Readings: Acts of the Apostles 2:1-11; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 31, 34; John 15:26-27, 16:12-15
For so-called “cradle Catholics” the uncommon zeal and enthusiasm of someone recently converted to Christianity can either be mildly irritating or a source of holy envy in the face of their own apparent lack of zeal and tendencies to spiritual indifference–what monasticism has come to call acedia. So too, the vibrant and dramatic account of Pentecost in this morning’s first reading can perhaps highlight our seeming lack of enthusiasm and zeal for our faith and the great task of evangelization that Pope Francis has so passionately been enjoining upon us. Like those vineyard workers described by Jesus, we who have borne the heat of the day and have struggled so hard and long in the Christian way, may wonder why the newly converted seem to have a deeper share in the enthusiasm, courage and conviction that filled Saint Peter and the other disciples when they burst forth from their confinement behind locked doors and joyously and fearlessly entered the streets of Jerusalem.
However, these feelings of envy and discouragement–should they occur–are perhaps a casualty of spiritual shortsightedness. The dramatic and sudden nature of the Pentecost event with its strong winds and tongues of fire descending on the gathered disciples can obscure the broader context within which this powerful event occurred. It is thus important to remember that the disciples who emerged from this as radically transformed people were not Christian neophytes but battle-hardened veterans who had come through years of painful preparation, formation, and struggle to reach this pivotal moment in which they were so dramatically freed from earlier cowardice, self-centeredness, obtuseness of minds and other very human flaws. In other words, Pentecost was not some sudden, miraculous transformation wrought with no effort or struggle on the part of the disciples. Rather, it was the culmination of what had been a painful and sometimes bitterly humiliating journey.
It is well to recall that this Pentecost event, while being described as the unique moment for the coming of the Holy Spirit, did not mark the beginning of the Spirit’s work and activity–either in the world or in the lives of the disciples. We need only recall the post-resurrection appearance when Jesus is described as breathing on the disciples and saying, receive the Holy Spirit, those whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and those whose sins you retain are retained. Here was a bestowal of the Holy Spirit that lacked any of the drama of today’s feast and that doesn’t appear to have radically changed the disciples who remained closeted behind closed doors for fear of the Jews. And yet, this bestowal of the Holy Spirit was obviously not without effect–otherwise, why would Jesus have breathed the Spirit upon them? It thus seems likely that Pentecost was not some single event but the culmination of many less dramatic infusions of the Spirit into the hearts and lives of the disciples. As such it can serve to reassure us that sometimes the Holy Spirit is most active when we are least aware of his action and transforming presence within us. It is thus possible that when nothing seems to be happening in our spiritual lives, the Spirit is actually present and active.
This quiet, unobservable action of the Spirit is–by way of analogy–a little like those slow-acting medications that we begin taking and that initially seem to have absolutely no effect. However, by faithfully taking our medication, its healing work continues unobserved until it eventually becomes manifest. So too, under the mysterious and largely hidden action of the Spirit. our diseased hearts, minds and souls are slowly but surely being healed and sanctified without our fully being aware of it. And sometimes it is this hidden action that accounts for those periods of seeming inner emptiness, lack of zeal and apparent spiritual indifference. And although each person’s experience is unique, everyone–even those whose conversion was dramatic and emotionally-charged–will enter these distressing phases of the spiritual journey when we seem to have lost our way, and our progress forward seems to have stalled. Even someone like Saint Paul, with his Road-to-Damascus experience, spent dark days blinded and confused by the radical change that was wrought in him. He doesn’t tell us much about the time he spent in Arabia, but I suspect that this period too was not without its difficult and perplexing times as he steadily integrated his new-found faith in Christ with all that he had hitherto learned and practiced as a devout Pharisee.
And if so, despite your best efforts, you find yourself apparently drifting in those spiritual doldrums and lacking anything resembling Peter and the disciples’ Pentecostal zeal and energy, don’t despair but take heart and trust that your very distress and desire to share its grand experience is itself a sure sign of the Spirit’s presence and action in your life. These cycles of spiritual dryness, inner emptiness and seeming indifference to things spiritual, are times to not judge your inner state purely by what you are feeling, but rather to judge it by your deepest desire to break free of all that holds you back from likewise being transformed into the new creature in God’s image and that renders us beloved sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father. And so in the words of the Pentecost Sequence we pray: Heal our wounds, our strength renew and on our dryness pour your dew. Wash the stains of guilt away: bend the stubborn heart and will.; melt the frozen, warm and chill; guide the steps that go astray. In your seven-fold gift descend; give [us] your salvation, Lord, give [us] joy that never ends. Amen.