God’s feminine touch

by John Wijngaards, The Tablet 29 May 1993, pp. 683-684.

Tomorrow is Pentecost Sunday — the culmination of Eastertide. Yet in Western Christianity the role of the Spirit is often insufficiently acknowledged and felt. This reflection on the Biblical sources and early tradition is by a Mill Hill father who directs the Housetop Centre for communications in London.

During a renewal course for Religious which I conducted some time ago, it turned out that roughly two of every three of the participants normally prayed to Jesus, the rest to the Father. Not only did the Holy Spirit come last in order of preference, most confessed they hardly ever thought of addressing the Spirit at all. We do not notice her — I use the female gender with preference, considering her, with Hildegard of Bingen, as “the feminine touch of God”. We hardly give the Spirit any thought. In practice she does not seem to exist. Yet in Hildegard’s words, the Spirit is the life-giving breath that pours on us “greenness and freshness and fruitfulness”.
At the most universal level, God’s Spirit can be seen at work in bringing about life itself. It is interesting that the shorter Nicene formula, “I believe in the Holy Spirit”, was extended in the Council of Constantinople with “the Lord and Giver of life”. The Spirit manifests herself in all the exuberance of living things that cover the earth. As God’s breath that stirred the waters of the deep at creation (Gen. 1:2), she gives birth to all vegetation that colours our planet green, to animals large and small, to every creature that swims or crawls or flies. “When you turn away, they die . . . but when you send out your Spirit, they are re-created; you give new life to the earth!” (Ps. 104:30). And her highest manifestation of life is in human beings.
The Holy Spirit is the spark of intelligence and flame of love that God breathed into Adam and Eve (Gen. 2:7). The Spirit is the energy that spurred our ancestors to their highest, achievements. The Spirit is present in cultures and in every human individual. The Spirit is at the root of all our noblest aspirations as a human family: our desire for well-being, our search for truth, our struggle to obtain freedom, our faltering steps towards unity. The Spirit prods us to overcome the obstacles we ourselves put in her way: our self-indulgences, our betrayals, our failings and weaknesses. “From the beginning till now the entire creation, as we know, has been groaning in one great act of giving birth; and not only creation, but all of us who possess the first-fruits of the Spirit, we too groan inwardly as we wait for the freedom of the children of God” (Rom. 8:22-23).
It is one thing to carry the creative energy of the Spirit in us; quite another to harvest the fruits of harmony, love and friendship which she enables us to produce. I was forcefully reminded of this in February while travelling to a meeting in Vienna. The Austrian police had just discovered the remains of two old ladies in their locked, innercity flat. Both had been dead for almost eight years. They had died of natural causes, one before the other. The first one to go had been rolled up by her sister in the sitting-room carpet. Presumably no one had been there to comfort them during their final days; and no one had noticed their absence. “Where was God in all that?” the taxi driver asked me. “Where were the neighbours?” I replied. I knew I was dodging the question; or was I?

The Spirit cannot produce some of her most precious life-giving support without our involvement. This is why the plight of these old sisters should not be passed over in a hurry. Their quiet despair may not be forgotten. Perhaps they did call out to God. Perhaps they had tried to approach friends or neighbours and received no response; or, even more likely, felt so cut off that they did not expect any help anyway. It is the kind of society we human beings have created, with lonely indi­viduals trying to cope on their own. That is why the Spirit had to come in a new form, as the Spirit who makes us truly children of God, as the Spirit of Jesus.
In John’s gospel Jesus calls the Spirit the Paraclete. The Greek term is ambivalent. It carries many nuances of meaning which has allowed commentators, from the ear­liest times to the present, to suggest a variety of translations: Comforter, Coun­sellor, Advocate, Interpreter and Helper. I propose an even simpler one: Friend. “I will pray the Father for you”, Jesus promised at the Last Supper, “that he may give you another Friend to be with you for ever” (Jn. 14:16). Jesus, “God-among-us” (Mt. 1:23), was God showing himself to us as a true friend. In the Spirit he continues to be with us as “another Friend”; a friend who would empower us towards genuine friendship.
The Gospel presents the Paraclete as Jesus’ successor, as Jesus with us in a new form, as an incarnation of Jesus in our Christian consciousness. John is emphatic about it. The Spirit only came in this form after Jesus’ death and resurrection. During Jesus’ ministry “the Spirit had not been given because Jesus had not been glori­fied” (Jn. 7:39). “It is good for you that I go, for only then can I send you the Paraclete” (Jn. 16:7). When Jesus spoke of returning to his disciples after his death (John 14:3,19), he clearly meant to return to them through the gift of his Spirit. The Spirit is Jesus among us and in us with a new face.
The whole meaning of Jesus’ life was to reveal to us that God is love and to demonstrate the priority of love. The Spirit consolidates this achievement. Everything Jesus did for us during his lifetime, the Spirit continues to do for us now, but she does so through our own human involve­ment. And this takes us back to the meaning of “Paraclete”.
One of the meanings of Parakletos is “Comforter”. Consoling was one of the messianic promises contained in Old Testa­ment prophecy. “Comfort, comfort my people”, Isaiah had said (Is. 40:1). “I, the Lord, I myself will comfort you” (Is. 51:12). In rabbinical literature messianic salvation was comprehensively expressed as “the Comfort” and the messiah was called “the Comforter”. It is in this sense that in his sermon in Nazareth Jesus affirmed that he had come “to heal the broken-hearted” (Is. 61:2; see Lk. 4:18). The scope of his consoling was to span the full extent of human loneliness and despair.
The Hellenistic writers of the world in which Christianity was bom had no real answers to suffering. Cicero, Seneca, Plutarch and many others have left their “letters of comfort” through which they sought to console the bereaved. The advice they offered sounds familiar to our secularised ears: “Fate is blind. It strikes where it wills. Suffer it bravely. There is no escape.” Christians knew that Christ had brought a different kind of comfort. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercy and the God of all consolation, who comforts us in all our sorrows, so that we can offer others, in their sorrows, the consolation that we have received from God ourselves” (2 Cor. 1:3-4).
Jesus’ Spirit as Comforter extends this dimension to us, to our twentieth-century mix of prosperity and anguish. The Spirit will not preserve us from hardships and pain; but she will give us the inner strength to bear them. She will keep us rooted in love so that we do not surrender to despair. She will also heighten awareness in ourselves and those who surround us, to make us realise our own potential of giving comfort and being comforted. It is signifi­cant in this context that parakletos also means “lawyer”, “assistant in court”.
Jesus did not just talk about love, he acted. “There can be no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn. 15:13). The Good Samaritan was a genuine neighbour because he helped the man in need (Lk. 10:25-37). For Jesus, love was not a question of words, but deeds. Similarly, the Spirit makes herself known in what she does. On occasion she compels us to present determined opposition to injustice: “the Paraclete will convict the world of evil” (Jn. 16:8-11). At other times she instigates sweeping reforms in the Church, leading us to the full truth and making us understand better what Jesus’ real intentions were (Jn. 14:26, 16:13). Most of the time, however, she helps us rise above ourselves in acts of real friendship, in making peace, in tolerance, kindness, trustfulness and gentleness (Gal. 5:22). And, as Symeon the Theologian aptly said, not unlike a pregnant woman who feels the pulse of new life in her body, we too can feel the throbbing of the Spirit.
There is a curious passage in John’s Gospel which speaks about our ability to see the Kingdom of God. “No one can see the Kingdom of God”, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “unless he is born again”; which means: “being born of water and the Spirit” (Jn. 3:3-5). The Spirit not only gives us new life; she grants us new eyes so that we can see God at work. And since the Kingdom of God consists mainly in God’s activity among people, the Spirit helps us see God in people. She detects light where we see only darkness. She lights up God’s presence in our deepest self and helps us to be light and love to other people.
In the nineteenth-century spirituality from which we are just emerging, direct experiences of God’s activity in us were treated with suspicion. Yes, we believed the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity. We trusted that his love had been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5). But we dared not presume to perceive such realities ourselves. Grace was intangible, beyond human ken. No one in his sober mind would claim to know the Spirit. And yet this is precisely what John’s gospel tells us we can do.

Opening our eyes

“The world cannot receive the Spirit because it neither sees him nor knows him. You, however, will know him for he will remain with you and live in you” (Jn. 14:17). In other words: we can know the Spirit. We will know her through her activities in us. She is like a gust of wind. We do not see the wind directly, but we know it because we hear the leaves rustle and see the branches sway. In the same way we will know the Spirit in us by what she does (Jn. 3:8). In another delightful image that alludes to the rite of baptism, Symeon says that the Spirit is a pool of light in which we find ourselves immersed. All we need to do is open our eyes.
It would be a mistake to restrict these activities of the Spirit in us to mystical stirrings, or to charismatic enthusiasm or extraordinary manifestations. She can be known to all of us by the way in which she inspires hope, by the courage she gives us to interpret our Christian faith dynamically and by her guiding us to love and truth. The Spirit becomes visible in us whenever we touch holiness. She is not just the Holy Spirit, but the Spirit of holiness, which in today’s language means: of wholeness.
The Fathers tell us that the Holy Spirit herself is wholeness. “She does not derive wholeness from elsewhere. She is wholeness itself’ (Gregory of Nazianzen). “She is the source of all wholeness. She is a fire which purifies and inspires, thus bringing wholeness” (Basil the Great). “The Spirit is the essential wholeness of Father and Son” (Augustine). In other words: wherever we meet wholeness in our lives, we can be sure we are in touch with God’s Spirit; even though her action in us or surrounding us cannot be separated from what we are ourselves.
As a teenager I was fascinated by one of those inimitable stories of Jules Verne, The Envoy of the Tsar. On his secret journey to a far-flung province in the Caucasus, the hero is made blind by a local chief who burns his eyes out with a red-hot iron. The envoy continues his mission with the help of a small boy who sits on his shoulders. Together they climb mountains, swim across rivers in spate, dodge enemy patrols and scale the walls of a fortress. They work together so closely that in the end it is difficult to distinguish which of the two should be credited with what. That is how the Spirit works in us.
The Spirit is God-in-Us. She reveals God to us as One in Three, a God of inner relationships, a God of love. Belief in Father, Son and Holy Spirit may seem an acute embarrassment to us in our sceptical world. Holding on to God is hard enough; believing that in Jesus of Nazareth the Invisible was made visible and that God showed a third “face” in the Spirit, would seem to stretch all limits of credibility. The truth is that the incredible only becomes credible when we accept it wholesale.
Either we have to resign ourselves to the cold tyranny of the unknowable deity of the agnostic; or we should entrust ourselves to the caring, communicating, committed God of revelation. And the Holy Spirit, far from being an embarrass­ment or an afterthought, is the key to grasping God’s nature as love and God’s involvement in a programme of enhancing the quality of human life.

Gregory the Miracle Worker, bishop in third-century Asia Minor, sums it all up: “I believe in one Holy Spirit, who receives all substance from the Father and who became manifest to us through the Son; image of the Son; completion of him who is complete; life which causes all to live; source of wholeness; pure wholeness that empowers wholeness in others; who reveals God the Father to us and God the Son.” We know God as Christians by knowing the Spirit. We get to know the Spirit better, the more we become sensitive to her gifts: life itself and wholeness.