Here is the sermon I preached this morning at Bethel URC, Swansea.
Text: John 16:14:
“He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (NRSV).
In the creed issued by the bishops gathered at Nicaea (in what is now Turkey) in the year 325, there is a brief section on God the Father, a longer section (over six times longer) on God the Son, and then a final section - which if you blink you could miss (it’s three times shorter) - on God the Holy Spirit. Indeed all it says is “We believe in the Holy Spirit.” That’s it, that’s all. “Nearly three centuries of church life after the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit appears as an appendix, or even a footnote. It is some explanation that the delegates were following existing baptismal creeds, and that the person of the Holy Spirit had not yet become the same kind of storm-centre of controversy as had the Son. But even quite early commentators were embarrassed by such minimalism” (Paul Fiddes). They needn’t have been, and this morning I want to tell you why.
It is imporant to do so because, my, how times have changed. It’s the “New Age”, “spirituality” has become a buzzword and a growth industry. Walk into any Christian bookshop and you will find it chock-a-block with books on the Holy Spirit. Ah, but just who is this Spirit for sale? Or rather these Spirits? For there are many. There is the post-Diana Spirit, the touch-feely Spirit of sentiment and pathos. There is the Earth Spirit, maternal, semi-erotic, whose high priests are Wicca witches and whose devotees hug trees and howl at the moon. And there is the psycho-babble Spirit, the Spirit of human potential and growth, whose worshippers practice meditation and prayer as techniques for self-improvement. In all these versions, however, the Spirit is above all a resource, or better, a power source for personal use, whether to get in touch with the child within, or to make you one with the planet, or to enhance your self-image and productivity.
The church itself has come under the influence of these fashionable contemporary Spirits, sometimes even inviting them into its life, like the Trojan horse, but it has been particularly welcoming to the Spirit of psycho-babble, to the reduction of the Holy Spirit to the Inner Self and of spirituality to human psychology, and often to a form of therapy based on your “personality type”. Many an enthusiast going on a retreat now greets their director or guide by saying, “Oh, yes, and it will help you to know that I am an ENFP - an Extrovert iNtuitive Feeler Perceiver (according to the MBTI - that’s the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator); or I’m a Number 4 on the (nine-pointed symbol of the) Enneagram; or I’m at Stage 5 on the (James Fowler) faith curve.” How old-fashioned of me - and I always thought that God calls us by name, not by type or by number, and calls us not to some self-definition based on the latest clinical mdel, but to continual conversion, living lightly on the boundaries of self-knowledge - for we are all so prone to self-deceit - and open to self-transcendence, to losing this typed or numbered self, in order to discover and re-discover the true self that only God knows and only God can disclose to us. Yes, Kenneth Leech is bang-on target when he observes that “Much current Christian writing on spirituality has lost its roots in Scripture and tradition and has colluded with the current culture of contentment and narcissism. Consumer capitalism is only too good at co-opting such approaches to spirituality.”
This distinction between psychology and spirituality is an important one. They are obviously inter-related, but they are definitely not the same. Perhaps the fundamental distinction could be put like this: psychology tells us about the “how” of life, its functioning and efficiency, while spirituality is about the “why” of life, which cannot be regulated or utilised, because the “why” of life is - the grace and love of God, which psychology cannot fathom and generally seems to be able to do without. Another way of looking at the distinction is in terms of healing and holiness: psychology has to do with healing, spirituality has to do with holiness. But health and sanctity do not always go together.
Which brings me to the saints, literally the “holy ones”, conventionally the “special ones”. Because the saints are the living embodiment, the human face, of the Holy Spirit. They are the scented handkerchiefs the Spirit drops as he moves through human history. The lives of the saints, in fact, are the clue to the nature of the Holy Spirit, and they illustrate why the Nicene Fathers need not have worried too much about the minimalism - the anonymity - of the Holy Spirit in the creed.
Let me introduce you to one Marie-Joseph Huvelin, a 19th century priest who served for over twenty years as a curate in a large Parisian church. As well as the usual parish duties of taking the Mass, teaching confirmation classes, visiting the sick, Marie-Joseph was also much in demand as a counsellor. Over-generous with his time and attention, he eventually wore himself out. He suffered from migraine, gout - and more: his ill health was not just physical, it was psychological. He suffered from depression bordering on breakdown and despair. He lived with a burdensome sense of his own sinfulness and worthlessness, unrelieved by the assurance of hope he communicated to so many others. And the question is this (as put by Rowan Williams): “Can we, with our rhetoric of healing and wholeness, begin to cope with the sanctity - the holiness - of a man whose mental state and emotional balance were so limited? A man less than perfectly ’sane’? To be blunt, a ‘neurotic’, yet one whose love was very far from stifled, who, whatever his psychological condition, had the God-given gift to be able to transform the lives of others to whom he ministered?” (adapted).
Saints like Father Huvelin confirm that “there is little support in the Christian spiritual tradition for the conventional idea of sanity” (Leech), that “what we might consider disorder or disease may well be important vehicles for transforming grace.” Conversely, “In the vast majority of cases, psychological difficulties need not interfere at all with spiritual direction. Indeed they often serve as gifts for enrichment of one’s spiritual sensibilities.” Indeed “there are a great many souls walking among us who could be psychiatrically labelled as neurotic or [even] psychotic yet who manifest such deepness and clarity of faith that they could well be our spritual guides” (Gerald G. May).
We are light years here from the contemporary spirituality of positive thinking and self-esteem, and the Christian take on it that God loves loves those who love themselves, which actually amounts to a form of works righteousness, even practical atheism, because it means that, deep down, we don’t really trust God to love us just as we are, however screwed up we may be; no, first we must get ourselves sorted and be happy. But it’s not my job to think about me, it’s God’s job to think about me. And, ironically, the more I do in fact think about me, the more really screwed up I will remain.
Mark Twain once pointed out that “All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure.” That, it seems to me, is what so much contemporary spirituality is all about. The Spirit is invoked to promote a sense of feel-good well-being and to buttress our sense of self-worth and self-importance. In the classical Christian tradition, however, spiritual growth cannot occur without going through experiences of desolation - “dark night” experiences - which involve the deconstruction of one’s self-image, the loss of one’s identity, before its reconstruction can begin in the Spirit. The “darkness is a purifier, a deepener of the spirit, a light-bringer. But the darkness is painful” (Leech). As the American Cistercian monk Thomas Merton put it: “We too often forget that Christian faith is a principle of questioning and struggle before it becomes a principle of certitude and peace.” That’s why truly saintly people are known, not for their self-esteem, let alone their pride, but, humbled by the Lord, by an awareness of their brokenness and sinfulness, for their humility, their self-effacingness - dare we say their anonymity?
You can see where this has been leading: the anonymity of the saints - the anonymity of the Holy Spirit. The anonymous Holy Spirit because, like the saints, indeed the saints’ inspiration, it is the Spirit’s nature to draw attention away from himself and direct it to the Son, who in turn directs it to the Father. As our text tells us, the Spirit does not take what is his own and declare it, rather he takes what is Jesus’ and declares it. He doesn’t teach about himself, nor does he teach on his own authority, anymore than a good school teacher teaches about her own brilliance and presents herself as a fountain of knowledge and wisdom. No, because she stands on the shoulders of her predecesors, she is the servant of a tradition, she is only a catalyst in the learning process from which she is happy to withdraw when her students come to the point of understanding for themselves: it is her subject, not herself, that the good teacher conveys.
Yes, the Holy Spirit, withdrawn, working behind the scenes, in the engine room rather than on deck - be we all know where the power is generated. The Holy Spirit, the self-effacing and anonymous member of the Trinity. A model for the Christian, to the glory of God.