You’ll Know It When It’s Missing

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Sometimes, the only way you can tell something is there is because you know when it isn’t. Take for instance, there are people who complain about the weather all the time. “Hot enough for you? Cold enough for you?” They don’t want to make it sound like they’re complaining, but there’s often a tinge of dissatisfaction in their voice, like “You know I’m not happy about this.” On a side note, I have always wondered about this line of questioning. Is there ever a right answer? Are they trying to pick a fight? Or are they just inviting others to join in their misery? But when the weather is gorgeous and perfect, they have nothing to say. Or they complain that it’s not going to last. You can’t win. It’s not that they can’t tell good weather from bad weather. It’s that in good weather, whatever it is that makes them unhappy is not there. Good weather is not a tangible reality for them. But bad weather is. Good weather is nothing more than the absence of bad weather. And they are experts on bad weather.

Another example. You can’t usually tell when the power goes off during the day, unless you’re online or using a power tool one minute, then the next minute you’re not; or you look up and see an appliance blinking 12:00. In this digital age when we depend a great deal on electric powered automated systems, we take it for granted a lot when the power is on. We know it’s on. But we know it’s on mostly because we can tell when it isn’t. We don’t concern ourselves much with the fact that the traffic lights are working properly or that we have no trouble ordering lunch-to-go at our favorite fast-food joint. But when the power is off and traffic at several major intersections is at a stand-still, and the drive-through window at the gourmet coffee shop is out of service, we can sense a disturbance in the force. But I hear there are places in the world where electric power is off more than it is on. So the people there are more attentive to the signs that tell them when power goes on, which is usually just a few hours each day. The rest of the time, they do without. And they get by.

A third example. Most of us have a hard time defining the concept of common sense, but we think we can tell when it’s nowhere to be found. We have expectations of others, reasonable things that we are convinced don’t need explaining like: you don’t put an empty milk jug in the fridge; or you replace the toilet paper roll when it’s used up; or you fill the gas tank when the fuel gauge is below a quarter full; or when you take a phone message, write down who called and their phone number. If you can’t do that, let the machine take the call. Reasonable people will agree common sense is not all that common. I can’t prove it, but I have yet to meet someone who says there’s just enough of it. Take government, for instance. The original concept is brilliant. In practice, there’s something slightly askew, some say a lot askew. We agree it’s askew. We might never agree how best to fix it, but we know when something essential is sorely lacking.

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So whenever the Feast of Pentecost comes around bringing the Easter season to a close, we will often hear about the Holy Spirit, the third and least known person of the Blessed Trinity, the Eternal Wisdom of God, the Advocate, the Paraclete, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and Son is adored and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets, who hovered over Jesus at his baptism in the form of a dove, who came in driving wind and tongues of fire upon the disciples gathered in the upper room, who is to teach us everything, and remind us of all that the Lord has told us, who will lead us into all truth. But if you ask any fully initiated Catholic when and where the Holy Spirit may be found, most will have no idea. Some will ask you to clarify your question. But my guess is they can more easily tell, and tell you with great accuracy, when and where the Holy Spirit is absent.

Our faith teaches that the Holy Spirit is God’s abiding presence in each Christian believer and in the community of the faithful. Although we cannot contain God’s Spirit within physical limits, we know God’s Spirit through the effects and consequences of the Spirit’s presence. In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes of those who abide with God’s Spirit as dead to sin but alive through a righteous way of life. This righteous way of life IS visible and tangible evidence of the Spirit’s presence. When we encounter Christians and Christian communities who manifest signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit, we are able to tell. Christian tradition (CCC 1832) lists 12 gifts of the Holy Spirit: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, and chastity. We might not always consciously express these gifts of the Holy Spirit in our dealings with others, or in the choices we make, but other people who know the Spirit’s gifts are bound to notice when they are absent.

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When I meet a person who claims to be Christian, but is more frequently not joyful, who thrives on conflict, who sorely lacks patience, is often unkind, speaks or acts immodestly, or lacks self-control, I might seriously wonder whether or not they truly understand what it means to be a Christian. This person might go to church regularly, receive the sacraments devoutly, read the bible and quote it chapter and verse, even wear religious vestments and possess keys to the church building, but the noticeable absence of visible signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence in their words and actions show more eloquently what the Christian faith they profess means. When I come to a church community that claims to be Christian, but am met with suspicion, hostility, and mistrust, I am not likely to experience God’s abiding presence among them. First impressions are powerful and long-lasting. Lately, I have instructed parish council members who take new parishioner registrations to ask what their initial experience in our church has been like. If you joined this parish recently, what has your experience been like? And if you are visiting, what has your experience today been like? … Whatever the response, I hope we take to heart what people tell us because our words and actions will prove what our Christian faith means to us. For if we claim the faith of Jesus Christ and the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit we will express outwardly in our words and actions the truth we profess.

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I’ve been here at St. John’s for seven years. I have experienced God’s abiding presence most powerfully in our worship together, and when you have shared with me the events of your lives when God was powerfully present. I am convinced the Holy Spirit is in our midst. I hope you can say the same as well.

Rolo B. Castillo © 2013

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