or How to Make a Simple Topic Everyone Knows Really Amazingly Boring
As a priest of the church and a pastor I have the spiritual gift of obfuscation. I can take the most amazingly simple thing that anyone already has deep experience of and make it long, dry, and almost incomprehensible. It is really impressive to watch. I can use long words for common ideas. Where one syllable will do I can use forty. I can craft sentences of Pauline length with neither clarity nor purpose but that make you feel like you have heard something both understandable and meaningful when really you’ve just heard me blowing wind with no Spirit.
I try not to use this gift. But as we come to the third part of our Trinity of Formation I want to be clear and concise and understandable. I want to, but the topic lends itself to poetic philosophy, and I like the sound of words.
In our Anglican-Benedictine model, we have looked at the Office and the Eucharist, Father and Son. They both demand submission in a way: Office to the universal praise of the Church Universal and to the Father’s world; the Eucharist to the community of royal heirs priesthood and the Reality of the Rule of God. We turn now to the Spirit and prayer.
The Holy Spirit is described analogically as breath or wind. It is this ethereal quality that makes it hard to talk about with any clarity. Add to that the Spirit and language about her is always feminine, and our tradition is very masculine dominated and therefore less fluent in the language of the feminine, and you begin to see why we just don’t have good words for the Spirit’s work.
I am personally frustrated by trying to read anything about the Holy Spirit because it falls into one of two camps. There is the language that feels ungrounded in anything but emotion and built with fluff. It is “airy” language and borders on feeling New Age, to use that hackneyed christian insult. (I use the lowercase to designate a cultural but not faithful use of the adjective.) Writers who base all they have to say in experience and resort to stroking emotions and Chicken Soup for the Soul stories and reflections to the get across blunt unformed opinions that reflect both a lack of depth and Scripture. It feels fake and shallow. The christian section of your local bookstore is filled with this stuff. It is little better than New Age writing except that Jesus is mentioned.
That sounds bitter, but this kind of writing and reflection almost pushed me out to the church. When it passes for formation and teaching, it becomes destructive because it separates the disciple from reality and the Bible. It shows up in every sector of the church, so I don’t want to point at Pentecostals, Evangelicals, or Catholics alone. (Episcopalians tend not to publish much of this stuff, because when we want inspiration we turn to NPR apparently. See here.) I know that it is inspirational to many people, but I really thought I had to leave the church to find real grounded thinking for a long time as a youth.
On the other hand, trying to read Moltmann’s The Spirit of Life is not the most soul-feeding work for most people. It is good theology but grounded in a vocabulary of insiders. The vast majority of work on the Spirit feels either ungrounded of buried in church jargon. I say “vast majority” but what I mean is really not very much.
“Serious” theologians avoid the Spirit for the most part or say so little as to be useless. See Tillich’s third book in his trinity. Count the number of times he talks about the Spirit. Even N. T. Wright, whom I read with relish and mustard like ballpark franks, says almost nothing about the Holy Spirit.
I have found a few resources that are worthwhile. But mostly I end up flipping pretty fast when it comes to the Spirit, too. So as a reader, I might have skipped something, but I also have come to understand.
It is hard to talk about the Spirit. Jesus says that you can’t see where the wind comes from or where it goes in reference to the Spirit and Spiritual People in talking to Nicodemus.
In our formation model, the Spirit though is a whole lot easier to talk about. The Spirit is freedom. She breathes and moves like wind through the world creating, shaping, and giving life.
So in our prayer life, we come to the third leg of our practice, which is what most of us call prayer, or talking to God. I want to give you a definition that is more poetic. Prayer is letting the Spirit have you.
I mean free prayer, mental prayer, prayer of the heart, however you want to talk about individual being in community with God. It is far more than talking to God, but it includes just talking to God. We enter the Spirit like we open our arms into the wind on the beach after a run.
We let God breathe into us in the Spirit.
That is prayer. Paul uses very similar language. The Spirit moves within us, in our spirits to pray and make new.
There is a whole lot of new science that points toward neuroplasticity, that our brains continue to grow and form new patters and pathways for neurological signals. Many of us have the idea that our brains get certain patterns and get stuck in those patterns. We got that idea from science, which assumed that nerves did not continue to grow or regrow after trauma. Science was wrong. Newer science shows conclusively that we can not only change neural pathways, but new neurons are being born and growing all the time. This means that we continue to learn.
The Spirit is making us new as we allow the Spirit to create us through study and thought, but also through prayer when we let the Spirit move through us, teach us, and pray through us. When we open the Bible, we are saying in essence, “Spirit, teach me.” When we enter silence and let the Spirit breathe through us, we are saying, “Holy Spirit, make me.”
This is not airy language, it is Biblical and scientific!
In our model, it is also practical and individual. It is practical because just as we submit to the church’s praise and community, we submit to the Spirit’s work within us and learn things more deeply than either praise or community can teach us. It is where we internalize the work. We take that formation into prayer and let it be worked on, or opposed.
The Holy Spirit does not only confirm but also sifts and discerns truth for us. It is this discernment that is also vital. While submission to the church in time and community is important to formation, so is learning to trust the voice of God speaking in the Spirit within you. You are an individual and God works with individuals, as much as with the Church and church.
In this prayer there is tremendous freedom. Martin Thornton makes the point in several places that this freedom in prayer is a balance to the submission of Office and Eucharist. In the Anglican tradition we have Julian of Norwich and Margery of Kempe. Both of these women had visions and writings that would be considered heresy, except that they weren’t. Both were honored in their day and still hold their own as deep theological women of the church. He credits this to the freedom offered in our tradition by having a solid foundation in the other two functions of formation and prayer.
So pray wildly. Let the Spirit have you.
Before I end, let me say why ontology and Entering God’s Court. The Spirit makes us human. Our being (ontology) is contingent on our having been God-breathed clay. When we let the Holy Spirit breathe in us and use us, we are returning or turning to our true being. It is amazing to me that this work, while deeply individualistic in nature, actually turns us outward to the world and each other. It should, therefore, make us better stewards of creation and more human in our relationships, responsible and relational, as well as worshipful and reverent.
The Spirit comes from the court of God, naturally, since the Spirit emanates or exists from God as God. This reality is present to us, the court of God or heaven, as we enter the Spirit, or let the Spirit enter us. This Reality as I wrote about in the last post should be present in the community gathered, but it is also available in prayer. But that Reality puts us in communion with God and our neighbor.
The caveat is that we can get distorted and therefore misapprehend Reality. We need a community to discern and hold that Reality with us and sometimes for us. We need to be bold in our grasping the Kingdom and humble in submitting to God and the community of the Church. That is why the Spirit is never spoken of possessively. The Holy Spirit is never quite “my” Spirit.
I have written before about my life falling apart. Its no secret that in seminary I fell to pieces and got put back together. That process of healing is still where my language about the Spirit was formed. For a couple of years, I did the Ashtanga Yoga primary series in my little room alone as an act of prayer and sweat. There is nothing mysterious about the series; it was memorizable, involved my whole body, hard, and free. Later it would be running or Crossfit. But I would get to the end and lay in corpse pose, laying flat on my back, wrung out and calm. My brain would finally be still, and I could feel God breathe through me. It was a tangible experience of the Holy Spirit. I would let the Spirit have me, and I would end up crying or laughing, integrating big ideas and just luxuriating in the shades of sunlight dancing through the leaves outside my window on the walls of my room.
The Spirit spoke so directly in those hours because I had broken everything that normally gets in the way. These days I am trying to listen just as hard without having to destroy everything to hear.