This reflection is based on John 20:19-23 and Acts 2:1-11 on the occasion of Pentecost Sunday.
Pentecost Sunday is the day we recall how as promised, the Holy Spirit descended upon the Lord’s disciples. The narrative is dramatic: the disciples huddled in fear (despite the Lord’s resurrection!), the gust of a strong wind, a vision of descending flames, and the miraculous gift of tongue. What is more remarkable than the gift of tongue, however, is the disciples’ newfound courage to preach the Good News. It is a testament to what the Spirit can enable us to do when it descends upon us.
If you are told that you have received that selfsame Spirit in baptism, you’ll probably raise your eyebrows in bewilderment, if not in skepticism. Like me, you probably don’t remember ever receiving the Spirit in any dramatic or even perceptible way (unless you’ve attended a prayer session where you were “slain by the Spirit”).
It’s a notion most of us have–To expect the Spirit to descend only in a dramatic way. Whether we want to admit it or not, we mistake receiving the Holy Spirit for possession! You’ve seen enough exorcism movies to know that when a demon possesses people, they take over their personalities and their faculties. Nothing can be more contrary to the way of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit never invades us–even if sometimes we are more than willing victims! God always respects our free will, and will never enter a heart that is closed to Him. And when the heart does open itself, God will never dissolve that person’s identity. The person retains full control of his or her faculties. What the Holy Spirit does is provide the person with the resources needed to do what he or she wants to do.
In the case of the first Pentecost, Peter and the disciples were given the courage to speak and the gift to communicate the Good News to all those present. Contrary to the common notion, therefore, the Spirit descends quietly and gently. But just as importantly, the Spirit descends differently on different people as well.
I was never partial to charismatic prayer. When I was in high school, a couple of charismatic youth leaders were invited to give our class a talk. Well, they didn’t just talk about prayer; they actually led us in praying in tongues. I remember the students exchanging glances as we began. But the experience was actually more powerful than I expected. My misinformed stereotypes about praying in tongues were all proven wrong. I realized then that if we open ourselves enough, the Spirit can give us a gift that we don’t expect–or even believe in!
More recently–just the other day, in fact–I was fortunate enough to be in Fatima to join the celebration of the 99th anniversary of our Lady’s first apparition to three young Portuguese shepherds. Now, I’ve always had a special devotion to Mary and the rosary, but just as I was towards charismatic prayer, I was never into the other devotions that many Catholics with so-called “simpler spiritualities” tend to have–like kissing statues or praying while walking on your knees.
When I got to the Santuario de Fatima, I was astounded by the number of pilgrims–men and women, young and old–walking on their knees while saying the rosary. And this isn’t just from the church entrance to the altar as we so often see in the Philippines. The pilgrims get on their knees as soon as they set foot on the Santuario–this means they have to cross the entire span of the esplanade before they reach their destination, the Chapel of the Apparition, which is the site of the Virgin of Fatima’s apparitions. There they circle around the statue of the Virgin–some once, others as many as three or four times.
Even if I had never done it before and I actually had no intention of doing it, I was so moved by the pilgrims’ devotion that I convinced myself to do it. Just this once! “Should be okay to just go around the statue of the Virgin in the chapel,” I told myself. I figured that I would never get a chance to do something like this again anyway, and I thought this would be the perfect occasion to offer it to the Lord on behalf of those I was praying for.
Well, famous last words. First of all, I was suddenly seized with embarrassment! It’s irrational because a lot of pilgrims were doing it anyway. I was surprised that I would feel such strong shame! I hesitated, but eventually decided to go for it! I went to the Portuguese-speaking attendant and used sign language to indicate my plan. “Only five minutes,” he signaled with his hand. I nodded. “No problem!”
Again, famous last words. By the time I got to the beginning of the first decade, my knees were screaming in pain. I couldn’t believe how painful it was. I was the youngest in the group of pilgrims there at that time, but one old lady overtook me–twice! I don’t know how I did it, but I eventually made it to the final stretch. With the end in sight, I felt such relief until the attendant came to me and signaled for me to hurry up (!). I finally finished reached the finish line and managed to get up on my feet without swearing. More significantly, I managed to resist the urge to strangle the attendant’s neck with my rosary. I didn’t think the Blessed Mother would approve of that.
I walked away with a new respect for the piety of simple folks. What pain and sacrifices they are willing to endure in their devotions. Again, I was ashamed to realize that I had unconsciously thought my spirituality more sophisticated and superior to others’.
It’s an important lesson to learn for Pentecost: The Spirit of the Lord descends quietly and differently upon us. The Holy Spirit works behind the scenes, as it were, providing the support we need and enabling us to do what is right. But how the Holy Spirit performs Her work also varies for different people. No one can claim to have an exclusive franchise on the Holy Spirit.
On this Sunday of Pentecost, let us ask for the grace to learn from the spirituality of others, no matter how different from ours.