The Holy Spirit Is Not a Bird! by Monsignor Ferarrese

We can relate to the First Person of the Blessed Trinity because when we say ‘Father’ we have a clear and moving idea of what a Father is or should be. There is content to the word that inspires and communicates. Elements of ‘fatherhood’ give true and lasting meaning to our understanding of God. With regards to the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, we use the word ‘logos’ or ‘word’ because the essential nature of the ‘logos’ is to communicate God to our limited understandings. Furthermore, as the Word is incarnate, we have the very accessible picture of Jesus of Nazareth in His birth (Christmas) and Passion & Resurrection (Holy Week-Easter) as one like us except without sin.

But when it comes to the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Holy Spirit, the world of images breaks down. The Bible provides what seems like metaphors: a dove, tongues of flame, a mighty wind; all of which do not have the power of the image of God the Father and Jesus the Christ. Yet this advocate (literally a lawyer) speaks for us; defends us; offers decisions for us to make; prompts us to the good; comforts us; energizes us; teaches us; and is found both in the individual being of the believer and guides the entire Church in her inerrancy and direction toward the end point of all history, which the great Theologian Teilhard de Chardin calls the Omega Point who is Christ.

Clearly the images presented for the Holy Spirit only hint weakly at the magisterial power and, at the same time, the illusive reality of its Presence. The Holy Spirit is God in us, and the very principle and defining character of our vocation as Christians.

But He, She, It (there is no gender in the Holy Spirit!) is a person. This fact is often not acknowledged because the imagination has nothing to work with. This draws us into the very mystery of the Trinity. When we say that you or I are persons, we know what we mean. You and I have a central and unique ‘self’ that is separate from one another yet can experience moments of unity and integration; but we are essentially separate selves. When we speak of the Trinity as three persons in one God, we do not mean ‘persons’ in quite the same way. There is an organic unity there, but also a separateness that is more than one based on function: (the Father creates, the Son redeems, the Holy Spirit sanctifies), but includes function in its meaning. What we end up with is something like the persons that we are but also something unlike. You and I are not of one substance and we can disagree on things. This is not true of the persons of the Holy Trinity where Their unity is unbroken as is Their substance. Yet we can talk about the actions of the Logos in Jesus (Christology has its own difficulties) and also the decisions and the actions of the Spirit, which is the other ‘Advocate’ that Jesus and the Father send to us. The Spirit is the radically close presence of God within us and among us. The Spirit could not come until the Logos-Human Jesus ascended to the Father (remembering that ascending does not mean going up into the clouds!). So the earthly absence of the Son is essential to the presence of the Spirit yet They are One always with the Father!

The problem is that in talking about the Holy Spirit (Holy Ghost, in an earlier translation, had at least the idea inherent in it that this entity was like a person!), we often strip this third person of the Blessed Trinity of all characteristics that would render The Spirit human-like in any sense. We also unfortunately strip the Holy Spirit of the God-like qualities that the Father and the Son enjoy. So we are left with lifeless images like a wind or a flame or a dove. But this impoverishes the presence of God in us that we receive at Confirmation. The only advantage to this state of affairs is that it makes the Holy Spirit much more mysterious than the Father and the Son. Those images can also limit the concepts involved. The truth is that we can’t really talk about God in any glib way. St. Thomas Aquinas warns us that we can only say what God is not. ‘What God is’ is shrouded in mystery and is beyond our conceptions and images. The wordless and imageless state of expression in dealing with the third person of the Blessed Trinity is in a way therefore an advantage, as long as we don’t visualize a dove! That may be good shorthand, but may in the end obscure this powerful, wise and trusty person that enters us and brings us the Son and the Father.

If we are at a loss in understanding this, far more are we warned not to visualize the invisible lest we create an idol and not worship the living and mysterious God.

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