There is a dangerous tendency in human nature to try to domesticate the spiritual world. Beings and events beyond our comprehension become tame or even silly. Compare Ezekiel’s cherubs, with their bodies covered with eyes, with the fat little babies that we find so often in Christian art. Or think of how absorbed we can become, at Christmas time, with the innumerable variations on the sweet, docile image of the baby in the manger, sleeping quietly or smiling beatifically, surrounded by animals and angels, and sideline the unthinkable reality and awesome mystery that the infant soiling his swaddling clothes is the same God who created the universe and continually holds it in being. How much easier it is to create nice, cozy, safe images of a world that is not only terrifyingly incomprehensible but also very real.
Pope Francis has warned against this tendency to bring the uncontrollable under the semblance of our control. Most recently, he has counselled us against underestimating the devil, of taking him too lightly. But he is also fond of reminding us of the immense power and unpredictable nature of our great friend: the Holy Spirit. He is the Paraclete, our advocate and helper, but he is also like the wind, which “blows where it wills” (John 3:8).
This image of the Holy Spirit as wind is an important one. It is linked to the understanding of “spirit” evident in the Hebrew word ruah
, which means “wind, spirit, breath.” Indeed, we find Jesus in John’s Gospel breathing on his disciples as He tells them, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). And every year in the Chrism Mass, in which a bishop consecrates all the sacramental oils to be used throughout his diocese for the coming year, there is a solemn moment in which this successor of the Apostles breathes into each of the urns filled with oil.
But wait. Haven’t I just domesticated the Holy Spirit by downgrading it from wind to breath? Not a bit of it. Because the wind/breath identity of the Holy Spirit is closely linked to the image of the Holy Spirit as fire. Don’t forget that before the flaming tongues appeared above the disciples’ heads at Pentecost, they first heard “a noise like a strong driving wind” (Acts 2:2).
Under certain conditions, the interaction between oxygen (in other words, the air that we breathe) and some type of fuel causes a chemical reaction, one product of which is heat and light - commonly known as fire. Consider the air, or the breath, as the Holy Spirit, and the fuel as a human soul: your soul, my soul. Given the right conditions - an openness and a willingness on the part of the “fuel,” spontaneous combustion takes place.
Have you ever watched a piece of wood being consumed by fire? Sighing and crackling and glowing, getting blacker and blacker until it falls apart completely and nothing remains but ash? It doesn’t just look different from the original piece of wood. It is
different, at the very core of its being. Its chemical composition has changed. It has been transformed.
This is what we are called to as Christians and what awaits us when we invite the Holy Spirit into our lives. Let yourself be set on fire by the Holy Spirit. Let yourself be transformed.