THE HOLY SPIRIT: Ruach, the Spirit’s Name by Raniero Cantalamessa

Meditations on the Veni Creator

Ruach, the Spirit's Name, by Raniero Cantalamessa

From: Come, Creator Spirit

The literal translation of the first verse of the Veni Creator says:

Come, Creator Spirit,
visit the minds of those who are yours;
fill with Heavenly grace
the hearts that you have made.

The theme of this introductory meditation will be two words of the first line of the Veni Creator: “Come, Spirit,” especially, “Spirit.”  Normally, the first thing we learn about a person is his or her name.  We use the name to call that person, and the name sorts that person out in our mind from all the other people we know.  The Third Person of the Trinity also has a name, even though, as we shall see, it is a very special king of name.  He is called, “Spirit.”

Spirit, however, is a translation of his name.  When you really love someone, you want to know everything about that person, including his or her “baptismal” name, the real name.  The real name of the Spirit, the name by which the first recipients of revelation knew him, was ruach.  It is so good, at times, to call on the Spirit by this name that was pronounced by the lips of the prophets and the psalmists, of Mary, of Jesus, and of Paul!  Before the name of the Spirit came to us it went through yet another stage, as Pneuma.  This is the name given to the Spirit in the pages of the New Testament.

For the Jews, the name was so important that it was identical with the very person.  To hold the name of God holy meant to recognize and honor the very person of God as holy.  The name was never simply a conventional way of referring to someone, as it often is with us today; it always said something of the origin or function of the one named.  The name ruach is this kind of name.  It contains the very first revelation concerning the person and the work of the Holy Spirit.  That is why it is so important to start with the name of the Spirit on our journey of discovery into the reality of the Spirit.

What is the meaning of the Hebrew word ruach?  Its first meaning is the space, the air between Heaven and Earth, a space that can be sometimes calm, sometimes turbulent, a space like the open prairie where it is easy to see how the wind blows.  By extension, ruach means the life-space in which we human beings move and breathe.  This original meaning of the word has left traces in the theological understanding of the Spirit.  Especially in the New Testament, the mention of the Spirit is usually linked to words referring to place.  The typical preposition in speaking of the Spirit is in, as for the Father it is from, and for the Son, through: “From the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.”  The Holy Spirit is the spiritual space, the life-sustaining ambience, in which we are able to be in touch with God and with Christ.

But let us now leave these remote roots of the meaning of the name, which at an early stage were bypassed even in Hebrew language, and turn to the usual significance the word has in the Bible.

Ruach means two things, closely linked to one another: wind and breath.  This is true also of the Greek name Pneuma and the Latin Spiritus.  English also has words from the root spirit, like inspire and respire, and from the root pneuma, like pneumatic, and all of these retain the link with breath and blow.  This same link is present in the term ghost, which, like the German geist, derives from gast, breath.

And so it is that wind and breath are more than just symbols of the Holy Spirit.  Here we have symbol and reality so closely linked that they share the same name.  It is difficult for us to grasp the influence of the fact that wherever we read “wind” in the scripture, people of Biblical times also understood “spirit,” and wherever we read “spirit,” they also understood “wind.”  It was not the Holy Spirit that gave his name to wind, but wind that gave its name to the Holy Spirit.  In other words, the sign came before the reality signified, because in human experience, we do not come to know spiritual reality first, but on the contrary, we know material reality first and only then do we come to know what is spiritual (see 1 Corinthians 15:46).

So it is that we start our study of the Spirit in the open air.  As we go through the Veni Creator we shall be encountering other natural symbols of the Holy Spirit: water, fire, oil, and light.  The Bible loves to teach us about the most spiritual realities by using as symbols the simplest of ordinary things found in nature.  God “wrote two books”: creation, made up of things and elements in themselves mute, and the Bible, made up of letters and words.  These “books” explain one another and throw light on one another.  The sacraments work in the same kind of way.

As I mentioned, there were two root meanings of the word ruach that God used to reveal to us the ineffable reality of the Spirit: wind and breath.  In this connection recall several of the more significant passages from the Bible, not simply to show that what we are saying is supported by texts, but because each one of these passages is a pearl for us to treasure.

The opening lines of the book of Genesis speak of the “Spirit of God” hovering over the waters.  The closeness between Spirit and Wind is here so strong that modern translators are often uncertain whether to translate the expression as “Spirit of God,” or “Wind of God,” or “freely-blowing wind.”  A little later in the text we read: “the Lord of God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life,” (Genesis 2:7), and later the Bible sees in that “breath” an early, embryonic manifestation of the Holy Spirit, (1 Corinthians 15:45).

Here, then, we see the beginnings of the two basic images destined to become more and more explicit as revelation continued to unfold.  When the Holy Spirit is given in the Acts of the Apostles, the sign is that of a strong wind, (Acts 2:2); in John’s gospel the same Spirit is conferred by the Risen Christ in the sign of breathing, in a gesture that deliberately recalls the Genesis account: “He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit,” (John 20:22).

For John, the moment on the cross when Jesus “gave up his spirit,” (John 19:30), was also the moment in which he gave the Holy Spirit.  Neither is John unaware of the other image, the free-blowing wind: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit,” (John 3:8).  (Here, as on so many other occasions, Jesus manifests himself as the “great poet of the Spirit.”)

The image of the free-blowing wind and of the whirlwind both help to convey the power, the freedom, and the transcendence of the divine Spirit.  Wind, in fact, in the Bible as well as in nature, is par excellence the embodiment of a sweeping force, a force that cannot be tamed, “splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces,” (1 Kings 19:11).  It can lash up towering waves, fling them to the sky, and plunge them to the depths, (see Psalm 107:25-26).  What is there that can stir up the ocean as powerfully as the wind?

On the other hand, the images of breath and breathing and gentle breeze serve to express the goodness, the gentleness, the peacefulness, and the immanence of the Spirit of God.  Breath is that which is most “inward” and intimate, most vital and personal to a human being.

Those who study religious phenomenology have brought to light a fact that can be verified in all the higher forms of religion, but especially in the Bible: the divine is perceived as a mystery, but especially in the Bible: the divine is perceived as a mystery, “awesome and fascinating,” able at the same time to inspire fear and love, to terrify and to attract.  Augustine writes that, at the moment when for the first time he saw closely the mystery of God, he trembled “for love and in terror,” and that the thought of God made him at once “shiver and burn with desire.”  The Bible gives us ample confirmation of these observations.  “You indeed are awesome!  Who can stand before you when once your anger is roused?” (Psalm 76:7) is speaking of the same God that elsewhere is exalted for his “abundant goodness” and his tender-hearted “compassion over all that he has made.” (Psalm 145: 7-9)  It is not as though God were complicated or changeable (God is simplicity itself), but it is we ourselves who cannot quite take in, at a single glance, God’s reality which is both most simple and utterly infinite.  We need to come at it from two different points of view in order to know God, just as we need two eyes in order to enjoy any perception of depth or distance.

Well now, the Holy Spirit is the personification of this mystery of God who is, at the same time, absolute power and immeasurable tenderness, irresistible movement and infinite rest.  Let us look a little more closely at these two characteristics.  They will help us to understand a great part of the Biblical revelation concerning the Paraclete.  At this point, the symbols of wind and breath do not help us: they have served their purpose, which was to help us lift our perceptions from the natural level to the supernatural.  It would be a great pity if we could not make this very clear distinction between symbol and reality.  We would be stuck in the philosophy of the Stoics who, never having made the qualitative leap from breath to spirit, ended up thinking of the divine Spirit as “a subtle breath permeating all things,” or as “a creative fire,” that is, something material.  This kind of thinking leads us to fall into pantheism and materialism and so to destroy the very notion of spirit as we understand it today.

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