Knowing God, the Holy Spirit, Better

In Spanish art, the Holy Spirit is often depicted as a dove. The image comes from the Gospel stories of Jesus’ baptism. In all four accounts, the evangelists describe the Holy Spirit’s descending in the form of a dove and alighting on Jesus. The dove somehow represented both God’s approval and God’s filling of Jesus with the Spirit. On pilgrimage, I experienced the Spirit as both the Dove of internal peace, and even more, as the Wind of change.

On pilgrimage, I sought to come to know the Holy Spirit better by seeking help, inspiration and transformation throughout the day as I struggled with my impulses, selfishness and reactions. Every day I was keenly aware of my own natural way of being in the world. Could walking more closely with the Spirit truly change me for the better, or at least make it possible for me to respond differently in difficult circumstances?

On July 19, we had to walk nearly 30 km (18 miles) to Foncebadon. I was Mr. GrumpHead at the start of the day, after a poor night’s sleep, tossing and turning with light in my eyes, oppressive heat in the room, and being self-conscious sleeping nearly nude (because of the oppressive heat) in room full of people. Then, when it was time to leave in the morning, Jill and one of my sons got mad at me because I wasn’t ready precisely when they were. I had been helping my other son and paying for the breakfast. I felt judged and underappreciated. Rather than try to explain, I just got mad in return, and sulked.

Then it started raining, and, as we faced the prospect of a long dreary, wet walk, son Tim wanted to walk even further, 5.8 km (about 3 ½ miles), than planned, uphill. I was tired, sore, hungry and crabby by the time we got to our attic room in the albergue on the side of a mountain, in a nearly deserted, broken down village—seemingly ready for demolition. It was not a very fun day or comforting place to rest.

However, along the way, I experienced a transformation in my attitude. I didn’t become superhuman, adopt a Stoic attitude or nonchalantly let everything roll off my back. I was still worn out and edgy by day’s end. I still wished my family understood me better. But, early on, my perspective suddenly changed and my spirit softened, changing my experience of the day’s walk significantly.

As I walked in solitude early in the day—too angry to want to walk with the others—I asked God to help me connect to the Spirit better—to let go of the anger and to be filled with love, joy, and peace. I wanted to be free from the power of the turmoil, so that I could focus better on the walk and on others. That day, praying worked. Somehow, my desire for transformation and my prayer swept the anger away. I stopped getting rained on, emotionally, even while my clothes were getting completely soaked.

Through that experience, an image presented itself that now represents the Holy Spirit to me. Instead of the dove, it was the wind. (Jesus used the same image in talking about how people are spiritually born again in John 3.) As we walked in the drizzle and rain, I noticed times that rain clouds were quickly swept away from us by the wind. When that happened, the rain was short-lived. At other times, rain clouds hovered overhead, and the rain kept falling on us. The Holy Spirit is like the wind that can chase away my anger and foul moods, if I let it. When I don’t pray, and I don’t want to be changed, the clouds hang there, and I get more and more wet.

Throughout the pilgrimage, I struggled with my own moods competing with walking in the Spirit. Many times, my fatigue or hunger or desires seemed to be the greatest influences on my mindset and behavior. Caffeine and sugar had their affect, too. Yet, no matter what the cause for my pre-occupation with myself and my condition, sometimes I wanted the Holy Spirit to just “take over,” but it rarely happened that way. Dominating, controlling, eliminating selfishness and sin, or permanently filling me with the fruit of the Spirit does not seem to be what the Spirit does.

Rather, as I wrote at the end of another long, hot walk, “the Spirit is more like the breeze I’m feeling at the moment, suddenly springing up to blow cool air over my hot, tired body, then ceasing. I can try to put myself where I think the wind will blow, but I cannot start or stop the flow.” (7/21/06, Villafranca) My experience on pilgrimage truly was helping me to get to know God, the Holy Spirit, better, as I sought to connect with the Spirit in the midst of daily struggles.

I was learning to recognize the Spirit’s activity in other circumstances, too. At times, I suspected that the Holy Spirit was at work when I suddenly got a timely idea, reminder, question or other prompting in my head or heart. I might recall a Bible verse of reassurance that fit a troubling situation, or suddenly think to take a different approach to handling a problem with one of my sons, or get an inspiration to talk to Jill or one of the boys about an important subject at a very opportune moment.

For example, one day I suddenly realized that I hadn’t been doing much to help Tim and Dan reflect on or grow from their experiences. I prayed for an opportunity to broach the subject, without intimidating or frightening them. That afternoon, their mother had an emotional meltdown after a very strenuous walk that left her in great pain and distress. The boys and I found ourselves at dinner alone—a perfect opportunity to play cards, which we enjoy doing a lot. Yet, I realized we also were being given an opportunity to talk at a deeper level. Because I had thought and prayed about talking to them about spiritual issues, I had been prepared for this moment.

We began by talking about today’s traumatic event, and moved to talking about how to use crises as learning experiences. We can ask ourselves, “How do I respond? What can I reflect on? What can I learn? What do I want to do differently now?” Their mother’s ordeal might have remained an uncomfortable experience that we moved quickly to distance ourselves from. Instead, we used the incident as an opportunity for reflection and connection with one another. I sensed it was the Holy Spirit who had prompted me to be ready to take better spiritual leadership in our family. The Spirit helped me to resisting become self-absorbed in my own coping instincts, so that I could offer the counsel and guidance needed that day.

On pilgrimage, the physical and emotional challenges force us to face what is real—our limitations, our selfish desires, our attachments to our emotional responses to conflict and adversity. Simple textbook answers to the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives are irrelevant. As we walk, we are forced to seek the real thing or abandon the search altogether. It would have been easy to assume that God was not present or available to help in the midst of the struggles and pain. But by choosing to seek God and remain open for God to act according to his own times and ways, I often experienced the Holy Spirit’s gracious “wind” that refreshed, revived, and changed me. Though I could not summon the Spirit on demand, I learned that praying with my questions, concerns and desires, and then listening, watching, and waiting helped me to come to know the Spirit better and walk more closely with and by the Spirit.

1 Comment

Filed under Pilgrimage--El Camino, Spirit-Led Living/Spiritual Growth

One response to “Knowing God, the Holy Spirit, Better

  1. i love the term the quakers use for the holy spirit – the inner teacher – it has helped me move from the jiminy cricket holy spirit i was given in the early parts of my faith walk. it seemed the holy spirit was only to convict of sin and illuminate scripture – how sad.

    this is an area of my theology that is going through much transformation, i appreciate your words here as they are timely. i too am on a journey, though not on the el camino, but a pilgrimage of sorts, that is honing my faith and bringing me to the decisions of what to carry with me forward into this next stage of life. much of the teaching i was raised with hasn’t served me well, and i know that the lack of understanding and intimacy with the holy spirit is part of that.

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