Forgiveness and the Holy Spirit

“I just can’t forgive and forget.” How many times as a priest have I heard that line!

When I respond with “Of course you can’t!” or “You don’t have to!” it’s not uncommon to see a stunned expression of disbelief. Isn’t that what our faith teaches us we have to do?

No, it’s not.  In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches exactly the opposite! Paragraph 2843 tells us that it is not in our power to stop feeling an offense, nor to forget about it.

If we find ourselves battling with unforgiveness, we can be assured that it is not our feeling that is the problem, nor our remembering. They need healing and care, yes, but our emotions and our memory are marvelous, God-created human faculties that are actually standing witness to the reality and the gravity of the harm that happened. I have written before on how feeling anger is actually part of the path of forgiveness.

There is an untying or unbinding that needs to happen if we desire to forgive from the depth of our heart, as Jesus invites us (Matthew 18:35). This unbinding can only happen if we yield and surrender. But it is a divine work, made possible by the victory of Jesus in his dying, rising, and ascending. Slowly but surely – sometimes in cathartic moments, other times in painful and vigilant waiting – his victory becomes our victory. We truly become like Christ – which means we share in the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Remember that “Christ” means “anointed one,” and “Christian” refers to one who shares in that anointing.  It is the Holy Spirit who transforms our hearts as we walk the path of forgiveness.

The Catechism describes it this way:

It is there, in fact, “in the depths of the heart,” that everything is bound and loosed. It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession (CCC 2843).

Every offense wounds both the perpetrator and the victim. Unhealed wounds fester in both. It is within our wounds that the evil one tends to find his playground. Ignatius of Loyola describes the devil as “the enemy of our human nature.” In his hatred and envy, he is eager to torment us. Human scenes or harm or neglect (whether emotional, physical, sexual, or spiritual) offer the devil fertile soil to sow his lies – lies about who God is and lies about who we are as God’s beloved children.

If and when we find the courage to face our deeper wounds, we can welcome the anointing of the Holy Spirit. He is the Paraclete – the one who comforts, consoles, counsels, encourages, and soothes.

Think of a little girl with a wound. Does she want mom or dad to put ointment on it? Not normally! She probably needs a good deal of reassurance that it’s going to be okay. Is it going to hurt? Actually, yes. But it will also soothe and help it get better. She may need to breathe and calm down first before she is okay with them tending to the wound.

We are invited to approach our heavenly Father as little children, and to welcome the anointing of the Holy Spirit – especially when we find ourselves feeling the wounds of past harm.

When I do this personally, I find it incredibly helpful to have visible reminders of who God is and who he has been for me. I also believe strongly that Jesus, dying on the Cross, was also speaking to me when he said “Behold, your mother!” Mary has very much been a mother to me on my own healing journey, giving me the emotional and spiritual safety to receive the anointing of the Holy Spirit with confidence.

It still hurts – sometimes a lot. There’s a reason why people avoid going to doctors – even really good ones. There’s a reason why people don’t always follow through on healthy rehab. Even when we know there is new and better life on the other side, we are afraid of the suffering and surrender that precede.

But the anointing of the Holy Spirit also comforts and consoles. If we allow him to touch us where we are wounded, healing will always happen – sometimes with a cathartic release or a dramatic unbinding, but more commonly with slow and steady doses of his healing balm. That is why healthy Christian community is so important. We often need others to point out and celebrate the progress we are making. We can count on the devil to discourage whenever he sees an opportunity. The Holy Spirit works through our companions, our mentors, our spiritual guides, and our therapists to spur us on us with encouragement by celebrating every step of progress. Like little children who are learning and growing, we need a cloud of witnesses cheering us on.

Notice in the Catechism quote that healing of past harm is not a matter of erasing, but of transforming. As the Holy Spirit anoints us, we become truly Christ-like. Jesus’ wounds are not erased – he actually shows them to the apostles after his Resurrection. But those wounds are transformed, as is he. He is now seated at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us. The more we receive true healing in the depths of our heart, the more we become like Christ. Injury is changed into empathy and compassion. Our wounds become (like Christ’s) sources of healing and transformation for others. Like him, we become powerful intercessors.

I offer a caution here! With the word “intercession” comes a risk shortcutting the process. Becoming Christ-like means willingly suffering, dying, rising, and ascending with him. We don’t like the whole powerless part, so we have a human tendency to grab onto something that gives us the illusion of control. If I can be an intercessor (praying for those who have hurt me) then I can feel in control – and I can conveniently keep all attention away from my unhealed wounds. And little or no transformation will happen. Only when I willingly and freely walk the path of Jesus, the healing path of the Paschal Mystery, can I truly experience the transformation of forgiveness.

True intercession comes from a place of already-won victory. It is the risen and ascended Jesus who is our intercessor at the right hand of the Father. As we come to share more and more in his victory, our healed wounds become a powerful place of intercession on behalf of those who have harmed us. To the extent that we resist and refuse to go into the depths of our heart – where the wounds are –we will remain bound up in unforgiveness and resentment. We can “intercede” feverishly in that case – and we will only be making an idol out of the one who has harmed us, orienting ourselves around him or her rather than worshiping the living God.

As the Letter to the Hebrews teaches us, Jesus is our great high priest who truly became one flesh and one blood with us and has now brought our human flesh and blood into the heavenly sanctuary, where he reigns victoriously with the Father. Their Holy Spirit allows all that is Christ’s to be ours. That means willingly entering into the depths of suffering and dying with him – knowing that he has gone there first. All the while we will likely find ourselves recoiling with a fear of betrayal, resisting any experience of powerlessness, and both wanting and not wanting such intense love. The Holy Spirit will comfort and encourage us. We will discover the newness of the Resurrection and power of the Ascension, and come to share more and more in the great triumph of his Mercy.

Fatherhood – Part II

How do we reclaim authentic fatherhood without succumbing to counterfeit versions of it?

The only way we can discover true fatherhood is to go back to its true source: God the Father and the eternal communion of love that is the Trinity. The Father is the source, the eternal font, without being “greater than.” The Son is from the Father, yet they are coequal in dignity and majesty. The Son eternally receives from the Father; he has his very identity from the Father. Yet he is just as fully and perfectly God as the Father is God. All that is the Father’s is his. The loving communion between them, the eternal delight they share IS the Holy Spirit.

I have been relishing Jacques Philippe’s new book entitled Priestly Fatherhood. He rejects all abusive forms of fatherhood while gently but firmly inviting his fellow Catholic priests to be icons of God’s Fatherhood. Icons are not God; rather, they draw us into the divine. Priests are invited to be loving shepherds, loving in a fatherly way as we accompany the flock into the heart of God the Father. How beautiful it is when we Catholic priests embrace our ordained identity as “another Christ” – one who manifests the love of the heart of Jesus so that others can come to see the face of the Father in heaven.

Often, we falsely exalt priestly fatherhood – putting priests up on a pedestal, pretending like we are not truly human. Our fatherhood is genuine, but it is only a sharing or a participation in God’s Fatherhood. It remains a heavenly treasure held in vessels of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7-11). When we priests forget our humanity, we begin abusing power and harming people. When people expect us priests to be superhuman, they will wear us out. Both happen far too often! God is the true Father people seek, and that means renouncing any idolatrous versions of priestly fatherhood.

Jacques Philippe names well some of the distortions of fatherhood. I would like to consider three of them: severity, absence, and chumminess. I think they are the most common abuses – not only for shepherds and spiritual fathers, but also for dads in family life!

Severe fathers harm their children, who live in fear of missteps or mistakes. The children feel like their efforts will never be good enough; they will never measure up. Sometimes the abuse is blatant: name calling, belittling, yelling, screaming, interrupting, or assaulting through physical violence. Other times, the abuse is subtler – not loving the children for who they are, expecting them to fit a certain image or mold, only showing them love or affection when they behave a certain way or play their proper role, reacting with anger or fear if they somehow bring shame on the family or expose the family’s problems to others.

Absent fatherhood is every bit as damaging, perhaps even more so. Fathers who abdicate their authority leave their children alone to face the harshness of a fallen world, to figure things out for themselves. When children feel alone, unseen, unheard, and uncared for, it doesn’t take much for them to internalize a lie of worthlessness. Something must be wrong with me.

What Jacques Philippe describes as “chumminess” is a third failure of fatherhood. Yes, it gives lots of attention to the children. Perhaps they even like it – much of the time. But it becomes a using and an exploitation – meeting the emotional needs of the father in a way that ultimately sucks the life out of the children rather than strengthening them, holding them accountable, and helping them discover their true identity.

As I read Jacques Philippe, I found myself immediately thinking of another favorite book of mine, Unwanted by Jay Stringer. It is, to date, the single best book on unwanted sexual behaviors, why they happen, where they come from, and how real transformation happens. Jay conducted research with 3,800 individuals and found some common denominators in their family of origin: rigidity, disengagement, and triangulation.

“Rigidity” is another way of describing severe parenting, just as “disengagement” is another way of describing emotional absence or lack of connection. The term “triangulation” is unfamiliar to most, but we need only turn to Genesis to find examples. Isaac and Rebekah are in a marriage covenant, but Rebekah prefers emotional intimacy with her son Jacob, while Isaac prefers their twin son Esau. Jacob continues the pattern into the next generation, choosing his own favorite son Joseph.  Joseph, at first, rather enjoys the power and privilege of this special relationship with daddy – which incites much envy and violence from his brothers. They make him pay by selling him into slavery.

Fatherhood, in its authenticity, is a humble exercise of authority that helps children to know who they are. Consistent and loving fatherhood allows children to be secure in their identity. If you read the writings of John Paul II on Theology of the Body (please do!), you will discover that our identity and our sexuality cannot be separated from one another. God created us male and female in his own image. The devil immediately and furiously assaulted that identity, seducing us into a ruptured relationship with God, others, and ourselves. We have been wounded ever since, both in our sense of identity as children of God and in our sexuality – which, more broadly speaking, includes how we relate to anyone and everyone. Most of us struggle to some degree in having healthy and holy relationships. We wear masks and hide parts of ourselves; we resist vulnerability and true intimacy – because we are wounded.

Only God the Father can restore us in our true identity, through Jesus his Son, in the Holy Spirit. Earthly fathers (both dads and priests) are given authority for the purpose of helping the children to experience God’s Fatherhood. Earthly fathers harm, but we can repair the harm. We can recognize and confess that we have been severe or rigid, that we have abdicated or abandoned, or that we have used others to meet our own needs. We can become authentic fathers who are truly icons of God the Father. We can shine the love of the Father in a world that needs it.

But how?

To be concluded…


Fatherhood is under fire today. Even to talk about it can be taboo. I will take that risk. Authentic fatherhood cuts into the core of Christian faith, because Jesus reveals God as his Father. Read John’s Gospel. Read his three letters. You will hear again and again that Jesus is from the Father. He is in communion with his Father – not just as a human being now in time – but in an eternal communion of intimate love. The bond of love between them is so perfect that it IS a third person, the Holy Spirit. Jesus repeatedly expresses his desire that we come to share in this communion; he invites us to experience God as “Our Father,” to pray and relate to him in that way, both individually and communally.

This poses a problem in a world (and a Church) in which fatherhood has so often failed or harmed. Almost all of us have a distorted view of God the Father, because we are looking at him through the lens of our earthly experiences of fatherhood.

We tend to take the analogy backwards. We are thinking, “God is a Father sort of like these earthly fathers.” It is the other way around! Any authentic earthly fatherhood is rightly called fatherhood only to the extent that it is a sharing in and revelation of God’s Fatherhood.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church warns us against projecting our earthly views of fatherhood onto God:

…we must humbly cleanse our hearts of certain false images drawn “from this world.” Humility makes us recognize that “no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son” … The purification of our hearts has to do with paternal or maternal images, stemming from our personal and cultural history, and influencing our relationship with God. God our Father transcends the categories of the created world. To impose our own ideas in this area “upon him” would be to fabricate idols to adore or pull down. To pray to the Father is to enter into his mystery as he is and as the Son has revealed him to us (n. 2779).

These days you will find anti-patriarchy and pro-patriarchy camps in Christianity. The Catechism here offers sympathy and caution to both sides! Both are speaking certain truths that need to be heard. Both sides also have a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater. On the pro-patriarchy side, you will often find culture warriors who are defending, not God, but worldly structures. Those structures are much more about privilege and power than they are about a true sharing in God’s Fatherhood! God is always on the side of the poor and the oppressed, and if we find ourselves blindly defending oppressive fathers (whether dads or spiritual leaders), we may find ourselves far from God! But on the anti-patriarchy side, there is an over-reaction against these abuses. They are right to acknowledge that many men have victimized, dominated, intimidated, used, exploited, excluded, and silenced. Such acts belong not only to isolated individual men, but have often been embedded within structures that silence opposing voices and blame the victim: including governments, businesses, schools, families, and our own churches. But throwing out fatherhood altogether means cutting off our access to the true Fatherhood of God. We are created to receive his blessing, and will remain miserable without it.

Without God as a Father, Jesus himself would have no identity! He simply IS the Son – eternally begotten of the Father. He invites us to discover our own true identity by receiving fatherly blessing. We need fatherhood to remember our story and to know who we really are.

Any authentic expression of fatherhood is a true sharing in God’s Fatherhood. The apostle Paul puts it this way: “For this reason, I kneel before the Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named…” (Ephesians 3:14-15). More commonly, it is translated “every family,” but in Greek the wordplay is obvious: God is Father (pater) and all patria is from him. Without God’s Fatherhood, there is neither fatherhood nor any other sense of family belonging.

We begin our understanding of Fatherhood by connecting with and meditating on the Trinity. This weekend (eight weeks after Resurrection Sunday), many of our Christian liturgical traditions celebrate “Trinity Sunday.” Jesus is the Son. He is from the Father. He depends upon the Father, and draws his true identity from the Father. When Jesus is baptized, the Father claims him as his beloved Son, in whom he delights.

There are layers of truth here. The Father anoints the humanity of Jesus with the Holy Spirit and declares this human being to be truly his Son. But he is also speaking of their eternal relationship. He is eternally God’s Son – even had he never become one of us, even if he had never created human beings or a universe at all!

The Son is eternally from the Father, yet they are co-equal in dignity and majesty. There is no “greater than” or “less than” in the Trinity. If there were, then Jesus and the Holy Spirit would not truly be God! They would be somehow less than fully God.

Can you see the relevance for human versions of fatherhood or patriarchy? If our fatherhood truly reflects and draws its substance from God’s Fatherhood, then there will be no opposition between equality (on the one hand) and being a source of identity and blessing on the other. That means that we must renounce any counterfeit versions of fatherhood that want to exalt someone on a pedestal. Fatherhood is never about power or privilege. Properly understood, there is an authority there – but it is an authority that lifts others up. True fatherhood pours identity into others, helping them to discover in God the Father who they truly are.

This is true of husbands and dads, but it is also true (in a parallel way) of spiritual fathers: priests or bishops. Each in different ways are a sharing or participation in the Fatherhood of God; each causes grave harm when the God-breathed authority is usurped for the sake of power or privilege.

Perhaps that is why Jesus gave such a stern caution, “Call no man on earth your father – you have only one Father, and he is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9). In point of fact, we do call men our “fathers” – both biologically and spiritually. Paul referred to himself as a spiritual father (1 Corinthians 4:15; 1 Thessalonians 2:11-12); the Letter to the Hebrews exalts Abraham as our patriarch. Jesus is not condemning earthly fatherhood, but reminding us of its true source.

Dads are fathers. Priests are fathers. Others are father figures as well. Like it or not, we who are fatherly have a massive impact on how others form their view of God the Father. We can heal or harm their relationship with God, depending on how we embrace our calling.

To be continued…

Fixing vs. Facing

What is your reaction when confronted with human heartache?

Do you feel the urge to fix it? To prescribe the right book, the right prayers, the right slogan, or the right regimen? Or maybe you crack a joke to lighten the mood; maybe you put things in perspective with a comparison: “Well, at least you’re not like ____________________.”

Fixing feels good at the time. We tell ourselves that we are “helping” the other person – but we are probably helping ourselves. We don’t like that feeling of heartache, and we definitely don’t like feeling powerless – so we back away from the abyss by trying to fix it.

When Job’s friends arrived, they found him sitting on a pile of dung, scraping at his scabs with a shard of pottery. They sat with him for a time, but couldn’t abide his heartache for very long. They shifted to analyzing and fixing, and thereby abandoned him in his pain. Indeed, they blamed him for it!

Giving advice is easy – and not nearly so helpful as we like to think. In some cases, it is our way of backing away from solidarity with the suffering person. In others, it is an arrogant way of saying, “If only you were more like me, your problems would go away.”

I have noticed that subtle message in myself and others – both at the individual and the collective level. I think of Casa Hogar Juan Pablo II – an orphanage in Peru founded by Fr. Joe Walijewski, a saintly priest from our diocese. I have been there five times, usually with a group of young people. The thought process at home is almost always the same – Isn’t it great that we are sending down some of our youth to go and help those poor people? We assume that our affluent (and white) American ways are so much better than theirs. We assume that we have the power, wisdom, and resources to solve their problems. If only they were more like us…

Fr. Walijewski actually saw it the other way around, dreaming of a “mission in reverse.” The mission is not our people going down to Peru. Rather, we go to Peru so that the children there can teach us what it means to be human!

And they have taught us – every time. Amidst material poverty, amidst government corruption, amidst heart-wrenching stories of loss or betrayal, we have encountered stunning beauty and joy. It exposes our own deeper poverty – what Mother Teresa called “the poverty of affluence.” Every single trip I have witnessed the shocked realization in our youths’ faces and tears: How can children possessing so little, children who have suffered so much, be so joyful? How can they love so tenderly and so vulnerably? How can we who possess so much be so joyless?

Jesus invites us to be with each other in communion – both in the agonizing sorrows of life and in the intense joys. As Paul puts it, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). That means that the human heart of a saint is never far from tears and never far from laughter. Those who are the most open to tears are also the most capable of joy. That is because, in the Paschal Mystery, Jesus has redeemed human heartache by investing meaning into it. He invites us, not to bypass suffering and the Cross, but to follow him through it to new and abundant life – to follow where the brave shepherd has gone before.

It is only when we face the fuller depths of our humanity – in all its beauty and brokenness – that we can die with Christ and rise with him.  It is in such human encounters that the newness of the Resurrection breaks in. Those who learn to abide in the midst of heartache, staying vulnerable and receptive to God and others, will experience the surprise of the Resurrection and the joy of the Gospel. Jesus assures us that his Father blesses those who are poor, those who grieve and mourn, those who are willing to be vulnerable, those who hunger and thirst. Facing heartache allows us to receive the Father’s blessing. “Fixing” it closes us off and diminishes our receptivity.

Let’s face it – facing heartache is hard! As the great poet T.S. Eliot put it, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”

I think that is why, when Jesus died on Good Friday, he said “Behold – your mother!” – not just to John, but to every beloved disciple. Mary was often in situations in which she intuitively understood that God was doing amazing things. She did not at all know how it was going to be okay. I am thinking of the Annunciation, Jesus’ birth in a stable, the flight into Egypt, the cryptic words of Simeon in the Temple, the losing and finding of 12-year-old Jesus in Jerusalem, his torture and execution, and the awful watching and waiting on Holy Saturday. Again and again, mother Mary faced heartache. Again and again she waited with expectant hope and was surprised by the marvels of the Kingdom of God.

The last time the Bible tells us about Mary is in Acts 1. Following Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, yet again she abides in uncertainty and messiness. She prays with the apostles every day in the cenacle – nine days in all. It took those apostles many years and many failed attempts, but they learned to abide and receive. The Jewish feast of Pentecost arrives – the day to bring first fruits of the harvest to God. In a stunning and joy-filled reversal, God gives the first fruits to his Church in the person of the Holy Spirit. Mary recedes, and the early Church comes to birth, set on fire with the Holy Spirit.

The Church is intended by God to be a community that faces heartache vulnerably, open to the Father in holy receptivity and open to each other in true communal fellowship. Rather than trying to fix or advise others so that their story can fit into the preconceived mold of our own story, we expect the Holy Spirit to show up. We expect the Father’s blessing. We expect that the new life of Resurrection will surprise us. Fixing is too constrictive to allow space for God to do his work.

Do we have the courage to face our humanity together, and to abide together in Hope?

The Baptism of the Lord

On Sunday we celebrate Jesus’ baptism. In Catholicism, the liturgical season of “Christmas” does not even kick off until Christmas Eve, and then continues long after the world has moved on to marketing promotions for Super Bowl snacks, Valentine gifts, and TurboTax.

I remember Father Jack, throughout my adolescent and teen years, quizzing the congregation, and kindly scolding those who had kicked their Christmas trees to the curb too soon.

It may seem odd for the Christmas Season to include a remembrance of Jesus being baptized at age 30. It is a mystery well worth pondering, and one I have had ample opportunity to ponder.

This particular celebration has held a special place in my heart – in part because it coincides so closely with my own birthday. Whenever my anniversary of birth is a Sunday or a Monday, the Baptism of Jesus falls on the same day.

During my nine years of seminary, my birthday often fell in the midst of an annual retreat, prior to the beginning of spring semester. Many people celebrate their 21st birthday at a bar, but mine was in the middle of my first ever silent retreat. Good little Pharisee that I was, I kept perfect silence the entire time. The next two years, my friends Chad, David, and Peter couldn’t resist teasing me about my monastic virtue – not even breaking silence when they surprised me with a chorus of “Happy Birthday.”

On those retreats, God captivated my heart with this special moment in the human history of Jesus. The event of his Baptism is meant to be experienced by each of us as his disciples. All that is his becomes ours.

“You are my beloved Son. I am well pleased in you!” (Mark 1:11)

On those retreats, these words spoken to Jesus by his Father became words spoken by the Father to me. I desperately needed to hear them. I still need to hear them.

It is one thing to profess with my lips, “God loves me.” It is another to experience it. In terms of teaching, I seriously could not have missed this doctrinal truth that God loves me. During the “warm fuzzy” era of Catholic schools in the 1980s, it seemed to be the only content taught in our religion classes– and still it didn’t sink in! No doubt, it’s why Christmas and my birthday felt so special to me as a child. They were rare moments in which I felt like I really mattered.

To be human is to matter to God. He has sent his own beloved Son to reclaim us through the shedding of his own blood. By sheer gift, he not only reconciles us, but expresses his delight in us. The words spoken to Jesus are words meant for us.

During the baptism, the Holy Spirit also shows up with his anointing. That is what “Christ” or “Messiah” means – the anointed one. This is the moment in which the Father anoints Jesus in his humanity (cf. Acts 10:38).

To be “Christian” means to be anointed with Christ. Jesus is God’s eternal Son and has no need of repentance, no need of healing, no need of deliverance, and no need of power. John the Baptist intuitively understands, and protests Jesus’ request to be baptized. But they proceed, “so that all righteousness can be fulfilled” (Matthew 3:15). God desires his righteousness to become ours – truly our own. He desires us to grow and keep growing into the holiness of Christ, which is nothing other than a communion of love in the life of the Trinity.

In one sense, the baptism of Jesus is a past event, over and done with 2,000 years ago in that tiny and not-so-tidy river that still flows into the Dead Sea. In another sense, this event is ongoing. By God’s design, all human flesh is meant to be inserted into the flesh of Christ. All human flesh is invited to the regenerating waters of baptism. All human flesh is invited to be anointed by the Holy Spirit.

We need that renewal; we need that anointing. In the Scripture readings this Sunday, the prophet Isaiah proclaims the victory that the Messiah is destined to bring – calling prisoners out from the dungeon, opening the eyes of the blind, and helping the lame to walk – all possible because the Spirit of the Lord has anointed him (Isaiah 42:1-7).

Despite my dogged self-protection and self-reliance, God repeatedly pierced my defenses on those retreats, surprising me with the honor and delight of being claimed as his own beloved son. On those retreats, my heart burned with desire in reading the messianic prophecies of Isaiah. During those timeless moments of prayer, I was able to admit humbly how blind and lame and impoverished I was – not in self-shaming, but in a kind truthfulness. That humility made it possible to receive as free gift (like a birthday present!) the renewed cleansing of baptismal faith. I realized even then that God intended those words of Isaiah for me as well. As one sharing in the anointing of Jesus, I too am chosen and called to proclaim Good News in the darkest places of people’s hearts, to call out those held prisoner in the dungeon, to grasp them firmly by the hand, to invite them to be claimed as God’s beloved and to receive the same anointing. I knew then and know now that God has called me to be an instrument of his healing. It turns out that I wasn’t ready just then to leave behind my perfectionistic defenses. So God has gently reminded and re-reminded me  that I have ongoing need of healing and anointing myself if I am to be an instrument of healing for others. I can only give if I keep receiving.

The apostle Paul invites us to participate in the baptismal rebirth and renewal that is freely and gratuitously offered in Jesus, along with the rich outpouring of the Spirit (Titus 3:4-7). Let us come into the waters of baptism with Jesus. Let us cast off the deeds of darkness and commit ourselves to live soberly, justly, and devoutly in this present age as we joyfully await in hope his glorious coming. Let us place our trust fully in his victory, freely given to us. With him and in him, let us become God’s anointed!

Healing and the Holy Spirit

Have you ever heard testimonies from fellow Christians about powerful healing experiences and secretly doubted or judged them? Or have you perhaps felt threatened by or resentful of the joy and freedom they seem to possess? I admit that I have!

For every person who has a powerful healing story there are dozens of others who have been reaching out for years and (it seems) experiencing no answer. Whether we have a physical ailment, anxiety and depression, a repeated sinful habit, an addiction, or relationship struggles, we can find ourselves suffering painfully for many years.

Reaching out and not being attuned to, not being heard, or not being cared for is one of the most painful human experiences. It can feel far safer to close ourselves off, to believe that healing doesn’t really happen, or to claim that it happened “back then” with Jesus but no longer happens today.

It doesn’t help that plenty of us Christians are prone to exaggerate or embellish, to draw attention to ourselves, or to avoid facing our brokenness by hiding behind a healing story. Even when real healing has happened, it can be tempting to tell a glamorous healing story that turns a blind eye to our ongoing struggles and avoids facing the toilsome work still ahead.

Isn’t it fascinating that sometimes God works powerful graces so swiftly and suddenly, and other times he seems to keep us waiting for SO long?

Lurking in the background here is perhaps the greatest theological mystery, namely, the interplay between God’s omnipotence and our human freedom. He is the all-powerful God AND he always honors the freedom he has given us. This means that the Holy Spirit works with amazing swiftness, but always in a way that respects and honors our human dignity, our desires, our receptivity, our readiness, and our freedom to choose.

Ambrose of Milan comments on this swiftness of the Holy Spirit, reflecting on Luke’s Gospel account of the birth of Jesus. The angel Gabriel comes to Mary and declares her to be full of grace. He invites her to say “yes” and become the mother of Jesus. She freely and wholeheartedly surrenders. Immediately God’s eternal Word becomes flesh in her womb, as the Holy Spirit rushes upon her in a new and special way. The result? She sets out in haste to the hill country. In the words of Ambrose, “Filled with God, where would she hasten but to the heights? The Holy Spirit does not proceed by slow, laborious efforts.”

The Holy Spirit acts with utmost swiftness. Whether impregnating the Virgin Mary, forgiving the sins of the Apostles on Easter Sunday, exorcising demons, healing the sick, or raising the dead, the Holy Spirit needs no time.

It is we who often need time. And God honors us in that need!

I know for myself that my “yes” to God’s invitation, my surrender to him, seems to come with strings attached. I have experienced many grace-filled moments in which I have given everything to him. Yet I keep discovering that I have secretly crossed my fingers behind my back. Somehow I have maintained a contingency plan, withholding some small parcel for myself just in case he doesn’t come through for me. It reminds me so much of the scene in Lord of the Rings in which Bilbo Baggins is called upon to surrender the highly corrupting Ring of Power, passing it to his nephew Frodo. Bilbo agrees and then gets up to leave the house – only to be confronted by the wizard Gandalf with the words, “You have still got the ring in your pocket.”

Like Bilbo, I can so often respond, “Well, so I have.”

And God waits – not with disdain or disappointment, but with eternal kindness and patience. He desires me to desire him. As a loving Father, he patiently watches me grow, without jumping in or coercing.

Receptivity in freedom is not a “one and done.” Even for Jesus and Mary, who were so utterly receptive to the Father’s will, so totally open to being led by the Holy Spirit, receiving was an ongoing reality. Mary was already “full of grace” (Luke 1:28) when she said yes to God – receiving ever greater blessings. She pondered God’s mysteries in her heart as she kept growing in her wisdom and understanding (Luke 2:19, 51). Luke twice tells us that Jesus himself grew in wisdom and in grace (Luke 2:40, 52).

To be truly human is to grow our whole life long. Our human existence is dynamic, not static. We are freely invited by God to become who we are. We are created in God’s own image and likeness, and called to receive love freely and give love freely as we grow in communion with God and each other. We are intended to love and be loved with ever greater depth and fullness and fruitfulness.

Desire and receptivity are key concepts here. We all have holy desires, sown in us by God the Father, who is always drawing us to himself (John 6:44) – often in undetected ways, but always in a manner that honors our freedom to say yes or no.

As we well know, our good and holy desires often get twisted and tangled up. Augustine of Hippo beautifully described the experience in his Confessions. In our unloveliness we plunge ourselves into the lovely things God has created – things which cannot even exist without him. We run far from him even though he is never far from us. And ever he pursues us, ever he invites us to open up and receive.

Desire stretches our hearts. The more we receive and truly experience the living God, the more we thirst for him. Thirst for God is quite possibly the most painful human experience of all – and the one that keeps enticing us to stretch out our hearts in receptivity. The more we willingly thirst, the more we can receive him, and the more the Holy Spirit is then unleashed to rush upon us, to flood us, to possess us, and to lead us in haste to give freely and sacrificially to others.

God alone knows all the reasons why healing does or doesn’t happen in any particular case. In some cases, we may never know in this lifetime. Often, however, what feels like a delay to us is actually a deep honoring of our desires, our receptivity, and our freedom. I believe that the single hardest human thing for many of us is to open up and receive. It is so hard to do what the Virgin Mary did in her fiat – to receive love vulnerably, freely, and wholeheartedly, setting down all our well-crafted defenses, permitting God and others to be and to stay intimately close.

Quite often, we find ourselves in a bind. One part of us deeply aches for connectedness and communion. We ache more than anything else for someone to draw near, to see us, to hear us, to be intimately close to us. And then when a good and trustworthy person actually does that, we freak out and sabotage! I am astounded at the lightning speed with which my defenses engage in situations like this.

The great spiritual question is the question Jesus asked at the pool of Bethesda to the man who had been crippled for 38 years: “Do you desire to be well?” Of course we do! All of us desire to be well, to love and to be loved. God created us for these things and planted these desires in us. But many of us are also chained by our pride and self-reliance, our hiding and self-protection. We need Jesus to break those chains by the power of the Holy Spirit. He will eagerly do so, and with even greater swiftness that our defensive reactions – if and when we deeply desire it. Some of us need many years to grow in those desires and reach a point where the strength of our desire is greater than the strength of our defenses. The Holy Spirit will never force himself – but thankfully he only needs a tiny crack to enter. Faith the size of a mustard seed is enough.

Many of us may need a long time and much breaking up of the hard soil before we are receptively willing to permit the Holy Spirit to act upon us and possess us. Likewise, after powerful moments of healing, the real work is only just beginning. Whether the healing received is physical, emotional, or spiritual (with spiritual healing always being the most important and most amazing), we are then invited in freedom to grow and mature and bear fruit. Only Jesus, through the anointing of the Holy Spirit, can liberate us. He breaks our chains, rolls away the stone that is blocking our self-created tomb, calls out forth, unbinds us and pulls off the masks that have obscured our vision. Once these obstacles are removed, his desire is for us to keep growing in our desires, to keep receiving and giving, and to bear fruit. He wants us to be true sharers in his love, his freedom, and his dignity. We are not robots of puppets. We are no longer slaves but are led by the Holy Spirit to live in the glorious freedom of the sons and daughters of God.

Conversations about faith and good works so easily get sidetracked if we don’t look at them in terms of Love. From start to finish, it is all God’s work – starting with the very desires themselves that he sows in us, continuing with the period of preparation (as long as it takes) for receiving the gift, rushing ahead in powerful moments of healing and grace, sprouting forth with new life, proceeding with everyday moments of patient and laborious growth, and culiminating with superabundant fruitfulness. From start to finish, God honors our dignity and freedom, inviting us freely to grow and mature and bear fruit in love, as we become who we are.