It's very difficult to put into words what the Holy Spirit does in us, or how he works. However, I think it is important that we have some images of his action, and so, I am going to attempt to put words on something that is both miraculous and mysterious. The Spirit works from within. Jesus speaks of the Spirit as a fountain of living water that rises up from within a person. In other words, it does not begin in the head, in the understanding. Reading books, discussions, attending lectures, etc., does not bring us any closer to the Spirit. All of the above just informs the head, but it doesn't form the heart.
There are two levels of knowledge, i.e., academic knowledge and experiential knowledge. I get the academic knowledge from books, but I glean the experiential knowledge through experience. The important point I am making here is that the Spirit has to be experienced firstly, and, perhaps, understood some other time. I say 'perhaps', because I don't expect to understand God, not even in heaven. To understand something is to have a grasp of all that it contains, from end to end; to grasp how it functions, and to require no further explanation. I suggest that we could never do that with God!
Thomas Aquinus tells us that, when we speak about God, we can be sure of only one thing….that we're wrong! No matter what we say/think about God, he is much much more than that. I am like a tiny fish in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, making new discoveries of the same sea every day. It would be a foolish little fish, and a very dead little fish, if it tried to rise so far above the water so as to get a glimpse of the sea from Galway to New York! My first point, then, is that, while speaking of the work of the Spirit, I am attempting to provide some understanding of that work, while standing powerless before the Mystery.
I headed this chapter 'The Skips'. This represents one of my understandings of the work of the Spirit. As I write, the house in which I live is undergoing major renovation. Because I have lived with the old, the cold, and the mould for so long, the happiest sight for me is to see skip after skip being filled up with old bricks, carpets, baths, and loads of dismembered pieces of furniture. I feel like shouting 'Right On!' every time I pass the skip! There is so much dumping to be done before the work of reconstruction can begin. I cannot think of the Spirit working within me without being aware of the constant need for the skip!
Imagine the inner self as being a deep deep well, with a gurgling spring of living water at the base. The problem is that the well is filled with the wreckage and the garbage of life, and the water cannot get near the surface. The Greek word for conversion is kinosis, which literally means 'to empty out'. This is where the skip comes in handy!
I have vivid memories of the first time I came across an oasis. I was travelling to a place in the United Arab Emirates to give a parish mission. This meant four or five hours of driving along an undulating desert road. Apart from a few camels, and a few nomads, there was little sign of life. All of a sudden I came over the brow of a hill, and was confronted with an apparition (I thought of the word 'mirage', but no, this was real!).
It was an oasis that spread as far as the eye could see. Green, green, green everywhere. The noise was extraordinary. Children playing, animals roaring, engines purring and puffing. The trees and the water was alive with birds of all kinds and colours. Fruits of every kind hung from the trees. Some people seemed to be busy, while others just dozed in the shade of a tree. This surely called for a break, a coffee, some fruit, and a few souvenirs. The people were friendly, and willing to sell me anything they had! As I took to the desert road again, there was one thought that was uppermost in my mind: Beneath every square inch of desert I had driven in the past few hours was the same amount of water. The problem is the water couldn't reach the surface.
In this place it had got to the surface, and became a source of life for man and beast alike. As I drove along, my thoughts continued to dwell on all that water, on how it was blocked from surfacing, and what it would take to facilitate another oasis. I have gone on for some time about this, because it very accurately reflects aspects of the human condition. I meet the occasional person who is a real life-giving oasis, and I meet others and there's nothing but sand.
When I think of that gurgling spring of living water at the core of each human being, I have to reflect how best that can be released. Jesus speaks of the Spirit as 'a fountain of living water that wells up within a person.' The only answer I can come up with is to continue to say 'yes' to the skip! That 'yes' must become a burning desire, a very real longing, a palpable thirst. When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well, he had a problem getting her to understand what kind of water he was offering her. Referring to the well he said "Whoever drinks of this water will be thirsty again. But whoever drinks of the water that I shall give will never be thirsty; for the water that I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life".
In reading the account of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles, I remember being puzzled by one particular thing. On Pentecost morning, we are told that 'they were all filled with the Holy Spirit'. Two chapters later, when Peter and John were released from prison, they met with the disciples, who prayed with them, and, wait for it, 'they were all filled with the Holy Spirit'. I wondered what happened the Holy Spirit they had received a few days ago! I think I understand it better now. The Spirit can only fill what space is available to Him. We speak of someone 'being full of himself', meaning that this person is very much at the centre of his own being, of his concerns, and of his own sense of importance. The more that 'self' shrinks, and gets out of the way, the more space there is for the Spirit to fill. As the Spirit continues to transform us from within, the wreckage and garbage of the past begins to be disposed of, and, in theory, at least, like Mary, I could become 'full of grace'.
Carl Houselander calls Mary the Reed of God. The pan pipes are reeds that are totally empty, and, with the holes along the reeds, it is possible to make sounds of rare beauty with them. She also speaks of Mary as a chalice, or a bird's nest, both of which are empty, and receptive to something being placed in them. Both images depict the opposite of 'being full of oneself'. One image that stays in my mind, when I think of the Spirit working away within me, is the image of barnacles clinging to the side of a boat, or of a rock. It is really difficult to remove them, as if they were glued on.
My prayer with such an image is "Right on, Lord! Go ahead, Lord! Get rid of everything that clings to me that is not of you." Some people are hoarders by nature. If they throw something in the skip today, they'll probably go out and retrieve it tomorrow! Personally, I just love getting rid of rubbish. Once or twice a year I clear the wardrobe of clothes I have no intention of wearing, and the shelves of books I have read, or have no intention of reading. It's a wonderful feeling. I head straight down to the Simon Community shop with the clothes, before I do a rethink and start retrieving a sweater or two that I may need later! The books are landed down in the library, lest they end back on my shelves. I believe this helps me relate much more readily to the idea of the Holy Spirit and the skips. Skips play a pivotal role in my spiritual journey!
God's creation is on-going, as we continue to be made in his image and likeness. It is a life-long process, and it continues right up to the moment of death. "Gestation" is a very good word to describe what is happening. We are in a state of continuous change 'until Christ is formed within us'. The Spirit does in us what he did in Mary. There is one very real danger inherent in this whole process. I have referred to it already, but, I believe, it could do with being repeated. The only limits to what the Spirit does in us are the ones we set. The Spirit cannot work outside of those limits.
When Mary was told what God required of her, she asked how this could be done. She was told that the Holy Spirit would come upon her, and the power of the Most High would overshadow her, because 'there is nothing impossible with God.' Mary believed that promise, and so, God was free to do whatever he wished with her. She set no boundaries or no limits. What the Spirit did, in and through Mary, is what the Spirit would love to do in and through everyone of us. Unlike Mary, however, there is much wreckage and garbage to be removed, many many skips to be filled, before we come anywhere near being capable of being 'full of grace'.
I referred at the beginning of this chapter to the root and branch renovation going on in the house where I live(the house with the skips out front!). I don't have to tell you that I have nothing whatsoever to do with that work! I just step over the debris, or around the frame of the scaffolding, as I move around. I mention this because it is exactly the same with the work of the Spirit. I am not doing any of the work. Just as I fully approve, and would not deter the workmen in any way, so it is with the work of the Spirit. At the beginning of the work on the house, it was a case of demolition. Walls, doors, etc. were disappearing. After some time, the opposite process began. New walls were being built, new doors were hung, new wiring and plumbing replaced the old, the outdated, and the dangerous.
I find it very encouraging to discover new insights, fresh ways of looking at things of God, and aspects of the message becoming easier. This is an on-going process, and most of the time I am not aware of the gestation. I sometimes think that a mother who has conceived and borne a baby would have a much greater ability to understand the inner work of the Spirit. Each day she monitors the development of that inner life, and then the time comes when the unborn will let her know that it's there! What happened with Mary during her pregnancy, leading up to the birth of Jesus is a very powerful and real way of understanding the work of the Spirit in us. In Mary's case, however, there was no need for the skip, so conception could begin straight away.