When St. Paul visited Ephesus he asked a group of "disciples" if they had received the Holy Spirit. They responded, "No, we have never heard that there is a Holy Spirit." (Acts 19:2) Now, Ephesus was hardly a backwater. It was one of the largest cities of the Roman Empire. Here we see a group much like modern Christians. They have heard some teachings, especially those dealing with morality. But they do not know what to do with them. Every time they try to put them into practice, they fall flat on their face. They need the Holy Spirit.
Without the Spirit our good intentions usually come to naught. A friend of mine frequently talks about how he is going to start losing weight. One day when I was with him he slapped his stomach and said, "I hate this gut. I'm going to do something about it." He suggested we eat lunch at Wendy's so he could get a salad with low fat dressing. But that was not what grabbed out attention as we entered. My friend noticed Dave had a special on the double stack burger, large fries and coke which was just too good a bargain to pass up... We smile because even if we have not had to fight against weight, we all identify with making and breaking good resolutions.
St. Paul says the Spirit and the flesh oppose each other. (Gal 5:17) By flesh (sarx) he refers not just to gluttony, drunkenness and sexual sins. He includes what we sometimes think of as "spiritual" sins: rivalries, dissension, envy, jealousy, violent outbursts and so on. Sarx means our lower human nature, our unredeemed selves. We constantly get pulled back into the flesh unless we surrender to a Higher Power - the Holy Spirit.
Now, don't get me wrong. Receiving the Holy Spirit does not mean we all of a sudden become "righteous" or "perfect," as if salvation involved proving how good we are. While we still walk and breathe, the flesh does not disappear . A story is told about a seminarian who who came upon a venerable faculty member doing his spiritual reading. Curious, he asked what the book was about.
The elderly priest showed him the title, On Achieving Purity. The seminarian was amazed and asked, "Do you still struggle with that?"
The priest replied, "For sure."
The seminarian asked, "Then when does it stop?"
Reflecting for a moment the priest said, "I think about five minutes after you're lowered into the grave."
Our fleshly selves remain with us all our lives. But if we open our hearts to the Holy Spirit, we receive something incalculable - a new existence because of a new relation with God. Let me attempt a rough comparison.
When I was a theology student, I greatly admired a certain German theologian. It turned out that he became ill and was hospitalized in Rome. A friend of mine worked at that hospital and asked me if I would like to meet Father Rahner.* "Yes, of course," I said. We bought some flowers and went to his room. He received us cordially and before we left, gave us his blessing. The visit lasted only two minutes (I hardly said anything, my friend talked for both of us) but it filled me with a deep emotion. Because of it I not only knew his teaching, I knew him.
It is vital to know God's doctrine and to do our utmost to live it, but what makes the real difference is knowing God. Only then can we begin to live his teaching, with joy, not by gritting our teeth. The Holy Spirit is something like my friend who takes us to God and speaks for us. "We do not know how to pray," St. Paul tells us. "The Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words." (Rom 8:27)
This week (June 6-9) I am attending for a second time Steubenville Conference for Priests, Deacons and Seminarians. It is such a moving experience to join a couple hundred men openly praising God in the Holy Spirit. Besides great speakers, the Conference involves the ordinary Catholic rites of forgiveness (confession) healing (anointing and imposition of hands) and praise (the Mass and Eucharistic Adoration). Those rites have meanings not because we are great theologians or great saints - I know myself and my brother priests too well to claim that - but on account the great gift we acknowledge today, the Holy Spirit.
*I still admire Karl Rahner for his humility before defined Church teaching. However, I have second thoughts about his theory of the "anonymous Christian," at least in the way it has undercut the missionary effort of the Church. Whether Rahner's own philosophical basis was sound, I will leave to sharper intellects than mine. I cannot help but think he would be disappointed by the theory's practical consequences: If non-Christians can be saved "anonymously," why burden them with the Church? We're not exactly the most attractive "community" in town. For that matter why should anyone bother with the sacraments, or even Christ, if salvation can be attained by doing (or wanting to do) good? I do not have a complete answer to these questions, but would point out two facts: 1) Salvation, first, last and always is God's work, not our own. 2) The Bible and constant Christian tradition affirm salvation comes from Christ, his Church and the sacraments, especially baptism and the Eucharist. Those givens (data) must be our starting point.
From the Archives:
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C