Come, Holy Spirit — What does this mean?

At this time of the year, as we prepare for the Feast of Pentecost, it is not uncommon to see many people invoking a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit and praying that He will come into their lives.

There is nothing wrong with praying this way, understood properly. In fact, there are hymns and prayers of the Church precisely on this theme. Veni, Creator…

But… just a little while ago, as I was reading precisely one of these sorts of invocations, it dawned on me that some people seem to pray this way as if they did not already have the gift of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

If the Holy Spirit is already there, why ask him to “come”?

I think, for some, it boils down to unrealistic expectations about who and what the Holy Spirit is.

If you are baptized and in the state of grace, then the Holy Spirit is dwelling within you. If you are baptized and not in the state of grace, then you need to make a good confession — and then, the Holy Spirit will dwell within you anew.

I wrote recently about the action of the Holy Spirit in the Church and in ourselves. I think a lot of people today are looking for a far more emotional religious experience. They want the Holy Spirit to “shake them up”, to give them consolation, to make His presence felt, etc. Those are nice things and sometimes God does grant them to us — but when we lack them, it does not mean that He is not with us!

In fact, one of the things that the Lord does as we grow in Christian maturity is to deprive us to one extent or another of these emotional experiences. He wants us to see that His image in us is found primarily in our intellect, not in our passions and emotions. Again, if we are in the state of grace, the Holy Spirit has already “come”. We may ask him to strengthen his gifts in us, to complete his work in us, to make us more faithful, to renew us, etc. And I’m sure that’s what many mean when they pray for him to “come”. But I think some also just are hoping for some sort of emotional confirmation of his presence.

I am increasingly chary of prayers that are either vague or too broad. I think we need to be specific in our prayers — at least, whenever we can be. Sometimes we do not really know what we want or need, and all we can do is reach out to God and trust that his Spirit will indeed pray for us as we ought (Romans 8:26). The problem is, however, that we might also form bad habits of prayer in which we routinely pray vaguely, not because we don’t know what we need, but for other reasons.

These reasons may include: 1) We are greedy in our prayer: we want “everything”, going well beyond what we need or at least being in a state of unpreparedness to receive everything; 2) We haven’t really reflected on what we need and, moreover, counted the cost involved in obtaining it — rather, we prefer that God might just “zap” us instead of our doing the hard work of conforming more fully to a way of life that betokens the answer we seek; 3) We have a sort of spiritual laziness (sloth), by which we assuage our sense of religious duty by praying vaguely and so being able to say that we have prayed — rather than entering into that deeper intimacy with the Lord that sheds light on and so scrutinizes our motives and our perceived needs and wants.

Let us try to be more specific in our prayer. If by “Come, Holy Spirit!” we do recognize that He is already with us (if we are in the state of grace), then let’s actually pray for what we need and want, not just vaguely ask him to “come” when he’s in fact already there. A good place to start in this analysis is with our primary fault, asking the Holy Spirit to help us more resolutely to acquire the virtue(s) needed to overcome it and to persevere in the struggle that, therefore, lies before us.

May we not miss the gift that is already ours!

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