When asked about the Holy Spirit, I like to begin by saying that we know very little. It’s almost as if the less said, the better. There is not very much in the Bible. The Fathers said close to nothing – especially compared with how much they wrote about Jesus Christ. The prayer life of the Church is established on the foundation of the Holy Spirit – just about every act of prayer begins with a prayer to the Spirit (O Heavenly King) – but doesn’t say much about the Spirit.
Still, we’re not left completely speechless. The Holy Spirit that Jesus tells us about is the same Spirit that spoke through the Prophets. He is the Spirit of truth. The Spirit is associated with light, with life-giving, with making us living human persons. It is by the Holy Spirit that we human beings have our greatest vocation: to be deified, to become as God is. The Spirit is “everywhere and filling all things” and yet we ask him to “come and abide in us, and cleanse us from impurity.”
But when someone asks you about the Holy Spirit, you have to decide what you’re going to focus on. Just as when you’re asked anything about God and the Church, you have to figure out what question you’re actually being asked, what the person is ready to hear, and how much of their attention you realistically have. And when they’re asking about the Holy Spirit you have the additional challenge of there being less concrete data to work from.
As it happens, this is all very fresh on my mind. I was in a café last week, where I regularly sit in with a jazz group. That group is led by a tenor saxophonist – he’s Jewish, but is always intrigued or amused by the fact that I teach at an Orthodox Christian seminary. Usually he just jokes about it – “Oh Peter’s here! Now we can get spiritual!” Or he makes a thing about my being “a big academic.” Last Monday, though, he surprised me. He took me aside and said, “Peter, you know my wife’s a Catholic, right?” “No, I didn’t, actually!” “Well she and I were talking and neither of us could figure out who or what the Holy Spirit is. Can you help me out on this one?”
Alright – time to get that mechanism going: consider what is really being asked, and what he may actually be ready to hear. So after asking him a couple more questions, here’s how I handled it, and you can tell me if you think I did well.
“To be honest, John, I think your not being able to figure out who or what the Holy Spirit is, is a good start.”
“There’s not actually a lot of data about the Holy Spirit, either in the Bible or afterwards.”
“Ok, so what do I tell my wife?”
“Well, especially since she’s a Catholic, consider what Jesus says on the subject. The two main things there: Firstly, the Spirit is associated with truth. There is a lot that people don’t know, or don’t understand, and the Spirit guides them into truth. Secondly, Jesus says that the Spirit will teach people about who he is, who Jesus is.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well, who Jesus is, is a complicated question, that has always a lot of possible answers, since day one. Jesus himself kept asking people, ‘who do you think that I am?’ And got different answers. So people need guidance on that question, and Jesus promises the Holy Spirit will tell his disciples who he actually is.”
The main scriptural reference I had in mind was John 15:26 – “But when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me.”
But also John 16:13-14 – “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; …. He will glorify me…”
I could have gone further with him, but I saw his eyes beginning to glaze over. We were outside his comfort zone, not just because he’s a Jew and I’m talking about Jesus, but because we’re getting to the spiritual. He’d initiated the conversation, but I felt we’d taken it as far as we could that night.
But it seemed to me that one important thing to say about the Holy Spirit is just that: that the Spirit brings truth where there is so much possibility for falsehood. That he is Christ’s Spirit: the Spirit rests upon Christ, Christ sends the Spirit into the World, and the Spirit reveals and glorifies Christ.
One more thing, just between us: what the Spirit does is what we are supposed to be doing too. The Spirit’s vocation is our vocation as well, in all we say and do. To be givers of life and of light, to speak the truth, to reveal and glorify Christ.