The School of the Holy Spirit - Graduating from School
by Aneel Aranha
If you remember your high school physics, you will know that to put a rocket into space, it needs to attain a certain velocity that will take it beyond earth’s gravitational pull. If the rocket attains this velocity it will shoot off into space. If it doesn’t it will crash back to earth.
We are like rockets ready to be shot off into space and be with God. Most of us, however, never leave the ground. We glance at God on the odd occasion, perhaps express a desire to be with him, but decide that we love the world too much to attempt even a lift-off. Others among us do want to be with God and take off, but somewhere along the line the attraction of the world is too strong and we come plummeting back.
A few, however, manage to break free of the world and are gone. With rare exception, they are gone forever. They might still walk in the world, but it is only their bodies that belong here. Their hearts, minds and souls belong entirely to God.
These are the people who have graduated from the School of the Holy Spirit.
Graduating from the School of the Holy Spirit involves more than learning the four subjects that we looked at. There are hundreds of other subjects that need to be learned — and mastered. Understanding God’s grace and how it works, for instance, is one very important subject. Forgiveness is another. Learning to cope with suffering and persecution, developing compassion for the needs of others, and caring for the poor and sick are other subjects that we learn in the School of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit will take you through all of them.
The Holy Spirit will test you in all of them too, constantly and rigorously. He is a gentle and patient instructor but he is very exacting in his standards. He will work with you on a particular subject a million times but will not move you half a level higher if he is not happy with the way that you are faring in it. The tests are exhausting and can drain you of all energy, but are de rigeur for the course.
It doesn’t help that the tests get increasingly difficult as you progress, and often intensify at the very moment that you believe you are about to pass them. Just when you think you have finally forgiven somebody who has hurt you, for example, he (or she) will do something to draw blood again. Just when you believe the adulterous affair which you had struggled to put an end to for months is over, your lover will find herself in circumstances of such distress your heart breaks with pity and yearns to go to her aid. Or just when you think you have managed to conquer your addiction to alcohol, a guest lands up at your house with a case of your favourite Scotch.
These are tortuous tests, but if you have been spending enough time in prayer, you can pass them. You will be able to forgive the person who has reopened your wounds, harden your heart towards your lover, and refuse the gift of whisky offered to you.
Difficult though these tests are, they are nothing compared to the final test that you have to take. This is the test that decides whether you pass out of school, or spend a few more summers studying. What makes this one especially hard is that you might have to go it totally alone.
I am going to be honest and admit that not only did I nearly flunk, I almost dropped right out of school. I had spent six full months in the torment St John of the Cross refers to as the Dark Night of the Soul. Desperate for union with God, but unable to let go completely of the world (there was one final link that still tied me back), all the struggle was compounded by the fact that God suddenly seemed to have abandoned me. Magnifying the feeling that I had been deserted in the hour of my greatest need were the relentless assaults of the enemy, who appeared to consider me his personal punching bag. He threw everything he could at me and it took all I had to merely stay on my feet.
Even as I stood bruised and bleeding, but proud that I was still standing, the enemy embarked on a strategy to isolate me that was — to give the devil his due — truly brilliant. He began filling the ears of my spiritual advisors with tales questioning my character, the nature of my faith, and my motives in being a Christian. Rather than get support at the time I needed it the most, I was subject to suspicion and severe censure by one of them. Getting increasingly distrustful of everybody, I began cutting off ties with people I knew, and it wasn’t long before I was totally on my own. Fast running out of fuel, I went for a two week retreat hoping to replenish my spirit. It was a horrible experience and I returned home totally disillusioned with the Church and my fellow Christians, and consequently with God too.
Sensing victory was at hand, the enemy delivered a lethal blow, laying me out sick for the first time since I was a little boy down with hepatitis. With this move, he succeeded in cutting off my prayer life, severing the last real contact I had with God. By the time I had recovered from my illness I was all but finished. A week later, I was ready to throw in the towel. I walked toward the border, prepared to cross the line into the wilderness again and though this time I knew that there would be no returning, I was so bitter and angry I didn’t really care.
Yet, I couldn’t take that final step; I had grown to love God too much to do that. And even as I stood hesitating, the memory of how the enemy had turned me against God some two decades ago surfaced to my mind. He had set me up then, like he had set me up now, using people from the Church to take me away from God. I realized that history had come full circle. There is an old Chinese proverb that says, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” I was damned if I was going to be fooled twice. I turned my back on the enemy with a finality my heart, mind and soul all recognized as definite.
In that very instant the Father was back, Jesus was back, and the Holy Spirit was back. The last cord that still bound me to the world snapped and I was hurtling toward God once again. And as my soul was suddenly bathed in a light that was utterly radiant I knew the dark night was finally over. I was through.
All it took was a decision.
That is all it ever really takes. A decision to do the right thing by God. A decision to remain loyal to him, regardless of whether he is “seen” to be loyal or not. A decision to stand for the truth. A decision to choose him over the enemy. It doesn’t matter how close to the edge you come; it is what you do at the edge that matters.
If you look at all the tests that you go through in the School of the Holy Spirit, you realize that every single test involves little more than making one of these decisions. Make the right decision and you pass. Make the wrong decision and you fail. It is the story of Adam and Eve replayed with us in one of the title roles. Adam and Eve messed up. We don’t need to.
And when you get through — and I promise you that you will if you persist in listening to and obeying the Holy Spirit — the sense of freedom you experience is exhilarating. The world ceases to have any hold over you, and though it will occasionally snake one long tendril towards you trying to pull you back, it has no real power. Nor do the people in the world. Your only focus is God; he is all you live for, he is all you care about, he is all you want or need.
The lessons don’t cease — they never do — but the quality of education changes, largely because you have changed. There is no more any doubt in you about the reality or faithfulness of God. You know that God is right there by your side, even when you do not see him or feel his presence. You know that he is looking after you, protecting you, and this gives you tremendous courage. The enemy will continue to attack, but now you are no longer merely defending; you go on the offensive too and while he occasionally might land a few lucky punches, he is the one taking the beating. And this gives you enormous confidence. And as you grow in courage and confidence and the rest of the qualities that come with spiritual maturity, you keep growing in God. And he in you.
May the Spirit be with you.
Coming some time in the future:
The University of the Holy Spirit
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Copyright © 2004 Aneel Aranha. All rights reserved. Image titled 'Expand my borders' is part of the Hearts Gallery Collection by Gwen Meharg. Copyright © 2004 Gwen Meharg. All rights reserved.