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Pentecost Joy

Holy Spirit painting
Holy Spirit painting (Photo credit: hickory hardscrabble)

Pentecost 2012


Credo in Spiritum Sanctum.


I believe in the Holy Spirit.


For centuries in the text of the Apostles Creed, this is what the church affirmed of the Holy Spirit. Simply four words in the Latin; six in English.  I believe in the Holy Spirit.  Nothing about the Spirit’s divinity, or works, or identity.  In effect the church was saying just this: we believe that there is a Holy Spirit.


This may be, in part at least, because of the nature of Spirit.  As the Scriptures say, it is like the wind that blows where it will.  You know it’s there, but you do not know where it came from, nor where it is going.  


This past Thursday I was driving through a mountain pass on ajourney from Austria into Switzerland.  On my right was a sheer wall of stone with a massive forest above it, and snow-covered peaks above them.  On my left was a drop of probably more than a thousand feet, conservatively.  The weather had featured light rain, broken by occasional openings in the clouds to reveal both the elevations above in their beauty, and the abyss below.  At this moment, in the mix of sun and water, a rainbow appeared to my left above the chasm.  The colors danced and sang as any rainbow’s will, but this was the first time in my life that I was at the top of the rainbow, watching it bend and curve and transform the visible right next to me, seemingly just to the left of this Swiss mountain road.  It was totally unexpected.  It was amazingly beautiful.  It was there, and then I entered a mountainside tunnel of only a few meters, but when I emerged, it was gone.  And the day, once more, was wet and gray.  


I believe in that rainbow.  I don’t know the science of how it came to be there, or how I came to see it, or how I was able to look at it without driving off the mountainside.  I don’t need to know any of those things.  I believe in that rainbow.  I saw its transforming beauty, and it was gone.  

A long-ago Pentecost day in Jerusalem, the Spirit darted over a human congregation in a public place.  It felt like fire.  It too danced, and landed on those it chose.  They were transformed and not only them, but all who heard their speech.  Something new – and unexpected, though promised – had arrived.  The fire seemingly was soon seen no more.  But everything had changed.


The Apostle Paul wrestled with that change in his letter to the church at Rome, as did Jesus to express what was coming to his friends.  We have those struggles today in texts from Romans and the Gospel of John.  These inspired voices exert themselves to express something of this gift in which the church has come to believe, this Holy Spirit.  


The Spirit is our Advocate, Jesus says, the One who stands by us in life to remind us of Jesus’ own presence and teaching and love.  The Spirit is the One who testifies on our behalf when we need a presence by our side.  The Spirit groans with us, Paul says.  Creation groans – as it did in the earthquake I felt last Sunday in Italy, and as it does in the burdens we humans place upon it hourly.  We groan, the Apostle reminds us, enduring the challenges of life as we await the fulfillment for which we long.  It may not surprise us that creation groans, and we hardly need a reminder that we ourselves groan – and sometimes growl! – but the Spirit of God groans with us.  The Advocate stands with us to sigh to the depths of God’s own being.  As if to say, ‘Yes, I am your supporter.  I know your lot.  I am with you, in it, now.  You are not alone.’


Where do you see the Spirit?  Where do you experience the Spirit in a way that confirms the church’s faith?  Yesterday I felt the Spirit in this space, as our own Matt Oprendek was ordained a deacon by Bishop Gene Robinson, in a room filled with sound and light, music and prayer and movement – and yes, Holy Spirit.  Where is the Spirit surprising you?  Appearing, however fleetingly, in your heart’s peripheral vision to surprise, to challenge, to renew, to confirm, to solace, to groan?  Do you believe that the Spirit is in your life, in your family life, in your career, in the thoughts that end your day as you fall asleep, in the emotions that lift you up as you lift up your first child or grandchild and look them squarely in the eye and see there the mystery of God alive in the human?  Do you recognize the Spirit in a member of your family or a friend who has served this country on this Memorial Day weekend? This is the time, from this fiftieth and final day of the Easter festival forward, to live attentively to the gifts of the Spirit.  Keep your ears open to the sound of those tongues of flame settling on you and those around you.  Keep your eyes open to the rainbows that might suddenly appear right by your side.


C. S. Lewis opened his life with the repeated, searingly real, endearingly transformative and fleeting experiences of what he called simply “joy.”  He got it down from the four words of the church to one.  I think when he said ‘joy’ he may have beentalking about the same thing as the Apostles Creed in its four Latin words.  Lewis recalled moments when an unseen windowsuddenly opened into another dimension of what is, and filled him with something more than emotion, more powerful than all else in life.  It was exhilarating, world-shifting, but could not be grasped and was gone completely as quickly as it came, leaving no trace  – except perhaps for the changed cadence of his heart and the deepened sense of the depths of  . . . everything.  


C. S. Lewis, this man of words, had trouble describing it.  As Paul had.  As even Jesus seemed to do.  Listen to Lewis try:  “ I call it Joy.  . . .  It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s ‘enormous bliss of Eden . . . comes somewhere near it.  It was a sensation, of course, of desire, but desire for what? . . .  Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse . . . withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased.  . . . In a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else.”


He put it differently in another place, in words that open something of that presence and longing of the Spirit of God for me.  He wrote: “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing . . . to find the place where all the beauty came from.”


Today is the day of Joy.  Today is the sweet day of that dear longing.  Today is the day of the Advocate, of our fellow-groaner, of the transforming power that comes on the wind, shares with us the breath of God, and then goes on its way.  


Open to joy, with longing for beauty, accepting the gift of Advocate and Companion, say with the whole church: Credo in Spiritum Sanctum.



John P. McGinty

Grace Church Brooklyn Heights

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Seeing Italy again for the first time

Boat on Lake Como, Italy.
Boat on Lake Como, Italy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Villa d'Este (Cernobbio)
Villa d’Este (Cernobbio) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The lakes region of this country is a marvel. Lakes thirty and forty miles long, surrounded by tall green hills with towns and villages thrown along the shore on either side like beads on a rosary. I find it so beautiful that I think you could be dead and enjoy a visit here. In fact I’m sure this countryside could resuscitate most emotional and spiritual corpses and set them on the road to life again.

What a drive here to Cernobbio, just beyond the town of Como on the lake of the same name (Lake Como). We began in Switzerland, entered Italy, went back into Switzerland, then re-entered Italy – all in a little more than four hours. And a passport was never requested at any of those four border crossings. Who says that trust is a thing of the past?!?

We’ve stayed for a couple of days now at the hotel Regina Olga at Cernobbio. It is beautifully set on the waterfront. The food of Italy never disappoints, even when is trying to avoid the intake of gluten.  I’ve been able to take some great walks around the town and up the htil behind it, welcomed by some dogs and given a stern warning by others.

A ferry ride along the lake of only 13 minutes brought us to Como proper. I spent some time in the impressive Cathedral of the Assumption (the Duomo of Como) built between the 14th and 17th centuries. We sat in the square in front of the  Cathedral where I ate a plate of assorted cheeses, imbibed a cappuccino in its perfection, and watched humanity struggle, strive, love, fail, and rejoice through it all. This is one of humanity’s hometowns.

Each day here the forecast has first been for rain, later revised to better conditions. This afternoon it is finally drizzling, but nothing too bad thus far.

Tomorrow is the feast of the Ascension here in Italy. We’ll be heading toward Verona and beyond, ultimately into Austria.

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Return to Switzerland 2

Matterhorn von Zermatt
Matterhorn von Zermatt (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The second day here dawned cool and overcast at Lucerne. We checked the weather before heading out to get the car rental only to find cold and snow forecast along the way May 16th? Snow? This was particularly unwelcome as we’d be heading into the mountains toward the Matterhorn.

Sure enough, as we approached the Grimsel Pass an hour and a half later we saw two signs indicating that the Pass was closed due to weather. Disbelieving (or wanting to) we continued on, finally stopping at a restaurant – hotel to ask if it were true. “It were.” We turned and retraced our steps (rolls?), having already driven through one mountain pass full of new snow and snow actively falling around us. It was beautiful, but the hairpin turns were enough to turn the hairpin gray.

Looking for another way, we stopped at a roadside help station (with coffee!). They too were closed, and when we returned to the car I could not figure out how to get it into reverse. Lovely. We pushed it back – carefully – onto the mountain road, then jumped in and continued on our way.

Later on the trip we made it through another pass on a car-train. That was a new one for me. Typical of my ‘out-of-it-ness’ in new experiences, we were actually sitting on the car-train ready to head through 12 kilometers of tunnel before I even realized we had arrived. Off we went, bouncing through a completely dark and noisy tube. We made it through. A successful passage.

After many further adventures that day, which I will not recount here out of mercy, we arrived at Tasch, a town just kilometers from Zermatt, the town at the foot of the Matterhorn. That eveningI took a walk through the town. To either side tower the Alps, some of them still snowcapped. It was cold with a light breeze. The sense of awe I felt looking up at these summits in the silence was wonderful. It felt like a re-setting of my visual and spiritual clock, a reconnecting with the amazing truth that creation is creation. It was that marvelous gift of having no desire to be anywhere other than where you are, to be completely present in that moment.

The next morning we took the train from the station next door to Zermatt. I walked through the town, ascending, ascending, past the skiers preparing for the slopes, past the church bells ringing and wild echoing through the air, past the tourists, and the resident moms gathering their children for school or errands, past the ancient wooden houses and the new chalets, past the waters rushing down off the mountains, until I turned a corner and got a clear view of the Matterhorn.

It is, in the best sense of the word, extreme. Extreme in the sense of being fully and radically and only itself, an attribute that would be shared with all of creation were it not for our compromises with mediocrity and acceptance of less than the full grace poured out our way at every moment from the source of this and every mountain – and every valley as well.

It was, in the original sense of the word, awesome, beyond the telling, worth the gazing, simply beautiful.