by Br Julian McDonald cfc
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Acts 2, 1-11
Jesus breathed on them and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit …” John 20, 19-23
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1934-2017), the son of the Hungarian Ambassador to Italy, was forced with his parents to seek asylum in Italy when a Communist Government came into power in Hungary in 1949. No longer a career diplomat, his father established a restaurant in Rome and young Mihaly dropped out of school and worked in order to supplement the meagre earnings that came from the restaurant trade. To further ease the financial burdens on the family, Mihaly started to travel through Europe, taking up temporary work wherever he could find it. When he was in Switzerland, out of curiosity he attended a talk by Carl Jung on the psychology at work in people who claimed to have experienced sightings of UFOs. In 1956, Mihaly emigrated to the United States, where he enrolled as a student at The University of Chicago and paid for his fees by working at night. He graduated with a B.A in Psychology in 1959 and went on to gain a PhD in 1965. He researched the psychology underlying happiness and creativity and went on to publish a book entitled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
In writing about what he called “flow”, Csikszentmihalyi invited his audience to recall moments in their lives when they felt really alive, when what they had their focus on proceeded like clockwork, when their every golf shot put the ball exactly where they wanted it to land, when their work plans fell perfectly into place, when their best efforts turned out to be exactly what was needed. These days we might refer to experiences like that as “being in the groove”. The fascinating thing about being in the flow or in the groove is that it just happens. We don’t make it happen. It comes upon us and carries us along. We are very comfortable in that space and feel satisfied with what we manage to accomplish when we are in it. But it often disappears as quickly and surprisingly as it comes upon us. In recent decades, astrophysicists have told us that there is a similar flow in the ongoing evolution of the universe. Whenever we pay attention to that, we are filled with awe and wonder, and are drawn into reflecting on God’s extraordinary, ongoing creativity. I suggest that the description of the first Pentecost in Acts gives a picture of Jesus’ first disciples caught up in the flow, carried along by their frenetic emotions, communicating with people they hadn’t encountered before, even amazing themselves by the fact that they could speak the languages of those with whom they engaged. We might even wonder if they had suddenly become expert linguists or whether it was a demonstration of the fact that love speaks all languages.
It strikes me that most of us from the western world are cautious when it comes to expressing our emotions, and especially so when we engage in prayer and worship. The churches we have built seem to have been designed to subdue emotion rather than call it out of us. Moreover, many of us have been encouraged to steer clear of emotional outbursts in our churches and to be wary of pentecostalists. We’ve even invented labels for those who express their emotions in worship, calling them names like “happy clappers” who involve themselves in “jumping for Jesus”.
Worthy of note, however, is the fact that in some cultures emotion in worship is encouraged. Jewish people who gather at the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem can be seen praying with their whole bodies. In African American church congregations, there is constant exchange between preachers and the people in the pews. There, and across Africa, worshippers dance to the altar with their contributions at the Offertory. Yet, the design of many places of worship invites silence and soberness. There is nothing sentimental about the statuary and design of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It is highly classical. Canterbury Cathedral in England, St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, Notre Dame in Paris and Washington Cathedral in the United States all invite silence and sobriety in speech and dress.
A gravestone inscription in Winchester, England describes how we were taught to keep emotion in check. It marks the burial place of the Countess of Huntington and reads: “She was a just, godly, righteous and sober lady, a firm believer in the Gospel of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and devoid of the taint of enthusiasm.” Complementing this is a story told by the Episcopalian priest, the Rev Samuel Lloyd about an incident at his church in the New England region of the United States: “A visitor had slipped quietly into one of the rear pews and sat quietly until he began his sermon. ‘Amen! Yes, Lord, preach it!’, she yelled. A few minutes later, she called out again: ‘Praise Jesus! Praise Jesus!’ By this, an usher had made his way over to her and asked quietly: ‘Madam, is there something wrong?’ ‘No’, she replied, ‘I’ve just got the Spirit!’. In answer, the usher said sternly: ‘Well, Madam, you certainly didn’t get it here!’”
All this is a lengthy introduction to why I want to suggest Pentecost Sunday is relevant to us. In our Creed every Sunday, we proclaim: “I believe in the Holy Spirit”. Is that any more than a notion or an idea? Does it translate into action? After all, God’s Spirit is alive in the depth of our heart and is active in our world. In Genesis, we read that God’s Spirit brooded over the waters of chaos and stirred it (the chaos) into life. In Exodus, we hear how God’s Spirit led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, through the desert and into the Promised Land. Later, when they had lost direction in their lives, it was God’s Spirit who, through the Prophets, called them back to fidelity. In Luke we learn how Jesus was conscious of being filled with the Spirit as he launched into his public ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; therefore, he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind and release to prisoners…” (Luke 4, 18). God’s Spirit is ever at work in us and in our world, inviting us to connection with one another and with everyone we encounter. If we dare to look at our world, we can only conclude that it is in urgent need of the action of God’s Spirit. Pentecost invites us to be instruments of that action. Modern technology like the internet helps us to connect with one another. Yet, at the same time there is clear evidence of things like a sense of entitlement and a pull towards tribalism that distance us from one another. We are faced with many questions and challenges: Will we ever learn to deal with difference and conflict without resorting to war and destruction? Might we seriously engage the help of God’s Spirit to nudge our so-called Christian Churches to collaborate as one to bring the health, harmony and hope of the Gospel to a world that seems to think it can get along without God? Will we be able to bring ourselves to take the steps needed to restore to health the earth, our fragile home which brought us to life and has continued to sustain us, but which we have violated and neglected? Pentecost proclaims that the Spirit of God has been let loose among us. But we will not tap into that Spirit if we persist in trying to generate all the power and control ourselves. Can we allow the breath of God’s Spirit to blow in and through us?