Noticing the Spirit that is always active in our world

I pondered the title for this column for quite a while. When NCR asked me to write regularly for them, I knew I wanted to somehow chronicle the ubiquitous presence of the Spirit of Jesus in our world. But how to capture that without being too hokey? Perhaps a way to begin is to share some of my own story.

Many NCR readers know me best as the founding director (now emerita) of FutureChurch. You may know of that organization's commitment to opening ordination, preserving parishes and access to the Eucharist, lay empowerment, and retrieving the memory of women leaders, such as St. Mary of Magdala, in the early church.

What you may not know is that the fruitfulness of these initiatives is linked to the faithfulness of the Spirit of God to me personally and to the FutureChurch mission. I'm guessing most Catholic activist organizations, whether working for church reform or implementing Catholic social teaching, would say the same.

I often thought I must be insane to believe this fledgling FutureChurch group could make any real difference. Founded in 1990, our early years were really challenging in the wake of Pope John Paul II's traumatizing ban on discussing women's ordination and his thinly disguised disdain for optional celibacy. Many times I was so discouraged, I wanted to quit. Invariably, something would happen. A supporter would call to thank me for what often felt like a thankless ministry. A psalm at Mass would console and reassure with unusual clarity. A respected colleague's off-hand comment would turn my perspective toward the positive. One Advent, when cash flow was tight and I hadn't taken a paycheck for nearly a month, I received an email documenting a gift of $10,000 from a person we had never heard of. At first I thought it was a scam. But no, it was real. He said he liked that we were trying to dialogue with U.S. bishops. (They didn't want to talk to us, of course, but we stuck with it anyway.)

This sort of thing happened so many times that I would have been a real dummy not to get the message: I must rely on the Spirit more and on myself less. In subsequent years when discouragement loomed, these improbable past blessings always came to mind. I remembered anew that this mission belongs to God and not to me. It was time to trust. I must learn to trust the Spirit's faithfulness if church renewal and reform were ever to succeed. I couldn't give up on the institutional church yet because the Holy Spirit hadn't -- and never would.

I have always loved the Spirit. As a young child, this was the first image of God to which I felt a real connection. The images of God-the-father and God-the-son seemed so settled and so definite. Both were male: one Yahweh-thunderbolt creator; one sympathetic, crucified savior. Aside from being hard for a young girl to identify with, they were sort of scary. And then there's the Spirit. Not defined. Not exclusively male. My girl-child self was already enthralled with the natural world's spectacularly immanent beauty. The Holy Spirit is the God-name I recognized as that mysterious loving Presence I had already sensed through nature. God-not-in-a-box who is tenderly near. I loved the Holy Spirit best before I ever knew of Father or Son. Today, my understanding is more nuanced. As I trudge along my pilgrim journey, I find I need each person of the Trinity in different ways at different times. But there is something special about the Spirit.

Look at the witness of the early church. The disciples are always saying things like, "then the Spirit told us to go here, so we went" and "the Spirit told him not to go there, so he stayed away." See this passage in the book of Acts: "[Paul and Timothy] went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them" (Acts 16: 6-7).

Did you ever wonder how Paul and Timothy knew it was the Spirit talking to them? Maybe they acted on a subtle but definite inner prompting and only in retrospect did they realize it was the Jesus-Spirit. Alternatively, as my Quaker friends would say, the "way would open." Or not. And that's often how the Spirit guides us still.

I love that the Spirit seems so very practical and yet so powerful.

How about this passage preceding Peter's church-changing encounter with Cornelius: "While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, 'Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them' " (Acts 10: 19-20). After that, we read of Peter's conversion, welcoming Gentiles without first requiring circumcision: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. ... Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" (Acts 10: 34-35; 47).

This same practical and powerful Spirit is active everywhere in our world today. But we seldom notice. This column is dedicated to noticing. I want to notice places and people rich in Spirit and places and people in need of Spirit.

I have titled my column "Simply Spirit" because, as the Jewish composer Leonard Bernstein wrote in his "Mass," "God loves all simple things. For God is the simplest of all." There is a simplicity about God-in-the-person-of-the-Spirit that is both disarming and attractive.

This is how the Spirit does things. In whatever situation we find ourselves, the Spirit is as committed to our own growth into the God-Mystery as to the success of the mission we have been given. In fact, as nearly as I can tell, they are two sides of the same coin.

How amazing. How loving. How simply Spirit.

I invite NCR readers to help me notice the Spirit at work. Send your experiences of Spirit in your city, your church, your friends and family to I'll devote the occasional column to chronicling your experiences of both the Spirit's presence and places in great need of noticing that presence.

[A Sister of St. Joseph, Sr. Christine Schenk served urban families for 18 years as a nurse midwife before co-founding FutureChurch, where she served for 23 years.]

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