A month ago, I planted some sunflowers around my front porch. Yeah, I knew I was taking my chances as it was late fall already. Maybe they’ll bloom. Maybe not. When it comes to planting anything, there are elements within my control and elements outside my control. Up to a certain point, I have to trust nature’s processes. In spiritual direction, “trusting nature’s processes” comes when I relinquish control and open myself to the work of the Holy Spirit.
When it comes to spiritual direction, the primary actor doing stuff is the Holy Spirit. Not me. The Holy Spirit is the initiator, not the director, not the directee, of the conversation. The Holy Spirit sparks ideas. The Holy Spirit inspires words and phrases. The Holy Spirit pulls out meaningful memories. The Holy Spirit leads. It’s my work—as director, or as directee—to respond obediently.
Just what exactly is the the Holy Spirit?
Better question: Who is the Holy Spirit? The Spirit is always a who, not a what. We’re not talking about an impersonal force, like in Star Wars. The Holy Spirit is a person. In fact, when we talk about the Holy Spirit, we’re talking about one of the persons of the Christian Trinity.
Rublev’s famous icon of the Trinity highlights the oneness and deference of the persons of God to one another. The Father looks to the Son. The Son looks to the Spirit. The Spirit looks to the Father. They are one, and they are three, and from the earliest days, this is how Christians have talked about God. Community is a fundamental part of God’s nature.
I grew up in a faith tradition where we didn’t talk about the Holy Spirit. There was God the Father who made the world and sent Jesus. There was Jesus the Son, who died on the cross for my sins. And then there was this dove that we didn’t really know what to do with.
In college, I suddenly found myself in a setting making friends with people who turned that upside down. The Holy Spirit was everything, and Jesus and the Father took a backseat, if they got a seat at all. The Holy Spirit gave people all kinds of crazy superpowers at church.
It took some time to find a healthy balance between these two places. I had to sit with the Scriptures and soak in those stories that spoke about the Holy Spirit.
The creative work of the Holy Spirit
I’ll argue that the most important chapter in the Bible is Genesis 1. In the very opening verses of God’s story we find the Holy Spirit at work:
“The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters” (Genesis 1:2).
The earth is a mess. And God is there. This is a profound theological truth. The Genesis 1 is not story of creation from nothing. It’s rather a story of order from chaos, and the orderer of that chaos is the Holy Spirit.
The word “hovering” in this passage looks like a mother hen expectantly guarding her eggs, or like a chef creatively stirring his pot. Before we see God as a shepherd or king or judge or father, or any other of the many metaphors the biblical writers give to God, we see God as a maker. We see God painstakingly putting everything in its right place, taking the chaos and crafting a beautiful order.
The Holy Spirit as “breather”
But that’s not the only story of creation in Genesis. Chapter 2 offers another take. There’s a lot of overlap in the Hebrew words that get translated into English as “breath,” “wind,” and “spirit.”
“Then Yahweh God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person” (Genesis 2:7).
God takes a ball of dirt, breathes into it, and it becomes a living human being. The breathing of God animates life. Breath creates. Spirit generates.
The Holy Spirit in the story of Jesus
The writer of Luke makes particular emphasis on the work and presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus and then the life of the Church in the book of Acts.
Reminiscent of the Genesis stories, this is how the Jesus story begins in Luke:
“The angel replied [to Mary], ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you'” (Luke 1:35).
At this point in time, as far as the story of Israel goes, things are formless, void, and darkness covers the land. There is no king, no prophet, and the promises to Abraham, Moses, and David seem like fading memories. The Roman Empire rules with an iron fist.
And God’s subversive act in the darkness, in the chaos is to overshadow Mary. To hover again. The Incarnation begins with the creative work of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit as “breather,” redux
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Church is an epic scene as Luke tells it in Acts 2. But the Gospel of John gives us a very different take on the way the disciples first encountered the Spirit, one more intimate with echoes of Genesis 2.
It’s Easter day. The disciples are hiding behind locked doors, fearful of what happens next, uncertain of what to believe. Jesus appears.
“Then he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit'” (John 20:22).
As God animated the lifeless mud ball by breathing to make the first human, Jesus animates the fearful disciples to make them the Church. The presence of the Holy Spirit brings new life, resurrection life.
The Holy Spirit makes three in the room
One crucial way spiritual direction is different from counseling or coaching is that there’s much more happening than two people having a conversation. There are always three persons in the room. It is spiritual direction, after all.
Francis Kelly Nemeck and Marie Theresa Coombs write, “The spiritual director, therefore, helps bring into consciousness and explicate the already existing spiritual direction in which the Spirit is leading the directee.” The Spirit is constantly working. Direction begins to name the shape and form and emerging life that the Holy Spirit brings.
Often in spiritual direction sessions, I’ll light a candle as a physical reminder of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our space. I’ll begin with silence and invite the directee to breathe deeply, notice their breathing, and remember how God breathed into the mud ball, making the first human being. Remember how the risen Jesus breathed on the disciples, inviting them to receive the Spirit.
The Celtic Christian communities formed by St. Patrick and those following had a hard time accepting the biblical image of the Holy Spirit as a dove. It was too tame for them. Too domesticated. Too quiet. So they chose instead the image of a goose. It was wild. It was noisy. It couldn’t be controlled or contained. This was a picture for God that inspired them.
Do you feel stuck in the formless void? Fumbling in darkness? Do you need to be overshadowed? Do you need life breathed into you?
May your journey in spiritual direction be a wild goose chase of the Holy Spirit.
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