Faith Talks

Monday of the Holy Spirit, 4 June 2012

Today is the Monday of the Holy Spirit, a major feast-day of the Orthodox Church, even though it's not observed by most Orthodox Christians and churches. And that's a pity, because what we need most in our lives is precisely a reminder of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit.

On this Monday of the Holy Spirit I start this new series of reflections in our website, and I pray that the Holy Spirit will bless the effort. Right at the outset I want to express here my gratitude to Chris Dilios for the many years - since 1999 - he has devoted to maintaining and updating our website. I finally convinced him to teach me some hands-on experience so I can handle some of the website by myself.

I recently read a 1947 essay about New York by the great French philosopher, Albert Camus, and was surprised by how poetically he was able to write about New York. Here are the opening and closing sentences of his essay. The very first sentence grabs you with its unique and unexpected expression:

New York rain is a rain of exile. Abundant, viscous and dense, it pours down tirelessly between the high cubes of cement into avenues plunged suddenly into the darkness of a well. Seeking shelter in a cab that stops at a red light and starts again on a green, you suddenly feel caught in a trap, behind monotonous, fast-moving windshield wipers sweeping aside water that is constantly renewed.... I loved the mornings and the evenings of New York. I loved New York, with that powerful love that sometimes leaves you full of uncertainties and hatred: sometimes one needs exile. And then the very smell of New York rain tracks you down in the heart of the most harmonious and familiar towns, to remind you there is at least one place of deliverance in the world, where you, together with a whole people and for as long as you want, can finally lose yourself forever.
Wow, people don't write like this about New York, or about much of anything, nowadays. Language has been trivialized. And perhaps the language of faith has been trivialized most of all. I'm not as good at expressing thoughts as Camus - after all, he was one of the great writers of the 20th century! - but I promise that in everything I write here I will try not to trivialize our Orthodox, biblical faith. I will occasionally choose to be controversial, but I will only be controversial in those things that the Gospel of Jesus Christ allows me to be controversial.

Yesterday was Pentecost. The morning Liturgy was sparsely attended, but the people who came were edified by the message of this great feast-day. Today, Monday of the Holy Spirit, completes the two-day commemoration of the momentous descent of the Holy Spirit upon the first Christians in Jerusalem, vividly described in the second chapter of the Book of Acts in the New Testament.

The first two verses of the Bible, Genesis 1:1-2, picture the Holy Spirit (the ruach of God) as a wind sweeping over the primeval chaos, before God began to give form to the creation. Today also the Holy Spirit sweeps over the chaos that we humans have created: political chaos, economic chaos, environmental chaos, moral chaos, spiritual and psychological chaos, confusion in all realms of life and thought, devaluation of the arts, the loss of human individuality, privacy and freedom, and so on the list goes... The Spirit is ready to sweep away the chaos. But the chaos was and is created by us, so the Spirit will not sweep the chaos away without our cooperation.

Jesus, in the Gospel of John, calls the Spirit by the Greek word Paraklitos, which means Comforter, Counselor, Advocate...) The Spirit counsels, inspires, guides and comforts in our struggles. But the Spirit does not impose God's will on anyone, not even on the planet. Jesus spoke of "rivers of living water" overflowing from the hearts of those who believe in him, and by this he meant the Spirit, as the Gospel of John explains to us. The meaning is clear: God gives the Spirit, and we allow the Spirit to flow out of our hearts, our words and actions. Do we want to be co-workers with the Spirit? That's the challenge for every individual Christian and for the church as a whole. There are too many in the Church who simply believe that the Spirit blesses everything we undertake, especially if we say the right prayers or do the proper ritual. No, there is freedom in our relationship with God. God respects our freedom, and in turn is free from all attempts to manipulate God through rituals or prayers. God reads our hearts, not our rituals!

What strikes me about Camus' essay is his unexpected use of words. And I can't help but think of the Holy Spirit in the same way he describes the rain of New York, "a rain of exile... abundant, viscous and dense." If Camus can use such evocative and heavy words to describe New York, should't we be at least as bold in speaking of the Holy Spirit? We are in exile when we don't allow the Spirit to be abundant, viscous and dense in our lives and actions!

We heard striking images to describe the Holy Spirit in yesterday's readings in the Liturgy of Pentecost. In the reading from Acts of the Apostles (2:1-11) we heard of "a violent rushing wind" and then "tongues of fire"! In the Gospel reading (John 7:37-52), Jesus described the Spirit as "rivers of living water."

In ancient times people thought that the world was made up of four elements: earth, air, fire and water. Today, of course, we know that there are over a hundred different chemical elements that make up everything, but the ancients had a simpler list of "elements." It's probably only a coincidence, but an interesting observation that three of the four elements of the ancients were used to describe the Holy Spirit in our readings in yesterday's Liturgy: air (wind), fire and water. What about earth, the fourth element? Isn't that where we come in? We are made of earth. The dynamism belongs to the Spirit - wind, fire and water are powerful forces - but like the earth we receive and cultivate the dynamism and produce fruit.

The "fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" according to Saint Paul (Galatians 5:22-23). I pray that what you read here in the coming weeks and months will produce fruit of the sort described by Paul. Let us be fruitful earth for the Spirit who is fire, water and wind.

Fr. Constantine Sarantidis.

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