The Gift Above All Gifts
Already today, the sacred liturgy begins to prepare our souls for the Gift above all gifts: the outpouring of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost. Thus does Saint James tell us in the Epistle that, « Every best gift, and every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no change, nor shadow of alteration » (James 1:17).
The Holy Ghost: Gift and Giver
What are these best and perfect gifts if not the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost: wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord? These are the gifts that perfect the theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. These are the gifts that make the Beatitudes real in our lives. There are the gifts that blossim into the twelve fruits of the Holy Ghost: charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, long-suffering, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, and chastity. And above all these gifts there is the Giver Himself, the Giver who, in an excess of love, makes Himself the Gift. Just as the Father, out of love, sent His only–begotten Son into the world, so too do the Father and the Son send the Holy Ghost, the Source of all fecundity, upon the Church to make her the joyful mother of many children, the mother of a people of saints.
The festival of the Ascension will soon be upon us and, then, after nine days of persevering prayer, together with Our Lady and the Apostles in the Cenacle, we shall live liturgically, that is, sacramentally, the mystery of the first Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Ghost in a mighty wind and in tongues of fire, the birthday of the Church, the astonishing gift of the first apostolic preaching, the outpouring of graces foretold by the prophet Joel, and the mission to nations of diverse tongues.
The Work of the Holy Ghost
Today, the liturgy invites us to make ready for the Comforter, the Divine Spirit whom Christ will send to prolong His work and manifest His presence until the end of time. The Gospel verses given us today from the 16th chapter of Saint John are, according to Monsignor Knox, “among the most difficult in the New Testament”.
He will come, and it will be for him to prove the world wrong, about sin, and about rightness of heart, and about judging. About sin; they have not found belief in me. About rightness of heart; I am going back to my Father, and you are not to see me any more. About judging; he who rules this world has had sentence passed on him already. (John 16:8–11)
These verses describe the work of the Holy Ghost not in relation to the Apostles, nor in relation to the Church, but in relation to the world, that is, that part of mankind, and that element in human nature, which is and which remains hostile to the person of Jesus Christ and to His message.
The Holy Ghost is sent to convict the world: to unmask the world and show it for what it really is; to reveal that the world and its promises are empty, not fulfilling; death–dealing, not life–giving; desperate, not capable of inspiring hope. The Holy Ghost is sent to demonstrate that the glamour of the world masks a terrible emptiness; that the noise of the world seeks to drown out the only Word that gives life meaning; that the power of the world cannot save.
The Holy Ghost is sent to show that the weakness of Christ and of Christians is stronger than what the world calls strength; that the folly of Christ and of Christians is wiser than what the world calls wisdom; that the chastity of the saints is sweeter than what the world calls pleasure; that the sorrow of those who weep in Christ is more gladsome than what the world calls happiness; and that the poverty of those who forsake all for Christ’s sake is richer than what the world counts as riches.
In the Light of Psalm 72
The Holy Ghost is sent to ratify and confirm in Christ what was revealed before Christ to the psalmist of old:
I was near losing my foothold, felt the ground sink under my steps, such heart-burning had I at seeing the good fortune of sinners that defy his law; for them, never a pang; healthy and sleek their bodies shew. Not for these to share man’s common lot of trouble; the plagues which afflict human kind still pass them by. . . .
Enviously the men of my own race look on, to see them draining life’s cup to the full; Can God, they ask, be aware of this? Does the most High know of all that passes? Look at these sinners, how they live at peace, how they rise to greatness!
Why then, thought I, it is to no purpose that I have kept my heart true, and washed my hands clean in pureness of living; still, all the while, I am plagued for it, and no morning comes but my scourging is renewed. Was I to share their thoughts? Nay, that were to put the whole company of thy children in the wrong.
I set myself to read the riddle, but it proved a hard search, until I betook myself to God’s sanctuary, and considered, there, what becomes of such men at last. The truth is, thou art making a slippery path for their feet, ready to plunge them in ruin; in a moment they are fallen, in a storm of terrors vanished and gone. (Psalm 72: 2–19)
The liturgy is saying to us today, «If you would experience the truth of things, if you would begin to taste the wisdom of the Holy Ghost who instructs the little and the poor, begin now to open your hearts, begin to desire with an immense desire, for your capacity to receive the Gift will be proportionate to your desire. Let everything in you become a great yearning for God. Surrender yourselves to the Giver and to the Gift».
Ubi Vera Sunt Gaudia
Wherever the Holy Ghost is at work, exposing what is false, and empty, and bitter, His gentle and compelling influence in souls produces a unity and a joy that the world can neither produce nor give. The Collect describes the Church as a people of one mind and one heart, loving one thing only, seeking one thing only, cleaving to one thing only — in the midst of the world and all its passing fashions and deceits.
The Church is the body of those who, united to Christ the Head, « seek the things that are above; where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God » (Colossians 3:1). The Church is the mother of a new family, generated by the Holy Ghost, a people who « mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth ».
The more we identify with our mother the Church, and with the sentiments and movements of the heart of her Head and Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, revealed in the sacred liturgy, the more securely will our hearts be anchored, as the Collect says, ubi vera sunt gaudia, « there where true joys are found ».
Invisibly Radiating Joy
If a monastery is anything at all, it is a place ubi vera sunt gaudia, « where true joys are to be found ». These joys are not purchased cheaply, they come to us wrapped in a circle of thorns: the sign of our communion with Christ in His Passion. This makes them all the more precious and all the more worth possessing.
The joy of a monastery is not something kept under lock and key; it is not bottled up and distributed begrudgingly to a select few. The joy of a monastery renews the Church from within. It is, to use the phrase from Saint John’s Gospel, like the fragrance of a precious ointment filling the whole house (John 12:3). The health of the Church in any nation is directly proportionate to, and can be measured by, the growth of the contemplative monastic life which, although hidden, invisibly radiates a joy that the world cannot take away.
Of Martyrs and Monks
Down through the ages, the Holy Ghost has demonstrated the truth of the Gospel and the vehement power of the love of Christ through the Church’s martyrs and through her monks. Neither martyrs nor monks hold a place in hierarchical orders of the Church. Martyrdom, like the monastic vocation, is a gratia gratis data, a grace freely given, a grace that can be accepted or pushed away. In both cases, it is a question of dying for Christ’s sake.
Always we, alive as we are, are being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the living power of Jesus may be manifested in this mortal nature of ours. So death makes itself felt in us, and life in you. (2 Corinthians 4:11–12).