When as a boy I exulted in seeing the splendid ocean liners docked along the Hudson River piers, it was not remotely possible to know that some of this would now be my dockside parish and I its pastor. The Cunard Line had piers 90 and 92 and French Line had pier 88. I shall not forget the streamers tossed from the decks of the departing ships as the bands played, “Now is the hour when we must say goodbye.” For some going on holiday soon to return, it was a sentimental indulgence, but for others it really was goodbye.
At the Ascension, human nature being what it is, the crowd must have felt something like goodbye, but the shock of light and “something like a cloud” wiped away any wistfulness. As human eyes tried vainly to interpret this to the intellect, and more awkwardly to put it into words, they could only look “intently at the sky as he was going” (Acts 1:10). There were no streamers to hold onto until they snapped, and no band to play. But there were a couple of inexplicable men in white, just as at the Easter tomb, who sent the witnesses back into Jerusalem to ponder the paradox of the Master’s parting words: “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
The next ten days were different in tone from the vacant hours of grief on Holy Saturday, which are like a vacuum on the liturgical calendar. After the Ascension there was a sense of expectancy “filled with joy,” for Christ had told his followers that he had to leave in order to send the “Paraclete.” It was a term rare enough even for the Greeks, and Demosthenes made an unusual reference to it when speaking of a courtroom defender, and in that case the emphasis was more on cleverness than honesty, to wit: “the importunity and party spirit of paracletes… (On the False Embassy 19:1).” The Paraclete promised to the apostles, though, would lead them into the truth behind everything. But even the hushed hours between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection were not a void. The Creed does not admit of such an interpretation, for it declares: “He descended to Hell.” Not into Hell, for then it would not be hellish, but to where the holy ones who lived before these events were resting so as to be awakened. When the Lord seemed to have become inert, he was “harrowing Hell,” as Saint Epiphanius of Cyprus in the fourth century dramatized: “Something strange is happening.”
This is the point: Christ’s disappearances are as significant as his appearances. If you tally the Resurrection appearances, including those after Pentecost, such as the one to Stephen while being martyred, to Paul on the Damascus road, and to John on Patmos, there are fifteen particular appearances. But that also means there were that many disappearances. Each time he vanished, he was doing something unseen. We may not know until we enter eternity what all of those disappearances involved, but at least they explain why before the Ascension, Christ said that he had to leave in order to remain, and why he said that he was going to prepare a place for us.
In the story “Silver Blaze,” Sherlock Holmes told the Scotland Yard detective Gregory that the curious incident of the dog in the night-time was precisely that the dog seemed to do nothing in the night-time. The silence was as revealing as any sound, revelatory in its silence, just as there is as much theology in the unmentioned way Christ got up three times under the weight of the Cross, as in the way he fell under it. This needs to be remembered when God seems absent from current events, or distant from our daily perplexities. He who never lied, said that he would be with us until the end of time. Rather than despair when God seems absent, the way of reason is to try to figure out why he is hidden. “Seek the Lord and his strength. Seek his face always” (Psalm 105:4-6). To want him to be near is already to be near him. “Take comfort, you would not be looking for me if you had not already found me.” (Pascal, Pensées, 553: Le mystère de Jésus.)
Saints have understood the transporting love poem Song of Songs to be more than an allegory of the love of a youth for his beloved; it is a parable of Christ’s love for his bride the Church. Saint Bernard also heard it as Christ’s love for each soul. As Christ came into the world to seek us out, so, “There he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattice” (Song of Songs 2:9). There are times when he acts furtively, coyly vanishing, intangibly, enticing the soul to long for him: “I looked for him but did not find him” (Song of Songs 3:2). What seems an absence is a dynamic presence, apprehended by the faith, which is “evidence of things unseen (Heb. 1:1),” influencing events and lives with a power not of this world. “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
As the Holy Spirit is the guarantor of truth, the Apostles were able to detect false teachers and warn against them, just as they also were able to resolve the problem of whether Gentile converts were obliged to follow the Levitical code. Their decision began: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us.” To claim private guidance from the Holy Spirit when it differs from what has inspired the collective agreement of the successors of the Apostles would be to confuse private judgment with divine truth.
Yet the Holy Spirit does help us in the ways of truth every day. Sometimes he even works through children: “and a little child shall lead them” (Isa. 11:6). The birth of a child may convert a parent to more intense faith, or a child’s First Communion may inspire a young father to return to Confession. The Holy Spirit sometimes works through unexpected encounters. Yogi Berra, not to be underestimated as a vernacular philosopher, said, “Some things are just too coincidental to be a coincidence.”
The Charismatic Movement filled a spiritual void for many in the chaos following the Second Vatican Council, and was commended for that even by popes, but it had its risks. An isolated emphasis on the Holy Spirit could lead to Spiritualism, as such emphasis on the Father could become Deism, and an emphasis on the Son could become Humanism. Charismatic manifestations that emphasized gifts of the Spirit apart from fruits were faulted as far back as Eusebius and Augustine in their repudiation of Montanism. Another danger was a sort of hyper-supernaturalism, a dualism distressingly evident in the aesthetic impoverishment of liturgical sensibility. It is curious that when many people stopped praying in Latin, they began waving their hands to speak in faux-Aramaic. In the United States, charismaticism seems on the wane among Catholics, perhaps harmed by excesses such as the ritualized neuroses of the so-called “Toronto Blessing” in 1994 which ended up with the unsightly spectacle of people laughing uncontrollably, barking like dogs and rolling in the aisles. While that has abated, unmeasured impulsiveness has another form in the rampant vulgarity of public persons today: not only politicians, and entertainers, but even vacuous prelates, one most recently riding a bicycle in his sanctuary in his full pontificals. When St. Thomas Aquinas spoke of “modesty” (Summa II-II, q. 168) his concern was about deportment and only tangentially about sexual behavior. Citing St. Ambrose (De Officiis), he comments: “the habit of mind is seen in the gesture of the body, and the body’s movement is an index of the soul…” We can see something of this modesty preserved in the Mass, as the faithful adopt the reserve of the Roman centurion: Non sum dignus. It is an outward indication of the dignity conferred gratuitously by divine grace on thane and thrall alike.
It is always helpful to consult Ronald Knox’s monumental study Enthusiasm for information about the antecedents of spiritual immodesty in people given to hysteria, gibberish, and spurious apparitions. These were an eclectic assortment ranging from the Shakers to the Convulsionaries of Saint Medard. And the Scriptures have their own cautions, too (1 Cor.11:14; 1Peter 5:8-9; 1 John 4:1) as well as the most recent Ecumenical Council (Lumen Gentium 12). It is highly regrettable, however, if not scandalous, that in the wake of that Council, the octave of Pentecost was dropped according to the 1970 rubrics, thus putting the whole liturgical year out of kilter and making Pentecost a fragile appendix to the Nativity and Resurrection feasts, and giving poignancy to the plea: “We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (Acts 19:2). John Henry Newman thought the breviary offices for the Pentecost octave were “the grandest, perhaps of the year.” An account says that Blessed Pope Paul VI became lachrymose when reminded that he had sanctioned the suppression of the octave. Then there is also the new rubric for snuffing out the Paschal candle, not as it used to be done with high symbolism on the feast of the Ascension, but oddly on Pentecost when flames came down on the apostles. So much for not quenching the Spirit (1 Thess. 5:19).
True devotion requires only “meekness” to be helped by the Holy Spirit. The spiritually “meek” are not milquetoasts, or spineless wonders. The Greek praus for “meek” means controlled strength, a suppleness like that of an athlete, the “contrapposto” that classical sculptors achieved in stone. Without praus, a surfer would stand stiff and soon fall off the surfboard, and a boxer would be knocked out by the first punch without agile footwork. God calls the arrogant, who will not bend their opinions to his truth, a “stiff-necked people” (Exodus 32:9). Arrogance, as the opposite of meekness, is spiritual arthritis. Get rid of that moral stiffness, and then “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you” (John 14:26). There is nothing that he told us that does not have its consequences in the tensions and conflicts of the present day, thrilling all earthly disorder with sublime serenity.
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “Pentecost” painted by Jean Restout in 1732.