Sermon for Pentecost - 19 May 2013

We have all had the experience of wanting to share with someone else something important that has happened to us – something which has affected us quite profoundly. As we have searched for the right words to describe what has happened, we began to feel that our own words are not doing justice to our experience. Sometimes we have wished we had never begun the attempt.

One of the most common circumstances when this can happen is when we seek to express our love for someone else. We knock around, trying to find the appropriate language. Unfortunately too much talk about our feelings begins to be counter-productive in the end, too much talk can break down the relationship altogether.

In the TV series “Send for the Midwife” it was remarked that, in the appalling poverty of the East End of London in the 1950’s, “love was most often silent”.

Picking our affections to pieces can be like analysing a black bird, feather by feather, bone by bone and then wondering why the bird has stopped singing.

So, if there is a problem about describing our relationship with another human being it is not surprising that this should happen when attempting to share our experience of God. Maybe that is why most of us keep quiet about it. We don’t mention the Holy Spirit!

The American poet Emily Dickinson used very unusual language about God. However, after she died there was found a scrap paper on which she had written, in pencil, the simple words “Grasped by God”.

The Holy Spirit is the engine and pulse of love, passing between the persons of the Trinity and flowing outwards to everything that exists in creation.

Trying to put all this into words is full of hazards. Thomas Higginson wrote “There may be many years of passion in a word and half a lifetime in a sentence”.

So the vehicle for such a task theologically has been in metaphors – symbolic language like fire, wind, water and a dove.

Some of us may recall the problem of our encounter with the Holy Spirit of God in, say, talking to the Diocesan Director of Ordinands or at a Selection Conference. Other may remember conversations with the Novice Guardian or the Superior . We felt we had failed in our own words and we were not at all sure we had been understood.

All of us here, now, can only say we have somehow been touched by the Spirit of God and the result is that we are each of us seeking to give ourselves, in love, as disciples of Jesus.

This is in terms of being a lay person, an Ordinand or in a monastic Community.

The fact is that none of our profound experiences of God can be captured in words. We either never stop talking - or say nothing.

The Sacrament of Marriage cannot be confined in the words of the wedding service. There are hints and suggestions but the full meaning of marriage lies in the years spent living together.

No-one can embrace the full meaning of Priesthood by attending lectures at the College. This is only discovered in the ups and downs of parish life.

Even St Benedict, bless him, could not convey the entire meaning of the religious vocation – because it can only unfold in the struggle ahead after Profession.

One monk was asked “What does it mean to be a monk?” and the reply was “A monk is a person who, everyday of his life, asks the question ‘What does it mean to be a monk?’”.

We might be encouraged by the fact that when Jesus breathed on the disciples with the words “Receive the Holy Spirit” he did not give them a lecture on what that meant. Nor did they sit down for a discussion about it, leading to a vote on what to do. They simply rushed out to share their love of Jesus with everyone they met. It was the years ahead that revealed the meaning of receiving the Holy Spirit.

Today people attempt to control the future – they want to see the small print before committing themselves. The Holy Spirit doesn’t do control. Fire, water, wind and a dove are all “on the move” – they signify an ongoing experience, a journey to be made.

It has been said that God is a verb not a noun. An experience of the Holy Spirit will not be contained in a statement – rather it is a question we go on living with. Jesus said two things to St Peter: “Do you love me?” and then simply “Follow me”.

            Simon Holden CR