As I write this on Christmas Eve 2007, spouses are welcoming their uniformed loved ones from Iraq and Afghanistan for the holidays. As they hug and kiss, they already know that in a few days they will lose them again. If only they could stay! It’s a bitter-sweet experience. In this life, the visitation of the Holy Spirit is like that.
The Holy Spirit is the “first installment” of what is to come, the foretaste of heaven (2 Corinthians 1:22; Eph 1:14). He is the kiss of God upon the uniqueness of each of us. But the experience is so great that it brings an intense longing for what is yet to come.
“I Needed That.” I didn’t know the Holy Spirit in this way until I was forty-one and asked some lay people to pray over me for the “baptism in the Holy Spirit.” Oh sure, I had been baptized and confirmed. I had professed religious vows, and I had been ordained twelve years earlier. And surely the Holy Spirit had been at work in those moments. But what happened on that Christmas Eve in 1970 was a breakthrough, a new beginning. From that moment, as I explain in my book, Holy Spirit, Make Your Home in Me, a new spiritual energy burst up from within me. From then on, my life and ministry became alive in a way they never had been before.
For a long time afterwards, I was drunk with the Holy Spirit, so much so that I could understand why people thought the disciples in the upper room had overdosed on wine (Acts 2:13). I remember driving home one night after a prayer meeting and singing in tongues at the top of my voice. Had a police officer stopped me, I would simply have asked him, “Have you heard about Pentecost?” I enthusiastically composed songs, preached, and wrote about the Spirit in Riding the Wind, a book that went through five printings. In my more sober moments I researched and wrote a book on the Holy Spirit in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation (five printings). And with Father Kilian McDonnell, OSB, I wrote a book on baptism in the Holy Spirit in the first eight centuries of the church.
But it wasn’t all alleluias. Deep inside, I was experiencing some radical changes. One of them had to do with hurts that I carried with regard to my father, who had passed away seven years earlier. Though he was a good man, I had feared him and never felt emotionally close to him. Gradually, the Holy Spirit led me to a healing of memories and a reconciled heart.
The Spirit also freed me enough so that I could let go of ten years of success as a university professor and accept happily a less glorious post as seminary rector. Eventually, I left on a missionary assignment in Nepal for six years. I don’t think the “old me” would have negotiated those changes gracefully. Formerly I had found my security by taking control. Now the Holy Spirit was teaching me how to let go.
“Thanks, I needed that,” I can say of my past experiences of the Holy Spirit. And as I have seen the Holy Spirit transform the lives of thousands of people, I say to the Holy Spirit, “Thanks, they needed that.” But as I am approaching my “four score and twenty years,” it’s the not yet aspect of the Holy Spirit that is growing on me.
Groaning and Longing. Archbishop Flores used to tell the story of a man who came to his pastor with a request for his funeral. “Please, Father, when you bury me, make sure the undertaker places a fork upright in my hand.”
“But why would you want a fork standing up in your right hand?” the puzzled pastor replied.
“Well, Father, you see since my wife died, I’ve been eating out most of the time. When I finish my meal, the waiter will often say, ‘Keep your fork; the best is yet to come.’ And then he would bring me my dessert. You see, I would like those who mourn for me to know that the best is yet to come.”
The best is yet to come. We would not know that, though, unless we had first “tasted the heavenly gift and shared in the Holy Spirit and tasted . . . the powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:4-5).
Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit enables us to cry, “Abba, Father!” and bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God (Romans 8:15-16). But then Paul looks ahead beyond the now to the not yet: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us” (8:18). And what do we do in the meantime? We groan.
Paul says that all creation “is groaning in labor pains” for the consummation of God’s plan, for creation will reach its intended goal only when man, its steward, is saved. “And not only that,” Paul continues, but “we ourselves who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves” as we await the final goal: our “adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” Thankfully though, we do not have to groan by ourselves. “For we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes with groanings inexpressible” (Romans 8:22-23,26). Those who were privileged to witness Pope John Paul the Great praying often heard him groaning.
A Constant Gift. If you, too, have fallen in love with Love and experience this longing, accept the joy and the pain of knowing that the best is yet to come. And if the gift of the Spirit still lies unopened for you, as it did for me for so many years, know that God has more for you.
The Holy Spirit is not a gift that just sits there. He is being given at every moment by the Father and the Son. He flows from the Father and the Son, for he is the river of life-giving water flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb (Revelation 22:1). If you are in communion with Jesus—or what is called the state of grace—God the Father and God the Son are pouring out their love as the Holy Spirit in your heart right now. You have a divine Niagara Falls flowing in you at this very moment! In you the Father is loving the Son, the Son is loving the Father, and Father and Son are giving you their mutual love in the Holy Spirit.
If you sincerely seek him in prayer, the same Holy Spirit will make this truth a transforming experience for you, too.
Marianist Fr. George T. Montague is professor of biblical theology at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, and former president of the Catholic Biblical Association of America.
Fr. George Montague’s new book, Holy Spirit, Make Your Home in Me (softcover, 224 pp.). is a series of personal, biblical meditations intended to help everyone open their hearts to a fresh outpouring of the Spirit. Available from The Word Among Us at 1-800-842-0646 or online at wordamongus.org.