From: Come, Creator Spirit
Now we can go back to the symbols of wind and breath because they help us get a visual image of the content of our contemplation. The symbols are “functional”; they tell us what the Spirit does, and this is what makes them so useful to us at this time. Let’s go to the school of “brother wind,” as Saint Francis of Assisi called it. The wind will remind us of many things, if we look at it with new eyes washed clear by the word of God. The language of words changes; the language of things is unchanging. Brother Wind speaks today exactly as in the time of Ezekiel and at the very beginning of the world.
Look, for instance, at what happens when a strong, blustery wind blows. Trees bend and sway; if they try to resist the wind, like mighty cedars of Lebanon, they break. This reminds us of the church’s prayer: “Bend our wills, however rebellious they may be, to you.” Look now at the little green leaves that stream out lightly in the wind and suffer no damage as they allow it to pass (at least, as long as they are still green). Our souls are to be sensitive and docile to the Spirit as the young green leaves are to the wind. A Christian text dating from the second century says that the human soul is like an Aeolian harp that sounds as the wind passes through it, and that the Holy Spirit is the wind that strums on the strings of the soul to draw from it sounds of sweet harmony.
As the wind passes through the lyre
and the strings speak,
in the same way through my inward being
sounds the Spirit of the Lord, and I speak in his love.
What effort it takes to walk or to row against the wind! What joy to do the same thing with the wind in your favor! Try to go about doing what you do without the Holy Spirit: how heavy that is! Work with the Spirit; how very much lighter everything becomes!
Fruitfulness is the wind’s gift; the wind makes plants fecund. It carries pollen from flower to flower and seeds ripen; it carries seeds to the earth and they germinate. This is what the Holy Spirit does for the seed that is the word of God.
The Fathers were the first to be eager to learn the doctrine of the Spirit in the school of Brother Wind. One wrote that when the warm spring wind, called Favonius, blows, flowers of every kind and color burst open and the fields are sweet with their perfume. The same happens in the soul when the Holy Spirit blows. Another writes of “the breath of the Spirit blowing to fill the sails of our faith and of our praise.”
Years ago I spent some time in a retreat house in the northern-most part of Ireland, right by the sea coast. The place is the kingdom of the gulls. It was there that I began to think of writing a commentary on the Veni Creator, and for a time it was the gulls that were my masters, teaching me the doctrine of the Spirit. From the cliff tops of that wild and lonely place I would spend many an hour watching them. They would glide from the high rocks and hover motionless over the sea. There, before my eyes, was the very image the holy writer had in mind when he said that, in the beginning, the Spirit of God “hovered over the waters.” What impressed me most of all was the way the gulls excelled in the art of making the wind work for them! They fly on the wings of the wind (see Psalm 18:10); they let the wind carry them. That is why they are able to remain in the air for long hours, hovering still or moving faster than the eye can follow, and yet not grow tired. Does that not tell us something?
Wind is the one thing that it is utterly impossible to bridle. It cannot be bottled or canned and distributed for use at need. We can do that with water. We even do it with electricity, storing up power in batteries. But there is no way we can do it with wind. Wind, bottled, is no longer wind, air in free motion; it is still, confined, dead. The rationalism of our day has pretended to circumscribe, to enclose the Spirit in concepts or definitions, texts or tracts, more or less as though the Spirit can be packed in cans or sachets, like milk. But all that this achieves is that the Spirit is lost, rendered trivial and vain.
Yet there is a temptation, somewhat similar, though contrary, to the rationalistic, and it is to want to shut up the Spirit in milk bottles of an ecclesiastical kind: in canons and institutions and definitions. The Spirit calls institutions into being and breathes life into them, but the Spirit himself cannot be institutionalized. The wind blows where it will; in the same way, the Spirit pours out his gifts where he will, (see 1 Corinthians 12:11). It is simply impossible to “canalize” or rigidly control the Spirit, even in the so-called “channels of grace,” as if the Holy Spirit were not at perfect liberty to act outside of them. The Second Vatican Council recognizes that the Holy Spirit “offers to every human being the possibility of becoming linked to the Paschal mystery in a way that is known only to God.” Wind is surely the most eloquent symbol of the Spirit’s freedom.
The other symbol, breath, reminds us of many things. What happens if, for whatever reason, we have to hold our breath for a while? We have a tremendous sense of asphyxiation: “I can’t breathe. I’m suffocating!” If we only knew how to hear the cry of our own soul when we have neglected to pray for too long a time and so been deprived of the Holy Spirit, we would hear the same cry: “I can’t breathe. I’m suffocating!” If someone is about to faint, we usually hold them and say, “Breathe. Breathe deeply!” We need to say the same to those about to shrug their shoulders and give up the struggle against evil: “Turn to prayer, and take deep breaths of the Holy Spirit!”
On Easter evening Jesus breathed on his disciples. In baptism he has repeated this gesture on every one of us. In the rite in use until recently, at a certain point the minister spoke the words, “Go out of this child, unclean spirit, and give place to the Holy Spirit.” So saying, he breathed three times over the face of the child. Jesus is ever willing to repeat his paschal gesture for anyone, anywhere, who is open and ready to receive it.
There is a passage in the Bible where we find, brought together, all three meanings of ruach that we have been considering in this meditation: wind, breath, and Holy Spirit. It is the prophecy of the dry bones in Ezekiel 37. Symbol and reality are here interwoven and, so to say, run together. “There was no breath in them,” (verse 2); that is, they had no life, they were not breathing. “Come from the four winds, O Breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live,” (verse 9); that is, Wind, come from north and south and east and west and blow. “The breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet,” (verse 10). So far the symbol; now the spiritual reality. “I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live,” (verse 14). The Spirit spoken of is the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit; the life that the Spirit brings is no longer ordinary physical life.
“Spirit, Come!” This is the primordial epiclesis, the root of all prayers of invocation. This is where the opening invocation of our hymn Veni Creator Spiritus comes from, as well as the opening line of the Sequence for Pentecost: Veni Sancte Spiritus. It is the first and only prayer to the Holy Spirit recorded in scripture, and it is the only prayer to the Holy Spirit that the church has made its own and continued to pray through the centuries. It is the Marana-tha of the Spirit, equal to that “Come, Lord!” that the early Christians used to cry out to Christ when they gathered for worship. “Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”‘” (Ezekiel 37:11)
We are now this “house of Israel.” Among us too in the church there are those who go about saying, “Our hope has gone; we are as good as dead. Everything is falling to ruin.” The promise of the blowing Wind is made to us too: the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the experience of being raised to life again. We hope that our meditations, in this book, will serve mainly to help us to become acutely aware that the “powerful wind” of Pentecost is still blowing, that Jesus is still breathing on his disciples today, that the Upper Room is wide open to us, and that the angel is even now stirring the waters in the pool of Bethesda. Those who want to be healed have only to jump in.
May we resolve never to get tired of joining in this unceasing prayer of invocation that is the constant overtone to the history of the church, and may we too repeat:
Come, oh Holy Spirit!
Come, power of God and tender sweetness of God!
Come, you who are both motion and rest!
Renew our daring,
Be our companion so that we will not feel lonely in this world.
Create in us intimacy with God!
We do not say any longer, as the Prophet said,
“Come from the four winds”
as though we did not yet know where you come from.
We say, “Come, Spirit, from the pierced side of Christ on the Cross!
Come on the breath blowing from the lips of the Risen Jesus!”