The Holy Spirit Working through the Church
In last month’s article we looked at how the Holy Spirit can help us to strengthen others with words of inspiration and insight. This is a promise we can count on because we need divine inspiration when we are doing the Lord’s work.
Another way in which the Holy Spirit works is by confirming the truths of the faith to us in the context of the body of Christ. The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, Lumen Gentium declares:
For by this sense of faith which is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth, God’s People accepts not the word of men but the very word of God (cf. I Th 2:13). It clings without fail to the faith once delivered to the saints (cf. Jude 3), penetrates it more deeply by accurate insights, and applies it more thoroughly to life. All this it does under the lead of a sacred teaching authority to which it loyally defers. (12)
What the Council fathers acknowledge is that when we loyally defer to the teaching authority of the Church, the Holy Spirit grants us deep insight into the truth of faith, which has the capacity to move, transform, and deepen our love and life.
Have you ever had the experience of reading a book or listening to a lecture, and as you were reading or listening, you began to think, “I don’t know why this is wrong, but this sounds wrong.” You may have gone to the lecture without any suspicion or any knowledge that would have evoked such a thought, yet you feel that there is something wrong, and even disquieting or disturbing. You may have left the lecture preferring not to follow the lecturer’s advice and to leave the entire matter aside. Then, five years later you read an article where this precise idea is shown to be contrary to Church teaching or to the love of Christ. You might have thought, “Hey! I knew that five years ago, but I just didn’t know why.” I believe this sense of disquiet or disturbance is the Holy Spirit protecting us from what could lead to disruption of life and love.
It might be retorted, “Well, maybe all your reading in theology which has congealed in your subconscious mind led you to the discovery of the potential for aberrancy or error. Why call it the Holy Spirit?” I might find this explanation tempting were it not for the fact that I had such experiences prior to doing any significant reading in theology.
When I was in High School, I had some fine CCD teachers, but they did not equip me for the ideas I was to confront in college. Yet, I knew that there was something wrong with “situation ethics” even though I first found it rather noble and attractive. I wanted to believe that all I needed to do was “seek the greatest amount of neighbor welfare for the greatest number of people,” and not have to worry about principles, rules, or anything like that. Yet, I felt a deep disquiet amidst the feelings of nobility and simplicity, and I began to sense an error of omission that was not yet clear to my discursive power. It led me to research, then to Paul Ramsey, and then to the revelation that one needs principles and rules to assess the means to even the most noble ends. Without such rules, the end could easily be thought to justify an evil means.
How does one know what one does not know? How does one know that one does not know? How does one have the foreknowledge about an error of omission when one does not know all the possibilities? How does one feel deep disquiet while feeling a great sense of nobility? I am not certain of the answer to this, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it is not the efficacy of my subconscious mind. Perhaps the Holy Spirit?
Conversely, have you ever had the experience of reading a book by a spiritual writer (say, Article 3 of Question 2 of Part I of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica) and finding yourself absolutely captivated? I have. When I was in college, a friend gave me a used copy of the Summa and indicated that I should at least read part of the first Part. Though I found the style incomprehensible (with all the counter arguments and the responses to the counter arguments), I felt inspired by these passages. I recall three feelings in particular.
First, I felt a genuine sense of being at home with God (similar to the sense of the Mystical Body described above). I also had a sense of Saint Thomas’ holiness and a desire to be involved in it myself. Thirdly, I felt not so much an awareness that particular propositions were true, but that I was in the presence of Truth itself.
At the time, I was not able to articulate these feelings, but I knew that Saint Thomas’ writings were not only true but also life-changing. As I read through the unusual style and difficult prose, I felt fed, at home, and desirous of more. Again, given my ignorance at the time, I hesitate to attribute these desires, thoughts, and feelings to some mysterious certitude within my subconscious. Quite frankly, I believe that the Holy Spirit was there inspiring, cajoling, guiding, and filling me with light, delight, and home.
The Holy Spirit will not leave anyone bereft of the disquiet of falsity, or the inspiration of truth. All we need do to experience this deeper, life-changing, efficacious, and loving insight is, as the Vatican Council suggests, to defer to the “teaching authority of the Church,” and follow the sense of light, home, holiness, and peace that not only brings joy to the soul, but a wisdom and love quite beyond our natural ability. As usual, the Holy Spirit takes care of the rest.
By Fr. Robert J. Spitzer. Reprinted from Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life