[Beliefnet, May 9, 2005]
When I was a kid, I had no clear idea of what the Holy Ghost was for. He seemed boring and dowdy, a leftover appendage to the Trinity. Maybe it was because the Holy Ghost was described as the Love between the Father and Son. Love is great, but it isn’t a *Person*. The Father and Son came first, united and powerful, and then the Holy Ghost dawdled after, "proceeding" (whatever that means) from both, as if he were an afterthought. Pretty ghostly. I went to my Catholic Confirmation at the age of 12 prepared to receive this vague presence, feeling tensely expectant and - nothing happened. Bummer.
Flash forward a decade to the mid-70’s. After some unbelieving years I had returned to Christianity, and my husband and I were students at an Episcopal seminary near Washington, DC. We decided, out of curiosity, to go observe a prayer service that was being held each week at Catholic University. Our southern background led us to associate "Holy Ghost" - style worship with tiny rural churches, but now we were hearing that Catholics, Episcopalians, and other stolid types were experiencing a "charismatic renewal." So we took a seat on the back row and listened to mild, earnest songs that were accompanied by strumming guitars. This was followed by silence, then came an indecipherable sound. I clutched my husband’s arm. "This priest next to me!" I whispered. "He’s talking, and he’s not talking English!" The rhythms of glossolalia filled the room.
Then something disturbing happened. A dumpy-looking guy stood up and said, "What you people are doing here is really good. It’s not my thing, but it’s good. My friends and I like to do something too. We kill people. We killed somebody last night. Anyway, thanks, and I like what you’re doing here."
As he sat back down my hair was standing on end. I hissed to my husband, "What if his friends are waiting outside?" and he replied, "Don’t you see? He doesn’t have any ‘friends.’" The slumped, lonely figure did not have the appearance of someone who was too well plugged into reality; it seemed clear that this Manson-style spree was all in his mind. We waited to see what would happen next. If this had occurred at the kind of church service we were used to, it would be chaos.
But what happened surprised us. A blanket of peace gently dropped over the room. A person got up and began to pray for the man who had just spoken, that the Evil One would be driven away from hurting and oppressing him, that he would have clarity of mind and peace and come to know the love of God. (Maybe he had spoken up at meetings before?) A few others prayed in similar ways. Then the thread of worship picked up as it had before, a meandering series of prayers, songs, and scriptures.
That made a big impression on me. At last I knew what the Holy Spirit was for; he was able to give peace and direction in a moment of fear and confusion. He could do a lot of other things, I was soon to learn: healings, prophetic words of guidance, glimpses of the future. On a December evening, a fellow-seminarian prayed over us and we were "baptized in the Holy Spirit" and prayed in tongues.
I wish I could summarize the next decade or so in a couple of words, but it was too full of upheaval. Sometimes we were thrilled and exhilarated with the presence of the Holy Spirit. We saw healings and miracles; we experienced many "words" from the Lord. By now, I was the one strumming guitar, and as we finished seminary and began to serve in Episcopal parishes we always kept a midweek Prayer and Praise service going. It was terrific.
For a while, anyway. Then it began to get tedious. We felt like it was a chore to crank everyone up to a fever pitch of spiritual excitement every week. As the person leading the music, I was uncomfortably aware that much of what people were feeling was guided by my prodding. I wanted the music to serve and underscore religious experience, but there was a thin line between that and manipulating it.
And eventually it just became a grind. We came home on Tuesday nights frustrated and irritated. The whole thing seemed like a superficial, happy-face charade. As far as our own spiritual growth went, we seemed to be going in circles, but as leaders we felt constrained to maintain a forced cheerfulness about everything. The gap between fa?ade and reality widened, and we were miserable.
I was also afraid. I was afraid that I was losing my "first love," as Christ warned the church at Ephesus (Revelation 2:4).
At a busy, noisy, hands-in-the-air women’s retreat I found myself sitting silently with my hands in my lap. All my friends were surging gaily around me, but I had my eyes closed. I felt like there was a little oil lamp in my heart with a tiny sputtering wick. If I got agitated and tipped it even a bit, it would go out. I needed to stay quiet.
We began searching for something deeper. My husband rediscovered his childhood "high church" Anglicanism. I began reading St. Therese of Avila and St. John of the Cross (16th century), Julian of Norwich and the "Cloud of Unknowing" (14th century), and gradually it dawned on me that this path kept on going back, right to the beginning. It was possible to rediscover the faith of the earliest Christians, the ones who lived in the Middle East and spoke the same language the New Testament was written in. It was possible to recover the original faith.
That journey took us eventually to the Eastern Orthodoxy, the church that has most diligently persevered in practicing the most ancient faith. There’s a whole lot of Holy Spirit over here, but it’s neither the boring, ghostly kind of my childhood, or the feverish one we knew in our charismatic years. Those were times of some terrific spiritual highs, but what was missing was a way to separate wheat from chaff. If a whole lot of people agree on a "leading" from the Holy Spirit, is that consensus or merely group enthusiasm? If a person sticks stubbornly by a solitary conviction, is she prophetic or confused? If a whole roomful of people are laughing hysterically, is the Holy Spirit doing a "new thing," or is the Devil getting a good chuckle at our expense?
What we found in our new home was a couple of millennia of experience in handling "spiritual" things — wise, tested advice, on everything from how to fast to how to handle an apparition. Especially helpful was the idea of spiritual headship, in which everyone has a spiritual father or mother to help them in discernment. Resources like these help us hear the genuine voice of the Holy Spirit - a still, small voice, like that tiny flickering lamp in my heart. While that voice might stir up feelings of joy or repentance, feelings are not the Holy Spirit, but just human reactions.
Every day, every hour, every minute, we try to keep that inner flame steady and strong, protected from the gusts of anger or fear that so easily extinguish it. We try to "pray constantly," cultivating the ancient Jesus Prayer as a gentle, continual refrain: "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner." In quietness and peace we hear the Spirit’s guidance.
It turns out that there’s a natural resonance between the spirit-filled churches and ancient Orthodoxy. We share a common expectation that the Holy Spirit is intimately involved in every moment of life. We expect, and see, healings and miracles. We aren’t surprised at tales of people getting messages from God in prayer, or even of people seeing or hearing angels or saints. The stable, ancient liturgies help, too, because you don’t have to "crank it up" from scratch every week. No matter what mood you’re in on Sunday morning, just get on the train and it will carry you all the way to the top of the mountain.
We’ve retained that first-century expectation that the Holy Spirit is a life-giving presence, a Person, not an "it," not a mere state of love. We know him well, and he knows us better. The most-beloved prayer to the Holy Spirit, one we use in nearly every time of private or public worship, sums it up:
"O Heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who art everywhere present and fillest all things, Treasury of blessings and giver of life, come and abide in us, cleanse us of all impurity, and save our souls, O good one."