Let’s begin with some contemplative practice. We can call this “The Calming Breath”. I invite you sit calmly with both feet on the floor, your spine upright and relaxed. Place your hands gently, one on top of the other, over your lower belly. Relax your shoulders, and notice your breathing. Are you breathing in your upper chest using your shoulder muscles, or lower down through your rib cage? Drop your breath into your lower belly. When you breathe in, let your lower belly expand so your hands rise a little bit. When you breathe out, let your lower belly sink in a little so your hands move toward your back. Breathe gently and notice the simple rhythmic movement of your belly and hands... Now, please notice the top and bottom of each breath. Simply notice the point at which your in-breath changes to your out-breath, and also when your out-breath changes to your in-breath. Let this be restful breathing, nothing forced or exaggerated, just calm, relaxed, natural breathing. Notice this all for a few breaths and then breathe normally and note how you feel. This is a simple way to calm and collect ourselves any time of day in any number of situations. This simple practice can help settle and calm our thoughts and emotions and body, and can be very helpful at the beginning of a time of reflection and prayer.
This being Trinity Sunday, our readings focus on what our Christian tradition calls The Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit –the Three- in-One, the One-in-Three, hands down one of the most challenging aspects of Christian theology. There are many many things that can be discovered in a reflection on this morning’s scriptures, but I’d like to consider particularly the role of the Holy Spirit and her relationship to... well... pretty much everything; specifically, to the Creator (who Jesus called “Father”), to the Christ (the Risen and ascended Jesus), and to us – you and me and all the rest of humanity and creation. Indeed. And I’d like to cover this overwhelmingly immense subject in just a few brief minutes in a way that might be helpful to our own faith journeys and our relationship to Jesus. Clearly, I stand here in need of your prayers to support this daunting effort.
Let’s begin by acknowledging that we are looking at an ancient faith tradition that continues very much alive today, out of which our own Christian religion developed 2 millennia ago. The Jewish religion was Jesus’ own faith tradition; Christianity is the younger sibling that developed in the ferment and aftermath of Jesus death and resurrection, and Pentecost. What our Christian tradition calls “The Holy Spirit”, the ancient Jews gave the name “Wisdom”. The Hebrew word is “Ruah”, or “Breath” and “Spirit”. “Ruah” expresses a profound understanding of
Spirit, an understanding that was likely foundational in Jesus’ own spiritual development and life.
To help focus our reflections, let’s pose some questions:
Who and What is Wisdom or Ruah?
What is the nature of Wisdom and what are her qualities?
What is the work of Wisdom? And finally:
What is the relationship between this Wisdom Spirit and Jesus and
Paul, and how do we participate in this relationship?
I’m referring to “relationship” quite a bit here. The most important thing to note about our Christian faith, is that we are first and foremost about relationship with God... Not about doctrine or dogma, not about ideas or concepts or philosophies... Christianity is primarily about our communal and personal vital life-giving relationship with Jesus, and because of him with the Holy One he called “Father”, and with this Holy Wisdom Spirit that unites us all inseparably as One. Relationship is the life-force that binds everything together, and relationship is the very essence of the Holy Trinity which embraces us in love. Our Christian path is all about engaging and experiencing this relationship.
WhoandWhatisWisdom? WhenIhearthewordWisdom,Itend to think of people who are wise; they give good counsel; they have a deep understanding and compassion; they are people I feel I can trust. Perhaps you have a similar sense. But the Hebrew Bible offers a much more encompassing and profound description of Wisdom. We have an example of this in Proverbs 8. Written approximately 2500 years ago, Proverbs describes this Wisdom as the very first force pouring out from the Creator: “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts... I was set up at the first before the beginning...” Wisdom is referred to with the feminine pronoun: “her voice... She takes her stand... She cries out...” The author’s image of Wisdom as a woman is drawn from the complexities of that culture and time. Religious traditions and our understanding of their teachings do grow and change over time; and this is such a circumstance. I suggest that this feminine image contains so much more than asking: “So is God a Guy or a Girl? Is this about Gods and Goddesses?” There is more here than that. This use of gender to identify the Spirit can call our attention to something quite significant about the action of Divine Being. I find it helpful to think in terms of Yang and Yin: external and internal; transcendent and imminent. The masculine is the externalized acting force; the feminine is the internal “spark”, the underlying life force that fuels the outer action, the breath that enlivens and quickens external expression and action. So Wisdom, Ruah, Spirit, seems to be the very first life source pouring forth from the Creator, and together they were generating a relationship of mutual delight and also rejoicing as they generate all the rest of Creation. “I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” That’s a very positive and beautiful sense of how all of creation, and how humanity (that’s you and me) are viewed from the heart and life breath of our Maker, don’t you think? We have permission to rethink those negative images we might have regarding how God views us. Lay them aside. This text suggests we are held in loving, positive regard by the One who is our Source of being and existence.
What is the Nature of this Wisdom Spirit, What are her qualities? What is her work? So we have a picture of Ruah, Wisdom Spirit, Life Breath, Animating Force, inseparable from the primary Creative Source itself. God the Creator breathes life forth, and that primal breath is the Spirit enlivening all that is made, all that is generated from the Creator-God. The ancient Jews had a wonderful sense of God and creation. Psalm 8 demonstrates this as it reflects on their immediate natural world: the moon and stars, sheep and oxen and birds and fish. They see and hold in awe, a transcendent God, a Creator God above and beyond them who they worship. But they also had a sense of God present within everything, the imminent Spirit. And they have described the qualities they see, and the way of action, and relationship. I’d like to read you some poetry written a bit later than the Psalms and Proverbs, likely within the century before Jesus’ birth. I can well imagine he was familiar with its sensibilities and maybe even with the actual texts. This is from The Wisdom of Solomon 7.22-8.1 (Not written by Solomon, but honoring his tradition). Listen to the description of the qualities of this Spirit, the Life Breath of the Creator:
“There is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle. For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things. For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore, nothing defiled gains entrance into her. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness. Although she is but one, she can do all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets... Against wisdom evil does not prevail. She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well.”
So to summarize: Wisdom is understood to be a living Spirit, the life breath emanating from the Creator and enlivening everything. Her qualities are described as joyous, pure and intelligent, humane and beneficent; she is beautiful; she is not static, but is always in fluid motion, penetrating all with the Divine life breath; she participated in the creation of the universe, and she is present within each one of us as this same creative power; she moves within our hearts and minds seeking to make us friends with God and with those who courageously hold the presence of God before our often troubled world, -i.e.- The Prophets. As Proverbs describes, she stands in the significant places of our human lives: on the Heights, at the crossroads, by the gates of our towns, at all the portals and entrances of our lives. She cries out to us; she calls to us. Certainly we have an image and suggestion of her Holy presence calling us to be aware of God’s presence; and as an active force she is at work in our hearts and minds and all the circumstances of our lives, at all our crossroads and in all our transitions, our joys and our trials...
So, let’s pause here momentarily to consider what is happening in our own lives, and how might this Spirit, this Life Breath of God, be present, working within each of our hearts and circumstances and relationships now. Are things occurring in which you could use the help of Her presence and creative power? Upon reflection, might She actually be crying out to you in some way, calling you to awareness, inviting you to participate in her life generating power?
What is the relationship of this Holy Spirit, this Ruah/Wisdom- Breath to St. Paul and to Jesus? So now let’s consider how St. Paul and Jesus himself viewed Her Presence in their very challenged lives and times. It certainly appears that they both saw her actively at work generating within themselves the characteristics and qualities of God: kind, humane, steadfast, loving the good, and the many many related qualities that our world so desperately needs.
Paul links the Spirit’s presence in our lives to the Risen Christ. It’s maybe not surprising why, given Paul’s history: his active violent persecution of Jesus’ followers, and his dramatic unexpected encounter with Christ on the Damascus Road. This event was so overwhelming and powerful, so life changing, it actually took Paul many years to process it before he engaged his public ministry (see Galatians 1.13-2.1) He links his access to God’s love to his encounter with the Risen Christ. Through that initially explosive moment, he had been challenged, no doubt, to see some very painful truths about himself, to review his actions, his motivations, his beliefs, how he thought and felt, his zeal, his tribalism, his religious-based violence against others... Paul had a lot happening psychologically and spiritually; he experienced an enormous shift in his consciousness, all from this encounter with the Risen Christ. Something opened his heart and mind; he certainly experienced the release and freedom of unqualified forgiveness. As a result of that profound experience, Paul speaks of peace, grace, hope, love all pouring into his heart through the Holy Spirit. And what an amazing description of his passage through pain and suffering into this experience of God’s love: suffering produces endurance which produces character which leads to hope. We are given a picture here, similar to our other texts, of the working of this Holy Wisdom Spirit, standing at our gates and portals, actively pouring God’s life-breath and love into our crises and trials and hardships; opening our inner lives to the Creator, shaping and reshaping us. In his letter to the Galatians 5.22, Paul further describes what this re- shaping becomes: the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
The Gospel of John indicates that Jesus had a clear sense of relationship with this Spirit. I’ve said that religions develop and grow and change, and we have an example of this here. This Gospel was written about 80 to 90 CE, some 50 to 60 years after Pentecost. The Temple in Jerusalem had been totally destroyed by the Roman military, the Jewish religion and culture was in great turmoil, and Christianity was moving through its initial stages of formation in a time of great chaos and crisis. The new Christian sense of this Wisdom Spirit is now inseparably linked to the risen Christ, and to Pentecost; the language has changed to the masculine pronoun. But the nature and work of the Spirit remains the same: enlivening, inspiriting, indwelling, teaching, bringing insight and understanding, compassion and courage, generating the fruits of the Spirit within us.
The Gospel this morning invites us into the story of Jesus as he was moving into his time of ultimate crisis. He had a pretty good idea of what was about to happen, and he attempted to prepare his disciples for the pain, terror, and loss he knew they would face. This scripture passage gives a sense of his concern for them, of the pressure he felt, and also of the depth of his own hope and trust and in the God he called “Father”, who was clearly his source in all things. And Jesus knew the Spirit and relied on that generative force. He had great trust in this Spirit working in his disciples. There was so much more for his followers to understand, and there is ample evidence throughout the gospels they were nowhere near to catching on. We see Jesus trusting this Spirit to be there for the disciples. What does this bringer of Truth offer them and us? Consider insight, understanding, wise counsel, discernment, courage, compassion, steadfastness, and the many things we’ve described above -- the qualities that woke up St. Paul, and succeeding generations of seekers. Jesus had received his own infusion of this Holy Wisdom pouring into his being, and he had faith this same Spirit would be available to his followers when he was gone. These brief few verses demonstrate an indivisible relationship between Father, and Spirit, and Jesus – indeed the Trinity we have come to know. But there is here also inclusion of ourselves enfolded within an indivisible unity.
Our Faith is much much more than a philosophy or a series of doctrines. It is about a life transforming relationship, the Divine Breath that is the Holy Wisdom Spirit flowing from the Maker-Father into all that has being, the Holy Spirit that resourced the man Jesus, that enlivened the Risen Christ, that transformed the violent religious zealot who became Paul, and continues even now pouring that same life force into each of us and our life circumstances. So... let’s pause quietly for a couple of minutes and consider this. Listen interiorly with your heart and mind; is the Spirit calling to you in some way? And perhaps you may have a prayer in response: a prayer for help, or of thanksgiving, or of simply sitting silently in the presence of Divine Love. Thanks be to God.
By Deborah Foster