Lenten Meditation 20 March 2012
“Some Jewish scholars say that the consonants used in the spelling [of the Hebrew name for God YHWH] are the very few that do not allow you to close your mouth around them, or even significantly use your lips or tongue; in fact, they are very likely a brilliant attempt to replicate human breathing: YH on the captured in breath and WH on the offered out breath! (Stop and literally take a breath on that one!)…God is as available and accessible as our breath itself, and no religion is going to be able to portion that out, control it or say who gets it.
Is that not the very meaning of Jesus dramatic breathing on them after the Resurrection (John 20:22)?” (Page 129-30)
|Gian Lorenzo Bernini - Dove of the Holy Spirit|
Until the second half of the 20th Century, Western theology had not deeply delved into pneumatology, or the theology of the Holy Spirit. At the very end of the 19th Century the Holiness Movement which gave rise to the Pentecostal Movement, began to grow across North America and Europe, gradually moving into Latin America and Africa though missionaries of the Pentecostal Holiness and Assemblies of God Churches. Those two groups divided into a multitude of other groups that differed on points of theology but which all had as their central focus the indwelling of the Holy Spirit with the exercise of various gifts of the Spirit, especially glossolalia or speaking in tongues. By 1960 even the mainline Christian communities, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, were discovering, or more properly rediscovering, the power of the Holy Spirit for individuals and congregations through the Charismatic Movement. The Rev. Dennis Bennett may not have been the first Episcopalian who expressed life in the Spirit, but he quickly became the most well-known through his autobiographical work Nine O’clock in the Morning. Suddenly, it seemed, theologians of every stripe were feeling the need to think, pray, converse, and write about the Third Person of the Holy Trinity.
During the late 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the Charismatic Movement swept through the Episcopal Church and brought both renewed vigor and dissension. Members who were moved by the Holy Spirit began to exert pressure to move out into the world in a powerful way; while at the same time the requirement of some Charismatics that all speak in tongues brought division and in some cases schism in parishes and dioceses. Other renewal movements, such as Cursillo, Chiros, Walk to Emmaus, Marriage Encounter and others, began to draw more and more Episcopalians to move from the pew to an understanding of ministry which included prayer every day and not just Sunday. By the late 1990s, the Charismatic Movement had filtered into the ordinary life of the Episcopal Church so that it is no longer a radical idea to have a group within a parish, or an entire parish, alive with the power of the Holy Spirit, perhaps even with some who speak in tongues.
From Genesis 1:1 where we hear about the ruach of God [Hebrew for breath, wind, spirit] or Genesis 2:7 where God blows breath into First Man, to St Paul in I Corinthians speaking of the pneuma of God [Greek for breath, wind, spirit] to Revelation, the Holy Spirit is present and working to breathe life into God’s creatures. That the Church for several hundred years did not stress the working of the Holy Spirit in the life of ordinary Christians could be laid at the feet of power: that is to say, the Holy Spirit brings a power for personal transformation and exercise of the gifts of the Spirit for ministry that is not easily controlled by the structure of the Church and is often feared by those who control the structure.
The idea that the name of God, usually written Yahweh in modern works, [in the King James Bible written as Jehovah] is a breath prayer in and of itself is a brand new one for me. The Hebrew of the Scriptures is written without vowels, so there is no absolutely certain way to know how to either write or pronounce YHWH, the name revealed to Moses on the Mountain of the Burning Bush (Exodus 3), which translates normally to “I am who I am.” This name is intended to be unpronounceable, and in modern Jewish worship, when the Sacred Tetragrammaton appears it is pronounced “Adonai.” However, to think of YH as an inspiration—breathing in—and WH as an expiration—breathing out—is inspired and becomes inspiration to me. Centering Prayer, as taught by Father Thomas Keating and others, has gained many adherents in recent years, and many use a “breath prayer” such as the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” I sometimes use a breath prayer that I discovered some years ago: “Holy Spirit, breath of God, blow into my life.”
We ignore the Holy Spirit to our soul’s peril. All of our liturgical prayers and many of our collects close with a doxology which includes the Holy Spirit; blessings always are Trinitarian; through St. Paul’s understanding we discover the “fellowship of the Holy Spirit.” Perhaps it is time to acknowledge in our own private prayers the presence of the Spirit of God and seek a fuller indwelling and empowering for the work we have been called to in our lives. As we move toward Holy Week, let me encourage you to discover the depths of the Spirit, the breath, the wind that “blows where it wills”. Breathe deeply of the life, the fellowship, the power of God; then use that power to proclaim the presence of the Lord to the world.