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The Holy Spirit and Community Life
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
The subject of our present conference is The Holy Spirit and Community Life. We are hearing so many things about the Holy Spirit these days that it might be well to reflect on the sequence of events which took place on Pentecost Sunday.
My plan for the conference is first, to read the verses from the Acts of the Apostles in which St. Luke describes what happened at Pentecost in the actual Descent of the Holy Spirit, and then immediately after Peter's sermon where he himself was inspired by the Spirit, how that same Spirit affected and began to shape the first converts. Then having read the passages we shall reflect separately on the prominent features of what the Holy Spirit does when he descends on the faithful.
Descent of the Holy Spirit
It begins with the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. First the context. "When Pentecost day came around they had all met in one room when suddenly they heard what sounded like a powerful wind from Heaven, the noise of which filled the entire house in which they were sitting and something appeared to them that seemed like tongues of fire. These separated and came to rest on the head of each. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak foreign languages as the Spirit gave them the gift of speech." So far the Descent of the Spirit.
Immediately after we know that Peter preached, what I tell my students in Theology, is the model homily: short, has a beginning, a middle and especially a pointed end. And above all it gets people to do something. Homilies should not end in the mind. We are then told that Peter having given his sermon produced this result. We go back to Luke. Hearing this, Peter's homily, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the Apostles, "What must we do brothers?" "You must repent," Peter answered, "and everyone of you must be baptized in the Name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." The promise that was made is for you and your children and for all those who are far away, for all who spoke to them for a long time whom the Lord our God will call to Himself.
Peter urged them, "Save yourselves from this perverse generation." They were convinced by his argument and they accepted what he said and were baptized. That very day about three thousand were added to their number. These remained faithful to the teaching of the Apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers. The many miracles and signs worked through the Apostles made a deep impression on everyone. The faithful all lived together and owned everything in common. They sold their goods and possessions and shared out the proceeds among themselves, according to what each one needed. They went as a body to the temple everyday but met in their houses for the breaking of bread. They shared their food gladly and generously. They praised God and were looked up to by everyone. Day by day the Lord added to their community those destined to be saved. So far, St. Luke.
As we look back over these words of revelation, we are first of all struck by the fact that the promise which Christ made to the Apostles telling them to wait and pray and He would hence send them the Spirit who would give them the power to be His witnesses even to the ends of the world. Christ did not take a long time fulfilling His promise. This was the end of the first retreat. It began on Ascension Thursday and closed on Pentecost Sunday, and as all good retreats, it ended with the coming of the Holy Spirit. We are told that all those gathered in the Upper Room in Jerusalem including, by the way Mary and the women, as I always tell any women in the audience they too received the Holy Spirit just for the biblical record.
Now when we are told in Acts or elsewhere that people are filled with the Holy Spirit that can mean a lot of things. What it means in essence is that they received the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Just a word about those gifts. The gifts, beyond the virtues that we receive when we are baptized, are those supernatural instincts which lead us to practice the virtues that are incumbent on us as believers. Virtues are the powers. Gifts are the instincts to use those powers. Thus, for example, our bodies periodically need food. What if we did not have a corresponding instinct of hunger? Clear? We'd starve. The gifts correspond then to the natural instincts urging us, impelling us, from within to want to do, to be hungry for the things of God. Peter's sermon we will skip.
Effects of the Holy Spirit
But now the effects. Immediately after Peter finished his homily those who had heard him were touched. The first effect, genuine effect of the Holy Spirit, is to make one conscious of his or her sins. How this bears emphasis. The first fruit of the Holy Spirit is to make us aware of who we are of ourselves, sinners. Consequently the desire for conversion of hearts, an openness to do God's will. They are told by Peter, and notice to remind ourselves, the same Spirit that spoke in Peter was the One that was active in the hearts of his hearers. By the way, as one who does a lot of speaking, I can tell you how I bank on that! Am I clear? What good would it be for me to preach or teach whatever I do unless I have the comforting assurance that the same Spirit was active, pardon me, in you?
Peter then told them, "Admit your sins." Now youd think by now after eight days, I'd get off the subject. Well no because for the rest of our days we will have to be reciting the Lord's Prayer when we ask to be forgiven our trespasses, and in the Hail Mary, pray for us sinners. The first fruit of the Holy Spirit is to have us humbly admit our sinfulness. How prosaic can you get? Then be baptized. Well, we appreciate that, that part be finished. Receive the Spirit, which we have. Then Peter said that "not only those who had been immediately baptized," but he added, "also those who are far away will receive the Holy Spirit." That's us, far away in distance, far away in time. But note the precondition. The precondition is the constant admission of our sinful nature. The Holy Spirit will flood us with His graces if we have the humility to admit our needs. Then we are told immediately after this conversion and Baptism, that those first followers of Christ were faithful in four ways. Each one should be remembered because this is the foundation of all community living.
Foundation of Community Living
First, they were faithful to the teaching of the Apostles. Second, depending on the translation, this one says the brotherhood. Well, given this audience, the sisterhood. The Greek is koinotita, which means community. Now that bears to be emphasized that along with loyalty to the Faith to the teaching of the Apostles which for us is the teaching of the Church. Correlatively we are to be faithful to the community. There is such a thing as loyalty to the community. Then fidelity to the breaking of bread which is Luke's praise for the Eucharist. And faithful to their prayers, meaning their community prayers. Couldn't be a better set of norms for any community anytime including now.
We are then told that the Apostles worked miracles. Now that I think bears to be also stressed. The Holy Spirit gave gifts but He didn't give everybody the same gifts. Not everybody had the gift of miracles. Let that be said. The Apostles did for the obvious reason that they were the witnesses to the teachings of Christ and consequently, as we saw in a previous context, the same God who teaches Truth that is beyond the capacity of the mind to understand must, and this is part of the Divine Logic, must render that Truth credible by working miracles which are called signs in order to testify to the Truth of what otherwise the mind could not believe. Pardon me, it could but not reasonably. In fact we have a word to describe belief without good reasons for believing. We call that credulity and people who are strongly motivated through credulity are called frenetic.
But faith is believing indeed in things that the human mind cannot comprehend but it has grounds for believing and those grounds are the wonders, signs and miracles that over the centuries from apostolic times down to the present, God makes sure are worked in His Church. We are told as a consequence they left an impression on all. That's the apostles. But now the Big One.
St. Luke in describing the manner of life of the early Christians tells us many things. In essence, he tells us that the early Christians lived together, worshipped together and met together. You will also notice the universality of Luke's language. He says "all the faithful lived together" meaning therefore that from the very beginning of the Church community life began. As a matter of fact, you would expect it because what the faithful who had just been converted by Peter's preaching simply did was to carry on what Christ had already started. You might almost say that built into the concept of Christianity is the notion of togetherness.
We are further told by Luke that they possessed their ownership of everything, another universal, in common. Do you see why it bears emphasis to remind those who have ostensibly left all to follow Christ? Why it's worth reminding them that they are to leave all! And part of ourselves is what we own. We are further told they sold all their goods. Now Luke, by the way, is not given to superlatives but in this passage on community life he is filled with universals: its all this and everything that and everyone something else. They sold all their goods and possessions. We might say goods are the things they had immediately around them and the possessions was what we would now call real estate or in pre-corporation days, the possessions would now be called investments. How religious today must be aware that the heart and base of religious life is poverty.
St. Robert Bellarmine, the man whom I'd as totally mastered as I could, through four years of Theology and then I wrote my doctoral dissertation on one aspect of his teaching, a man who lived through the havoc of the sixteenth century, that the main reason for the disintegration of religious life throughout Europe when not hundreds, but thousands of convents and monasteries disappeared. The main reason was that the religious were not practicing poverty. It was true in the sixteenth century it is true in the twentieth so much so that I often wonder why religious ever call me back. Look to your poverty. Then appropriately, now this by the way under the influence of the Holy Spirit, was an interpretation you will recall of Christs words to the rich young man. Remember what He told him? After the man had said I have done all these things that is kept the Commandments from my youth what more is wanting to me? Then Christs answer, I like this translation, "If you wish to go the whole way then go sell what you have, give the proceeds to the poor and come follow me."
Now what the Holy Spirit whom Christ promised that He would explain all the things that Christ had taught, what He added, and this is precious, it is not only or necessarily that one sells all he or she has and gives it away and then well, and then, what do you do? People must live. There must be means of support.
The addition, better, the development of doctrine from Matthew recording Christs prescription to the rich young man and the description here in Acts, is that having sold all their goods and possessions, then they formed a community and shared of the proceeds as each one needed. So that you might say the essence of this poverty, religious poverty is not destitution otherwise not only the individual who gave everything away couldn't survive but less still could the community. Right? It is that having sold their goods and possessions, they shared out the proceeds of what they sold among themselves. And the point is, as each one needed, not of course necessarily as each one wanted, which I keep reminding superiors to distinguish between peoples wants and needs. Generally speaking, peoples wants exceed their needs.
Luke goes on to inform us now that pristine community which for all times remains the paradigm of all community. They met together periodically but they went as a body to the temple everyday. Scholars tell us that was an unheard of phenomenon, everyday and together. So they prayed together, they worked together and they walked together. A good religious likes to be with other members of the community. We are told they met together and they shared their food gladly and generously. How that needs to be said, having eaten by now some thousands of meals with my fellow religious. Even after years in community living to share one's food, now this is not a trifle, gladly. You know what that means? Somebody took the piece of fruit or the piece of meat that I wanted. That's what it means. Generously, so that by the time it comes to me, I forget how many of you sit at table, We usually have been sitting six to a table. Now the sixth person gets the biggest piece. That's a good proof of sound religious life. Then you've got a good community, when the first one takes the smallest and the last one gets the biggest and the best. Makes sense, doesn't it?
All this high sounding theological speculation, all these big polysyllabic words, all these quotations from John of the Cross, all those beautiful passages from the Scriptures, to the contrary notwithstanding. We are living a good community life, when among other things we share our food gladly and generously. What follows is no surprise.
We are then told by Luke they were admired by everyone. Now the word admire has a cheap connotation in English. It, of course, comes from the Latin mirari which means to wonder and admirari means a strong wonderment. We don't have the verb in this context but you might say they astonished everybody. People couldn't believe it! Now why? Well for all the things they were doing together. One of the surest marks of the Holy Spirit is that we shed our selfishness and take on the desire to give and to share. We are told by Luke that they praised God. Who praised God? These early Christians. Now that may sound either strange or prosaic. It's neither. Why did they praise God? Because they knew full well that what they were doing could not have come from their own powers. In fact, the contrast between what they had been, and what they suddenly became, must have been so obvious to them. Naturally they would praise, watch it, they would praise God rather than themselves giving Him credit rather than either themselves, or even one another, praising God for what they were, and were doing. One final observation before my synthesis of this meditation. The overall result was a foregone conclusion. As a matter of fact, if the result had not followed, we wouldn't be here because what we are talking about is the origins of the Church.
Origins of the Church
So Luke says day by day God added to their community those who were also called by Him to be saved which in Luke's language means to be sanctified. God calls others to holiness through us if we are holy. Holiness produces holiness. Goodness reproduces itself. The chaos in religious life in countries like the United States, the drop in vocations among women religious in America in the last seven years eighty seven percent. Thirteen entries, its getting less, to a hundred less than ten years ago. And that one in ten which it used to be is going only to communities that are living out this kind of life and as I don't hesitate saying, in direct proportion. You live this kind of community life and God will bless you where those whom He will call to follow your example. Those who don't do this will die out.
Effects of the Holy Spirit
Now a sort of capsulization of all that we have seen because we've touched on much. It is well I think, as we close this meditation to tell ourselves that the Holy Spirit sent by Christ produces two principal effects in those in whom He dwells and I would add in the degree to which He dwells in them. The first effect is on the individual. Enabling the person thanks to the Spirit within him, to conform him or herself to the Divine Will in total self-giving to God. Sacred writers called this, St. Bernard I believe coined the distinction, we call this affective union with God. That's the first and fundamental proof of the Spirit in the soul that receives Him willingly. But the second proof grows from the first. This is not quite for the individual himself but rather through the individual to the creation of a community. This is called effective union. Because where the first is the individual's union with God in the depths of His heart, the second is the effective way, the effective way in which that affective union is to be mainly practiced.
Meaning all that we have seen, the desire to live with others, to work with others, to share with others, let's admit it, to put up with others of course it is totally mutual. And the more people in our lives we find that we got to put up with, chalk that up as so many evidences of the fact that there are at least that many people who have to put up with you. How this bears to be underlined and encircled because it's strange, after all that we've heard about this. How misled we can be, of course, by the contrary spirit who is the spirit of disharmony, of disunity, of disorder. That the principal way we show our internal love for God is by living with and loving others. And this is not a passage from some social scientist. It is the teaching of the Savior, Who when He predicted the coming of the Spirit, this is the balance, John and Luke should be seen as complementing one another.
In John the long homily at the Last Supper Christ promised the Spirit. And what did He tell His followers to do? To love one another. The reciprocity of communal living even as I have been loving you and interwoven with His insistence on mutual, reciprocal, communal love intertwined to all of those insistences by Christ is Christ's description of the union that obtains in the Trinity where the binding power between Father and Son is the self-same Holy Spirit Who having, this is human language, not formed because that Community is Eternal. Being the reason for the Eternal Community which is the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is that's the love that unites the Three Persons in sharing the totality of their Divine Nature. Mystery beyond comprehension but what should not be beyond comprehension is that that same Spirit dwelling in our souls should, provided we co-operate, effect a comparable unity among ourselves where we too share totally not excluding, how this bears to be stressed, not excluding our thoughts, our feelings, so that we share our hearts.
One last word. And of course the sacramental means by which this kind of unity in community patterned on the Trinity is made possible is the daily reception of that Christ Who to make this unity possible died for us on the Cross. Well as we all know, this in large measure is also our daily cross. Please God what we've shared together we will also be able to, with God's grace, to put into effective practice. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Conference Transcription from a retreat that Fr. Hardon
Mother of Sorrows Recordings, Inc.
Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica
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