HOLY SPIRIT: How To Envision The Spirit by Elizabeth A. Johnson

How To Envision The Spirit Elizabeth A. Johnson

From Abounding in Kindness

According to Christian teaching the Holy Spirit is the third person of the blessed Trinity.  For most people, the usual discussion of the mystery of the Trinity itself makes their eyes glaze over; the language of scholastic categories limps.  More helpful is a return to scripture and to the rhetoric of the first centuries of the church.  There we find poetic expressions that awaken the heart.

Throughout the Bible several metaphors taken from nature are often used to refer indirectly to the presence and activity of the Spirit.  These include wind, fire, and water.


The Spirit frequently appears in wind-blown events: the wind blowing back the sea during the exodus; the wind blowing through the valley of the dry bones, reconnecting them and breathing life back into them in the vision of Ezekiel; and the wind blowing through the house where the men and women disciples were gathered at Pentecost.

One of the Bible’s best descriptions of the Spirit as wind is in John’s gospel.  Speaking to Nicodemus, Jesus likens the Spirit to wind.  We do not know where the wind comes from or where it goes.  We can’t see it but we know it’s passing by when we feel it or see its effects.  In other words, Jesus is saying that the Spirit is present among us, invisible and not under control, but able to be glimpsed when we experience its divine influence.


Like wind, fire has no definite shape.  It is always changing, not able to be touched.  While essential for human life on Earth, for cooking and warmth, it is essentially a dangerous element.  It appears in the sky as lightning, as the sun, as other stars, but even a candle’s flame is deeply mysterious.  Moses received his call to lead the Israelites out of Egypt from the voice in the burning bush, on fire but not consumed.  At Pentecost, in addition to the sound of a mighty wind, tongues of fire appear over each person’s head and all are filled with the Spirit.

The Biblical notion of fire as a symbol for the Spirit shows up again and again in later Christian writings.  In one beautiful instance from the fourth century Cyril of Jerusalem wrote, “If fire passing through a mass of iron makes the whole of it glow, so that what was cold becomes burning and what was black is made bright, so too the power of the Spirit transforms hearts and minds, and indeed the clay of creation itself, so that what was cold and dark becomes bright and glowing.”  Note here that the coming of the Spirit doesn’t damage or violate the creature, but transforms it into something more alive.

In reflecting on the Biblical use of fire as an image for the Spirit, I am struck by the fact that contemporary science now uses the expression, “the Big Bang,” to describe the primeval explosion that ultimately developed into the universe.  Some Christian writers now want to say, in referring to this original fireball, that the act of creation was itself already a Pentecost, the first sparking of the Spirit’s energy in wind and fire.


Like wind and fire, water has no definite shape, but unlike them it is the nourishing matrix of all.  Life on Earth began in the seas; human life begins in the water of the womb.  There is sap in the tree, blood in our veins, wine in our vessels, and rain on the earth.  Water, and these liquids which are largely water, can serve as symbols of the active presence of the Spirit vivifying all things and gladdening our hearts.

Speaking through the prophet Ezekiel, God promises that the suffering people will be renewed in the Spirit as if by a refreshing shower: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you and a new spirit I will put within you.  And I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”  A fleshy heart is one that is alive, one that can feel.

Frequently, scripture talks about the Spirit being poured out the way water flows from a pitcher.  God says, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  Even on male and female slaves I will pour our my spirit.”  The New Testament account of Pentecost quotes this prophetic passage to proclaim what was indeed happening: the Spirit was being poured out.

May post-Biblical writers also speak of the Spirit as water.  Irenaeus, a second century bishop and theologian, used this image to refer to the Spirit’s working in the people of the church.  He wrote, “Just as dry wheat cannot be shaped into a cohesive lump of dough nor a loaf of bread be held together without moisture, so in the same way we many could not become one bread without the water that comes down from Heaven.  As dry earth bears no fruit unless it receives moisture, so we also were originally dry wood, and could never have borne the fruit of life without the rain freely given from above.  We have received this rain through the Holy Spirit.”  Here the water of the Spirit is involved in two homely activities, making bread and bearing fruit.  Both are helpful, I think, for understanding how the Holy Spirit works in our lives.

Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem, in talking about the dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, says, “Why did Christ call the grace of the Spirit water?  Because by water all things subsist.  Because water brings forth grass and living things.  Because the water of the showers comes down from Heaven.  Because it comes down in one form but works in many forms: it becomes white in the lily, red in the rose, purple in the violets and hyacinths, different and varied species.  It is one thing in the palm tree, yet another in the vine; and yet in all things the same Spirit.”

These are wonderful images for the Spirit, the Spirit who is one and yet brings forth many varied gifts.  Paul makes the same point when he says, “Now there are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit”; we, though many, are united because “we were all given to drink of the same Spirit.”  The point, whether in Irenaeus, Cyril, or Paul, is that magnificent diversity as well as cohesive unity in the church, indeed in the entire cosmos, is the gift of Holy Spirit.

The Spirit is like wind, fire, water.  The Spirit is none of the above in reality, yet all of these metaphors set up an impression.  Each one points to the nearness of God to each one of us and the whole creation.  They symbolize in a poetic way that God is intimately involved with the world, so intimate that, as Augustine wrote, God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves.  To summarize, ponder some of the lustrous images that Hildegard of Bingen uses to talk about the Spirit.  The Spirit, she writes, is the life of the life of all creatures; the way in which everything is penetrated with connectedness and relatedness; a burning fire who sparks, ignites, inflames, kindles hearts; a guide in the fog; a balm for wounds; a shining serenity; an overflowing fountain that spreads to all sides.  The Spirit is life, movement, color, radiance, restorative stillness in the din.  The Spirit pours the juice of contrition into hardened hearts; makes dry twigs and withered souls green again with the juice of life; purifies, absolves, strengthens, heals, gathers the perplexed, seeks the lost.  The Spirit plays music in the soul; awakens mighty hope, blowing everywhere the winds of renewal in creation.

Hildegard’s rhetoric puts me in mind of the encouragement offered in the fourth century by Basil of Caesarea in his great work on the Spirit.  Let us not be afraid of being too extravagant in what we say about the Holy Spirit, he writes; our thoughts will always fall short.

The Spirit is simply God’s self-communication in grace, present and active everywhere, pervading the world.  This basic but profound reality bears repeating today, because so many do not experience God’s nearness but think of God as distant or even unreal.  This is most unfortunate.  Through the Spirit, the risen Christ is universally present in the world everywhere and in every moment, as pervasive as the air we breathe, as the sun or the rain that comes down on us, as the wind that blows around us, as the life that flows with our every breath.


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