copublished, with permission, with The Times online, Faith Central, 21 May 2010
How do you depict the Holy Spirit? Doves, flames of fire, and trees bending in the wind may come to mind. For me, Jonathan Clark’s maquette – a small scale model - of his Ely sculpture, ‘The Way of Life’, is powerfully intriguing. The final version of his aluminium sculpture in the Cathedral is over 30 feet high, on the north wall, just inside the great west door. It has one path, winding up to the shape of a cross.
The maquette, however, has four river-like paths within the one way, meandering up to the disciples and Christ in glory. This also is designed to be viewed from below: but what happens if we view it upside down, from above? Maybe it could be seen as the ascended Christ pouring out the Holy Spirit on his disciples at Pentecost, who then travel on a journey outwards in mission in various interweaving paths?
‘Are you full of the Spirit?’ Dwight L Moody, the American evangelist, was once asked. He replied, ‘Yes, but I leak’. At Pentecost, we celebrate the overwhelming gift of God’s Holy Spirit to the first disciples and to countless Christians across the ages and the world today. Everyone who believes in Jesus Christ has the Holy Spirit (as Paul explains in Romans chapter 8) and is called to be filled again and again (Ephesians 5).
Praying for people to be filled with the Spirit is part of the ministry of all God’s people, and also shapes the role of a bishop in the service of Confirmation. Last Sunday afternoon in Dorset, the Rector of Canford Magna, Chris Tebbutt, and I baptised five people in the River Stour, next to the parish church. The water was considerably cold but a friend had kindly procured a wet suit, which I wore under my white robe. Several adults and young people also reaffirmed their baptismal vows. After a short break for some changing of clothes, the large congregation went into the church to continue the service.
21 adults and youngsters from Wimborne Minster, St John’s Wimborne and Canford Magna churches, and three young people from Canford School, were confirmed. For three of the adults, it was a sort of ‘Alpha graduation’: their faith had come alive during the Alpha course I led at the Minster for local churches earlier in the year.
Some prayers hardly seem to be inspired by the Spirit, such as ‘Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz?’ This plaintive song by Janis Joplin, from her 1971 album 'Pearl', was used in the famous car advert in 1995. On the other hand, some prayers are so in line with the desire of God in his Scriptures, and echoed in the hearts of friends and relatives in the congregation, that God delights to answer them. Such is the prayer in the confirmation service for the renewed infilling of the Spirit, ‘Confirm, O Lord, your servant, with your Holy Spirit’.
But how do you describe the Holy Spirit? Profoundly personal and not a simple force, using the pronoun 'It' is not appropriate. Beyond gender, God’s Spirit is traditionally referred to as ‘He’ but sometimes, as in the poems of the 4th century Syrian theologian St Ephrem, ‘She’ has been used. After returning from a parish weekend away, which focused on the Spirit, I thought I might try out, as an experiment, using the pronoun ‘She’: the following interweaving descriptions flowed.
"She bubbles like a spring, tumbles like a waterfall, meanders like a river and welcomes us like the sea. You may as well try to bottle the wind as capture her. She is wild and unrestrained, surprising and unpredictable, yet true to her character and utterly reliable. She is reticent and reflective, giving glory to the Son and the Father.
Like the wild desert wind she drives and scorches. Like the oil of the olive tree she heals and soothes. In a still, small voice she speaks and questions. The contemptuous proud she resists and brings down. The humble poor she supports and uplifts.Our imagination she enlarges and stretches. Our humdrum existence she enlightens and enlivens. Who can resist the draw of her calling to come to Christ and delight in God?
She does not force and manipulate, but coaxes and draws. She inspires, enthuses, interprets and invigorates. She warns and reminds, convicts and convinces. She brings joy and delight, depth and sorrow, a feast in want and fasting in plenty.
She does not ingratiate but delivers grace. She does not calculate but risks adventure. She does not rest on her heels but is fleet of foot. She is not sedentary but agile, not ponderous but quicksilver. All who know her, love her, for she loves the Son and the Father."
The Rt Revd Dr Graham Kings is Honorary Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Ely and Research Associate at the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide.