Praying to the Holy Spirit

Jack Levison, author of Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life and 40 Days With the Holy Spirit (which I wrote about here and here) has just had another book published by Paraclete Press.  The book, Holy Spirit, I Pray, is a book of prayers to the Holy Spirit.

A slender, beautifully bound book, Holy Spirit, I Pray contains a series of prayers divided in categories – prayers for morning, prayers for nighttime, prayers for discernment, prayers for crisis and prayers for anytime.  Each prayer is accompanied by the Scripture text that inspired the creation of the prayer.

As I observed to parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes when I led a book study of one of Levison’s earlier books two years ago, it seems to me that the Holy Spirit often gets short shrift. We know that we get the gift of the spirit at Pentecost, some of us can even list the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but we don’t spend a lot of time focusing on that person of the Trinity.  Levison observes in his introduction to this book, citing St. Basil,  the Holy Spirit is often seen as a medium of prayer and worship rather than as an object of prayer and worship.  (Clearly there are exceptions, and there are some well-known prayers to the Holy Spirit.)

There are many beautiful prayers in this book.  I thought I’d here share one of those that immediately resonated with me.

Holy Spirit
Spirit of Jesus
Spirit of Truth:
Ignite in me a passion for the truth
Instill in me a craving for knowledge
Inspire in me a hunger for wisdom.
Not just any truth, random knowledge, indiscriminate wisdom
But the truth about Jesus
who barked at his mother
who cried like a baby
who wore the towel of a servant and washed feeg
who prayed the night away
who broiled fish on a spring morning.
Come to me as
the Spirit of Truth
the Spirit of Jesus
Holy Spirit.

You might consider this book as part of your Lenten prayer.


Pentecost Astonishment

Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day on which Christians celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples of Christ, and the day that ends our celebration of the Easter season.

In his book Walking With Jesus: A Way Forward for the Church, Pope Francis writes that a “fundamental element” of Pentecost is astonishment.  He writes

Our God is a God of astonishment; this we know. No one expected anything more from the disciples: after Jesus’ death they were a small, insignificant group of defeated orphans of their Master. There occurred instead an unexpected event that astounded: the people were astonished because each of them heard the disciples speaking in their own tongues, telling of the great works of God (cf. Acts 2:6–7, 11). The Church born at Pentecost is an astounding community because, with the force of her arrival from God, a new message is proclaimed—the resurrection of Christ—with a new language, the universal one of love. A new proclamation: Christ lives, he is risen. A new language: the language of love. The disciples are adorned with power from above and speak with courage. Only minutes before, they all were cowardly, but now they speak with courage and candor, with the freedom of the Holy Spirit.

Thus the Church is called into being forever, capable of astounding while proclaiming to all that Jesus Christ has conquered death, that God’s arms are always open, that his patience is always there awaiting us in order to heal us, to forgive us. The risen Jesus bestowed his Spirit on the Church for this very mission.

Take note: if the Church is alive, she must always surprise. It is incumbent upon the living Church to astound. A Church that is unable to astound is a Church that is weak, sick, dying, and that needs admission to the intensive care unit as soon as possible!

Happy Feast of Pentecost!

Fresh Air for Every Day

Despite the fact that Christianity is a Trinitarian faith, there is a tendency for many Christians to give a lot more attention to (to use the traditional formulation) the Father and the Son than to the Holy Spirit. We know that we receive the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, many of us can even list the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but we don’t always spend a lot of time focusing on that person of the Trinity.

To help remedy that, last summer I led a parish book group through a rich and rewarding three-session discussion of Jack Levison’s Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life. Thus, I was delighted when Jack, who I had met last year when we both presented at the Seattle University Search for Meaning Book Festival, sent me an advance copy of his new book, 40 Days with the Holy Spirit: Fresh Air for Every Day. The book is now available for pre-order and will be out within a month.

40 Days is a daily devotional aimed at deepening our appreciation and apprehension of the Holy Spirit. This new book, scheduled for release on February 28, contains a beautiful selection of scripture passages, personal stories that help unpack those passages, suggested prayers, and most importantly, the invitation to grapple with how we understand the Holy Spirit and how it operates in our lives.

Seven verbs frame the book, verbs that Levison suggests frame our lives: breathing, praying, practicing, learning, leading, building, and blossoming. For the author, there is a “sequence to these verbs. They lead from deep within to the world outside”, thus ending with exploring “how the Holy Spirit helps us to blossom beyond ourselves, beyond the church – and in the world.

There are a lot of things I like about this book. Certainly its combination of scripture, scholarship, personal story and prayer, which makes it accessible to a broad range of readers. The fact that so many of the entries emphasize a particular word or phrase, providing an easily-grasped take-away from each day. The scripture selections themselves. And the accessibility of the writing.

The title promises 40 days with the Holy Spirit; I’m confident the book will prompt many more days of reflection than that. I heartily recommend it as something you might use for your daily prayer.

Filled With the Holy Spirit

Today’s first Mass reading is the martyrdom of Stephen recorded in Acts. We always here this reading almost immediately after Christmas, but I found it particularly powerful to read it this morning, during this Easter Season and as we await the coming of Pentecost.

Stephen has been “speaking truth to power”, as the saying goes, reprimanding the elders and the scribes for their “stiff-necked” behavior. The fury and threats of those disquieted by his speech did not deter him, however, for Stephen was “filled with the Holy Spirit.”

And filled with that Spirit, Stephen saw “the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen was able to face his stoning with peace. (“Lord, receive my spirit.”) Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen’s dying words were words of forgiveness for those who killed him.

Reading this passage this morning, I was reminded of a homily once given by Archbishop Oscar Romero. Romero was preaching at the funeral celebration of Father Alfonso Navarro Oviedo, who had been assassinated. It was no isolated occurrence for Romero to be preaching at the mass of someone assassinated in El Salvador; just the previous day he presided over another one.

He began his homily with a story that he called a legend that became reality in their midst. It was a story about a caravan that was traveling through the desert and being guided by a Bedouin. The travelers had become desperate and thirsty and were searching for water in the mirages of the desert. Their guide said: Not there, over there. He had spoken these words so many times that the members of the caravan became frustrated, took out a gun and shot the guide. As the guide was dying, he extended his hand one last time: Not there, over there. And he died pointing the way to the water.

Romero remarked that even after they took an act that would mean his death, the Bedouin was still able to care about the wellbeing of his charges. Likewise, Romero pointed out, the assassinated priest Father Navarro “died forgiving those who shot him.” Romero sharing the testimony of the woman who cared for the priest as he lay dying: “She asked him what hurt, and Father responded: I have no pain except the forgiveness that I want to give my assassins and to those who shot me and the only sorrow I have is sorrow for my sins.”

Could I die with forgiveness on my lips if someone brought about my death as did Stephen and Fr. Navarro?

On my own, the answer clearly is no. But, if I can allow myself to be filled with the Holy Spirit, God’ grace has the power to allow me to do what I cannot do on my own.

Routine Maintenance

One of the people I met at the Seattle University Search for Meaning Book Festival was Jack Levison, a professor of New Testament at Seattle Pacific University. Jack and I traded copies of our books and I have started reading one of his, Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life.

Levison makes the important point that “if we want to be inspired, if we yearn to have God’s spirit upon us, then we need to hunker down for the long haul by maintaining the relationship we have with God and God with us.” And, he reminds us, that maintaining that relationship requires “routine maintenance.”

Levison finds a helpful prescription for routine maintenance in Isaiah 50:4-5, which he terms a model for receiving the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The “servant” in Isaiah says, “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a learner, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning God wakens – wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God hs opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.”

From this passage, Levison extracts three simple steps in a program of routine maintenance:

First, meet God every morning. Commit yourself to routine awakening.

Second, listen – don’t talk. Practice routine listening.

Third, train for the goal of sustaining the weary with a word. Devote yourself to routine encouragement.

It doesn’t really seem all that complicated, does it? A simple presciption to incorporate into the routine of our days.

The Sacrament of Confirmation

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.

Stir Into Flame The Gift of God

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.

Living By the Spirit

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.

Gifts of the Holy Spirit

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.

Jesus on the Holy Spirit

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.