Words on the Word


Acts 2.1-11: Everyone heard them speak his own language.
1 Corinthians 12.3-13: No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.
John 15.26-16.15: The Spirit of Truth shall glorify me.

The account of Pentecost in Acts is full of dramatic moments: the rush of a violent wind, flames of fire, enthusiasm, then the humming of voices as the Apostles, amazed, start proclaiming the mighty works of God in languages they didn’t know they knew: in guttural Semitic and sibilant Greek dialects. These moments have impressed Christian consciousness and expectation. As a result, the Spirit is often associated with violent inspiration. One speaks of being ‘moved’ by the Spirit, of being ‘on fire’ with the Spirit; there are Christian communities where anyone who has not spoken in tongues is not fully counted a member.

By all means, such phenomena can be real. That is how it was that day, at least for a while. However, the decisive Pentecost miracle unfolds in the Church on other, quieter terms.

The primary sign that the Holy Spirit has come and remains within the Church is found in the fearlessness it brings. The Apostles who, since Easter, had largely remained behind closed doors, suddenly walk freely into the streets and squares. That which previously made them afraid, frightens them no more. With us it is likewise. We recognise the Spirit’s work in us when Jesus’s oft-repeated words, ‘Fear not’, turn out to be a commandment we can heed, when we freely step outside the prison of anxiety and ask ourselves, ‘What on earth was I doing in there all that time?’

The action of the Spirit is evident, too, in the unity among believers. It is not easy to construct society with others. We see things differently; our expectations and needs are different. Even if we share high ideals, we quarrel, often about tiny things. It is striking, therefore, that the Christians after Pentecost were ‘one heart and one soul’ (Acts 4.32). The genuineness of this unity is seen from the fact that it had material impact, for our heart is where our treasure is: ‘No one called anything his own; they kept everything in common’. A criterion of ecclesial authenticity is concordia, ‘oneheartedness’. It is a grace we often pray for during Pachaltime; for what we are talking about is a gift we must be disposed to receive. At Pentecost we may ask ourselves: Is mine an ecclesial heart? Am I open to others, ready to let go of my stubbornness and self-affirmation? Do I do my bit to edify the community?

Paul writes that no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord’, except in the Holy Spirit. He has in mind a confession manifest in the choices I make, in my way of life. Is Jesus Lord of my future and my ast, or do I hug old rancour and old wounds? Is Jesus Lord of my feelings, my passions, or do I exercise, in this intimate area, an autonomy that renders faith irrelevant? Is Jesus Lord of my time and resources, or is his name primarily a kind of 999 I only call in emergencies? By asking questions like these we discover where the Spirit may need to be granted freer access in our lives.

The polyglottism of Pentecost also merits reflection. The Apostles are enabled to speak other tongues to pass on a message. The same holds for the phenomenon we refer to as ‘speaking in tongues’. Paul has sensible things to say about that, too. He does not exclude the possibility that people may express their love of God in ways only comprehensible to themselves and the Lord – ultimately each heart has its own language. But such expressions are to remain private. For what good is it, he asks, to stand around in church speaking words no one understand? ‘For you will be speaking into the air’ (1 Cor 14.9). When the Spirit illuminates a mind, it grants not just words but the ability to interpret (14.13).

What we are faced with here is a principle that goes beyond the sphere of language. It is a matter of reading others’ hearts, of bearing their burdens, of encountering them with insight and compassion.

I was recently reminded of a story from the writings of St Silouan of Athos, a monk who died on the Holy Mountain in 1938, one of the last century’s spiritual giants. Silouan straightforwardly recounts two Easter experiences:

It was Easter. I was returning after Vespers from the Monastery’s church to my lodgings in the mill. On the road I saw a worker. When I approached him, he asked me to give him an egg. I didn’t have any. I returned to the monastery and they took two eggs from my spiritual director. I gave one to the worker. He said to me: ‘There are two of us.’ Then I gave him the second one, and when he went away I began to weep in compassion for the poor people of God, and so mourning came to my soul for the whole world and for every poor home. Another time, also at Easter, going through the big door of the Monastery to the new building of the Transfiguration, I saw a little child, about four years old, coming towards me, with a happy face. The grace of God rejoices little children. I had an egg and I gave it to the child. He rejoiced and ran to his father to show him the gift. And for this little thing God gave me great joy, and I loved every creature of God, and the Holy Spirit resounded in my soul. When I returned to my cell, I prayed with tears to God for a long time out of compassion for the world. O Holy Spirit, abide in us always! It is good for us to be with you.

In a way these stories are banal. We all have such encounters every day. And is it worthy of a mystic to make such a fuss about eggs? Yes! Silouan shows us wherein ‘life in the Holy Spirit’ consists: not primarily in extraordinary happenings, but in a sensibility that lets us discern the presence of God in the everyday, that lets us put on the mind of Christ, that enables us to sense something of God’s love for the world, giving us a share, a genuine share, in the world’s pain and joy in order to present these to God in prayer.

May God grant us all to live in this way. Come, Holy Spirit, renew the face of the earth, renew our hearts! Amen


Saint Silouan (1866-1938)