The Word Among Us

June 2011 Issue

Sifting through the Voices

How to Hear the Holy Spirit

Sifting through the Voices: How to Hear the Holy Spirit

The flesh is washed that the soul may be made stainless. The flesh is anointed that the soul may be consecrated.

The flesh is sealed that the soul may be fortified. The flesh is overshadowed by the imposition of hands that the soul may be illuminated by the Spirit.

(Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, 8)

This quote from a Father of the Church gives us a glimpse into the way the early Christians understood baptism and confirmation. While baptism “washes” us clean from original sin, it is in the gift of the Spirit that we are “anointed,” “sealed,” and “illuminated.”

The Holy Spirit does so much, and it is all focused on giving us the power and grace we need to live out the life that we received in baptism.

As with all the other sacraments, if we want to experience the full blessings of confirmation, we have a part to play. We have to believe that the Holy Spirit lives in us. We have to believe that this Spirit wants to speak to us and move in our lives. And we have to learn how to hear the Spirit’s voice and how to stay in step with the Spirit. Let’s take a closer look at how we can experience the blessings of our confirmation even more deeply.

A Multitude of Voices. Yes, the Spirit wants to speak to us, but it can be hard for us to hear him. That’s because so many other voices are vying for our attention each day. They all try to gain a foothold in our minds and influence the decisions we face.

Think of all the voices, both helpful and unhelpful, that speak to us in the course of the day. There are the voices of family members, friends, co-workers, and neighbors. There is the world of advertising, which urges us to try different products or services that are supposed to make our lives happier. There is the media— newspapers, television, radio, the Internet—trying to inform us and sway our thinking. And finally there are spiritual voices trying to influence us at the core of our beings. There is Satan, the evil one who “deceived the whole world” (Revelation 12:9). And there is our heavenly Father, who wants to give us his wisdom and guide us on the way to salvation.

With all these voices out there, we have to ask: How can I be alert, ready to discern the good from the bad in all of these voices? And the answer lies, in large part, in the gifts we received at our confirmation.

Convicting and Convincing. When we were confirmed, we were sealed with the Holy Spirit. We received gifts from the Spirit, and we were sanctified—set apart—as a follower of the Lord. We received divine grace and power to help us set our minds on the things of God and build his kingdom here on earth.

But how does this grace help us on a daily basis? John’s Gospel tells us that the Holy Spirit wants to convict us of our sin and convince us about Jesus’ holiness and righteousness (John 16:8-10). This twofold work of convicting and convincing is at the heart of the Sacrament of Confirmation.

In regard to conviction of sin, the Holy Spirit wants to speak to our conscience. We have all faced situations where we have stretched the truth, manipulated someone, or diverted attention from the moral implications of a decision we had to make. We have all faced times when our immediate response was one of anger, resentment, or revenge, or when we haven’t acted as Jesus might have wanted us to act. It’s in these situations that the Holy Spirit wants to show us where we have gone wrong— not to burden us with guilt but to move us to repentance. Remember, the Spirit’s main desire is not to condemn us but to wash us in God’s mercy and fill us with his love.

As important as it is for us to hear the Spirit convicting us of sin, it is even more important that we be open to the Spirit’s work of convincing us about Jesus. He wants to show us that Jesus is the faithful servant of God who has saved us from our sins. He wants to reveal Jesus as the One who pours out mercy when we seek him. He wants to show us that Jesus loves us deeply and will never give up on us. And the Spirit does all of this so that we will be moved to place Jesus first in our lives, following his commands and living in his love no matter what situations we may face.

A Consciousness of God. God loves each of us equally. He created all of us with the same spiritual capacity. None of us should feel handicapped when it comes to hearing the Spirit or being aware of God’s work in our lives. Scripture tells stories about how people like Peter, Mary, and Philip could sense the leading of the Holy Spirit even though that leading sounded strange at first. For instance, Peter was led to break with Jewish tradition by entering the home of a Gentile—but by doing so, he ended up extending the reach of the gospel beyond Judaism (Acts 10:1-49). Through an angel, the Holy Spirit led Mary to give up her own plans and become the Mother of God (Luke 1:26-38). And Philip was led by the Spirit to start walking down a desert road without knowing why—but his obedience led to the conversion of a high-ranking official of the Ethiopian government (Acts 8:26-39).

Likewise, the Holy Spirit wants to speak to us. It may not be as dramatic as these stories, but he still wants to put new thoughts into your mind. For instance, you may feel prompted as you are walking out of Mass to speak to someone you don’t know very well, and that one meeting may bring you an opportunity to share your faith. Or you may be sitting down to watch television when you feel a desire to pray for your family instead, or to ask God’s forgiveness for a long-standing sin. These are instances where the Spirit is moving you, just as he moved Peter, Mary, and Philip, to do something unexpected. They are examples of the way the Spirit wants to use you to share his gospel and build his church. And they flow from the Sacrament of Confirmation. Yes, we need to test these promptings to make sure they are from the Spirit, but more often than not, we tend to reason them away as fleeting ideas that are of no consequence. Of course it is possible that thoughts like these come from our own imagination. But it is also possible that they come from the Holy Spirit. Look at what happened to Peter. One day he told Jesus: “You are the Messiah” (Matthew 16:16). Peter thought the words came from his own mind, but Jesus corrected him: “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father” (16:17).

Why did these words come into Peter’s mind? Because Peter loved Jesus. Because he spent hours with Jesus and wanted to become like him. Evidently, Peter’s devotion to Jesus had changed him—and in this instance, he didn’t even know it! The same can happen to us. If we spend time with Jesus every day, our love for him will deepen and grow stronger. We will want to please him. And we will begin to hear the Holy Spirit in our hearts. Whether we recognize it or not, our lives will begin to change, and we will become more like the Lord.

Practice Listening. During this season of Easter, as we approach Pentecost, let’s recognize that the Holy Spirit wants to speak to us. He wants to become the dominant voice in our minds. The more we are open to the Spirit’s work of convicting us of our sins and convincing us to love the Lord and build the church, the closer to Jesus we will become—and the holier we will become. We will find the grace of confirmation working more and more powerfully in our lives, and we will be changed.

So let’s believe that we can become aware of God’s presence. Let’s believe that the Holy Spirit really can speak to us. Let’s try to sense what the Spirit is saying every day so that we can become more and more alert to his promptings.

Let’s also agree to try to act on at least one “good and pleasing” intuitive sense that comes into our minds every day this month (Romans 12:2). When you are praying or just after receiving the Eucharist, ask the Spirit to speak to you and give you whatever gift he may want to give you. Then see what comes into your mind and write down what you sense the Spirit saying to you. Find a way to put it into practice as well. After a day or so, step back and see what kind of changes have come from what you sensed or what you did.

If you want, send us a letter or an e-mail sharing your stories with us. We love hearing from our readers. Your stories show us how much God can do as we unpack the gifts of our confirmation and try to follow the Spirit’s promptings. So listen for the Spirit, and watch to see the changes in your life—and in the world around you!