The Holy Spirit
“I believe in the Holy Spirit.”
At every mass, Catholics express our belief in the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Holy Trinity which is our God. But how much do we really know about the Spirit, and the nature of the Trinity? For most Catholics, this is a bit of a grey area, and this is somewhat to be expected. The Holy Trinity is a mystery of our faith. What this means, is that that even though God has revealed his Trinitarian nature, it is to some degree impenetrable to our understanding. Exactly how God can be three persons and one substance is something we cannot completely understand.
There are, however, a lot of things we can understand about the Trinity. The most important thing in my opinion is to understand what it means to say God is three persons, and one substance, as Tertullian explained in the second century. For this we have to ask, what are persons and substance?
Substance is a philosophical concept that dates back to Aristotle, in the 3rd century BC. What it refers to is the true nature of what a thing is, apart from appearances, or accidents, as he calls them. For example, an apple has many properties. It has mass; it has color, smell, and shape. These things are all accidents – things about the apple which are apparent to the senses. What it is, its substance, is simply that it is an apple.
The word person refers to an individual, but used here in the context of theology, it has additional meaning. Primarily it means who someone is with reference to relationships. For example, who I am can be described many ways. I’m a human being, an engineer, a male, and an adult. But who I am as a person in this sense is a son, a brother, or a friend.
Members of the trinity are consubstantial. That means they are of one substance – God. They differ in personhood, that is, who they are in relationship to others. This is the mystery of the trinity, that God is one being, one substance, yet is also a relationship of distinct persons. The Father and Son exist in a relationship of perfect love, and that relationship has the characteristics of a father and son. The Son obeys the Father, and the Father rules righteously. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of love and truth which proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son.
The Holy Spirit in Scripture and Tradition
There are numerous proofs throughout scripture and the early Church fathers that we can look to in regards to the divinity and personhood of the Holy Spirit.
In terms of personhood we can look to instances of the Holy Spirit acting autonomously in scripture, for example in Acts 28:25 we hear “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your ancestors through the prophet Isaiah…” Not that God the Father was right in acting, using his spirit or his power, but the Spirit was right. Another example is Mark 13:11, though there are many more.
Scripture also makes it very clear that the Holy Spirit is God. For example look at the great commission in Matthew 28:19. “…baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” This is a very clear reference to the triune God.
In tradition we have the unanimous consent of the fathers, right back to St. Clement of Rome, in the first century. He refers to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit each as Lord. By the second century Christians philosophical understanding had advanced to the point of describing the Trinity as three persons, one substance.
The Holy Spirit and the Christian Life
Perhaps the most important question we can ask is how do I relate to the Holy Spirit today? I think it’s important first to grasp the extent of the importance of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Jesus says something pretty incredible in John 16:7-15:
“Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”
I can’t help but be a little shocked by this every time I read it. Jesus is saying that the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit is better for the Church than if Jesus himself remained on Earth with us. That’s mind blowing!
Obviously the Holy Spirit is of paramount importance to the Christian life. Without the Spirit’s indwelling, the Church would quickly succumb to the wolves of this world that are constantly circling her, looking for any weakness. And the same goes for the individual Christian. All of us are surrounded by our own wolves in life: temptations, doubts, insecurity, failures or pride. All of these things are the effects of sin and of the demonic, waiting their turn to assault the temple of the Holy Spirit. We must never forget that we are just that, a holy temple in which God dwells. Nothing can desecrate that temple as long as we stand united with the invincible Spirit who dwells within.
Therefore, what I must encourage all Christians to do is to pray to the Holy Spirit! Don’t forget him, the God who is always with you! Ask him to fill you, protect you and make you holy, and place your trust in him. I’ve placed St. Augustine’s prayer to the Holy Spirit below. It’s a great place to start. Remember that when we make the small effort to turn to God, he responds in huge ways, and always with love.
St. Augustine’s Prayer to the Holy Spirit
Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy. Act in me, O Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy. Draw my heart, O Holy Spirit, that I love but what is holy. Strengthen me, O Holy Spirit, to defend all that is holy. Guard me, then, O Holy Spirit, that I always may be holy. Amen.