Arts / Faith and Humanities

"This is No Fluttering Dove"

Written by William O'Malley, S.J.

October 8, 2013

Ariel view of the Mass of the Holy Spirit

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Homilist describes Holy Spirit as fierce, feminine and freeing.

William O'Malley, S.J., visiting professor in Matteo Ricci College delivered the following homily at Seattle University's Mass of the Holy Spirit on Oct. 3. The Mass is celebrated every year to ask for God's blessing on the coming academic year.

The Latin word ignis means "fire," so the name "Ignatius" could be construed as Fire-brand-"Igniter," and Ignatius Loyola spent his adult life striving to "set fire on the earth," to challenge anyone he met who wasn't content to settle for survival. Just like the carpenter of Nazareth who said the reason for his coming was "that they may have life, more abundantly."  And when Christ returned to his Father, he left behind this meal we're about to share and the Spirit who is the love that totally conjoins the Father and the Son. 

But this is no Hallmark love Jesus left. This is the Spirit who transformed the cowards of Good Friday into billions of Christians for 20 centuries, in every cranny of the world. This is no fluttering dove. This is an unabashed fierceness that's captured symbolically only in furious wind and fire. It's a wildness you don't often find in today's Church, which is so tactful, so domestica-ted, so worried about what the neighbors might think. The Church I see now too often embodies all Carl Jung called "the feminine"-protective, enclosing, shielding. The wimpy Jesus of the holy cards. And this, oddly, in an unarguably male-dominated Church. 

All that notwithstanding, I have begun in recent years to conceive of the Holy Spirit as feminine, the spirit caught in the Book of Wisdom who sits by our doors, waiting patiently to be found. The Spirit who's uncomfortable with Law, with rationalist theologizing, with clear lines that exclude others not like us. This is the Holy Spirit of God who doesn't sit in judgment but tries to understand, who's comfortable with ambiguity, as Jesus was with sinners. 

headshot of William O'MalleyIt's that Spirit we gather this morning to invite into ourselves and into our communal quest, where every hour of research is a prayer to the Eternal Truth. This Spirit is the vibrant presence who transcends the universe-and yet penetrates every nook and niche of it, more intensely than all its muons and gluons and quarks. She's the Spirit of the Prince of Peace-but not the world's peace of being secure, unbothered, waited upon. She's the confident peace of tightrope walkers, the calm of those who defuse bombs, the serenity of cancer ward nurses. 

How does one harmonize the apparent contradiction in welcoming fire, in furious compassion, in silence at the heart of the hurricane? It's clear from the results of Pentecost the Spirit who suddenly ignited the souls of the disciples was calling them away from secure passivity, from protecting the light of the resurrection under a bushel, from minding their own redeemed business. Calling them to non-violent aggression, to tranquil anguish. How does one harmonize a Spirit who's both fierce and yet feminine? 

Think of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, fragile as eggshell and unstoppable as a runaway train.  Oprah Winfrey, a true Cinderella, from a pig farm in Kosciusko, Mississippi, to become one of the most forceful women on earth. The mother of the Maccabees, standing chin-high as her sons are slaughtered for their faith. Joan of Arc and Dorothy Day, brimming courage, even in the face of the official Church. Elizabeth Proctor in "The Crucible" as her husband goes off to his martyrdom for heresy: "He have his goodness now," she says. "God forbid I take it from him."  Ma Joad in Grapes of Wrath, a gentle grey tigress, refusing to buckle, no matter the humiliation or loss or exploitation. And Helen Reddy belting fearlessly, "I am woman!  Hear me roar!"

This Spirit brooded over the waters of chaos at the beginning and demanded it become cosmos.  This Spirit electrified life in inanimate matter, then feeling in animals, then the relentless search for meaning and purpose in human beings. This Spirit quickened the Son of God and wrapped him in the web of hillbilly girl's womb. This Spirit animated Jesus when he cleared the Temple with nothing but a handful of rope and his own towering rage. The tigress Who will not tolerate violation of the young, the innocent, the alien. In Her, the lioness lies down with the ewe-but without losing her leonine ferocity. 

This Spirit yearns to animate the Body of Christ. Us. Cunning as a serpent, but innocent as a dove. Intolerant as any mother of self-absorption or self-pity. Tirelessly teasing out talents we're too lazy or too afraid or too falsely humble to unearth and display ourselves. 

We don't need an advocate to intercede with the Father, as if God were our adversary. We need the Mother-Spirit who exploded nothing into everything, who made inert matter grow, who made life begin to feel, who made humans seek for more than just food, clothing, and shelter. It's that search that Seattle University is for. Why we take time outside Time today. That Spirit descended on the disciples in wind and fire on Pentecost: the Spirit enlivening them to stand up fearlessly, the Spirit who convinced them all their agonies were labor pains to a life that no longer feared death, a new life that radiated not propriety or flawlessness but genuine joy to be alive, to be challenged, to be used. This Spirit helps you find your song. And then she gives you the courage to stand up and sing it out, unafraid.           

How could anybody believe what we claim to believe and be timid? Reserved? There's nothing at all reserved about a crucifix. It's the Spirit of the triumphant crucified who bids us cry out, "I am Christian. Hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore!" 

And to that good news of freedom and joy, "Hallelujah!"

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