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The Holy Spirit and Community Life
Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
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 is first to give the verses from the Acts of the Apostles in which Saint Luke describes what happened at Pentecost in the actual descent of the Holy Spirit and then what happened immediately after Peter's sermon, where he himself was inspired by the Spirit, and how that same Spirit affected and began to shape the first converts. Then we shall reflect separately on the prominent features of what the Holy Spirit does when he descends on the faithful.
The narrative of Pentecost begins with the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. "When Pentecost day came round, 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 of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak foreign languages as the Spirit gave them the gift of speech."
Immediately after the descent of the Spirit, Peter preached what is the model homily: it is short, has a beginning, a middle, and especially a pointed end. Above all, it animates people to do something; good homilies should not end in the mind. Peter, having given his sermon, produced this result; so we are told by Luke:
"Hearing this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the apostles, 'What must we do, brothers?' 'You must repent,' Peter answered 'and every one 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 those whom the Lord our God will call to himself'. He spoke to them for a long time using many arguments, and he urged them, 'Save yourselves from this perverse generation'. They were convinced by his arguments, 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 every day 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."
Looking back over these words of revelation, we are struck by the fact that the promise which Christ made to the apostles, after telling them to wait and pray, that He would send them the Spirit who would give them the power to be His witnesses even to the ends of the world, did not take a long time to be fulfilled.
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 Mary and the women, received the Holy Spirit. Whenever we are told in "Acts" or elsewhere that people are filled with the Holy Spirit, it can mean many things. Essentially it means that they received the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Just a word about those gifts. Beyond the virtues that we receive when we are baptized, they 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 but if we did not have a corresponding instinct of hunger, we'd starve. The gifts correspond, then, to the natural instincts urging us, impelling us from within, to desire to do and to be hungry for the things of God.
What were the effects of Peter's sermon? Those who heard him were touched. The first genuine effect of the Holy Spirit is to make each listener conscious of his or her sins. How this bears emphasis. This first fruit of the Holy Spirit is to make us aware of who we are of ourselves, sinners. Consequently, there is the desire for conversion of heart and openness to do God's will. The same spirit that spoke in Peter was the one that was active in the hearts of his hearers. What good would it be for anyone to preach or teach unless they had the comforting assurance that the same Spirit was active in the listeners? Peter then told them, "Admit your sins". We can never get off that subject, because for the rest of our days we will have to be reciting the Lord's Prayer whore we ash to be forgiven cur 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; "then he baptized", as Peter said. "Receive the Spirit", he continued; this we have already done. Then Peter said that not only those who have been immediately baptized but also those who are far away will receive the Spirit - that's us, far away in distance, far away in time. But note the precondition which 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 that immediately after this conversion and baptism that those first followers of Christ were faithful in four ways; each one should be remembered because they are the foundation of all community living. First, they were faithful to the teaching of the apostles and second, to the brotherhood - the Greek is "koinonia" which means community. It should 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. Luke continuing speaks also of fidelity to the breaking of bread which is his phrase for the Eucharist; and lastly they are to be faithful to their community prayers. There couldn't be a better set of laws for any community anytime, including now.
We are told that the apostles worked miracles. That bears to be stressed. The Holy Spirit gave gifts, but not the same gifts to everybody. Not everybody had the gift of miracles. The apostles did, for the obvious reason that they were the witnesses to the teachings of Christ, and consequently, as we saw before, the same God who teaches truth that is beyond the capacity of the mind to understand must, as part of divine logic, render that truth credible by working miracles in order to testify to the truth of what otherwise the mind could not reasonably believe. The word to describe belief without good reasons for believing is "credulity", and people who are strongly motivated through credulity are called "fanatical". Faith, however, is believing in things that the human mind cannot comprehend but has grounds for believing through the wonders, signs and miracles that over the centuries from apostolic times to the present, God makes sure are worked in His Church. We are told that these left an impression on all.
Saint Luke in describing the manner of life of the early Christians tells us many things; in essence that they lived, worshipped, and met together. You will 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 existed. 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.
Luke then says that they possessed their ownership of everything in common. It bears emphasis that those who have ostensibly left all to follow Christ are actually to leave all, and part of ourselves is what we own. Luke is not given to superlatives, but this passage on community life is filled with universals. He says "all this" and "everything that" and "everyone something else". We are further told that they sold all their goods and possessions. We might say goods are the things they had immediately around them and the possessions were what we now call real estate or, in the pre-corporation days, the possessions would be called investments.
During the havoc of the 16th century, the main reason for the disintegration of religious life throughout Europe, when thousands of convents and monasteries disappeared, was that the religious were not practicing poverty. It was true in the 16th century; it is true in the 20th. Look to your poverty! You will recall Christ's words to the rich young man. Remember what He told him? After the young man said, "I have done all these things from my youth" (this is, kept the commandments);'what more is wanting to me?" Christ answered, "If you wish to go the whole way, then go sell what you have, give the proceeds to the poor; and come, follow Me."
The Holy Spirit, whom Christ promised would explain all things that He had taught, made this precious addition to the understanding of the infant Church: the key is not only or necessarily that one sells all he or she has and gives it away, because then what do you do, how do you live? There must be means of support. The development of doctrine from Matthew, recording Christ's prescription to the rich young man, and the description here in Acts, is that having sold all their goods and possessions they then formed a community and shared out the proceeds as each one needed. So the essence of this religious poverty is not destitution; otherwise not only the individuals who gave everything away couldn't survive, but less still could the community. 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 necessarily as each one wanted. Generally speaking, peoples' wants exceed their needs.
Luke goes on to inform us that the pristine community, which for all time remains the paradigm of all communities, met together periodically; but they also went as a body every day to the, Temple. That was an unheard of phenomenon. So they prayed together, they worked together, and they walked together. A good religious likes to be with other members of the community. They met together and they shared their food gladly and generously. This is not a trifle: To share one's food gladly simply means: "Somebody took the piece of fruit or the piece of meat that I wanted, and I'm glad." Sharing generously is shown when the first person takes the smallest and the last one gets the biggest. That's a good proof of sound religious life; then you have a good community. All the high sounding theological speculation, all the big polysyllabic words, all the quotations from Saint John of the Cross, and all those beautiful passages from the Scriptures, to the contrary not withstanding: we are living a good community life when among other things we share our food gladly and generously.
What follows is no surprise. We have been told by Luke that they were admired by everyone. Now the word "admire" has a rather cheap connotation in English, but it comes from the Latin "Mirari" meaning "to wonder", and "admirari" means "a strong wonderment". You might say they astonished everybody; people couldn't believe what they were doing. Why? Because of 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. And those early Christians praised God. That is neither strange nor prosaic. Why did they praise God? Because they knew very well that what they were doing could not have come from their own hearts. In fact, the contrast between what they had been and what they suddenly became, must have been so obvious to them that they naturally wanted to praise God rather than themselves, giving Him credit for what they were arc' were doing.
One final observation before the synthesis of this meditation. The overall result was a foregone conclusion; as a matter of fact, if that result had not followed, we wouldn't be here, because what we are talking about is the origins of the Church. Saint Luke says, "Day by day God added to their community 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 bears this out. The fewer vocations are going now only to communities that are living this kind of life. In direct proportion as this kind of community life is lived, God blesses a community with those whom He will call to follow their example; those communities which don't do this will die out.
Now a sort of capsulization of all that we have said, because we have touched on much. It is well 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 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, following Saint Bernard who coined the distinction, call this "affective union" with God. That is the first and fundamental fruit of the Spirit in the soul that receives Him willingly.
The second fruit grows from the first. It is not quite for the individual himself but rather through the individual for 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 in which that affective union is to be mainly practiced: the desire to live with others, to work with others, to share with others, and, yes, to put up with others. Of course, it is totally mutual. The more people in our lives we find that we have to endure, we can chalk up as so many more evidences that there are at least that many people who have to put up with us. How this bears to be underlined and encircled. It is strange that after all we have heard about this how misled we can be (of course by the contrary Spirit who is the spirit of disharmony, of disunity, of disorder). The principal way we show our internal love for God is by living with and loving others.
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 at the Last Supper, gave the balance for these passages by Luke in Acts. John and Luke should be seen as complimenting one another. In John in the long homily at the Last Supper, Christ promised the Spirit and simultaneously proclaimed His new commandment to "love one another" (the reciprocity of communal living) "even as I have been loving you". Interwoven with His insistence on mutual, reciprocal, communal love is Christ's description of the union that exists in the Trinity, where the binding power between Father and Son is the selfsame Holy Spirit, who does not form the eternal community of the Trinity, but who is the love that unites the Three Persons in sharing the totality of their Divine Nature. Mystery beyond comprehension: What should not be beyond comprehension is that the same Spirit dwelling in our souls will, provided we cooperate, effect a comparable unity among ourselves where we too share totally, including a sharing of our thoughts and feelings so that we share our hearts.
One last word: 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. In large measure, it is also this sharing which is our daily cross.
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