More Spiritual Reflections

Spiritual Reflections


Paradox of the Spirit

Sr. John Michele Southwick, IHM
IHM Center, Scranton, PA
May 11, 2005

Reflection at Evening Prayer

There is a beautiful advertisement on television sponsored by Johnson and Johnson that captures my attention. I love infants and small children, so naturally I am drawn to it.

The main line is "A baby changes everything". How true! New life changes everything.

Meister Eckhart, one of the great Christian mystics wrote:

Now the seed of God is in us.
The seed of a PEAR tree grows into a pear tree.
The seed of a HAZEL tree grows into a hazel tree.
The SEED of GOD grows into God.

But just looking at a baby, it is helpless and weak, not able to do anything for itself. And yet it is not. The paradox lies in the fact that it is strong and vibrant, willing to grow and change. Often this happens in spurts. Sometimes there is obvious growth, the first few words or steps. Sometimes it is not so obvious.

This is true too of the Liturgical Season. After 57 years I finally realized that the celebratory parts of the Liturgical Season all happen in five to six months. The celebration of our life of faith happens in one big spurt. The remainder of the year is just what we call 'ordinary time'. A time of maybe not so obvious growth?? Or is there a paradox here as well??

There is a Donald Duck cartoon about Donald's three nephews who wish that everyday could be Christmas. They got their wish, and each day they would wake up to the same celebration, over and over and over again, until it got too much. You know this feeling if you've ever been at a party where you know it's time to go home. Enough celebrating for one night. Well that I think is true of the feast of Pentecost. We've been celebrating since Advent, Christmas, Incarnation, and then not too soon after, Lent, Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, the Paschal Mystery. Alright already, let's get back to normal! Is it any wonder that the time around Pentecost is one of the most neglected of the church calendar.

That is the paradox I see about these past five months. – We spend five months celebrating many sacred events and then think we have thirty some weeks to rest. But really what Pentecost invites us to do is finally put all that we have learned and celebrated into action. To risk being a Christian, as the early disciples did from that first Pentecost experience. Another paradox perhaps??

This Sunday is Pentecost, the birthday of the Church. My perception of Pentecost has been much like the Sequence for that day, the flowery poem, read before the Gospel. The Spirit often is labeled "comforter", "the soul's most welcome guest", "sweet refreshment", "grateful coolness in the heat". Like going home from that much too lengthy party.

But no! Pentecost is only the beginning, not the end. The paradox! The Spirit calls us to death and new life and the courage to live it. Jesus says, O.K. my work is done, now it is up to you. "So I send you" Receive the Holy Spirit.

In reality we have been celebrating paradoxes throughout the Liturgical year! The season of Incarnation, Advent to Epihany, the idea that God becomes human and lives within and among us. Why would God do anything like that, it is absurd!

The season of Lent to Easter, Holy Week, the celebration of the Paschal Mystery. The need to die, to offer oneself up, so that we might live. Not necessarily a happy thought. Everybody is happy at Easter. But Easter is not just about happiness. Easter means that we are called to New Life – and Life means change, just as it does for the infant. The journey of Life is not for the timid. Just like the Incarnation and the Paschal mystery and the coming of the Spirit is not for the timid. If we are going to grow, we cannot cling to what we know as the disciples did in the upper room. A seed of divinity is trying to be born in us. The SEED of God!

Pentecost says to us that NOW IS OUR TIME! Go, and preach, and live. Receive the Holy Spirit and give up your life. All this discipleship talk is not only true but it is intended for us. Right now at this very moment. We have no more excuses. All that is required is to leave the upper room and go out and lay down our lives for one another.

To live a new life for others, to confront systemic injustice as Jesus did, and welcome Jesus' reign of nonviolence in our world.

Our first reading tonight, however, reminds us, as does everyday life that we are indeed weak, like that little child. That we do not know how to pray or live as we ought. Our brokenness keeps us locked away from each other, hiding our inmost selves and defending our boundaries. Our society socializes us to believe that our human problem is to be lovable and loved, rather than to love. Our culture says to treat one another as things that fulfill our own needs. To HAVE has replaced TO BE. To lose ourselves in another's embrace or in another's company is one thing, but to lose ourselves in suffering with those who suffer, or even with those who inflict suffering on us, is another. So what does Pentecost mean for us? The paradox of paradoxes. Jesus walks into a community of failures and sinners – the community that betrayed him, denied him, fled from him, that now huddles fearful in a locked room, and he wishes them peace. Peace! Not recriminations, not excuses, or even explanations – just peace! And then he gives them the power that each of us still holds over others" to forgive. Another paradox!

Jesus knew that the only way we could be for others is when we knew we were broken ourselves. And he accepts that and loves us as we are! The whole world changes when we know ourselves and our bokenness. We gentle it. Make the world more compassionate Broken ourselves, we bind tenderly the wounds of the other. Another paradox!

In the quote by Meister Eckhart "The seed of God becomes God". You have a seed. You are the seed of God. But there is a paradox here as well. Jesus said "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies..." And dies! If you notice the seed in your hand, it is hard, and dry and dead. Keep it in your hand, cling to it and nothing happens. It must break open, it must be filled with water and break apart. A scary thought. Receive the Holy Spirit and be broken! A seed has so much potential, despite its insignificant appearance. We can hardly believe that life can come forth from such a dry, dead looking thing. Do we have the confidence in the Easter event, in the seed, in order to come to a fuller life and a deeper experience of the Holy Spirit? It is something that Jesus taught and lived. The Paschal/Easter mystery/events is a process of transformation which begins with suffering and death, a breaking open, moves onto the reception of new life, spends time grieving the old and adjusting to the new, and finally, only after the old life has been let go of, the Holy Spirit is given. Do we have the courage to move onto Pentecost or will we be locked in the upper room, or inside the seed, wanting to go back to the way things were?

The seed we hold can offer us life, but only if we allow it to be broken open. The paradox of the Holy Spirit is that she will give us the strength and courage to break open our lives as Jesus did. Will it be painful? Sure it will. Just ask Jesus? Pentecost is frightening if we pay attention to the meaning of it. To REALLY lay down our lives, we risk what is most precious to us. The Spirit doesn't promise to keep our lives comfortable. She promises just the opposite; To break us open. In Pentecost, we accept our maturity in faith to help us live out the Paschal Mystery of dying and rising. We enter into the universal mission to go out to all nations witnessing and preaching the good news knowing that whatever happens God lives in it.

Ronald Rolheiser in his book "The Holy Longing" has a poem which says it well:

"I never suspected
To be so painful
To leave me weeping with joy to have met you, alive and smiling, outside an empty tomb with regret, not because I have lost you but because I have lost you in how I had you- In understandable, touchable, kissable, clingable Flesh, not as fully Lord, but as graspably human.
I want to cling, despite your protest
Cling to your body, cling to your, and my, clingable humanity
Cling to what we had, our past.
But I know that...if I cling you cannot ascend and I will be left clinging to your former self...unable to receive your present Spirit"

Pentecost – God's gracious, enabling presence actively at work among His people, calling us in the next six months, at least, until the Liturgical year begins again, to live out in dynamic ways the witness of being God's people and prophets. Take the seed in your hand – don't plant it as you might think you should do but rather, keep it in your pocket, put it on your dresser and when you feel it or see, keep asking yourself – "Are you ready to be broken open?"

And it is true "a baby changes everything" so for us it is true "The Spirit changes everything" Receive the Holy Spirit, and give up your life!