Upon entering St. Peter’s Basilica, facing the visitor, like some sunburst, is the Great Altar. It is spaced majestically beneath Bernini’s massive baldachin, held up by four thick, twisted columns, identical to the ones in Solomon’s Temple—clearly a sign that the typological figures of the Old Testament had come to fulfillment in the immolation of the Lamb upon the altars of Christendom.
When the eye of the visitor wanders further down beyond the baldachin, it arrives at the resplendent Altar of the Chair, above it a heroic-sized bronze and gold throne which seems to float in thin air. Sealed within it is the actual chair of St. Peter from which he ruled the primatial see of Rome. It is quite mystical in its aura, bespeaking the supernatural authority of the Roman Catholic Church. As the eye moves upward from the Chair, it sets itself upon the alabaster stained glass window of the Holy Spirit. That window announces to the world the great privilege of the Roman Church to enjoy the guidance of that Third Person, guaranteeing the privilege of infallible security in the Truth.
Stained glass windows are an apt lesson for us on this feast of Pentecost. As with all stained glass windows, without external light pouring through them, they appear black and opaque. Light discloses their beauty, colors explode, miraculous persons emerge and an ethereal atmosphere bathes the Church in lessons the tongue cannot express. Such is the magic of light.
The work of the Holy Spirit is akin to that light. Not magical, by any means, but rather, quite real, transcendent, and supernatural. As the soul’s Divine Guest (cf. S.T., I, 38, a. 1), it is flooded with His light through sanctifying grace, unveiling beauty hidden without His light. Light alone, however, does not exhaust the plenitude of His presence. The Acts of the Apostles describes a scene of near terror, when the room where the Apostles gathered shook violently, as if by earthquake. Then, a great fire descended from Heaven setting upon each of them a crown of flames.
The Third Person is not only the blessed sweetness of light but also the arm of heavenly power. His indwelling is transformative. Before His arrival, the Apostles are rent with fear, uncertainty, ambivalence, confusion, hesitancy, and abandonment. After He comes, all that melts away. Before Pentecost, the eleven were simpering fishermen; after Pentecost, they are Apostolic giants.
These heavenly tremors erupting in the soul are not a gift reserved to the Apostles, they are the inheritance of every soul clothed with sanctifying grace. They are yours and mine. It is these supernal wonders that caused St. Basil the Great to write in his treatise, On the Holy Spirit, words that verge on delirium:
Even as bright shining bodies, once touched by a ray of light falling on them, become even more glorious and themselves cast another light, so too souls that carry the Holy Spirit, and are enlightened by Him, become spiritual themselves and send forth grace upon others.
This grace enables them to foresee the future, to understand mysteries, to grasp hidden things, to receive spiritual blessings, to have their thoughts fixed on heavenly things, and to dance with the angels.
The Holy Spirit illuminates all things because He is the Truth. Our lives, like stained glass without light, become opaque and lose their meaning over time. Sin does this, as well as the complacency and inertia accumulating over a life of living only for ourselves. Years accumulate and we see ourselves finding only misery and contradiction in life. Notice the many men and women, and not a few Catholics, who endured this COVID-19 crisis. They obsessed over the damage of this microbe rather than upon the mercy of God, Who allowed it for His loving purposes and our perfection.
When we give permission for the Holy Spirit to take up residence in our souls, by our free cooperation with His Gifts, we find ourselves changed. We see the purposes of God’s mysterious designs, and we can only be seized by wonder. In the fourth century, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, gave moving expression to these marvels of the Holy Spirit:
As light strikes the eyes of a man who comes out of darkness into the sunshine and enables him to see clearly things he could not discern before, so light floods the soul of the man counted worthy of receiving the Holy Spirit and enables him to see things beyond the range of human vision, things hitherto undreamed of.
Moreover, the Holy Spirit infuses souls with a daring they find quite inexplicable, except through His power. How else do martyrs face some of the grisliest torments known to man? How else do mothers and fathers carry the sacrifices of having their eighth or ninth child? How else can one explain how young men and women surrender their liberty and the beauties of married love to serve Christ’s perfect beauty in the priesthood or religious life? What of the heroism that must be exercised by unmarried men and women, especially the young, to maintain the virtue of perfect purity?
Nothing earthly or natural can account for all this. Only the mystery of the grace of the Holy Spirit. Listen to the words of a contemporary of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Cyril of Alexandria, the great hero of Ephesus, the defending champion of the Theotokos (Mother of God):
With the Holy Spirit within us, it is quite natural for people who had been absorbed by the things of this world to become entirely otherworldly in outlook, and for cowards to become people of great courage.
Surpassing all these, the greatest manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s power is charity: love for Christ and for the neighbor. His is not a sentimental love, dependent on feelings. Nor is it a love driven by self-interest. His is a love, in Chesterton’s evocative phrase, “of goodness gone wild.” His is the love that makes the world stand up and take notice. It is also a love which confounds all the safe and self-serving standards of the world.
The motions of the Holy Spirit’s love in souls bewilders the conventions of the world, and even Catholics who have capitulated to them. The past fifty years have shown some Catholic thinkers suppressing the divinity of the Holy Spirit only to replace it with the spirit of their “inner voice.” Cringe when you hear talk about “following the spirit.” It is as far from the doctrine of the Church as astronomy is from astrology. The drama of the Holy Spirit’s grace of charity is explained by Chesterton:
Rationalists will find things like the Stigmata of St. Francis a stumbling-block because to them religion is a philosophy. But a man will not roll in the snow to preserve his purity, as St. Francis did, for a stream of tendency by which all things fulfill the law of their being. He will not go without food in the name of something, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness. He will do things like this…under quite a different impulse. He will do these things when he is in love…Tell it as the tale of one of the troubadours, and the wild things he would do for his lady, and the whole of the modern puzzle disappears.
Yet another counterfeit of the Holy Spirit is peddled today: the proselytization of novelty. The true sign of the Holy Spirit is a growing and passionate firmness in the unchanging teachings of Holy Church and her immemorial traditions. Allied to this is an equally parlous fraud: the regime of emotion. For quite a time (interestingly parallel to the vacuum of doctrine the Church has suffered) there has been the association of the work of the Holy Spirit with spasms of emotion. This meretricious display has degraded the classical virtue of piety, with its admirable humility guarded by the proper bonds of ordered restraint. Exceptions to this litter the millennial landscape of the Church’s history, all epiphenomena of heresy. Evidence of these baneful moments are meticulously chronicled in Msgr. Ronald Knox’s magisterial work, Enthusiasm.
Refutation of this unseemly trend is the example of the Virgin Mother of God. Of all human persons, she is the vessel of the Holy Spirit par excellence, indeed His spouse. Where are her fits of emotion? Or the Saints. Where do we find them luxuriating in carnival transports?
Catholics must be immoveable in the solid teaching of the Church: The most secure and decisive sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit is the love of the Cross and heroic love of neighbor; men and women on their knees adoring the Holy Eucharist or in reverential awe at Holy Mass; and passionately defending the unchangeable doctrines of the Church. These are the Catholics “filled with the Spirit.”
It is time to get the Holy Spirit right. He is not a rubber stamp of the Zeitgeist. He is the Visitor from Heaven who “renews the face of the earth.” Catholics must resist His enfeeblement.
The Holy Spirit makes giants of us Catholics. Isn’t it time we start acting like them?