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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

1046: How and where we are to find the divine presence of the Holy Spirit?

Day 1046: Thursday, January 26, 2023

How and where we are to find the divine presence of the Holy Spirit?

When reflecting on where to begin getting to know the Holy Spirit in the introduction to their edited volume, The Holy Spirit: Setting the World on Fire, theologians Fr. Richard Lennan and Nancy Pineda-Madrid write: "Developing a heightened sensitivity is the first step. The Holy Spirit's movement in our lives, and in the world, is often elusive, not readily discerned."

They note that:

The Holy Spirit meets us where we are. In our experiences of joy and serenity, guilt and distress, wonder and awe, pain and anger, the Spirit is present. The Spirit remains present in all that comprises our life's journey; closer to us than we are to ourselves, and the source of strength for our "inner being" (Ephesians 3:16).

What is more, the Spirit continually invites greater life, animating our present. The Holy Spirit indwells our bodies and makes our very lives and living possible, empowering us with the grace of Christ. In being with us, the Holy Spirit is and remains sympathetic to our life situation and circumstance. For our part, we, like the prophet Elijah, need to learn how to pay attention, to deepen our awareness of the Spirit's presence.

What is at stake here is a matter of attunement, of learning to see and hear and experience God's presence in our lives and world anew. This latter point about experience is essential. Both the late theologian Dominican Cardinal Yves Congar and, more recently, the late Protestant theologian Clark H. Pinnock have emphasized the experiential nature of knowing the Holy Spirit.

Pinnock picks up on the theme of the Spirit's seeming elusiveness and how we must adjust our outlook and attunement. "For all theological topics, Spirit is one of the most elusive. Knowing the Spirit is experiential, and the topic is oriented toward transformation more than information."

That the knowledge of God as Spirit is experiential may be one of the sources of resistance many have when it comes to reflecting on, praying to or even remembering the Holy Spirit. Western Christian practices and conversation often centers on the intellectualization of faith rather than the embodied, corporeal, sacramental reality that must be experienced and lived out.

Likewise, that the Spirit draws close to us in our own imperfection, creatureliness and messiness—as the ruach Elohim ("breath/spirit of God") does with the tohu wavohu (chaos, disorder, void) of creation in opening verses of Genesis — can be something that makes some Christians uncomfortable. If one's image of God is static, immutable, impassible, then the idea that God not only draws close but indwells in us and the rest of creation can be unsettling.

The Spirit is dynamic, unpredictable, immediate, creative, empowering and life-giving. This last point is emphasized by theologian and St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson.

"In the words of the Nicene Creed, the Spirit is vivificantem, vivifier or life-giver. This designation refers to creation not just at the beginning of time but continuously: the Spirit is the unceasing, dynamic flow of divine power that sustains the universe, bringing forth life," Johnson said in the 1993 Madeleva Lecture.

With this in mind, we may begin to recognize the activity of God's Spirit in our lives and the world around us through our experience. Finite and imperfect as each of us are, we all have the capacity for recognizing the gift of divine presence among us. We just need to attune ourselves to the Spirit's presence. Each breath we take, every experience of love we encounter, our very existence as part of a radically contingent creation — these are just a sampling of the ordinary moments in which the indwelling presence of God as Spirit can be recognized when we are attentive to the movement of divine love in our experience of the world.

I also want to say a word about divine pronouns. How should we refer to the Holy Spirit?

Let it be stipulated that God is beyond any concept of creaturely sex and gender. As a matter of theological truth, we must all agree to that. However, despite the orthodox claim that God is neither male nor female and that whatever gendered language one invokes in reference to God will always fall short, it is striking how upset, threatened and defensive some people get at the suggestion that we could (and should) also use feminine language for God.

There is not enough space here to rehearse the dozens of great Christian saints and mystics who throughout history have used feminine imagery to describe God generally and the Spirit specifically.

Suffice it to say that my choice to refer occasionally to the Holy Spirit as She is grounded in orthodox, scriptural, theological reasoning. Such pronoun usage also helps us recall that God cannot be reduced to one gender or category but is the source of and relates to all life, gender expressions, creaturely experience and diverse realities in this world.


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