How the Holy Spirit Works

The Church has an official daily prayer book called the breviary. All priests pray it daily for and on behalf of their people. It includes teachings from the great spiritual masters of every generation.

As we celebrate the great feast of Pentecost today, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Church and the world, I want to share with you a reflection from that breviary, from one of those great teachers, St. Cyril, on how the Holy Spirit works in the life of the Christian soul. He was a renowned theologian who eventually became the bishop of Jerusalem. He certainly didn’t live a comfortable “ivory tower” kind of life. He lived in the era when the Roman government frequently harassed the Church. In fact, he had to flee into exile on occasion. But that didn’t stop him from advancing the teaching of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Here’s that reflection he gave to catechumens (those adults from pagan backgrounds who were preparing to enter into the Catholic Church):

The water I shall give him will become in him a fountain of living water, welling up into eternal life. This is a new kind of water, a living, leaping water, welling up for those who are worthy. But why did Christ call the grace of the Spirit water? Because all things are dependent on water; plants and animals have their origin in water. Water comes down from heaven as rain, and although it is always the same in itself, it produces many different effects, one in the palm tree, another in the vine, and so on throughout the whole of creation. … while remaining essentially the same, it adapts itself to the needs of every creature that receives it.

In the same way the Holy Spirit, whose nature is always the same, simple and indivisible, apportions grace to each man as he wills. Like a dry tree which puts forth shoots when watered, the soul bears the fruit of holiness when repentance has made it worthy of receiving the Holy Spirit. Although the Spirit never changes, the effects of his action, by the will of God and in the name of Christ, are both many and marvelous.

The Spirit makes one man a teacher of divine truth, inspires another to prophesy, … enables another to interpret holy Scripture. The Spirit strengthens one man’s self-control, shows another how to help the poor, teaches another to fast and lead a life of asceticism, … trains another for martyrdom. His action is different in different people, but the Spirit himself is always the same. In each person, Scripture says, the Spirit reveals his presence in a particular way for the common good.

The Spirit comes gently and makes himself known by his fragrance. He is not felt as a burden, for he is … very light. Rays of light and knowledge stream before him as he approaches. The Spirit comes with the tenderness of a true friend and protector to save, to heal, to teach, to counsel, to strengthen, to console. The Spirit comes to enlighten the mind first of the one who receives him, and then, through him, the minds of others as well. As light strikes the eyes of a man who comes out of darkness into the sunshine and enables him to see clearly things he could not discern before, so light floods the soul of the man counted worthy of receiving the Holy Spirit and enables him to see things beyond the range of human vision, things hitherto undreamed of.

Several important things to emphasize in this teaching. We can not live in Christ, have true Communion with Him and ultimately get to Heaven without the Holy Spirit working within us. He is as necessary for our spiritual life as water is for biological survival. But we must first allow ourselves to be His worthy vessels. That is, we have to first cooperate with Him. He never forces Himself on us or enters into someone who does not first welcome Him.

I especially love his line: Like a dry tree which puts forth shoots when watered, the soul bears the fruit of holiness when repentance has made it worthy of receiving the Holy Spirit. That is to say, we can only “soak up” the Holy Spirit Who makes us fruitful in love and empowers us to remain united to the Lord unless we are first in a state ready to receive Him. The Church clearly teaches that if we are disobedient to the commands of Christ’s Church or living in a state of unconfessed sin, then this blocks the Holy Spirit from working within us. This is an objective reality not just a feeling. So for example, the countless Christians who don’t follow the Church’s teaching on marriage and procreation or the necessity of worshiping Christ in the Eucharist are like plants with no roots – cutting off access to the divine love and life-giving water of the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit adapts Himself and His divine gifts to the temperament and natural gifts and talents of each person who opens his heart to Him. Just as water nourishes all kinds of beautiful but very different flowers — from azaleas to zinnias and everything in between – He makes holy in different ways each person who does pray, seek the Lord, follow Him and look for opportunities to serve Him. That means we should not be jealous of those who seem (outwardly) to be holier than ourselves, but focus instead on receiving the Holy Spirit and doing whatever He wants us to do to glorify Him. One of the great blessings of being a pastor of a parish is to see the marvelous works and growth in holiness of so many different people from different walks of life, through the same Spirit.

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