In the creed, the liturgy, and every time we cross ourselves we affirm that the Holy Spirit is one of three divine persons. However, many of us probably struggle to think of the Holy Spirit as a person.
As one Catholic educational site puts it,
Of the three divine Persons, the most mysterious one and the most difficult one for us to think about is the Holy Spirit. We can think about God the Father as the source of all things. We can even imagine him as a kindly and merciful Father. In the case of Jesus, we are dealing with a man like us who lived almost two thousand years ago in Palestine. …
When it comes to the Holy Spirit, however, the matter becomes more difficult. Since the Holy Spirit has not assumed any bodily form, it is impossible for us to imagine him in any concrete way.
The core difficulty, I believe, is in thinking of the Holy Spirit as a person. This is much easier with the other two persons of the Trinity because two of the names that have been revealed to us are very personal: Father and Son. Moreover, the second person assumed a human nature, making Him that much more relatable as a person, as the above author notes.
Moreover, we tend not to associate spirit with person in everyday existence. For us a person is a body and soul. In the Catholic Church we understand the soul to be spiritual in nature. Outside of theology we think of spirit as a part of someone’s soul or personality, as in terms like high-spirited, someone with a great spirit, or someone whose spirits are down. We might say Sally has a joyful spirit or that Johnny has an adventurous spirit, but we wouldn’t say Johnny and Sally are spirits.
Our difficulty in fully recognizing the Holy Spirit as a person is, perhaps, compounded by the many biblical symbols for the third person of the Trinity: water, anointing oil, fire, the cloud, the seal, and the dove (see this list in the catechism). Of course, these symbols all serve to reflect something about the identity of the Holy Spirit but they do not specifically help us see Him as a person.
Again, none of this is to accuse anyone of not believing that the Holy Spirit is a person. The issue the degree to which we are aware of this reality, which I think may not be at the same level as it is for the Father and Son. Needless to say, the deeper we enter into the truths of our faith the better.
So, how can we better appreciate the Holy Spirit as a person?
One approach is to look at two of the formal names the New Testament gives to the Holy Spirit.
The first is the name which is the name that Jesus provides in John 14:26,
The Advocate, the Holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name—he will teach you everything and remind you of all that told you.
The Greek word translated as Advocate above is rendered many other ways in other versions. (The above is from the New American Bible, Revised Edition.) Variants include Helper, Comforter, and Counselor, but the most literal one is Paraclete, which simply is a transliteration of the Greek word, paraklētos. In the ancient Greek world, a paraclete was a kind of legal advocate, analogous to defense attorneys in our society.
This metaphor obviously brings us closer to our objective of understanding the Holy Spirit as a person. Still, a defense attorney is a job title and doesn’t carry the same personal intimacy as the names Father and Son. So we have to return to the verse in John, which makes it clear that the Holy Spirit is a very special kind of Paraclete—He will work on our intellects to both teach us and remind of Christ’s words to us. In a way, this is more intimate of a connection than any we could have with any other human person.
The second name for the Holy Spirit occurs in 2 Corinthians 3:17,
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
It might seem strange to us to hear the Holy Spirit described as the ‘Lord’ since we associate that title with Christ. But the creed makes the same move, identifying the Holy Spirit as ‘the Lord, the Giver of Life.’
As this author explains, the name has its roots in the Old Testament where Hebrew scribes would substitute the name Adonai, or Lord, for Yahweh, the sacred personal name for God, which was not said out loud. This practice is still retained in English translations—wherever you see LORD the underlying Hebrew word is Yahweh. This name thus not only reaffirms the divinity of the Holy Spirit but gives us yet one more way to relate to Him personally.
One issue for us is that our initial perception of other persons is so visual (as the author cited earlier suggested). But there are other ways we perceive the presence of someone else and one way is through hearing their voice. In the context of faith, hearing the voice of God is of crucial importance. In Romans 10 and Galatians 3 St. Paul says that faith comes through hearing. In John 10:27, Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”
In Romans 8:26, St. Paul attributes a kind of voice to the Holy Spirit:
In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.
Moreover, the Holy Spirit is deeply connected with bringing God’s word to us. One of the fundamental beliefs of the Church is that the Holy Spirit inspired all the writers of Scripture. As the creed itself says, He is the one ‘who spoke by the prophets.’ This fact leads to an extraordinary conclusion: it means that each time we are reading Scripture we are hearing what the Spirit says to us. Between Genesis and the Apocalypse that gives us quite a bit of space in which we can get to know the Holy Spirit.
But there is a point at which we have to face the truth: the difficulties we have in approaching the Holy Spirit as person reminds us of the mystery and absolute otherness of God, as the first quotation in this article stated. Ultimately our task is not to box the Spirit into our human concept of a person, but to recognize that for God to be three persons is radically different than what it means to be a human person. In the end, we should aim to get to know the Holy Spirit as a person on his own terms, not our own.
image: By Jan Kameníček [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons