The Holy Spirit in Today’s World?
Any effort to discern the movement of the Spirit, given the ambiguities of our world today, is first of all an act of hope. Even the most severe Christian imagination cannot presume that Holy Spirit has abandoned our world in this Year of Our Lord, 2010. Still, a simple, buoyant “reading of the signs of the times” so characteristic of Vatican II’s “The Church in the Modern World”, seems to have yielded to greater complexities when, these decades later, we are the Church in “the postmodern world”.
Negatives and Positives
It is almost as though discerning the “signs of the times” is radically deflected by what we might term these “times of the sign”. There is such a welter of artificial images designed to constrict human consciousness to the calculations of commodification, immediate gratification and to the flattest kind of banality. Even our sporting heroes are reduced to be mobile billboards serving the strategies of the market. When the cultural screen is crowded with such projections, idols thrive, each demanding its human sacrifice; while true icons radiant with the light of another world fade from sight. Where is the Holy Spirit in the materialist suffocation of our times?
Hope can see this moment of history as a time of special promise
Catastrophes, be they on personal or global scale, episodically rip open the plastic wrapping of routine existence. The recent global financial meltdown left people wondering where their real values lie. The terrible earthquake in Haiti has it seismic effect. We are shaken out of our selfishness and into a fresh sense of belonging, and into a new appreciation of what we so easily take for granted. “The Lord and giver of life” works in this darkness, receiving the dead into an infinite mercy, it is true, but also moving the living to see things differently—and not wait until such terrible events occur before appreciating what life is meant to be and where it is leading.
While pressures of modern life do not leave much room to experience reality in depth, the Spirit is always at work below the surface. Hope can see this moment of history as a time of special promise. It is as though the span of human consciousness with all its sciences, art, religious experience and technologies of communications is now big enough to allow the message of the Gospel to be heard in its global proportions. This is the time when the limitless creativity of God’s love can be displayed, the full significance of the Incarnation be recognized, and the Holy Spirit to be adored so that we pilgrims in time might find in each moment the anticipation of eternal life in a universe transformed.
A wide-awake hope realizes that this is not the time for faith to lose its nerve—nor to forget the inexhaustible creativity of the Spirit. Human history as reached a limit from which there is no retreating. The Spirit is breathed forth that we may participate in God’s own self-giving love, glorifying Jesus and declaring his truth to the disciples (John 16:12-15). The love of God poured out in our hearts by the Spirit, to inspire and strengthen hope (Rom 5:5), and to give the love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” [—the kind of love that] “never ends” (1 Cor 13:7-8).
The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit
The self-giving love of God is unceasing and inexhaustible. One way of discerning the manifold gifts of God has proved valuable over the centuries, and has its roots in the prophecy of Isaiah (Cf. Isa 11:2-3). It consists in a consideration of “the seven gifts” of the Holy Spirit. These are commonly listed as wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord. What is common to each is a certain divine “plus”, a special Spirit-given instinct that takes the human mind and heart out of its controlling rational mode into something of the freedom of God’s giving.
Wisdom takes us beyond limited forms of knowing and imagining
Through the gift of wisdom the Holy Spirit gives a deep experience of the mystery of God. It is described as a kind of tasting of the divine reality (sapere in Latin means “to taste”) as in the words of the psalm, “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8). This wisdom is therefore not so much knowing “about God”, but an intimate kind of knowledge born of loving union with God. Words, images and ideas have their place, but wisdom takes us beyond limited forms of knowing and imagining into the luminous silence of the divine depths. The widespread interest today in prayer, meditation and contemplation is a good sign of where the Spirit is working.
Understanding enables us to focus on what is central and essential
Through the gift of or understanding, we come to have a special intuitive grasp of the essence of the faith. The practice of faith can appear very complicated. There is the whole of the Bible, and all those complex and sometimes conflicting strands of teaching and practice that make up Christian tradition. On top of that, there are the many voices to be heard in the present context of inter-faith and ecumenical dialogue. The special Spirit-given gift of understanding enables us to focus on what is central and essential. A sign of someone having this gift is the ability to communicate the meaning of the Gospel in clear, brief and telling terms. It is the gift that enables us to grasp and communicate the essentials.
Counsel comes as an inspired instinct toward the right course of action
It is often difficult in the complexities of life to make the right decision. We are pulled in different directions, and the voice of conscience is hard to hear. This is where the gift of counsel is cherished as a special gift of the Holy Spirit. It is though, despite the complexity of a given situation, we are guided through it in a peaceful, intuitive assurance to decide rightly. In matters, say, of justice, and in the whole domain of human relations, this gift works to give us the right touch, the right “feel” for the situation. When our laborious deliberations are proving inconclusive, the gift of counsel comes as an inspired instinct toward the right course of action.
Fortitude - the resource when all other resources have run out
The gift of courage or fortitude is most obvious in the witness of martyrs who have died for their faith. But this gift of the Spirit is given in more ordinary situations. It is seems to be an inevitable part of the human condition that life is often experienced as “too hard” – as when, for instance, in marriage, family or professional life, things appear disproportionately difficult, and we feel all-but overwhelmed by the demands made on us. In such situations, a Spirit-inspired courage stirs as a special gift. It is the resource when all other resources have run out. When we are at the point of cracking under pressure, the Holy Spirit breathes a special kind of courage into our hearts. It gives the strength to think big, and to put our best and most imaginative selves into the task before us.
Knowledge to take things seriously, but not too seriously
The gift of knowledge is not quite what we usually mean by that word. As a gift of the Spirit, it is a special capacity to see things clearly. It is not far from a sense of proportion, or even a sense of humour. Scientific know-how and concerns about our status can tend to make us live behind masks of competence and control. We can be tempted to think that we each the centre of the universe. The special gift of knowledge helps us to see through all such pretensions, and to keep a healing sense of proportion. The mystery of the Creator infinitely surpasses creation, and the marvel of creation is infinitely more than some engrossing personal project. The gift of knowledge expresses itself in an ironic, realistic sense of proportion. It teaches us to laugh at ourselves a bit – to take things seriously, but not too seriously.
Piety leads to a great communion of life and love
The gift of piety must also be properly understood. It does not mean being “pious” in the current usage of the word. The original Latin word, pietas, suggests more a commitment to family loyalty and intimacy. As a gift of the Spirit, it connotes a sense of being free with God, and having a personal relationship with Christ. It overflows into an experience of intimate connectedness with Mary, the saints, the angels, and indeed with all creation. The special gift of piety inspires a sense of Christian life as a great communion of life and love, including even the countless generations that have preceded us on this earth, and all living things – for all are related “in the unity of the Holy Spirit”.
Awe counteracts the grasping selfishness that drives consumerism
The fear of the Lord has less to do with fear in the conventional sense, and more to do with awe and reverence. There is the uncanny gift of existence. Providence has worked through fifteen billion years to bring forth this world – and ourselves within it – to provoke a moment of wonder and thanksgiving. We stand in awe at the gift of life in all its delicate ecologies, and recoil from being agents of harm or destruction. The spiritual gift of fear of the Lord inspires reverence for the manifold gift of creation. It leads to thanksgiving and praise in the presence of the Creator. This deep awe counteracts the grasping selfishness that drives consumerism. It invites us to breathe deeply and live lightly in an atmosphere of gracious mystery.
Come, Holy Spirit!
* Tony Kelly is a Redemptorist priest. His doctoral and post-doctoral studies were in Rome, Toronto and Paris. Before taking up his present position he was for many years involved in Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne where he was President of YTU for ten years. He is a former President of Australian Catholic Theological Association, and a Past Chair of the Forum of Australian Catholic Institutes of Theology. Tony was Head of Sub-Faculty of Philosophy and Theology at the Australian Catholic University from 1999 – 2004, and in February 2004, he was appointed by His Holiness Pope John Paul II to the International Theological Commission.
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