We tend to have many preconceived notions of how the Holy Spirit operates.
On one end of the spectrum, the Pentecostal movement associates the Spirit with enthusiasm and ecstasy, hence terms like ‘baptism in the Spirit’ and ‘slain in the Spirit.’ At the other end of the spectrum, many Christians think of the Spirit as the Father and Son’s silent partner—or worse, they tend to forget about Him altogether.
The Holy Spirit is more than all this. Here is what Scripture and Church tradition reveal about what the Spirit does that might help us to appreciate Him in a new light:
He searches us.
Psalm 139:1 declares, “You have searched me and known me.” In 1 Corinthians 2:10, St. Paul associates this searching particularly with the Spirit: “The Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God.” Paul goes on to say that no one knows what pertains to a person except His spirit and that likewise, the Spirit has the knowledge of God. In receiving this Spirit, we receive the wisdom of God. Of course, in light of Psalm 139, we also gain a new self-knowledge thanks to the in-dwelling of the Spirit.
In Romans 8:26, Paul writes, “For we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.” How can this be? We associate groaning, as Paul himself does, with created things that have bodies. Of course, Christ Himself in the fullness of humanity surely groaned as well.
But how is it that the Spirit does this too?
The same word is used in Acts 7:34 in recalling the ‘groanings’ of the Israelites in Egypt. In Mark 7:34, the verb form of this word appears when Jesus ‘groans’ or ‘sighs’ in calling on heaven to be opened and the blind man to be healed. And Paul uses it again 1 Corinthians 5:2 and 4 in describing our experience of being in our earthly bodies.
The bodily, passive connotations of groaning are unavoidable. They leave us with at least two possible interpretations. First, we can take them as not indicating any suffering on the part of the Spirit, but instead His tender mercy towards us—a kind of sighing on our behalf. Second, we can take this groaning as the Spirit’s prayer on our behalf—conveying our misery to the Father. He is able to ‘groan’ because He dwells so intimately within us.
He leads us to our crosses.
We tend to associate the Spirit with the joy of Pentecost, but he’s right there at the sorrows of the cross too. For it was the Spirit that ‘drove’ Jesus into the wilderness and led Him to offer Himself. As humans we tend to think our lowliness requires separation from God. But God, Who is indeed ‘pure spirit’ nonetheless injects Himself into the gritty messiness of human history without losing any of His divinity. (For more on this see my last piece for CatholicExchange.)
He looks for Mary.
In True Devotion to Mary, St. Louis de Montfort explains that the Holy Spirit looks for Mary in the soul. Where He sees Mary, He produces greater fruit:
It was with her, in her and of her that he produced his masterpiece, God-made-man, and that he produces every day until the end of the world the members of the body of this adorable Head. For this reason the more he finds Mary his dear and inseparable spouse in a soul the more powerful and effective he becomes in producing Jesus Christ in that soul and that soul in Jesus Christ (20).
In The Sanctifier, Archbishop Luis Martinez, elaborates on the reason for this necessity of Mary:
Now, how will this mystical reproduction be brought about in souls? In the same way in which Jesus was brought into the world, because God gives a wonderful mark of unity to all his works (6).
He consecrates us.
We tend not to associate the word ‘consecration’ with the Holy Spirit. Put simply, consecration means to set apart, in this case for God, according to Archbishop Martinez. The Holy Spirit consecrates us as temples at our baptism, according to Archbishop Martinez. We know from Paul (in 1 Corinthians 3:16) that we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Archbishop Martinez is simply working out the implications of this teaching. If we are to be temples of the Holy Spirit it follows that the work of making ourselves temples is ultimately God’s work, not ours. And it seems most fitting to associate this work with the Spirit who will be dwelling in this temple. Of course, we must cooperate with this work, as Archbishop Martinez notes,
If, then, we are to belong to the Holy Spirit, all idols must be thrown out of his temple; all darkness must be dispelled in order that God might shine there (55).
He becomes our guest.
We are familiar with the Holy Spirit as God dwelling in us as temples. But Church tradition also recognizes the Spirit with another name that helps us appreciate anew His presence. It calls Him the dulcis Hospes animae—the sweet Guest of the soul. How do we treat guests in our homes? What kind of hospitality do we show them? If we’re looking for a biblical model it might help to think back to Abraham’s hosting of the three angels, who, according to one traditional interpretation, represent the Trinity (see Genesis 18).
Again, Archbishop Martinez has left us with this beautiful description of what it is like to have the Holy Spirit as our guest,
Like the traveler pitching his tent in the desert, the Holy Spirit takes possession of souls as their most sweet Guest. But unlike the traveler, who folds his tent as morning breaks, the eternal Guess stays on. The tent he pitches on the soil of our barrenness is something divine, a sketch, a reflection, of our heavenly home: grace that divinizes the soul; divine charity, the supernatural image of the Spirit who pours himself into our hearts; all the virtues and gifts. These are the conditions of his indwelling, that he may begin his work of sanctification and direct us with the strong, gentle influence of love (51).
There is something wonderfully fitting about this image of a tent. It hearkens back to Abraham’s own humble dwelling where he hosted the three angels. It also recalls Paul’s description of the body as an ‘earthly tent’ (2 Corinthians 5:1). There is something lovely about the way the Holy Spirit—the ‘eternal Guest’ as Archbishop Martinez calls Him—takes up His dwelling in a perishable body. It is an act of God’s mercy, a sign of hope for the resurrection, and a reflection of our own calling to eternal life.
We can thank the Pentecostal movement for chastising those of us who may have forgotten about the Spirit. But a more intimate life in the Spirit doesn’t mean you have to be ‘baptized into’ or ‘slain by’ the Spirit. As the above sketch shows, there is much more about the Spirit that we have to learn. As we seek to get to know Him better let us welcome Him as our sweet guest and listen to His soft sighs as He teaches us more about ourselves and the wisdom of God.