When I was as a Protestant kid, mention of the Holy Ghost unnerved me; made we want to shriek and look behind me for the spectral form coming to . . . well, I didn’t know what it might be up to. My people believed in the Trinity, but you never heard much in church about the Third Person. And I confess that Roman Catholic emphasis on the Holy Spirit (a term that doesn’t spook me) was not among the reasons why I “poped.”
After my conversion, I spent time among some Charismatic Catholics, who in the course of a meeting one night in a church basement in Columbus, Ohio, exploded into what they swore was genuine glossolalia, the Spirit manifest in their yammering, but which none could actually understand. There were flushed faces and tears and elevated pulse rates and not a few angry looks at me, because I bore an expression of bemused skepticism.
And I suppose it didn’t help that every artistic depiction of the godhead in churches and galleries I saw throughout the world depicted the familiar human forms for the Father and the Son but for the Spirit tongues of fire or more likely a dove but never with eyes you might gaze into and always, it seemed, in a supporting role. All in all, I had a rocky start when it comes to understanding and loving the Holy Spirit.
And how fascinating that, although the Spirit has spoken through the prophets and is that power of God who makes us Christians, he does not speak for himself. As the Catechism puts it: “[W]e do not hear the Spirit himself.” We speak daily of the Father in prayer, and we celebrate the Son in our holiest of days, Christmas and Easter, but Pentecost, when we celebrate God’s full and final revelation of himself and the real beginning of our Church, isn’t even a Holy Day of Obligation.
And it seems as though this has always been so. Until that moment fifty days after the Resurrection, the followers of Jesus of Nazareth had heard their rabbi speak of the Spirit, but they surely did not know the Spirit. At the last Passover Seder they shared on the night before he died, Christ had told them: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate.” The “Spirit of truth,” he called it, and he promised it would always be with them. What comfort! And yet he also told them the world cannot accept the Spirit, “because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you.” We know it, they must have thought. He has told us so.
Wait. What do we know again?
Peter, John (whose Gospel relates the story), and all the others could not have known that their Lord was speaking to them of the Trinity. They did not know it until they were together that day seven weeks later and a whirlwind swept among them, like the pillar of fire in Genesis, splitting into fingers and singeing their souls, sending them tumbling onto the streets of Jerusalem speaking whatever tongues the astonished people they met spoke themselves – languages, in other words, that people actually understood, not the gibberish I heard in that church basement in Columbus.
Thirty-five years ago – before I’d returned home to Ohio and was still living in California – I’d been reading about Catholicism and visiting churches, and one morning in bed I prayed to God for guidance. I said the prayer to the Father that Jesus taught. And I lay there – more than half asleep, it must be said – and suddenly felt the sensation of a silent explosion, of something entering almost violently from outside inside, like a vacuum filled, and then, yes, felt-heard a fluttering of wings. Terrified, I tried to wake up and did and then wept with joy, because . . . I believed.
I got up, threw water on my face, got into my car and drove to the nearest Catholic church, walked up to the rectory door and rang the bell. An Irish priest stood there with his spectacles in one hand and a book under his arm.
“I want to be Catholic,” I said, and he stood to one side and let me come in.
I would never have done it had the Spirit not given me the knowledge of things not seen. At some point, you can read and read, and listen and listen, and visit and admire the literature, liturgy, music, art, and even the singular odors of a Catholic church, but, if you’re a pared-down Protestant, the distance between where you are and where exotic Rome is remains a chasm too wide and deep to cross alone. It’s the Spirit who gives you faith in these things – who steels your soul for a journey you never imagined taking, not in your wildest dreams. “Because,” as the poet/priest Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “the Holy Ghost over the bent/ World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”