirit of God to live in us just as the Spirit lived in him.
The effects of the Holy Spirit within ourselves are easily detected in what Pope Francis has repeatedly called ‘consolation’, of which we are most especially aware when we turn away from a selfish way of life to let the love of Christ be truly reflected in our lives for others. The effect of such consolation in ourselves is a very deep and abiding sense of joy.