Here follow some thoughts on the work of the Holy Spirit, prompted by my reflection on today’s gospel about the peace of Christ (John 14:27-31).
It’s not uncommon to encounter the idea in the Church today that the Holy Spirit is basically “messy”. I’ve heard countless priests and deacons speak of how their basically rambling and undisciplined preaching was the way it was because that is what the Holy Spirit inspired them to say on the spot (!). At some prayer gatherings there will be people allegedly speaking tongues in a free-wheeling way with no one to interpret, while others pass out and some even bark like dogs (!) — and this, too, is attributed to the Spirit. And then some people have implied that worship that is less formal and even freelanced is more “in the Holy Spirit” (!). And so forth. There are many more examples. But suffice to say, all manner of disorder and shabbiness is blamed on the Spirit — by some, at least.
This is not the biblical image of the Spirit, however. In the beginning of the Bible we see that the Spirit is the one who brought order out of chaos: from the “formless void” that initially existed, Creation unfolded in its marvelous (and very orderly) array (Genesis 1:2 and following). In the psalms we hear of how the Spirit is the one who “renews” the earth — doesn’t make it more chaotic, but makes it better (Psalm 104:30). In the gospel, Christ breathes the Spirit onto his Apostles to give them the power to forgive sins — that is, to bring healing and order to souls that until then had been in spiritual squalor (John 20:22-23). And in the Acts of the Apostles — the scene depicted in the engraving at the top of this post — it is the Spirit who not only invigorates the early Church but sends out her Apostles and preachers to bring order and unity in the most diverse of situations: many different languages spoken, people from all different backgrounds, yet now they can understand and receive the gospel message, thanks to the work of the Spirit (Acts 2:4-8).
One of the areas where “messiness” is often attributed to the work of the Spirit by people today is in the area of charisms. Charisms are spiritual gifts ordered to the good not of the individual but of the whole Church (Catechism no. 799). Some people have been turned off from charismatic-style prayer because of the freewheeling and undisciplined style adopted by some prayer groups; but this was a problem in the time of St. Paul also, and he had strong words to say about it (see, for example, “…all things should be done decently and in order” — 1 Corinthians 14:40). Paul also speaks of a hierarchy of gifts and warns about settling for the least of them: “Earnestly desire the higher gifts…. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong…” (1 Corinthians 12:31-13:1).
I maintain that where “messiness” is verified, it is because those who are exercising possibly-legitimate spiritual gifts are doing so without a view to the wider Church; they may be doing it for their own gratification. The authentic work of the Spirit, in distributing his manifold gifts, is to build up the Body of Christ into unity and into “mature manhood” (see Ephesians 4:4-13). Therefore, the distribution of charisms among the faithful by the Spirit is meant to happen in a way that gives rise to order, not messiness. That implies submitting those gifts to the judgment of those who have supreme responsibility for fomenting order in the Church: those who have received the sacrament of Holy Order, especially bishops. A good bishop recognizes the spiritual gifts among the clergy and laity of his diocese and strives to bring all together in a symphonic way to exercise those gifts.
But apart from those gifts that are given to us for the Church — charisms — there are also the gifts that the Spirit gives for the building-up of our own spirits. These are gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit. These are meant to bring order to our souls, and the fruit of order is peace (see Catechism no. 2304). The peace of Christ is the work of the Holy Spirit in our souls. “Not as the world gives do I give”, he says (John 14:27). We can seek world peace through all sorts of external and technical solutions. We can have a sort of individual peace through technical solutions as well: meditation, exercise, de-cluttering, etc. But the profound peace that Christ wishes to give us — a peace that abides even when there is war, terror, chaos, disturbance, or other negative factors around us, to say nothing of discord within relationships — that peace of Christ is the work of the Holy Spirit upon us.
It is not, therefore, a peace that we can procure for ourselves. It only comes from submitting ourselves to Christ’s sweet and gentle yoke (Matthew 11:28-30). Which means submitting ourselves more fully to his Church, which perpetuates his presence and work through time. By faithfully receiving the sacraments, nurturing our faith through prayer and study, and by seeking to live out our baptismal commitment more faithfully each day, we can more fully submit to Christ and cooperate with the work of the Spirit. This also means worshiping as the Church intends rather than making it up ourselves. It also means striving to use the gifts of grace we’ve been given for the Church’s benefit, not with our own agenda in mind but according to the actual needs of the Church — which also implies cooperating with her ministers.
The Holy Spirit is the bringer of order and life, not the bringer of that sort of free-wheeling shabbiness that is often attributed to him today. With the order and life he offers comes peace — true peace, the peace of Christ, a peace that surpasses all understanding. May the Holy Spirit overcome all disorder in our hearts and minds and procure for us that peace that only Christ can give.