by Fr. Jack McArdle
According to the story of creation, God took clay, and formed it into a particular shape, and then he breathed his spirit into it, and it became alive, and the first human was created. Now, I am not at all saying that that was how it actually happened, all I need know is that God created people, and that, yes, it was his breath that was passed on to them to give them life. Breath is highlighted as being very important from the beginning of creation.
Obviously, breath is important, anyhow, because the first and last thing we do when we enter and leave this world is take a breath. That first breath sets the engine going, and that last breath switches off the engine. It is very significant, therefore, that when we got it all wrong, and God decided to re-create us, that he should breathe upon us, once again. "Jesus breathed on them, and said 'Receive the Holy Spirit..'"
It is the spirit within or behind an action that gives it meaning, and prevents it being a shallow, meaningless exercise. I meet people who ask me how I am, and I tell them that I'm OK, because I know that is all they want to hear. I meet others who ask me the exact same question, and I could take several minutes answering their question. It is not the question, but the spirit in the question, that makes all the difference. I could call you a total idiot today, and you could consider me really funny, while, to-morrow, I could call you a total idiot, and you would be deeply offended. It is not the comment, but the spirit that inspires it, that really matters.
Spirit is very important, because it is spirit that gives life to words and actions. When you come across a violent mob, who may not actually be involved in violent actions just now, you are, nevertheless, very frightened, because you sense a spirit of anger and destruction among them. Whatever spirit is within is always shown by the words and actions that come out. A man may say he is not angry, but, as you watch him slamming the door, and giving the dog a kick, you have good reason to doubt his assertion. Religion might be described as goodness, without a good spirit. It is not life-giving, because, unless the spirit and breath of God inspires my words and actions, they cannot give life.
The prophet Ezekiel had a vision, in which he was taken into a valley full of dry bones. God asked the prophet if these bones could live again, and he replied, "Lord, only you know that." God then asked him to speak to the bones, and say to them "I am going to put my spirit in you, and you shall live. " Ezekiel then called on the bones to come together, which they did. Then they were covered with flesh, and finally, with skin. Then God said to the prophet "Speak on my behalf, and call on the Spirit.......Say to the Spirit : 'Come from the four winds. Breathe into these dead bones, and let them live.'" The prophet did as God asked, and breath entered the bodies...."they came alive, standing on their feet--- a great, immense army."
God went on to explain to the prophet that the vision was a symbol of what he was going to do for his people, who were spiritually dead. God said he would open their graves, breathe his Spirit into them, and they would become alive again. In this, we see that God himself thought of re-creating as breathing his Spirit once again into the clay of our beings. That Spirit would be God's power and life within us, and, when we live by that power, and when we speak and act in full awareness of that inner power, I am calling that Spirituality.
Do you remember, in the first chapter when I spoke of the raisins in the dough, and the scone that is allocated to each one of us? Jesus was anointed and empowered with the Spirit, when he came up out of the river Jordan, at his baptism. With that power within him, he took on all our human weaknesses, one after another, and overcame them. He proved once for all that God's power was much stronger than all human weaknesses put together.
Now he gives us back the scone, which still has our own quota of weaknesses in it, but he also offers us his Spirit, so that we will have more than enough power to deal with those weaknesses. The Holy Spirit, which Jesus offers us, is like Popeye's spinach, that enables us do things that are away beyond us. The most important condition for receiving this power is that I am convinced I really need it.
One time there was a crow, that was very depressed, down-in-the-mouth, and with feathers all droopy and dishevelled. His friends were really worried about him, so three of them came to visit him, to find out what was wrong. The crow was hesitant at the beginning, insisting that all was well, but, eventually, he came around to talking about what was troubling him. He considered himself a great failure in life, because he had but a few ambitions, and now life was passing him by, and he had achieved nothing. When one of them asked him what his ambitions were, he was really embarrassed, but confessed that his big ambition was to make a record. Trying to suppress a smile, one of the other crows asked what would he have done on the record, and he replied "Singing, of course." At this point, one of his visitors lost control, and laughed out loud.
This really upset our friend, who became highly indignant, and really angry. "Why couldn't I sing? Did you ever hear a blackbird sing? Well, I'm the same colour, and I'm bigger. Why couldn't I sing like a blackbird? If you only knew the trouble I have gone to, to be able to sing like a blackbird. I went to a health shop, where I got wholegrain seeds, vivioptol, royal jelly, and the whole collection of health products that would improve my general well-being.
After all that, I flew up on a tree, and began to sing, but all I could say was 'Caw! Caw!' I then bought a tape-recorder, put a C-90 tape in it, and flew up among the blackbirds, and filled the tape with the sounds of the blackbirds singing. Then I bought a walkman, which I called a brain by-pass, and with the head-phones on my head, I lay back, and listened to the singing day and night. This way, I was sure I could learn to sing like a blackbird.
"However, when I flew back up on the tree again, and attempted to sing, all I could produce was just more 'Caw! Caw!' I was really depressed, so I tried something else. This time, I bought sheet music, and went for voice-training. I spent a lot of time and money on this, and, again, to no avail. All I had to show for it was more of the 'Caw! Caw!' By this time, I was really in the depths of despair."
At this point the poor crow just walked away and left his friends, because recounting his litany of failures was just too much for him. It was months later when they all met up again, and, this time, things had changed totally.
When his friends asked him what had happened, he told them: "One morning, as I returned from my morning flying exercise, I was glancing through the paper, when lo and behold, I read about a doctor in South Africa, called Christian Bernard, who did transplants.
"My heart missed a beat with the excitement, as I thought I had found the solution to my problem. This was it. A transplant. I got on the phone, and phoned South Africa, and got the doctor, and asked him what kind of transplants he did. When he told me about heart, lung, and liver transplants, I asked him if he ever did voice-box transplants. No, he said, he had never done one of those. I asked if he would consider doing one, and he said it should be much easier than a heart transplant, and it was surely possible to do one. I asked if I might come to see him, and he invited me to South Africa.
"I arrived there some time later, and waited, as he got in touch with local hospitals, and mortuaries, waiting for a blackbird that had just passed away — especially one with a donor card! Eventually, a voice-box became available, and everything was set up for the operation. I put myself in his hands, and told him to go ahead with the transplant. The operation was a success, and I now had the voice-box of a blackbird. When I had fully recovered, I flew up on a tree, and began to practise with my new voice-box, and, in no time at all, I was singing away like a blackbird, with the best of them. I also came to realise that, because of what had happened, I could never sing any other way again.
"It was only then it dawned on me that I had been very very foolish all over the years, because I had been trying to sing like a blackbird, without having what it takes to do so. I do not regret all the trouble and expense I went to, however, because I believe that if I hadn't tried all those things, I would never have discovered that they just didn't work."
And, that, my friend, is the secret of Spirituality. Religion is working within the limits of what I have, and trying to get it together on my own. Spirituality is getting a transplant, and using my new-found gift to do things that I never could have done by myself.
A heart transplant takes place in two distinct stages. Firstly the old defective heart has to be removed. The patient must agree to this, and sign a paper giving permission for this to happen. Even prior to that must be a clear medical diagnosis that the old heart is of no further use, and is no longer capable of fulfilling the function for which it was created.
The second part of the operation is to implant a new heart. Unfortunately, for this to happen, someone must die. The prophets in the Old Testament, that part of the Bible that tells us what happened before Jesus came, these prophets talk about a saviour coming to redeem us, and that he would take out our heart of stone, and give us a heart of flesh. In other places, the prophets speak of God putting a new spirit in us, and making us new again. Once again, someone had to die for this to take place.
I believe the very highest point of what Jesus made possible for us, through his death, was that he could give us his Spirit, so that we could live with his power, and share in his life. He told the apostles that, when the Spirit came, they would do even greater things than he did. In offering us his Spirit, Jesus is offering us nothing less than a full sharing in his own life.
There was a family that had fallen on hard times. The family business had failed, and they lost everything they had. The neighbours came to the father to enquire if they could do anything to help, and he said that he would love to take his wife and children, get away from it all, and settle somewhere in America, where no one would know them, and they could start afresh. The neighbours organised several fund-raising ventures, and, after several months, they gave the father the tickets for the boat trip from Cobh to New York.
The family had never been out of the country before, and had no idea of how to prepare for such a voyage. They bought bread, last week's bread, which was stale but cheap, and, with lettuce and cheese, they made sandwiches, a whole lot of sandwiches, which they packed in boxes, and brought with them on board. They gathered together in a single cabin, resolved to stay to themselves throughout the voyage. On the first, second, third, fourth, fifth day, when they were hungry they ate sandwiches. On the sixth, seventh, eighth day, the bread has really hard, and the cheese began to smell, and they were in a sad way.
One day, with a few days left before arriving in New York, one little lad was crying, and he begged his parents to give him a penny or two, so that he could go up on deck and buy a few sweets. The father gave him a few pence, and off he went. It was over an hour later, and he had not returned, and his family was really worried about him.
Finally, the father had to come out of his cabin, and go in search of the lad. When he came up on deck, he was shocked to see his son, with many other people, all sitting around a long table, and each with a plate of meat, vegetables, and potatoes. He noticed that his son was totally immersed in the food, and he had a large glass of coke in front of him. The father came up behind him, nudged him in the back, and whispered "Why did you do this? You know we cannot afford this," to which the boy replied, with eyes sparkling, and mouth full, "Ah, but daddy, we could have had this all the time. This was included with the tickets."
I often imagine people dying, going to heaven, and expressing delight and amazement at the beauty and luxury of it all, and Jesus saying to them, "But you could have had this all the time, this was included with the tickets. I offered you life in abundance, my peace, my joy, and my Spirit, and, in spite of all that, you insisted on settling for sandwiches, when I invited you to the fullness of the banquet." I believe that the road to heaven is heaven, just as the road to hell is hell. I believe that I will get nothing when I die that I am not offered now. Unfortunately, people who do not have the right attitude to be open to Jesus and his message, seem to think that the road to heaven is hell, and the road to hell is heaven.
Christianity is something that happens inside, when the Spirit comes, and Incarnation takes place within me. Like Mary, Jesus is formed in me, and I become another Christ. God created us in his image, and it is the work of the Spirit to bring forth that image in us.
A young lad was passing the sculptor's workshop one morning, when he noticed a huge lump of marble, awaiting the sculptor's chisel. Each morning after that, as the boy passed by, the door of the workshop was closed, but he could hear the sounds of work going on inside. Finally, one morning, as he went to school, the door was open wide, and the boy looked in, and there, where the marble had been, was a huge life-like statue of a tiger.
The boy was awe-struck by the sheer beauty and power of the statue. He went into the workshop, went up to the sculptor, pulled his sleeve, and asked "Excuse me, sir, but how did you know that there was a tiger in there?" It is the work of the Spirit to reveal what is within. Religion is about externals, and is involves things we do. Spirituality is internal, and it is purely the work of God's Spirit. As I write now, I have just made a decision. If it's OK with you, I would like to finish this chapter with a prayer, in which I will pray for an outpouring of the Spirit upon you. That will be at the end, and we're not there yet. I just thought I should share that with you in advance.
My openness to the Spirit is in direct proportion to my awareness of my own weaknesses. If there were no weaknesses, there would be no need of the power, and there would be no witness value to our lives. The greatest witness a recovering alcoholic can give, is to walk, sober, down the main street of his local town. His brother, who never touched alcohol in his life, would be unable to give the same witness, because he does not have the same weakness.
If you could imagine a light-house, at night time. A powerful light shines out, that is seen for miles around, yet the same light is being attacked by thousands upon thousands of flying creatures, all attracted by it. The very weakness that attracts the temptation, is the very same weakness that must give witness to the light. Like the raisins in the scone, I have my human weaknesses, and they will never go away, and will always be part of who and what I am. With the power of the Spirit within, however, I am able to act above, and in spite of those weaknesses, and it is this very evidence that witnesses to the presence of a Higher Power within.
The alcoholic is always an alcoholic, even fifty years after taking his last drink. Jesus said to his apostles "Very soon now, you will receive power from on high, and you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth." With the privilege of power, goes the responsibility of witnessing. No weakness, no witness. That is why St. Paul said that where he was weak was exactly where he had become strong, because the power of God is seen to greater effect in human weakness.
Religion is about control, while spirituality is about surrender. It is about getting out of the way, and letting God be God in my life. This decision comes from deep within, from that part of me where I am most authentic. The human soul is like a deep deep well, that, as life goes on, tends to get filled up with all kinds of junk and garbage. The Greek word for conversion is called kinosis, which, literally, means to empty out. Conversion is about dumping the garbage, so that, the more I get rid of, the more clear water from the deep well can come to the surface. Jesus said that the Sprit rises up from within a person. In other words, the Spirit rises up from the heart to the head, as something that is experienced first, and, perhaps, understood later.
Comparing the Spirit to a spring of living water rising up from within us, is Jesus' way of referring to a very special kind of thirst we have, that can never be quenched in any other way. A young lad went to a wise old monk, one time, and said he was looking for God, and he wanted to know where he would find him. The old monk brought him down to the river, put him in the water, and held his head under the water, until he nearly drowned. When the monk lifted the lad's head up out of the water, his gasp of air could be heard a good distance away. Then the old monk said to him "When you want God as much as you wanted that breath of air, you will find him."
And now, I would like to lead you in that prayer I referred to earlier. There is no magic formula. It is never the words, but the spirit in the words. God is more interested in what my heart is doing than what my lips are saying, when I pray. If you really want to receive his spirit, then be sure that you will. OK, let's begin. Heavenly Father, I thank you for the plan of salvation you offered us in Jesus. Thank you, Father, for wanting us back in your family, and for wanting to share your life with us.
Jesus said that you would surely give your Spirit to those who ask, and so, in Jesus' name, I ask you, please, to release the power and fullness of your Spirit within my heart. Fill every corner of my being with the power and healing light of your Spirit. Jesus, thank you for making all this possible. I want to thank you in the best possible way, and that is by opening my heart wide to all that you died to be able to offer me. Spirit, breath, and power of God, please make your home within me, in my own personal Pentecost of love and understanding. Come with your gifts, to empower me to live with the life of God, with a whole new courage, and generosity, and with an experience of the everyday presence of God on every step of life's journey. Amen.
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Come 'Ere Till I Tell You copyright © Fr. Jack McArdle. All rights reserved.