Pentecost (2) — The dangers of stifling the Holy Spirit and of suppressing the ‘power’ dimension of our religion
- does the demonstration of the power of the gospel now belong to the past?
These days, there are increasingly, many orthodox Christians, among whom are both preachers and believers, who believe that such experience of the power of God as Jesus and the Apostle Paul described them in various verses, now belong to the past and should no longer be discussed or desired or even believed. Some, go further to attempt to characterise any longing to encounter the power of God or to bring it to the aid of the many spiritual and corporeal needs of God’s people today, as religious fanaticism or overexaggerated fervour or a form of spiritual vainglory or conceitedness or even a form of spiritism. Though such attitude is faulty, it is replete.
Nowadays, there are many who see the grace of spiritual charisms and even the legitimate exercise of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, as a form of religious extremism or spiritual ambitiousness. There are many men and women of our religion, who have fallen into the modernist bait of a purely rationalised and naturalised religion, and so who, advertently or inadvertently, wish that the Spirit be stifled and that his power and his actions, though not denied, be chained. Such attitude, strange to the spirit of the Gospel and the experience of the historical Church, brings us close to that religion crippled of power, which St. Paul warned us against in his second letter to Timothy.
Such attitude should impel us to recall the people of God of today, to the faith of the Church in the Holy Spirit and her teachings on his particular ministry. Such attitude should spur us to revisit the treasuries of the traditions of our Faith, to inquire about the role of the Holy Spirit in the Church, about the role of the Holy Spirit in our personal journeys of faith, about the devotion of the Fathers to the Holy Spirit, about how the Saints operated in the gifts of the Holy Spirit and how the manifestation of the power of God has always been a part of the experience of the people of God, of all ages. Such unbelieving attitude impels us to warn ourselves against the dangers of giving ourselves a religion where the Holy Spirit is grieved and stifled, by lack of faith in his power, a lack of love for his person, a lack of desire for his presence and a lack of devotion to his divinity.
The assured result of practicing a religion where the power of the Holy Spirit is stifled and suppressed would be a Church barren of spiritual power, of spiritual efficacy and of spiritual fruitfulness. Like the unfruitful fig tree of the gospel of Luke (13:6–9), full of leaves but without fruits, such a religion would be sterile in faith and wretched in the Spirit. Such kind of sterile faith and baren gospel, leaves us with a religion devested of any perceptible supernatural element; in other words, a religion self-deprived of the ‘saving’ power natural to it. The widespread indifference towards the need for an active presence and active communion with the Holy Spirit, which we see today in the most of mainstream Christianity, would only result in a more severe disempowerment of our religion and a deeper alienation of God. Since the Holy Spirit is the sacred power of our religion, the negligence of his active presence and everyday functioning in us and among us, would continue to deepen the desacralisation of our religion and the secularisation of reality and society.
– unhealthy effects of undue suspicion and suppression of actions attributed to the Holy Spirit
Sadly, there are so many men and women of our religion, our brethren in the Faith, who treat the practice of fellowship with the Holy Spirit and the actions of the Spirit with extreme distrust. Such people are many, both among the clergy and among the laity. Some of them have become so suspicional of the Holy Spirit, that they treat almost everything pertaining to relationship with the Holy Spirit or his operations, with grave mistrust. In other words, they hardly would believe that the Holy Spirit can act in or through people, in a demonstrable manner, and particularly in the manifestations of spiritual gifts and charism. They are rather doubtful of anyone or group who speaks often or shows great affection or affinity to the Holy Spirit. They are unusually very cautious about such persons or groups and are very watchful towards them.
However, mostly, they do so for good reasons or rather, with good intentions. They do so, usually, out of vigilance for the faith; out of watchfulness against abuse or error; or simply in the attempt to defend established ecclesial orthodoxy — which, often, sadly, is pitched against the free action of the Spirit in the sanctified soul. Unfortunately, this attitude of rigid caution and distrust, often turns from sacred vigilance into outright mistrust, from rightful watchfulness over the faith into objection, opposition or even rejection of legitimate actions and giftings of the Holy Spirit. Often, sadly, this suspicion of actions attributed to the Holy Spirit by the faithful, becomes a cage against the free action of the Holy Spirit, in the Church and in her members. It is in this way that the Holy Spirit — advertently or inadvertently — suffers stifling, suppression and suspension, even in his own Church. It is needful therefore, to beware of this, because it often happens without our intending it or even knowing of it. More often than is readily realised, it is the right motives, with the wrong methods.
Again, in some sense, it is also true that such unduly distrustful, restrictive attitude towards the Spirit who ‘blows where he wills’ (cf. Jn 3:8) can be a verdict on those who fall into it. It can be an indication that such persons themselves have had no real experience or touch of the Spirit of God themselves, so that they are incapable of discerning his operations, which leads them to a generalised distrust. When people are unsufferable towards the operations of the Holy Spirit it could also be because they too lack that interior encounter with him and guidance from him, which is the pledge of his indwelling in the soul. This situation is worse, if it involves those who take charge of souls, since it leaves everyone clueless and blind as to how to rightly discern the workings of the Holy Spirit.
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When pastors of souls or Christian leaders are not disposed to the living presence of that Spirit sent by Christ unto his Church on the day of Pentecost and who will remain with the Church until the close of the ages, when religious leaders are not open to the active operation of the Spirit of Jesus, who is present and active in Church, then it is not something to be desired. Rather, it is something to be regreted and rectified. If those who are leaders among the faithful of Christ are not in any way open to the grace, the gifts and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and do not instruct their flock, as St Paul did remind his son Timothy (2Tim 1:6), to fan into flame the gifts they received on the day of their baptism and confirmation; if the curators of the treasures of the Faith, do not instruct their listeners on these spiritual realities, and on the need to seek such interior communion with the Holy Spirit, intimacy with the indwelling God, that is, the desire for the interior life, which is the hallmark of the Saints; then it is something to be bemoaned and promptly redressed. It is to be bemoaned, because it implies a denial in action, of a truth of faith which is definitively taught and formally professed.
If those who lead the Christian community and instruct others in the faith are content only with the guidance of rules and rites or rituals and rubrics, in such a manner that there is no room for docility to promptings from the Holy Spirit, if they are not open to the ministry of the Holy Spirit, if they are not submissive to the counsels of the gifts of the Holy Spirit; something rudimental or fundamental and essential is then lacking. The Christian religion is a spiritual religion. The Christian life is, in essence, a spiritual life. Therefore, openness to the Spirit of God and to the spiritual dimension of Christian living is essential to Christianity. Whenever and wherever this openness is not present, something essential is lacking.
Whereas the importance of rites and rubrics or rules and rituals cannot be denied or denigrated, it cannot also be denied that the Holy Spirit has right of control in Jesus’ Church and in the lives of Christians. Peter, the head of the apostles and leader of the Church, speaks of how the Holy Spirit guided him in his work, particularly, among the gentiles: “As Peter continued to reflect on the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. So, get up! Go downstairs and accompany them without hesitation, because I have sent them.” (Acts 10:19–20) Here again, he speaks about the same experience: “Acts 11:12) There is an interior world in the soul. From there, the Holy Spirit can guide us with his counsels and his promptings.
On his part, St. Paul dedicated a part of the eight chapter of his letter to the Romans, to teaching on the role of the Holy Spirit in Christian living. Here is partly what he says: “Those controlled by the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are controlled not by the flesh, but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.” (Rm 8:8–9)
In making crucial decisions on faith and spiritual matters, the apostles used to say: ‘the Holy Spirit and us’ (cf. Acts 5:32) or ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’ (cf. Acts 15:28). Sadly, unlike what we see in the story of the apostles and the first Christians, today, in many ways and in many places, the Holy Spirit is not given any place or role at all, in our Christian practice. Rather, in many places, especially in the orthodox circles of Christianity, any issue relating to an active operation of the Holy Spirit is treated with severe suspicion or even outright suppression or suspension. This saddening situation can amount to stifling and grieving of the divine Spirit.
- distrust towards the actions of the Spirit and the relegation of the element of ‘power’
The widespread lack of devotion to the Holy Spirit in the orthodox Christianity of today; the generalised ‘suspicion’ towards the manifestation of charisms and the gifts Holy Spirit; the relegation of the ‘power’ element of our religion, results in a religion, content with only material formulars but lacking any perceptible experience of its corresponding spiritual form; thus, it results in a Church curbed by itself of its own power or denied by itself of its own possessions; it results in Christians who are tepid and spiritless, half-hearted and lukewarm, lacking in evangelical zeal and in spiritual fervour — because they are they are disconnected with the Spirit whose gift of ‘fire’ is the source of genuine spiritual fervour; it results in a Church spiritually impoverished even though it is the heir of the treasures of the Spirit, which St. Paul spoke about when he instructed Timothy saying: “Hold on to the pattern of sound teaching you have heard from me, with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us.” (2Tim 1:13–14)
This approach towards our religion, this kind of attitude towards the action of the Holy Spirit and the power of God in the Church, in the least, bears two tragedies:
1) it ‘imprisons’ the God of power — since it lacks a functional faith in the possibility of the demonstration of God’s power even in the mundane everyday affairs of life. There is a theoretical faith, but not a functional faith, and this mentality drives into a form of imprisonment, the operations and effects of the intervening power of God.
2) it ‘impoverishes’ the people of God — since it leaves the believers spiritually wretched, wanting in virtue and needy in many material necessities of everyday life. This impoverishment makes the believer vulnerable to the allurements of the seeming riches of the world and the falsehoods of the ancient deceiver.
It must also be said that this kind of the practice of religion — where the Spirit is distrusted and the power of God is relegated — does not look like the approach of the Son of Man. Such religion would not be the religion of the Son of Man. Such religion can only be the religion of ‘little faith’ which Jesus rebuked. (cf. Mt 8:27) The apostles were, at a time, victims of such ‘little faith’; they were unable to comprehend and trust in the power of God, until Jesus reprimanded them about that.
On the contrary, the religion of the Son of Man is a religion alive with salvation, that is, alive with the power that saves. The religion of the Son of man is a religion alive with joy and amazement, because there is power in it. “The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the sea obey Him!” (Mt 8:27) It makes sad, that many orthodox Christians today are without any edifying encounter with the Spirit of God or a life-changing experience of the power of God in their lives or in the lives of those around them.
God would not give us a religion barren of power, in a world where Satan makes war, where he has commanded us to make war against the spirit of evil. If God, indeed, has commanded us not to war according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit, then you can be sure that he would have already given us weapons of the spiritual kind, by the power and gifts of the Holy Spirit. “For though we live in the flesh, we do not wage war according to the flesh. The weapons of our warfare are not the weapons of the world. Instead, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.” (2Cor 10:3–4) How do we tear down strongholds and overcome strongmen, which are yet alive and active in our time, if we have given up on the element of power and the Spirit of power? How can the Church make known the manifold wisdom of God to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places (cf. Eph 3:10), if we repudiate the mystery of power or choose to lay it aside and aloof?
- the Saints were not scandalised by the element o f ‘power’ in our religion and did not fail to use it, in the face of the needs of God’s people
If our religion today has lost touch with the element of ‘power’ which is the free gift of the Spirit of our baptism, and which, in many ways, characterised the gospels and the Church of the apostolic age, then we must return to the feet of Christ, the teacher and the master, to relearn his ways and to drink afresh of the Spirit he gives. If our practice of religion today, has become robbed of the edifying experience of the demonstrably intervening power of God, then we must retrace our steps and review our motives and believes; then we must retrieve from the treasuries of our tradition, the Church of the Saints, the Church of the wonder-workers, the men and women of God who touched the world with the power of Gid; we must return to the Church of our fathers in the Faith who were men of the Spirit and of power: the Church of Philip Neri and of Dominic Guzman, of Benedict of Nursia and Bernard of Clairvaux, the Church of the wonder-worker, Anthony of Padua and of Vincent Ferrer, whose everyday life was full of miracles and wonders, such that no one came to him without experiencing the prodigies of the power of God.
If the idea of ‘power’ scandalises us, so that we wish to keep it away, out of, perhaps, a false sense of prudence, then we must inquire from the mystics of our faith, who were masters of the mystical life and teachers of the spiritual life, and who lived and ‘used’ the power of God: Catherine of Siena, Catherine of Genoa, Teresa of Avila, Catherine Emmerich, Catherine Laboure, John of the Cross, Pio of Pietrelcina, Francis de Sales, John of Capistrano, among others If our practice of religion has become bereft of power, then we must recall ourselves and return to the true practice of our faith.
Michael Richmond Duru
3rd June 2022