Oh the Movements of the Holy Spirit!

Karl Rahner once wrote, “Christians, for all their orthodox profession of faith in the Trinity, are almost just ‘monotheist’ in their actual religious experience. One might almost dare to affirm that if the doctrine of the Trinity were to be erased as false, most religious literature could be preserved almost unchanged throughout the process.”[1]

I don’t think Karl Rahner is too far off the mark here, especially when it comes to the third person of the Trinity. I have to admit that I don’t think about the Holy Spirit very much either. As a kid, I found the idea of Spirit very confusing. The Trinity itself was perplexing enough, but the Holy Spirit? Not Father (one tap to the forehead). Not Son (one tap to the chest). Not an easily anthropomorphized being. But Holy Spirit (important enough to get two taps, one on each shoulder). So for a while I thought the Holy Spirit was a dove – literally a dove, as the pictures portrayed. The dove idea didn’t last long, though. I saw plenty of fathers and sons walking around, but I never saw any doves, at least not of the pure white variety that appeared in the Son’s hands in Church iconography.

So the Spirit came to take on something of a vague, amorphous reality in my mind. Even as I moved into theological studies and learned about pneumatology and the development of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in early Church history, the Spirit remained something removed from both my theological knowledge and my faith life. A spiritual director once suggested that I focus on the Holy Spirit in my prayer. “Why not pray to the Holy Spirit?” she asked. I closed my eyes, pictured a dove performing miracles, and cracked up laughing. (Oh the movements of the Holy Spirit!).

Recognizing that a dove-based pneumatology probably wouldn’t get me very far in writing a blog post on the Holy Spirit, the anxiety started piling up. I was explaining my predicament to my fiancé this past Saturday as we were walking to our first of two Pre-Cana Saturdays in preparation for the sacrament of marriage. Even though it was a beautiful morning in New York City – cool, sunny, deep blue skies – I was grumpy. It was early. I hadn’t had enough coffee. I was about to spend the next six-and-a-half hours of a beautiful late spring day sitting in the basement of a church. And I had a blog post coming up about which I had no idea what to write.

Then Scot turned to me and said, “Why don’t you write on the way the Holy Spirit works in marriage. Think about all of those couples who will be there who are getting married in the Catholic Church and think about their relationships.” (Oh the movements of the Holy Spirit!). I don’t want to go into an exploration of marriage here, but his suggestion pointed to something of crucial importance in any discussion of the Holy Spirit – that God is communion, that the three persons of the trinity are inherently relational and profoundly reflect how people should relate to each other – not just with their partners but with all people.

Here I turn to Kallistos of Diokleia’s (Ware) article “The human person as an icon of the Trinity” and in particular his discussion of Richard of St. Victor’s twelfth-century book De Trinitate. Ware says:

Since love is the perfection of human nature, the highest reality within our personal experience, it is also the quality within our experience that brings us closest to God; it expresses better than anything else that we know, the perfection of the divine nature. But self-love is not true love. Love is give and exchange, and so to be present in its fullness it needs to be mutual. It requires a ‘thou’ as well as an ‘I’, and can only truly exist where there is a plurality of persons: ‘The perfection of one person requires fellowship with another.’”[2]

Ware continues:

The fullness of glory, says Richard, ‘requires that a sharer of glory be not lacking’; in God’s case, as in that of us humans, ‘nothing is more glorious |…| than to wish to have nothing that you do not wish to share.’ If, then God is love, it is impossible that he should be merely one person loving himself. He must be at least two persons, Father and Son, loving each other…. To exist in its plenitude, love needs to be not only ‘mutual’ but ‘shared’. The closed circle of mutual love between two persons still falls short of the perfection of love; in order that the perfection of love may exist, the two must share their mutual love with a third….

‘The sharing of love cannot exist among any less than three persons |…|.’ In the case of God, this ‘third’ with whom the other two share their mutual love is the Holy Spirit, whom Richard terms condilectus, the ‘co-beloved.’[3]

The Holy Spirit, the “co-beloved,” the one that completes and perfects Trinitarian love. To be sure, human analogies of divine mystery inevitably fall short. This is not to suggest that the Holy Spirit is greater or lesser than the other two persons of the Trinity but to suggest that true and perfect and bountiful love is best reflected in our relationship with others.

When we reflect on the Pentecost this week and look to the text in Acts we read, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they [the disciples and Jesus’ mother Mary] were all together in one place / And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting / Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them / All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability (2:1-4).

The disciples were “astonished” at their sudden ability to speak to and understand the diverse languages being spoken: “in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power / All were amazed and perplexed, saying one to another, ‘What does this mean?’” (2:12).

What we see here is Christ’s fulfillment of his promise to send the Holy Spirit to his disciples, the fulfillment of his promise not to leave the disciples (then and now) alone. Some identify Pentecost as the “birth of the Church” – as Acts says, some 3000 people were converted and baptized on that day. This idea of the “birth of the Church” can be problematic. After all, what contemporary Christians identify and understand as “church” is radically different from what church meant in the years following Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension. Perhaps it more important for us, over 2000 years later, to see this movement of the Spirit as instead pointing to the importance of community.

In that moment, with the help of the Holy Spirit Jesus’ disciples were able to transcend racial, ethnic, and religious boundaries in order to preach the good news of Christ in the name of building an early community of Christians. They were proclaiming the importance of the “thou” and “I” in relationships, the importance of shared and mutual love. The Holy Spirit need not – and must not – be disregarded. The passage from Acts shows us that the Holy Spirit – through Christ’s promise – is alive and active in our world. (Oh the movements of the Holy Spirit!).


[1][1] Karl Rahner, “Remarks on the Dogmatic Treatise ‘De Deo,’” Theological Investigations, vol. 4 (London 1966), 79.

[2] Kallistos of Diokleia, “The Human Person as an Icon of the Trinity,” Sobornost 8:2 (1986): 6-23, at 9. He is referencing Richard of St. Victor’s De Trin. III, 6.

[3] Ibid., 10.