It’s almost Pentecost! I developed a great relationship with the Holy Spirit when I was in undergrad, so Pentecost is one of my favorite feasts. For some reason, it pulls other people who like to dress liturgically out of the woodwork: we all wear red. Join me on all the other Sundays! It’s awesome!
In all seriousness, Pentecost gives me an opportunity to pray for discernment and to reflect on virtue and the gifts of the Spirit as I pray the Original Novena between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday.
A few notes:
- A novena is nine consecutive days of prayer for a particular intention. Some novenas require the same prayer for all nine days; some add a reflection that changes day by day.
- The origin of the novena is the nine days that the apostles and Mary spent in prayer between Jesus’ ascension into heaven (which we just celebrated) and the descent of the Holy Spirit.
- We call the celebration of the descent of the Holy Spirit “Pentecost” after the Jewish feast of the same name, which was occurring at the same time. The people from various regions and countries listed in Acts 2:5–11 were in Jerusalem for that feast.
- In most of the U.S., the celebration of the Solemnity of the Ascension was moved to Sunday. The timeline of the Pentecost novena does not change.
- I like to pray the Novena of the Seven Gifts. There are plenty of other options. It’s the timeline, not the prayers, that makes this novena the novena.
Therefore, I am steeped in contemplation on and with the Holy Spirit right now. It is in this spirit (pun intended) that I offer my reflections on the Holy Spirit, hope, and encouragement.
If you’re anything like me, you have had trouble even imagining a relationship with the Holy Spirit because you’re picturing a dove, flames, pure love, or wind. I do not blame you for struggling; I was there, too. I went on a retreat in my junior year of college during which I was literally inspired to share my experience with the Holy Spirit and the Eucharist. He and I have basically been besties ever since.
What changed? My understanding. (Conveniently, “understanding” is one of the gifts of the Spirit.) Jesus is relatively easy to understand because he walked here on Earth as a real man. He is the image of God the Father, and so are we ordinary humans, so we generally depict God the Father as an old man since Jesus was a younger man. The Holy Spirit, however, is never depicted in human terms. The Holy Spirit is not a bird or fire or a rushing wind. “Love” is among the better terms, because we know that God is love. That means Jesus is love. The Father is love. And, through the blessing of genuine relationships and earthly communion, we know what it’s like when someone is love.
I came to understand, through grace, that the Holy Spirit is not embodied love, but he is, in fact, love. He loves me. In that sense, the Spirit is like the wind: I can’t see it, but I can feel it.
The Holy Spirit is a particularly useful friend when you’re struggling. He is present at baptism, where Christ saves, the Father adopts you as his child, and the Spirit gives you the theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. I’ll bet you’ve experienced struggles since then. (If you were just baptized at the Easter Vigil, maybe not?) You’ve felt like your faith is weak; you feel hopeless; you struggle to love and be loved. The Spirit can help you there!
I fortuitously came across Jeannie Ewing’s beautiful essay for Catholic Exchange, “Five Ways to Move from Despair to Hope.” In it, she explains that hoping and wishing are two different things. Wishing directs us toward probability or personal agency. Hope, however, directs us toward God. We can choose to hope, and we should.
Ewing first recommends hope as a way to focus on fear of the Lord, that most-misunderstood gift of the Spirit. It doesn’t mean being afraid that God will smite you and send you to hell for your sins. It means acknowledging the infinite power of God and the incredible truth that he created you, he loves you, and he has saved you. If there has to be an ultimate power in the universe, wouldn’t you prefer a power that desires only your good? I would! You are a sinner, but you have a Savior.
Similarly, Ewing’s second and third methods for fighting despair are to focus on God (rather than yourself) and to pray for the other virtues. When you fill your mind with praise, it’s much harder to despair. When you focus on growing in faith and performing acts of charity, you invite hope to grow to balance out your life of virtue.
Finally, Ewing recommends my old standbys: encouragement and patience. Sometimes, I am excellent at those. Other times, I need help, too. Waiting for nine days to pass to reach the end of a novena is an easy exercise in patience. Speaking (or blogging) words of encouragement to others can shine the Spirit’s light upon them when it feels like your light has grown dim.
Darkness, discouragement, despondency, disappointment, despair. These D-words are the joy of another D-word: the devil.
Love, light, life, levity, and the Lord. These are our weapons, the ways of the Holy Spirit. May the Spirit always be your friend, and may you have a joyous and fruitful Pentecost. Alleluia!