Last night was the last session of a three-week program Bill Nolan and I gave at St. Thomas Apostle on the Sacraments of Initiation. Our subject for this final week was the sacrament of Confirmation.
Our talk, and the discussion it prompted from the participants, covered a range of topics. Bill began with a bit of history about the sacrament and the changes in theological understanding of it. I then spoke about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and a little bit about the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the sacrament being one of commissioning.
We also talked about the challenges of ensuring that Confirmation is conveyed as a step in a life-long process of conversion, and not a “graduation ritual” from faith formation, a topic that prompted some good discussion.
Near the end of our time together, Bill led a guided reflection on the gifts of the Holy Spirit (about that last 10 minute of the podcast.)
You can access a recording of Bill and my talk here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 1:04:45.
One final note: last night was the penultimate adult faith formation session of the 12-13 year at St. Thomas Apostle, but the last one I will be attending, as I will be at St. Benedict’s Monastery next week. So I take this opportunity to thank Bill Nolan for a wonderful year of collaboration, and to thank all of those who participated for their generous sharing with us.
Today is the Memorial of Saints Timothy and Titus, collaborators, confidants and companions of St. Paul. One of the options for today’s first Mass reading is the opening of St. Paul’s second letter to Timothy.
In the opening paragraphs of the letter, Paul reminds Timothy to “stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.”
I love that line. I love the imagery and I think the reminder is a very important one.
I think sometimes people forget that God doesn’t do all all of the heavy lifting. I’ve heard people say (on more than one occasion) something like, “Oh I don’t really feel like I have to [do][prepare][work] too much here. The Holy Spirit will take care of it.” Or “I’ll just rely on the Holy Spirit.”
It is true that we do what we do with the grace of God and the assistance of the Spirit. But, that doesn’t mean we can just sit back and wait for God to do everything. We have been given the gifts of the Spirit, but it is for us to stir into flame those gifts. We need to nurture our gifts, allow them to grow and use them for the purposes for which we have been given them.
That is not always easy, and the last line of today’s first reading is Paul’s encouragement to Timothy to “bear your share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God.” We are encouraged to do the same.
UPDATE: See the comment below from a reader about the authorship of the Second Letter to Timothy.
I’ve been praying with the Letter to the Romans over the last week or so. This morning, my passage was the beginning of Romans 8, a chapter of Romans I prayed with during my retreat several weeks ago.
Paul writes, “But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.” (“Flesh” for Paul means human nature apart from God, unaided by the Holy Spirit.)
A commentary to this passage, contained in Romans and Galatians: A Devotional Commentary, asks the question how can one tell if one is living by the power of the Holy Spirit or by the flesh in a given moment. Simple, suggests the author:
We can examine ourselves periodically during the day to see if we are experiencing peace, joy, love, and the other fruits of the Spirit. If we are not, but rather see anger, frustration, or division, we have probably slipped back into living according to the flesh.
Considering the fruits of an experience is not foreign to me; part of Ignatian discernment (both in decisionmaking and in discernment of religious experience) includes examining whether one is in a state of peace, whether something leads to greater faith, hope and love, or the opposite.
But I found this passage a great reminder of our need to pay attention to what it going on in us. And of the fact that this is something that can be done easily at any time. Easily, that is, so long as we are in a mindful state, aware of what is going on in us as well as around us.
Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day on which we celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus’ followers and mark the end of the Easter Season.
It would, however, be a mistake to think of the day in purely historical terms – as a day on which we look back at something that happened a very long time ago. I’ve sometimes suggested to people that I think of Pentecost as giving us an annual “booster shot” of the gifts of the Holy Spirit that were magnified in us when we received Confirmation.
The reality, of course, is that we are always blessed by the Spirit, every day of our lives. So perhaps it is better to say that Pentecost helps us to be more open to receipt of the gifts of the Spirit.
If, like me, you went to Catholic school, those gifts of the Spirit probably roll pretty easily off of your tongue: Wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, piety and fear of the Lord.
Whether we think of Pentecost as giving us an annual booster shot of the gifts of the Spirit, or making us more open to receive the gifts of the Spirit or maybe just reminding us of the gifts that are always at our disposal, this day is a good reminder that we are blessed with the gifts we need to allow us to live the fullness of our lives as Christ would have us live.
Is there a particular gift you need to be more aware of? That you need to be more open to? Today is a good day to reflect on such questions.
In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, Jesus tells his disciples that although those who speak against Him will be forgiven, “the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.”
Why does Jesus speak so strongly against blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, especially in contrast to speaking against Himself?
I think the answer is that to deny the Holy Spirit is to deny the presence of God in the world today, to deny that the world (in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins) is “charged with the grandeur of God.”
God became human in Jesus, an event that is foundationally important to us as Christians. But God didn’t just come and go, leaving us with only a fading memory of his presence. This is no like the visit years ago of some far-off relative, about whom we years later reminisce, “Hey remember that time Uncle John came to town.”
Instead, in one of the Last Supper discourses in the Gospel of John, Jesus promises: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth… [I]t remains with you and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me, because I live and you will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.”
The Spirit of God reside in each of us and infuses all of life. All the world – all that exists – is suffused with the reality of God’s presence. That is the reality Jesus’ statement to his disciples urges us to embrace.
To deny the Holy Spirit, denies the promise Jesus made to us during his life here with us.
Although I don’t have a GPS system in my car, I have been a passenger in cars that have one. When you deviate from the route the GPS plots our for your trip, you hear a mechanical female voice saying “recalibrating,” as the system plots a new route that takes account of your deviation.
My friend Chato used the image of the GPS system Wednesday in his talk on the Holy Spirit and the image has stuck with me as a wonderful expression of the way God works with us.
Some people think God has a fully formed plan for each of us and that our task is simply to implement that plan. Under that view, if we take a wrong turn, make any misstep along the way, we frustrate God’s plan for us. We’ve blown everything.
On the other side, when we find ourselves in a good situation, it is easy to look at the steps and turns that got us here and think how lucky that we made x choice instead of y or that we found ourselves in one particular situation rather than another. When I was on the adjunct staff of a retreat house in NY, where I absolutely loved ministering, I would sometimes think: what if I had gotten a job at a different school then St. John’s…then I wouldn’t have moved to Port Washington…then St. Ignatius retreat house wouldn’t have been on my path from work to home…then maybe I never would have gone there…and then maybe I wouldn’t have done the Spiritual Exercises and trained to be a spiritual director…etc. And I shake my head and think, how awful that would have been.
The thing is, it wouldn’t have been awful at all. if I hadn’t done any of those things, there would have been a recalibration. Some other series of choices would have opened up before me and God and I would have worked from there to discern my next steps. In that event, things would have turned out different. Not better or worse. Just different.
The GPS analogy reminds us that the Holy Spirit is always with us, recalibrating with us as we go along. Our life is not like a toy car running along a pre-made track with only only possible route. Each choice we make forecloses some possibilities and open up others. And that is all right, because at each step of the way, the Holy Spirit is with us helping us discern the right move from where we are on the path.
Yesterday was the fourth meeting at the University of St. Thomas of the Fall reflection series on the creed I am offering at UST, at St. John’s Episcopal and at St. Hubert this fall. Our focus this week is on the third section of the creed, in which we express our belief in the Holy Spirit.
Fundamentally, to say that “I believe in the Holy Spirit” says that I believe that the spirit of God is present and alive in the world today; I believe that the spirit of God resides in me and I believe that the spirit of God resides in us. This past Sunday, I spoke about each of those, after which we had (as always) a wonderful conversation in which others shared their reactions to my talk and the material they had prayed with this past week.
Yesterday at St. Thomas we began the session (as we usually do) by giving the participants time to share in small groups a little bit about their prayer experience during this past week.
After the sharing, my colleague Chato Hazelbaker, who comes from an Evangelical tradition, shared some reflections on what this portion of the creed means for him. He shared some very personal experiences that help him afffirm his belief in the Holy Spirit and about what it means to say that the Holy Spirit is in us, with a particular emphasis on the way in which the Spirit seeks to guide (or “recalibrate”) us.
This week, I am again linking two podcasts. You can stream the podcast of both the talk Chato gave yesterday and the one I gave at St. John’s Episcopal this past Sunday. (Note that on Chato’s there is a brief delay between the end of my introduction of Chato and when he begins speaking.) You can also download the talks here (Chato’s talk, which runs for 27:34) and here (my talk, which runs for 15:15). You can find a copy of the prayer material the participants will pray with this week here.
During Mass at St. Benedict’s Monastery yesterday afternoon, the priest mentioned his sadness that we no longer celebrate the Octave of Pentecost. Although many of the older nuns in the congregation shook their heads appreciatively at his comment, I was puzzled, never having heard of (or at least not remembering it if I did) the Octave of Pentecost.
A little digging last night revealed that in the traditional Roman liturgical calendar, Pentecost was followed by eight days of celebration of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The practice of celebrating the Octave ended in 1969. (So I guess I should have remembered it since I must have celebrated it during my Catholic youth.) I didn’t delve deeply enough to discover why it did, although I found a number of sites bemoaning the “reforms” that removed the octave from the liturgical calendar.
Whether or not we “officially” recognize an Octave of Pentecost, we have lost something important if we don’t spend time reflecting on the gifts of the Holy Spirit that have been given to us. They were not, after all, gifts given to us to stick in a closet with the fondue set someone gave us 15 years ago that we never use. Rather, they are ours to help us fulfill our role as disciples of Christ.
We don’t need the Octave placed on the liturgical calendar to spend time reflecting on what the coming of the Spirit means to us. So, as one might of done during the “official” Octave, take some time over these days to reflect on the gifts of Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge, Counsel, Fortitude, Piety and Fear of the Lord.
Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day on which we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, the event that brings to completion the paschal mystery of Christ.
We see and hear the coming of the Holy Spirit depicted and described in many ways. A “noise like a strong driving wind.” A dove hovering over the heads of the disciples. Jesus’ breath on his disciples. “Tongues of fire, which parted and came to rest on each of them.”
We, of course, have no idea what the coming of the Spirit actually looked like. Probably nothing like the images we have created for ourselves.
What we do know is that something happened that filled the disciples with the Holy Spirit and, that through the power of that Spirit, they were able to do marvelous things, far more (in the word of Ephesians) that they could ask for or imagine.
That same Spirit of God dwells in each of us. The death, resurrection and ascension Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost means that God now dwells in the body of Christ that are his people.
And, just as was true of the original disciples, through the power of God working in us we, too, can do so much more than we can imagine.
This weekend my daughter’s choir sang at a service at Immanuel Lutheran Church. I always enjoy when the choir sings at a service of one of the area churches, as it gives me the opportunity to see how others celebrate their Sunday liturgy.
The worship aide distributed for the service included an insert for “Taking Faith Home,” a sheet of recommended readings, discussion questions and suggested devotional practices that tied in with the Sunday service. One of the things included was an excerpt from Martin Luther’s Small Catechism.” Explaining the third article of the Apostles’ Creed, Luther writes
I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and kept me in true faith. In the same way he calls, gather, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it united with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.
The Holy Spirit sometimes gets short shrift from us. But is through the Spirit that we are most deeply united with Christ. As Luther recognizes, our belief in and ability to come to Jesus is not something we can manage on our own. We can respond in faith only because God is already in us. We are already God’s, by the power of the Spirit.
When we affirm in our creed our belief in the Holy Spirit, we should be conscious that, before we do anything on our own, we are already called to God by the Spirit at work within us. We are already marked as belonging to God and we are kept united with and in Christ.
Growing in Love and Wisdom: Tibetan Buddhist Sources for Christian Meditation can be purchased from Amazon here. Or you can order it directly from the Oxford University Press here. For information on upcoming book talks and signings of Growing in Love and Wisdom, see my Facebook page here.
My Upcoming Offerings
Sacraments of Initiation - St. Thomas Apostle (Minneapolis) Adult Faith Formation (with Bill Nolan). April 10, 17 and 24, 6:45-8:00p.m.
Growing in Love and Wisdom - Augsburg College, April 18, 7:30p.m..[to be rescheduled due to snow
Intentional Discipleship and the New Evangelization - Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, Minneapolis, April 28, 10:00a.m..
For information on upcoming book talks and signings ofGrowing in Love and Wisdom, see my Facebook page here. For more information about any of the events above, contact me by e-mail.