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Come Holy Spirit: Help Us Forget Who We Are

A Sermon Delivered at Christ Episcopal Church, Eureka, California

Pentecost Sunday

May 19, 2024

David M. Odorisio, PhD


Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, [humans] will have discovered fire.           

― Pierre Teilhard De Chardin


Like most theology students and seminarians today, I was trained in a rigorous historical-critical method combined with a faith-based approach to interpreting Scripture. I was first exposed to this delicate art as an undergraduate religious studies major at a Catholic Christian Brothers college in Philadelphia, my geographical “hometown.” In a freshman year New Testament course, I learned that “the Pentecost event” could be interpreted, not necessarily through a literal frame that resulted in the super-ability to hear foreign languages in one’s own native tongue, but that the “real miracle” of Pentecost was that people from diverse backgrounds and foreign, even enemy, nations could learn to communicate with one another through the power of that mysterious and ever-wily Holy Spirit.


Around this time, I also began attending services at a local Catholic contemplative religious community. To truly make explicit the linguistic “miracle” of Pentecost, they would have the passage from Acts read in various languages on Pentecost Sunday. Of course, I could only understand the one read in English (no “miracle” there), but the impact landed – viscerally and quite profoundly.


These are perhaps not ineffective approaches to interpreting the profound message of Acts today. The disciples are afraid. Their entire world order – their very identities – constructed first as humble fishermen, and then upon the living reality of the Savior – have been dashed.  They are entering, to quote the celebrated Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, “the second half of life.” How many times have we constructed a “solid, stable identity” only for our worldview to be taken out from underneath us? For Rohr, the “first half of life” is concerned with such structures – familial, professional, solid, “secure enough.” But entering into the “second half of life” often involves a serious and real departure from the patterns laid down in our “former life.” Patterns of avoidance, patterns of addiction, or just a general platitude-approach to life.


If the first half of life is about “upward mobility,” then the second half of life is a necessary, and often prolonged, descent. “A road of grief and ashes,” as poet Robert Bly would call it. Here, we find ourselves almost unwittingly in a “valley of dry bones.” That which we knew, or thought we knew, no longer serves us. Past roles, former identities, current relationships – including that with the God of our understanding – might not offer the type of nourishment or “consolation” that they used to. In times like this, the Holy Spirit might come to us not so much through blazing tongues of fire, but, as with Elijah in his cave, through the “sound of sheer silence” (1 Kgs 19:11-13). Lifeless, we remain utterly suspended by the mercy of God; wholly dependent on the movement of the Spirit to “cause breath to enter” us so that we might live again.


The celebrated 20th c. Catholic monk and priest, Thomas Merton, captures this space in his breathtakingly simple prayer:


My Lord God,

I have no idea where I am going.

I do not see the road ahead of me.

I cannot know for certain where it will end.

Nor do I really know myself,

and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.

And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. (Thoughts in Solitude)


Merton, following the fourth-century mystical theologian Gregory of Nyssa, practiced a kind of epektasis – a spiritual life lived open to the ever-present goading of that “wild goose” the Holy Spirit. It involves an openness to a lifestyle and authentic response to God that moves us ever-onward – onto new paths and spiritual horizons – often of the least anticipated and rarely expected variety. “If you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.”


So, I ask: if the Holy Spirit were to descend upon us this morning, in this very sanctuary, would we recognize Her? If She appeared in the face or language of Parthian, Medean, Elamite; in the residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, or Cappadocia; Pontus or Asia – or to modernize some of these locations: Palestine, Israel, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey; as Jewish, Arab, or Christian, African or Asian, one and all. Would we – can we – recognize the very face of God beyond the borders and boundaries of our hard-won and battle-worn national languages and identities?


In 1968 Thomas Merton published a review-essay of a then-recent book by the Iranian psychotherapist, Reza Arasteh. Arasteh, Persian by background, was deeply influenced by Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam. He published an early work entitled Final Integration in the Adult Personality that appeared in 1965. This is the book that Merton reviews. Arasteh’s main thesis, and the one in which Merton most resonates, is that the goal of human growth – both psychological and spiritual – is the shedding of the various identities and nationalities that we wear – or that wear us, and that we often cling to – in order to develop into fully integrated persons capable of transnational, transcultural, and, yes, trans-religious consciousness. In Merton’s own words:


Final integration is a state of transcultural maturity far beyond mere social adjustment…The [person] who is ‘fully born’ has an entirely ‘inner experience of life.’ [She] apprehends [her] life fully and wholly from an inner ground that is at once more universal than the empirical ego and yet entirely [her] own. [She] is in a certain sense ‘cosmic’ and [a] ‘universal [person].’ [She] has attained a deeper, fuller identity than that of [her] limited ego-self which is only a fragment of [her] being. [She] is in a certain sense identified with everybody; or in the familiar language of the New Testament…‘all things to all people’ [1 Cor. 9:22]. [She] has attained a deep inner freedom – the Freedom of the Spirit. (“Final Integration,” 225)


This does not mean that we leave behind our individual or communal liturgical traditions or our personal faith commitments; quite the contrary: through entering ever-deeper into the mystery of our faith and the streams of our own particular spiritual traditions, the “finally integrated person” is able to more fully and deeply enter into the spiritual life-stream of another. In other words, through deepening our own spiritual lives, we learn to hear – and even to embrace – the “language” or spiritual vocabulary of another. Even those far-off and remote residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, or Cappadocia, Pontus or Asia, appear to us as if in our own “native tongue.”


To Merton, the purpose of the contemplative life, and indeed the life of the Christian, is to continually strive to uncover any aspect of superficiality, falsehood, or illusion that might keep me separated from my neighbor through the veil of the “false self” – the person I might claim to be, but that God has no knowledge or recognition. By contrast, the “true self” – created in the image and likeness of God – is paradoxically able to accept all and reject none; yet without needing to abandon my own particular entrance into the mystery of my own faith. In outstripping the individual “I,” we gain membership as global citizens; we practice the ability to hear others in the “language of our native tongue.” We learn to cultivate common ground.


But “final integration” is not without cost. It involves what Arasteh refers to as an “existential moratorium.” A “loss of self” and “real spiritual death” (Merton, “Final Integration,” 227). Time spent in the valley of dry bones; utter dependency on the Spirit to re-sinew our flesh (Ez. 34: 1-14). To re-make us in our likeness as images of God (Gen. 1:27; 3:5).


Such “universal consciousness” is not, therefore, a “Pollyanna” approach to global peacemaking or interreligious dialogue. It is an immensely hard-won and ongoing process that involves the courage to enter into the Mystery of God as revealed not only through our own particular faith commitments and traditions but also those of religious cultures and national identities other than our own – without deciding if or whom might be “right,” “correct,” “saved,” or worthy of citizenship in God’s heavenly kingdom.


Through Arasteh’s global and transcultural vision – and through Merton’s rendering of it – the goal of the spiritual life is nothing less than entering into an expansive, universal citizenship that recognizes the entire human family as comprising the Body of Christ.


This is the vision of that first Pentecost: a restoration and renewal through the power of the Holy Spirit that leads to the rebirth of Christ in us; so that we might become alter Christus – “another Christ” – and again walk with God in restored intimacy as Adam did prior to that first act of human duplicity; enjoying our rightful inheritance as children of God.

And so, we ask you, Lord, blessed by Your Holy Spirit, to come and help us forget who we are; and to thenceforth remind us, following the words of our departed brother, Thomas Merton, that “we are already one. But we imagine that we are not” (Asian Journal, p. 308). Help us, Lord, to learn this universal lingua franca that is written into our DNA and written onto our very souls.


So, I ask you, dear friends, to pray with me:


Come Holy Spirit

Fill the hearts of your faithful

And enkindle in us the fire of your love.

Send forth your Spirit so that we might be created

And You shall renew the face of the Earth.

Amen +


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