Receiving the Spirit
by Fr. Jack McArdle
We all have the Spirit of God within us; otherwise we would die, because God would recall his Spirit, and only the clay would remain. "Dust thou art, and onto dust thou shalt return."
We have the Spirit, but the Spirit may not have us! We can have the Spirit but lead very corporeal materialistic lives. We can have any kind of god we choose to invent, and we can get our power from money, pleasure, or status. There must be a very hollow ring to a life that is lived without God's Spirit. When the Spirit is absent or ignored, other spirits are more than ready to move in, and fill the vacuum. Not only is my life incomplete, but I myself am not complete unless I am filled with the Spirit of God.
Getting the Spirit is the simplest part of the process. "Will the Father not surely give the Spirit to those who ask?". We speak about a 'release of the Spirit'. In other words, like the spring of living water at the core of the human heart, there is something blocking that Spirit, or that water, from gurgling up into a fountain within us. No matter how much water lies beneath the sand of a desert, an oasis is a rare sight. When we come to ask for the Spirit, it is important to remember that Jesus offered to send his Spirit long before anybody thought of asking him. In other words, it is very clearly the desire of Jesus that we should ask for, and receive his Spirit. In the last few chapters, I have lined up my insights into some sort of coherent sequence. We have got to the point now where we have to stop talking about the Spirit, and prepare our hearts to receive that Spirit. At my Baptism somebody else said 'yes' for me.
It's now my turn to say my own 'yes'. Pentecost for me, or Annunciation for Mary, are interchangeable words. God has a special plan and purpose for each of us. That plan cannot begin until we say 'yes' to it, and accept the central truth that it is only by the power of God's Spirit that any of this can happen. The biggest barrier to receiving the Spirit is the way the human mind works. We tend to filter everything through the mind, to make sense out of it first, to analyse it in the laboratory of our intelligence.
The problem here is that we are approaching the whole thing from the wrong angle. It is not possible to make sense of the Spirit in our minds, nor is it possible to use our brains to unravel a mystery. Like the fountain of living water, the Spirit rises up from within a person. I experience it firstly, and come to understand it later, if at all. I was speaking about the Spirit to a group of Sisters about thirty years ago. After that particular talk, I was having a cup of coffee in the parlour, when there was a knock on the door. A Sister entered the room, and I discovered later that she was 92 years of age. She looked at me with a serious childlike expression, and she blurted out "Father, whatever it is you're talking about, I want it, I want it all, and I want it now."
I nearly spluttered my coffee all over the place as I jumped to my feet. I took her by the arm, and I said "Come on, dear. We're going to the prayer-room, and I want you to say those self-same words to Jesus, because I'm sure he hasn't heard a prayer like that for a while." We went to the prayer-room, and she blurted out "Jesus, whatever it is you're talking about, I want it, I want it all, and I want it now". I laid my hands on her head, and I asked the Lord to fill her with his Spirit. I could almost hear the shell crack, as she began to cry. She cried her eyes out for quite a while, and I just sat there, and left her to it.
The following morning she came to me to tell about how she felt that night. She felt as if she was weightless, as she laughed and cried to herself all night. The following day was the last day of the Retreat. At the closing Mass I invited Sisters to share in the Prayers of the Faithful. Sr. Peter's little voice got louder, and less crackly, as she prayed "Now thou dost dismiss thy servant in peace, O Lord, because my eyes have seen your salvation". She died ten days later. Her entry into Religious Life was a conversion. Thousands of conversions later, she came to the point of sheer simplicity where she could ask for 'all of whatever it is'! She had read many books, listened to many lectures, made many Retreats, etc. during her long life-time. At last, at 92 years of age, she was prepared to get down off her sycamore tree, and welcome the Spirit into her heart.
We are going to look at three different scenarios now, to help situate the actual receiving of the spirit. The first happens when I celebrate Eucharist. If English was not my first language, or if I were newly ordained, I would not let that book on the altar out of my sight for a moment. If you are paying close attention to what is going on, and listening to the words, there is one thing you should notice. After the 'Holy Holy', I begin to say some prayers. Listen carefully, and you will notice a switch from saying prayers to reading a passage from the gospel. "When they were at supper, he took bread, etc……When supper was ended, he took the chalice….". What's happening here is that I am actually reading the account in the gospels of what happened at the Last Supper. And, wait for it, the miracle of the Last Supper happens again right there in our presence.
The second scenario has to do with Pentecost. John XXIII, God bless him, asked the Lord for another, or a New Pentecost, because the Church seemed to have lost the fire and enthusiasm of the first one. A group of people came together, not exactly sure what to pray for, but willing to do something about the Pope's wishes. They prayed quietly that the Spirit might come, not expecting anything very dramatic to happen. As they prayed, someone stood up, and read the account of the First Pentecost from the Acts of the Apostles. As the person read, everybody in the room was 'zapped' with a wonderful anointing of the Spirit, and Charismatic Renewal, as we know it, began in that room.
The third scenario has to do with Mary and the Annunciation. You imagine Mary as kneeling beside you, with her eyes closed, and her head slightly bowed. Watch her very carefully. Suddenly an Angel of the Lord is standing there in front of her. She lifts her head, and clasps her hands in fear. She is looking straight at the angel. The angel spoke. "Rejoice, full of grace, the Lord is with you." 'Mary listened and was troubled at these words, wondering what this greeting could mean. But the angel said "Do not fear, Mary, for God looked kindly on you. You shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall call him Jesus. He will be great, and shall rightly be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the kingdom of David, his ancestor, and he will rule over the people of Jacob forever, and his reign shall have no end." Then Mary said to the angel 'How can this happen if I am a virgin?' And the angel said to her 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore, the holy child to be born shall be called Son of God….For with God nothing is impossible'. Then Mary said 'I am the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me as you have said'". It was at that moment that the Holy Spirit flooded Mary's soul, and the plan for our salvation was put into operation.
Let us look at that scene again, and make some changes. This time, you close your eyes, and Mary is watching you. The angel stands in front of you, and says those very same words to you. We are all called to form Jesus within us, so that, like Mary at the Visitation, we can bring Jesus to those we meet. How can I do this? I get the same answer as Mary got, as I clearly hear the words "For there is nothing impossible for God". Now the angel draws to one side, awaiting our answer. Nothing happens without my 'yes'. 'Yes, Lord, I want what you want. Please do with me whatever you wish to do. Knowing that the Spirit will never leave me, I am willing to be led by that Spirit in whatever direction you choose for me.' I whisper my 'yes' again and again. 'Be it done onto me according to your word'…..again and again. I make that my only prayer of this day. I kneel beside Mary, and I join with her in saying 'yes'. I hand the Holy Spirit the key of willingness, allowing him free access to my mind, heart and soul.
A young woman who discovers that she is pregnant, and is delighted with the news, is the person who could best describe to me how to react at this stage. To sit and reflect on what has just happened; to let the whole thing sink in. To breathe deeply, and to be very conscious of the power of God's Breath within me. My thoughts are inner thoughts. I feel like Mary 'pondering the words within her heart'. What has happened is REAL, and, like the young pregnant woman, I will become more and more aware of that as time goes by. I have hoisted the sails, and the gentle breeze of the Spirit is gently moving me out into the deep. The biggest consolation I have are the words of Jesus "The Spirit will never leave you". This Spirit will be there tomorrow and every day.
In the following chapter, I will speak about 'learning to live and to walk in the Spirit'. When a passenger ship comes within sight of New York, Southampton, or Cobh, it stops, and a pilot goes out in a tug boat, gets on board, and brings it into harbour. My days of rowing are over! I have surrendered to a Power greater than myself, and I am about to be guided out into uncharted waters, and to discover an inner Power that inspires my every thought and action. As well as getting a spring in my steps, I begin to experience the awakening of Spring within, as new flowers break through to the surface. Like the crow, in an earlier story, I now can sing like a blackbird. I can identify with the apostles as they came out of that Upper Room. I wonder would they have had enough patience, hope, and trust to wait nine whole days for this to happen. The Spirit came because the Spirit was expected to come, and I feel certain that Mary's presence among them had a powerful effect on their sense of expectation. Elizabeth praised Mary, and said "All these things happened to you because you believed that the promises of the Lord would be fulfilled." When I ask for the Spirit…Come, Holy Spirit…then I can expect the Spirit to come.
NOTE: Gentle reader, do you believe/accept/feel that something has happened to you as you made your way through this chapter?. Don't be in any hurry going on to the next chapter. Savour the moment. Breathe deeply of the Spirit. Think of that oasis in the desert. Experience that fountain of living water bubbling up with you. Now that you have read this chapter, you may have to go back and read it again, this time with prayer and reflection. The Holy Spirit is not confined to churches! He knows where you are, and only you can set limits to what he does in you. Open your mind, your heart, and your hands….and wait like Mary in the Upper Room. IT WILL HAPPEN EXACTLY AS YOU ARE TOLD, just as the shepherds found when they went to Bethlehem to see for themselves.
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