Talking about the Holy Spirit makes me nervous. For most of my life, I thought that being close to the Holy Spirit meant being obsessed with dramatic healings or with overwhelming and intense spiritual experiences. I think this is what most people think of when we talk about the Holy Spirit – the televangelists and the snake handlers. But that is not true. God wants each one of us to have a deep personal relationship with the Holy Spirit.
Pope Benedict once told young people gathered for World Youth Day, “It is important that each one of us know the [Holy] Spirit, establish a relationship with him, and allow ourselves to be guided by him. However, at this point a question naturally arises: who is the Holy Spirit for me? It is a fact that for many Christians he is still the ‘great unknown.’ This is why, [I want] to invite you to come to know the Holy Spirit more deeply at a personal level.”
“The great unknown.” I think that encapsulates the Holy Spirit for most of us – the unknown member of the Holy Trinity whose existence we acknowledge but struggle to explain. Let’s look, then, at how we can have a personal relationship with this “Great Unknown” whose coming we celebrate today with the Feast of Pentecost.
First, we need to recognize that the Holy Spirit is not an impersonal force but a personal being. He isn’t an “It” but a “He.” How, though, can we better regard the Holy Spirit as a person of the Trinity with whom we can have a relationship? There are three “As” to personalizing the Holy Spirit: awareness, attention, and affection.
By awareness, we recognize the Holy Spirit’s presence with us. That could be just a short prayer as we begin any activity throughout the day: “Holy Spirit, I recognize that you are here with me and I welcome you to be a part of whatever I am about to do.” Being aware of the Holy Spirit leads to being attentive towards Him. In order to have a relationship with someone, it isn’t enough merely to recognize her presence in the room. You have to actually pay attention to her. We pay attention to the Holy Spirit by asking for His help as we go about the tasks that we need to do and by asking for His guidance. Then, we can turn our affection towards the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is love Himself – He wants us to share our love with Him and for us to reflect His love to others as well.
Second, a relationship with the Holy Spirit requires obedience. All relationships require a risk. You have to risk the possibility of an awkward encounter with another in order to make a new friend or take a friendship to the next level. You might get shut down or rejected, but unless we take the risk we will never have any real friends. Following the Holy Spirit where He leads us is also risky. It means opening ourselves to the possibility of rejection or failure. But if we never risk anything there’s never any reward. Think about it this way: No one becomes a billionaire without taking some risks. Everyone who has experienced incredible success in life has also experienced incredible failure. When we trust someone enough to take a risk, though, that leads to a great relationship.
Being obedient to the Holy Spirit does not mean that every thought that pops into our heads while we were praying is from Him. God’s Spirit will not contradict His Word, so we need to test what we think could be an urging from the Spirit. God’s Revelation, in Scripture and the Tradition of the Church, provides the first step in figuring out if something is an authentic urging of the Spirit.
Third, in order to have a friendship with the Holy Spirit we must experience His forgiveness. This was the gift that our Lord gave to the Apostles when He appeared to them for the first time all together after His Resurrection: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20:23). Likewise, when we receive absolution of our sins in Confession we hear, “God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son, has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins.” You come into close contact with the Holy Spirit when you kneel behind the screen and hear the voice of Christ through the priest sending the Holy Spirit upon you to forgive your sins.
This is why St. Paul tells us today, “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Putting to death the deeds of the body means seeking forgiveness of our sins. Last Sunday, I explained that the Ascension of the Lord is a remedy for the heresy of Gnosticism: the belief that there is a strong disconnect between our bodies and our souls. Our culture teaches us that what we do with our bodies doesn’t matter so long as “our heart is in the right place.” However, since our bodies and our souls are united, sins we commit with our bodies have a big impact on our ability to have a relationship with the Holy Spirit. We need the Spirit to forgive our sins to have the intimate friendship with Him that He desires.
Fourth, we need prayer to build up our relationship with the Holy Spirit. For nine days between the Lord’s Ascension and today’s events of Pentecost, the Apostles gathered in the upper room. They prayed together as they recalled the Lord’s promise to send the Holy Spirit upon them. The Apostles’ example shows us the importance of praying with others. Of course, we do that here at Holy Mass, but we should take this experience of prayer with others outside of Mass as well. We should pray with our families and with our friends whenever we gather. There are many beautiful, traditional prayers to the Holy Spirit. You can find some of those on our website with the text of this sermon. You can also pray using your own words, particularly asking the Holy Spirit to remove the obstacles that are keeping you from having a deeper friendship with Him. I would recommend doing both!
There is a big misconception that prayer with the Holy Spirit has to be like the stereotype of the “charismatic” person, like those televangelists or snake handlers. Remember the story of Elijah hearing the Lord’s voice: It wasn’t in the thunder or the wind, but in the tiny whisper (1 Kings 19:12). Forming a friendship with the Holy Spirit requires dedicating time to prayer in silence. (And if you want to know more about that, I’d suggest re-visiting the talks from our Lenten series, all of which can still be found on our website! https://www.stjohncatholic.com/single-post/2019/04/03/The-Power-of-Prayer-in-Silence)
Fifthly, you can grow in friendship with the Holy Spirit by participating in His mission. Unlike what some of those televangelists would tell you, the power of the Holy Spirit doesn’t exist to make you rich or powerful, but to turn us into His witnesses, as happened to the Apostles at Pentecost. Here too we need to be willing to take a risk in order to grow that relationship. Participating in the Holy Spirit’s mission means opening up to others about why you love Jesus and how His love has changed your life. Ask the Holy Spirit to lead you to people who are ready to hear you proclaim the Gospel to them and to give you the strength to take the risk that can lead to a deeper and more rewarding relationship with Him.
When I talk about witnessing to others, you probably think that I am talking about going out on Main Street and talking to all the people who walk by. I don’t think that you should do that – not because it’s too hard, but because it’s too easy. If we talk to people we don’t know about our friendship with Jesus, we’re not really risking anything. Where we really need the Holy Spirit’s help is to risk a relationship with a neighbor, a coworker, a family member, or a friend in order to proclaim Christ to him or her. The times in my life when I have experienced the Holy Spirit working within me are precisely those moments when I take those risks. I have experienced a confidence, an ease, a sense of compassion and love for others that seems to come over me when I take that risk. I find myself saying words that I never thought of before, that won’t come back to me later but were there when I needed them (or really, when someone else needed them) in the moment. If you take the risk to share in the Spirit’s mission, I guarantee that you will experience Him far more powerfully than all the people who have been “healed” on a Benny Hinn show.
Lastly, my brothers and sisters, to have a living relationship with the Holy Spirit, you must ask our blessed Mother Mary to obtain that friendship for you. She is known as the Spouse of the Holy Spirit because it was by being overshadowed with the Holy Spirit that She came to bear our Lord within Her. It was with Her that the Apostles gathered as they awaited the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We must run to Her as well if we are to have a living friendship with the Holy Spirit. In Her closeness to the Holy Spirit’s work at the Incarnation, She shows us that the Holy Spirit is personal and real. Her obedience in becoming the Mother of God shows us how to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Her purity, Her preservation from original sin thanks to a special working of the Holy Spirit, shows us how our souls must be washed clean by the Spirit’s gift of forgiveness in order to enjoy a deep friendship with Him. Her constancy and humility in prayer shows us the kind of prayer that we must have in order to experience the Spirit’s movement in our hearts. And finally, Her participation in the Spirit’s mission shows us how we must take risks in order to bear the extraordinary fruits that a life deeply lived with the Holy Spirit can make possible.
May Mary Most Holy obtain for us a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit this Pentecost upon the Church, upon our parish, and upon each one of us. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
Solemnity of Pentecost, A.D. MMXIX
Image: <i>Pentecost</i> by Jean Il Restout, 1732. Source: Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jean_II_Restout_-_Pentec%C3%B4te.jpg)
Litany of the Holy Spirit: https://www.ewtn.com/devotionals/pentecost/pent13.htm
Novena of the Holy Spirit: https://www.ewtn.com/devotionals/pentecost/seven.htm
“Come Holy Spirit” prayer: https://www.loyolapress.com/our-catholic-faith/prayer/traditional-catholic-prayers/prayers-every-catholic-should-know/prayer-to-the-holy-spirit