What Does the Power of the Holy Spirit Mean?
For years, I did not understand what – or more specifically – who the Holy Spirit was. Intellectually, I knew that he was the third person of the Holy Trinity, someone distinct from the Father and the Son but one in being and coequal with them. More importantly, and sadly, I had no clue as to what he meant to me and my life.
It was easy for me to pray to God and to Jesus, but not to the Holy Spirit, who seemed more like a long-lost relative whose face I didn’t know and from whom I felt a disconnect because I couldn’t understand or picture him.
With Pentecost occurring this month, I figured now would be a good time to share how I discovered the power of the Holy Spirit.
As many Catholics know, Pentecost is when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles in the Upper Room. It’s so dramatic that it’s worth recreating now.
Imagine hearing a loud whooshing sound. That is what they heard from the sky, “a noise like a strong driving wind.” It filled the entire house they were in. Now imagine bursts of flames – described as “tongues as of fire – that parted and rested on all of them. As everyone knows, fire burns. This one did not even singe them.
Instead, it filled them with courage. It enabled them to speak in different languages, which broadened their ability to reach different cultures with the proclamation of the Gospel.
This fire turned the Apostles from fear-filled people into those full of zeal. They metamorphosed from being scared to being those who cared. Their behavior transformed from despairing to declaring that Christ was their Savior. They had been transformed because they finally understood that Jesus’ grace was sufficient for them “for [His] power is made perfect in weakness.”
The Upper Room space had become a place of grace. The sheep had become the shepherds.
For those who may not believe in God, that scene may be viewed as belonging to a Hollywood movie. It’s full of action – tornado-fueled winds and bursts of fire and flames. It’s fair to say people’s reactions must have ranged from wide-eyed to super scared. Picture Twister meets Armageddon.
Hollywood knows how to make all that happen in very believable ways.
But I would counter that what happened in the Upper Room proved that Hollywood represents illusion, while God is the ultimate reality. And the reality is this: the men whom Jesus picked to follow Him were human, like the rest of us. They were lost, and then He found them. They were weak, and they found strength in His mercy and Love and in the Truth of His resurrection.
Jesus performed many miracles. They saw first-hand that nothing was impossible for this man-God. But, yet, He was killed. They saw Him on the cross, suffering greatly. They saw Him die. But, then, they saw Him again three days later. And then they saw Him ascend to heaven, though He promised, before He departed, that He would empower them with the Holy Spirit.
They could not access that power before. When God shared it with them that day, the reality is they changed. They did not cower in fear. They did not recede into the background. They went out, proclaiming the Gospel. They baptized. They healed. They loved. They did all this in the name of the risen Christ. And, they did all this in, with, and through the power they had just received. This new reality illustrates why what occurred there was not an illusion. People do not just change overnight like that, unless a higher power is involved.
The simplest way I can define the Holy Spirit is by pointing to the word love. God’s love is perfect. That’s why He is God. Jesus’ love was equally perfect. That’s why He’s the Son of God. The love between them was so intense that their bond resulted in the form of a third person: the Holy Spirit.
When perfect love meets and coexists, like theirs do, separate and distinct, but yet in perfect unity, something beautiful occurs. Imagine an explosion of love, which radiates out to all whose hearts are open to receive it. That is the power of the Holy Spirit.
I realize all this sounds very theoretical. But it’s not. It’s incredibly human. Everyone has a concept of what love is. What it feels like. We can feel it in our hearts. Love, when it is pure, like a parent’s love for his/her child, is earthshatteringly simple in its kindness, patience, self-giving, and self-sacrificial natures. At its most intense level, love is like an ocean that pours out into the world, like a giant tsunami, bathing everything and everyone with its overwhelming power.
And love, when shared, has the power to create. Think about husbands and wives who love each other so much that one of the fruits of their love is the birth of a child.
This is the kind of love shared by the Father and Son. This is the kind of love that resulted in the third person of the Holy Trinity. And what that love creates, when we open our hearts to its power, is what is referred to as the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which include the following: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, fear of the Lord.
These gifts, like the virtues of faith, hope and charity, are conferred to Catholics when we are baptized. Later, when Catholics receive the sacrament of confirmation, we receive an increase and deepening of our baptismal graces, including the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
These gifts exist because of the grace of God. I have grown to understand them better by working to eliminate as many obstacles to His grace as I can.
These obstacles have manifested themselves in my life in the forms of pride, ego, self-sufficiency, lack of forgiveness, shame, selfishness and stubbornness, just to name a few. If I am mired in any of them, they lead me to sin. What I have learned in my spiritual journey is that diminishing these obstacles and my sinful nature is less about me relying on me and more about me allowing God to work in my life.
By becoming weak, I become strong – through relying on His power, which is, essentially, the power of the Holy Spirit.
Like the Apostles before Pentecost, I was weak and full of fear before I understood this grace-filled power. But, like them, once I started to learn how to receive His love and obey and trust His will, my weakness has been made strong through His grace.
Simply put, to discover the reality of what occurred in the Upper Room more than 2,000 years ago, you have to love God enough to trust Him, without reservation, and be lovingly obedient to Him, all of which opens a pipeline of love that flows from Him to you and you to Him.
That’s what the Holy Spirit is all about.
Love that transforms us from weak to strong, from anxious to peaceful, from sad to full of joy, from angry to merciful.
Go to that love. Receive that love. Be transformed by Love.
A Prayer for a Flourishing of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit
O Lord Jesus Christ – before ascending into heaven, You promised to send the Holy Spirit to finish your work in the souls of Your apostles and disciples – deign to grant the same Holy Spirit to me that he may perfect in my soul the work of Your grace and love.
Grant me the spirit of wisdom that I may despise the perishable things of this world and aspire only after those which are eternal: the spirit of understanding to enlighten my mind with the light of Your divine truth; the spirit of counsel that I may ever choose the surest way of pleasing God and gaining heaven; the spirit of fortitude that I may bear my cross with You and overcome with courage all the obstacles that oppose my salvation; the spirit of knowledge that I may know God and myself and grow perfect in the science of the saints; the spirit of piety that I may find the service of God sweet and amiable; the spirit of fear that I may be filled with a loving reverence toward God and dread in any way to displease Him. Mark me, dear Lord, with the sign of your true disciples and animate me in all things with your spirit. Amen.
+ A prayer written by Father John A. Hardon, S.J.