Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and I meditate, I live in peace as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ The old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame’From the Desert Fathers
In keeping the feast of Pentecost we are caught up into the always-life giving presence of God’s Holy Spirit. Traditionally, we celebrate the birth of the Church on this day, as the Spirit fills the place where the apostles, Mary, the mother of God, and other disciples are gathered, and not only the place but each one gathered there – they become truly living stones, to use the phrase of the first letter of St Peter, and the Church is established, according to God’s design and Christ’s promise.
The Spirit of God, rightly called the Soul of my soul by St Bernard in Sermon 10 of the monastic sermons, is the same Spirit who hovered over the waters at the dawn of creation; the same Spirit who blew aside the waters of the Red Sea to allow Israel to pass from Egypt onto the road into the wilderness and freedom; the same Spirit who, by the quietest of whispers, caused Elijah to know God’s presence and cover his face with his mantle; the same Spirit who filled Solomon’s Temple, claiming it for God as his dwelling among men; the same Spirit who overshadowed and filled the Virgin Mary so that the Word became flesh; the same Spirit whom Christ breathed in his last breath on the Cross in John’s Gospel, and whom he later, after his resurrection, breathed on the disciples with the gift of peace.
This is the Spirit who, according to the prophet Isaiah, brings the gifts of wisdom and insight, counsel and power, knowledge and the fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11:2), and to which the Church will add piety to complete a list of seven. And then the disciple is further strengthened by the fruits which the Holy Spirit brings forth in his life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22).
What, then, does each of us seek today on this Pentecost day? Perhaps we can suggest a new beginning, a purification which the Spirit brings to believers, so that we can really, in Christ’s words to Nicodemus, be born again, be born from above (John 3:3-8).
Let’s begin with a desire for the purification of our senses. The Spirit is given to enrich our entire lives and selves, not just interiorly but exteriorly as well – in that way in which we relate most directly to the world. Our senses are conduits by which we meet and process, receive and communicate. Part of the enlivening which the Spirit brings is precisely that we should reclaim our senses – sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste – since they reflect spiritual senses. Not only that, but the senses are burdened with the baggage of our past lives, and part of the always moving and dynamic Christian journey of discipleship is continually to renounce our past lives, the chapters and verses of those past experiences which cannot and should not define us. Often, the past experiences which we have lived and which are concretized for us by our sense experience can hold us back, as well as build us up. In as much as our whole experience is a book in which we read about our often stumbling search for God, knowing how to see God present in healthy experiences and how to leave aside those experiences which are deformative is part of discernment. So, the purification of the senses which the Spirit brings us is at the same time a joyful and necessary leaving aside, and an expression for a new charismatic – gift ladened – anointing which the Spirit alone can give.
St Bernard tells us that :
“Souls for whom the spiritual Soul (God’s Holy Spirit, the Soul of my soul) pours in knowledge of truth and love, not from the exterior by any means but animating from within the Soul of the soul, join to the Lord and become one spirit with the spiritual Soul. In these souls, I say, knowledge of truth is indivisible in the same way explained about the uniform life of the body.”St Bernard of Clairvaux
St Bernard invites us to consider the intimate marriage between our exterior senses and our interior, spiritual senses. Today we spend time reviewing our sense experience and asking for a new birth, a new communion between exterior and interior.
Begin with sight. The capacity to look around me and drink in beauty, creation, the presence of others, and also to notice suffering, unhappiness, struggle, exclusion. Sight is a sense frequently restored by Christ in the Gospels, and he is said to look at others and know them, particularly in John’s Gospel (John 1:42). In restoring sight he doesn’t merely heal blindness – he gives the possibility of a new way of seeing and of noticing. Again, in the Sermon on the Mount, Christ Jesus teaches, it would appear harshly, that if the eye should cause us to sin we should pluck it out (Matthew 5:29), and then not much later he extols the eye as ‘the lamp of the body’ – it doesn’t just survey what it sees, it takes it in, reads it, and enlightens the body with the light which this knowledge brings. We therefore ask the Spirit today to give us a purity in how we use our sight and to allow us to set aside the memory of all the times when our sight has betrayed us and we have allowed it to darken our minds and hearts.
We can move on to touch. This most sentient of means of communication, both in how I touch and how I am touched, needs our gentle attention. It becomes an expressive means of how we relate to others, and yet can be aggressive, rejectionist, dismissive, and even violent. Again, in the Gospels, Jesus reaches out and uses his hands and fingers to make contact with others – healing is given by his touch, ears and eyes and mouths are opened by his touch, life is restored by his touch. So, touch goes deeper than merely the level of skin – it conveys an inner word of grace and asks to be gentle. So, we ask the Spirit to purify the times when our touch has betrayed us, when it has been used for selfish purposes, for my own gratification, in ways which demean both me and others. Can the Spirit give me an anointing which means that my touch is healing – consoling, comforting, encouraging?
Hearing is a rich biblical sense because through it I discern God’s Word addressed to me. It immediately interiorizes – the word and sound are drawn into me automatically and speak to my reason and intellect and emotion. Not for nothing is hearing related to obedience (and literally in the Latin words which come one from the other) – to listen with attention is to listen deeply and with respect: I receive not just the words which have been addressed to me, but the person who addresses them to me. To listen and to hear is to be transformed by what is said already. To allow that word to remain in my heart, having been received by the ears of the heart, is to begin to live in a new way, converted. To listen is always a process of discernment – to hear what is important and good, to ignore what is divisive, destructive and derogatory. Ask for this purification – that the Spirit will open the ears of my heart and help me use the ears of my head to receive only what is good.
The sense of smell is said to be the one which brings memory most alive – smells conjure up past events, people, places, and roll them out before us again. In this sense we have come to what St Augustine regards in his meditations in Book 10 of The Confessions as one of our most transformative faculties – that of memory.
“How widely I have ranged through my memory seeking you, Lord, and I have not found you outside; for I have discovered nothing about you that I did not remember from the time I learned to know you. From that time when I learned about you I have never forgotten you, because wherever I have found truth I have found my God who is absolute Truth, and once I had learned that I did not forget it. That is why you have dwelt in my memory ever since I learned to know you, and it is there that I find you when I remember and delight in you. These are my holy delights, and they are your gift to me, for in your mercy you look graciously upon my poverty”The Confessions, St Augustine
In this, St Augustine sums up what we all desire so much, and with which he begins this Book 10 of The Confessions:
“Let me know you, O you who know me; then I shall know even as I am known. You are the strength of my soul; make your way in and shape it to yourself, that it may be yours to have and to hold, free from stain or wrinkle”.The Confessions, St Augustine
Many of us today will want to ask the Holy Spirit to give us a purification of memory itself and of memories which weigh us down, scar us still, sadden us deeply in the very centre of who we are. That purification may not necessarily mean that the individual memories are gone from us – this is sometimes, often times, simply not possible. But the Spirit is the Spirit who is consoler and comforter, healer and the one who makes new, so the totality of our memory is a place where She can live and move. And apart from this, memory is a place of rejoicing and blessedness – God is already there, as St Augustine realised, and allows us bring up all the ways and people who have been his means of revealing himself to us.
Taste is, like hearing, a constant in Scripture. Not for nothing does Psalm 33 tell us: Taste and see that the Lord is good! It’s an odd expression, but one which finds particular resonance in Christ’s gift of himself to us. And again, if we know the Latin for taste – sapor – we will see that it gives the other Latin word sapientia, wisdom. To taste the Lord is to grow in wisdom. To eat the food which is his Word addressed to us in Christ is to receive a new sort of knowledge which transcends mere fact and touches the divine. By extension our “tastes” speak to us about preferences, what we like, desire and prefer, and these too can lead us in ways that leave the Gospel and discipleship behind. A purification of tastes is offered to us today.
So, this Pentecost can be a powerful new birth for us, a new beginning, a new realisation of how I am for Christ through the grace of the Holy Spirit. The context in which this happens is the Church which is born today anew in the hearts and lives of believers – us – as it was on that first Pentecost day for the disciples. And this purification of the senses, by which I ask for a re-consecration of my entire self through the bodily means by which I contact the world around me and it contacts me – with this I ask for a deep consecration of the spiritual senses given me, which are first and foremost for the recognition of God in all that surrounds me, my brothers and sisters, creation and the host of other ways in which the Father reveals himself to me and addresses himself to me. If I can open myself to this, then being born from above, in the Spirit who blows where She wills, becomes a reality that doesn’t puzzle me but one which I desire with all my heart and all my soul and all my strength! Then, I see myself and the world in a transfigured way.
The late Irish writer, poet and speaker John O’Donohue has this to say in his book Anam Cara about a spirituality of the senses:
“Spirituality is the art of transfiguration. We should not force ourselves to change by hammering our lives into predetermined shape. We do not need to operate according to the idea of a predetermined programme or plan for our lives. Rather we need to practice a new art of attention to the inner rhythm of our days and lives. This attention brings a new awareness of our own human and divine presence…. If you work with a different rhythm, you will come easily and naturally home to your self. Your soul knows the geography of your destiny. Your soul also has the map of your future, therefore you can trust this indirect, oblique side of your self. If you do, it will take you where you need to go, but more importantly it will teach you a kindness of rhythm in your journey…. The senses are generous pathways which can bring you home.Anam Cara, John O’Donohue
A renewal, indeed a complete transfiguration of your life, can come through attention to your senses. Your senses are the guides to take you deep into the inner world of your heart. The greatest philosophers admit that to a large degree all knowledge comes through the senses. The senses are our bridges to the world. Human skin is porous; the world flows through you. Your senses are large pores which let the world in. Through attunement to the wisdom of your senses, you will never become an exile in your own life, an outsider lost in an external spiritual space which your will and intellect have constructed”
This Pentecost day why not take some time in prayer. See yourself seated in that upper room, the focus of so many encounters, above all the encounter with Christ, a room filled not only with people but with expectations, hopes, worries, anxieties, doubts….. Be seated there with these others, and see them: the apostles, Mary, God’s Mother, other men and women who formed Christ’s close group, all waiting, and you with them.
Then the room is shaken, and you with it. A noise like a mighty wind rushes through the room, filling the place, every corner, your ears, your head, your body, your entire being has an unmistakable rush overpowering it, dynamic – the rush of new life! All your senses are as new – a brightness fills your eyes, transfiguring them so that light become Light, and there is no semblance nor hint of darkness or shadow, in you or others. Your ears hear everything – the joy in your companions’ hearts; the new creation around you, singing a new song; your own voice at one with it. Your skin and hands and feet are alive with a new sensation – freed and unbound, ready for touching and receiving and passing on the precious gifts you hold. The smell in your nostrils is of freshness – not of a tomb or of death or of sin but of new life being born, within and without. And your mouth opens in speech – you have tasted something new and it has transformed from within and now speaks itself through you. This is the new language that you can speak in the world – you become a new word, a Gospel Word, in which the Word, Spirit-born, makes his presence felt and recognised.
You have become all flame, like a bush burning and yet unburnt! And it’s a fire that, once lit, never goes out! We are never outsiders because the Spirit recreates us in the Church.
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful, and enkindle in them the fire of your love!