Lenten Reflection Six – Reckless Spirituality
The Holy Spirit makes many of us nervous. Especially if we’re used to forms of piety that can be controlled, with predictable results, in our spiritual comfort zones. Yet, “the Spirit yearns to break out and to break open our old practices, our protective shells of comfortable spirituality, connecting our inner selves more deeply to God’s love and to God’s world. Your soul no longer stays still. It’s moving with God in the world, and moving toward God, revealed in signs or shrines or saints or surroundings. The pilgrim’s walking body holds incarnate this inner journey of the soul, often recklessly.” (Without Oars, p. 94)
Question: How might the Spirit yearn to open up our lives? How do we resist this?
Pilgrimages are at once inward and outward journeys. They can open a unique space of spiritual discovery. “Pilgrimage may be thought of as extroverted mysticism, just as mysticism is introverted pilgrimage.” Whether a physical trek or an interior exploration—and at best, both—one’s pilgrimage goes to the root of faith experience, to that intimate spiritual intersection. As Richard Hauser, Jesuit scholar of the Holy Spirit, says:
God’s Spirit joins our spirit; it does not replace it. The good acts we perform are truly our acts, not simply acts of the Holy Spirit in us. The deepest part of the self is the spiritual dimension. From the center flows all our freedom and love; at this level we remain free to choose to move or not move with the Spirit.
Exercise: Read pages 95-99 again(posted below), the description from the Book of Acts of the reckless work of the Spirit in the formation of the early church. Reflect, and write or share about where you see evidence today, within or beyond the church, of a similar recklessness of the Spirit, breaking boundaries and forming unexpected community.
The Holy Spirit is the wild card in the Trinity. God the father is discernable, almost understandable, though often formidable. The Son is seen in the incarnation’s mystery, tangible in flesh and blood, but cosmic in an eternal, redeeming presence. But what of the Spirit? Described by the Nicene creed as “the giver of life,” present in the beginning as the breath of God, poured out in explosive power to form the church, prompting the deepest sighs of human hearts while groaning with the travail of all creation-this is the unpredictable, energizing, even reckless component of the Trinity’s life.
This recklessness of the Spirit keeps disrupting normal practices of spirituality, religion, and culture. At the bizarre eruption of the Spirit at Pentecost described in the book of Acts, Parthians, Medes, Elamites, plus those living in Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, along with Cretans and Arabs all suddenly understand on another’s incomprehensible native languages with tongues of fire. The spirit is never captured by settled and secure boundaries of language and culture.
That pattern continues as the journalistic story of Acts unfolds. The preaching of Peter and Stephen encountered opposition in Jerusalem in part because it proclaimed that God’s compassion, revealed in Jesus, reached out to all those in need of reconciliation, rather than being limited to a closed circle claiming an exclusive monopoly on God’s holiness. Stephen paid with his life for this testimony.
This message became embodied in the movement of those who proclaimed it. Philip took the message to Samaria-despite the historic hostility between the Jews and the Samaritans. Then, it incredibly enough, an Angel of the Lord told Phillip to journey south, toward Gaza and the wilderness. There he encounters the Ethiopian eunuch. He is a foreigner, a gentile, and, as a eunuch, a person with an ambiguous sexuality. He is explicitly prohibited from worshipping at the temple, even though he had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. But this Spirit Demolished those stern lines of division and protective practices of spirituality. And Phillip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch-bringing the body to water and sacralizing both. This story unlocked for me how I meet those excluded from the church because of their sexuality. It shows how the spirit guides the boat without oars, giving someone without a faith community, a community. Offering encounter, being met by Philip as he is.
The story of this unpredictable, uncontrollable Spirit continues as Peter receives a vision at Joppa, being told to eat what he thought was unclean and thereby destroying his well-ordered religious practices that always separated Jew and gentile. Hen then is brought to Cornelius, a roman soldier, and his household, to whom Peter now declares that “God shows no partiality.” Then, to the astonishment of those with Peter, the same Holy Spirit is poured out on those hearing this message in what is sometimes called the Gentile Pentecost. Peter’s response is to say, “Who am I, that I should hinder God?”
All this sets the stage for the story of the Church at Antioch. Many early followers of Jesus fled Jerusalem, and some traveled as far as Antioch, walking twice as far as my ten-day journey from Ponferrada to Santiago de Compostela. Unlike Jerusalem, the center of Judaism with no more than fifty thousand people, Antioch was the third largest city in the roman Empire, with between five hundred thousand and eight hundred thousand inhabitants. This population was highly multicultural, with Syrians, Cypriots, Egyptians, and Persians, along with many others, who had migrated there. About one-third of those in this city were slaves.
Here in Antioch the young church grew and flourished as a multiracial, multicultural community. Tis leaders included Simeon, also called Niger, a black African gentile, as well as Manaen, who was from the court of the Jewish king Herod. The “headquarters’ in Jerusalem was anxious about this unorthodox new church breaking comfortable boundaries of religious practice. But Jerusalem’s envoy, Barnabas, rejoiced in the liberating power of the Spirit he found there, eventually becoming one of its leaders.
Barnabas then went to find Saul, the converted former persecutor of those who followed Jesus, now named Paul, and brought him to this newly created church in Antioch. And what happened: As they fasted and prayed, they discovered that the Holy Spirit was calling them to join God’s mission in the world. Sent out by the Spirit, Paul and Barnabas embarked on the first of these “missionary journeys,” not unlike those Celtic pilgrims casting off without oars. All this started from an upstart church in Antioch, and in three centuries the known world was transformed. And for all of this to happen, those early, fearful pilgrims had to walk away from Jerusalem.
The work of this hyperactive Spirit continually breaks out in embodied ways. We’re told of physical healings, vivid visions, and a spoken enraptured language of praise. Those untouched, then and now, frequently dismiss such manifestations of the Spirit as esoteric, primitive, delusional spirituality, if not worse. But for those participating in the empowerment, their bodies and the material world are reconnected to a life-giving spiritual presence. Further, when fully experienced, community is created.
To step forth into a liberating pilgrimage, we don’t have to desert the Bible for a journey into an unknown wilderness area with the wild hope of communing with trees, although that’s a worthy option. An alternative is to simply read the Bible, with these stories of a wild, liberating Spirit. They describe and call for embodiment.
Theologians who try to describe the indescribable, like the nature of the Trinity, are fond of suggesting that the Holy Spirit is the love that flows between the Father and the Son. Maybe that’s what defines the Spirit’s recklessness, for that love can’t be restrained from breaking out into all that God has created.
The church’s creeds, confessions, polity, and denominational structures, which keep evolving, seem like anxious attempts to make sense of and control the Spirit’s continual disruption of established forms and understandings. Outbreaks of the Spirit in revivals, renewals, and Reformations create an understandable impulse to recodify and restructure life together.
All this, however, depends on the courage to walk forward through embodied, reckless forms of spirituality, leaving our Jerusalems behind in a pilgrim journey of restless faith, grounded in a love fueled by Trinitarian mysteries.