In the first reading for the Memorial of Mary Mother of the Church (from Genesis) the Lord asks two important questions that speak to the core of many of our problems. Let’s look at each question in turn.
I. “Adam, where are you?” – God’s first question has almost the quality of a plaintive cry. Because Adam is the head of his household, when God calls Adam He is also seeking Eve.
Of course, God knows where Adam and Eve are. He is really saying, “Adam, Eve: your heart has been hidden from me. What has happened? Where are you going with your life?” This is a crucial question for all of us who are so easily wayward and dull of heart: Where are you?
It is almost as if Adam and Eve had a place in God’s heart and suddenly are absent from that place. Noticing it at once, God seeks them as a shepherd looks for lost sheep.
It is interesting that He is seeking them, not pursuing them. There is nothing here to imply an angry Father, bent on punishment and venting His anger, pursuing those who have done wrong. No, this is a soulful cry.
God is not unaware of what has happened or where they are. The question is deeper: Where is your heart?
We are asked this same question: Where is our heart? On what are our desires focused? Where are we and where are we going? It is much like what Jesus asked Peter: “Do you love me?” How will we answer?
II. “Who told you that you were naked?” – We do well to understand that the nakedness here is about more than a lack of clothes (which they didn’t even need moments ago). It more fully refers to the experience of feeling exposed, vulnerable, inadequate, and unduly humiliated before God and others.
God asks us this question, too: “Who told you that you were naked?” In other words, who told you that were wretched and inadequate such that you need to hide from me? I never told you that. Clearly, Satan has bedeviled you and lied to you.
Here are some further things for many of us: “Who told you that you are ugly, that others are better than you, that you do not measure up, that others are laughing at you, that your inadequacies are all that others see? I did not tell you this. They are not the source of your dignity, I am.”
It is a terrible thing to sin, but it is even worse to then lose all hope, to despair, and to feel incapable of emerging from the nakedness of humiliation. Judas despaired of his sin in this way and refused to live with his nakedness and exposure to humiliation. In contrast, Peter waited for the Lord, lived with his sorrow, and then experienced His forgiveness at the lakeside (Jn 21:15ff).
Let the Lord ask you: “Who told you that you were naked?” What does nakedness mean in your life?
Remember, the Lord did not forsake Adam and Eve. He prepares their salvation (as we shall see) and meanwhile He clothed them: The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them (Gen 3:21). Later, Jesus clothed us in righteousness (Rev 19:8).
Whatever your sins, never forget that God still seeks you and that he stills sees your dignity as his son or daughter. Satan wants to taunt you and make you feel naked and fearful. That is not the Father’s voice seeks you in your darkest hours and offers healing and grace. He does not deny or make light of sin, but offers grace and mercy.
What a wondrous and challenging feast we celebrate at Pentecost! A feast like this challenges us because it puts to the lie a lazy, sleepy, hidden, and tepid Christian life. The Lord Jesus said to the apostles, I have come to cast a fire on the earth (Luke 12:49). This is a feast about fire, a transformative, refining, purifying fire that the Lord wants to kindle in us. It is a necessary fire, for as the Lord first judged the world by fire, the present heavens and the earth are reserved for fire. Because it is going to be the fire next time, we need the tongues of Pentecost fire to fall on us to set us on fire and bring us up to the temperature of glory.
The readings today speak to us of the Holy Spirit in three ways: the portraits of the Spirit, the proclamation of the Spirit, and the propagation by the Spirit.
I. The Portraits of the Spirit– The reading today speaks of the Holy Spirit using two images: rushing wind and tongues of fire. These two images recall Psalm 50, which says, Our God comes, he does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, round about him a mighty tempest.
Rushing Wind – Notice how the text from Acts opens: When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were.
This text brings us to the very root meaning of the word “spirit.” Spirit refers to breath. This is preserved in the word “respiration,” which is the act of breathing. So, the Spirit of God is the breath of God, the Ruah Adonai (the Spirit, the breath of God).
Genesis 1:2 speaks of this, saying, the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. Genesis 2:7 speaks even more remarkably of something God did only for man (not the animals): then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
So, the very Spirit of God was breathed into Adam, but he lost this gift and died spiritually when he sinned.
Thus, we see in this passage from Acts an amazing and wonderful resuscitation of the human person as these first Christians experience the rushing wind of God’s Spirit breathing spiritual life back into them. God does C.P.R. and brings humanity, dead in sin, back to life! The Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us once again as in a temple (cf 1 Cor 3:16). It has been said that Christmas is the feast of God with us, Good Friday is the Feast of God for us, but Pentecost is the Feast of God in us.
Tongues of Fire – The text from Acts then says, Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
The Bible often speaks of God as fire or in fiery terms: Moses saw Him as a burning bush. God led the people out of Egypt through the desert as a pillar of fire. Moses went up onto a fiery Mt. Sinai where God was. Psalm 97 says,
The LORD reigns; let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! Clouds and thick darkness are round about him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. Fire goes before him, and burns up his adversaries round about. His lightnings lighten the world; the earth sees and trembles. The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth. The heavens proclaim his righteousness; and all the peoples behold his glory (Psalm 97).
Scriptures also call God a Holy fire, a consuming fire (cf Heb 12:29) and a refining fire (cf Is. 48:10; Jer 9:7; Zec 13:9; Mal 3:3).
So it is that our God, who is a Holy Fire, comes to dwell in us through His Holy Spirit. As a Holy Fire, He refines us by burning away our sins and purifying us. As Job once said, But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold (Job 23:10).
God is also preparing us for judgment, for if He is a Holy Fire, then who may endure the day of His coming or of going to Him? What can endure the presence of Fire Himself? Only that which is already fire. Thus, we must be set afire by God’s love.
So, in the coming of the Holy Spirit, God sets us on fire to make us a kind of fire. In so doing, He purifies us and prepares us to meet Him one day, to meet Him who is a Holy Fire.
II. The Proclamation of the Spirit – You will notice that the Spirit came on them like “tongues” of fire. The reference to tongues is no accident, for the Holy Spirit moves them to speak and ultimately to witness. The text says, And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, “Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his native language? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”
So, behold how the Holy Spirit moves them to proclaim, not just within the safety of the upper room, but also in holy boldness before the crowds that have gathered.
Notice the transformation! Moments ago, these were frightened men huddled together in secrecy behind locked doors. Now, they go forth to the crowds and proclaim Christ boldly. They have gone from fear to faith, from cowardice to courage, from terror to testimony!
What about us? Too many Christians are silent, overcome by fear. Perhaps they fear being called names or being unpopular. Perhaps they are anxious about being laughed at or resisted, or of being asked questions they don’t feel capable of answering. Some Christians gather in the “upper room” of the parish and are active—even leaders—but once outside the safe confines of the “upper room” they slip into what I call “secret agent” mode.
Well, the Holy Spirit wants to change that. To the degree that we have really met Jesus Christ and experienced His Holy Spirit, we are less able to keep silent. An old gospel song says, “I thought I wasn’t gonna testify, but I couldn’t keep it to myself, what the Lord has done for me.” The Holy Spirit, if authentically received, wants to give us zeal and joy, to burn away our fear so that testifying and witnessing come naturally to us.
Note also how the Spirit “translates” for the Apostles. The people in the crowd spoke different languages, yet each heard Peter and the others in his own language. The Spirit, therefore, assists not only us but also those who hear us. My testimony is not dependent on my eloquence alone but also on the grace of the Holy Spirit, who casts out deafness and opens hearts. Every Christian should remember this. Some of our most doubt-filled encounters with others can still bear great fruit on account of the work of the Holy Spirit, who “translates” for us and overcomes obstacles we might think insurmountable.
III. The Propagation by the Spirit – In the great commission, the Lord said, Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age (Matt 28:19ff). He also said, I have come to cast a fire on the earth and How I wish the blaze were already ignited (Luke 12:49).
How is the Lord going to do this?
Perhaps a picture will help to illustrate. My parish church is dedicated to the Holy Spirit under the title “Holy Comforter.” Above the high altar is the following Latin inscription: Spiritus Domini, replevit orbem terrarum (The Spirit of the Lord, filled the orb of the earth). (See the photo above of our high altar.)
The walls of my parish church answer the question. The clerestory walls are painted Spanish red, and upon this great canvas are also painted the stories of the lives of twenty saints, surrounding us like a great cloud of witnesses (cf Heb 12:1). (See also the video below.) Over the head of every saint is a tongue of fire.
This is how the Spirit of the Lord fills the earth. It is not via “magic fairy dust.” It is in the fiery transformation of every Christian going forth to bring warmth and light to a cold, dark world. This is how the Lord casts fire upon the earth. This is how the Spirit of the Lord fills the orb of the earth—in the lives of saints (and in your life)!
In the end, the great commission (Matt 28) is our first and most important job. No matter what else we do, we are to do this. Parishes do not deserve to exist if they do not do this. As individual Christians, we are a disgrace and not worthy of the name if we fail to win souls for Jesus Christ. The Spirit of the Lord is going to fill the orb of the earth but only through us. The spread of the gospel has been placed in your hands. It’s scary, isn’t it!
In my short time on this planet, I have seen it. Parishes that were once big and booming (and, frankly, sometimes arrogant) are now in decline; some are near closure. It happens to the best if they do not evangelize, if they do not accomplish “job one.” The Lord wants to light a fire. Why not become fire? Let the Spirit propagate the Church through you. (Yes, I am talking to you.)
Enjoy the feast of Pentecost, but don’t forget that the basic image is very challenging, for it means getting out of the “upper room,” opening the doors, and proclaiming Christ to the world. Let the Holy Spirit light a fire in you. Then you can’t help but spread light and heat to a dark, cold world.
Let the evangelization of the whole world begin with you.
The video below features details from the clerestory of my parish, Holy Comforter in Washington, D.C. Notice the tongue of fire above each saint. The paintings show how the Spirit of the Lord fills the orb of the earth through the lives of the saints (and through you, too). It is not magic; it is grace, working in your life, through your gifts and your relationships, so that the Lord will reach each soul. The witnesses on the walls of my Church say, “You are the way that He will fill the earth and set it on fire.” Let the blaze be ignited in you!
The song accompanying the video says, “We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, looking on, encouraging us to do the will of the Lord. Let us stand worthy and be faithful to God’s call … We must not grow weary …!”
Back in April, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York excluded the possibility that God had anything to do with the dropping numbers of COVID-19 in New York State (emphasis mine):
During a press conference on April 13, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo contended that God has nothing to do with the notable decrease in COVID-19 cases across the state.
“The number is down because we brought the number down,” he told reporters. “God did not do that. Faith did not do that. Destiny did not do that.”
“A lot of pain and suffering did that,” Cuomo, a professing Catholic, continued. “That’s how it works. It’s math.”
… In recent days, the number of hospitalizations and fatalities from the virus have decreased significantly, suggesting that New York City has crested “the curve” and is now on the downhill path to recovery.
Cuomo credits the slowing of the spread to “our actions,” … “Our behavior has stopped the spread of the virus,” he said. “God did not stop the spread of the virus. And what we do, how we act, will dictate how that virus spreads.” [*]
The Governor, of course, does not consider the possibility that there is an intermediate view: that human decisions may have interacted with or have been aided by God’s grace. His protestations seem to show irritation with the notion that God could have anything at all to do with the results or with assisting our actions. “Nothing” is a strong and absolute word. In using it, he demonstrates the fierce secularism of our age, which seeks to exclude God/faith from any role or participation in public conversations or during times of crisis. This secularism bespeaks more of fear than it does of a rational, principled position. Why the need to exclude other views or to denounce them in such absolute terms?
Consider another story circulating recently, regarding the strong decline in Italy’s COVID-19 rates, as reported at ChurchPOP:
Recent data for COVID19 in Italy shows [sic] a drop in new daily cases and deaths after Pope Francis prayed for the world during his Urbi et Orbi Eucharistic blessing on March 27.
Italy took extreme measures throughout the past couple of months to prevent the spread of COVID19. The country enforced a two-month lockdown, which suspended public Masses, closed schools, restaurants, shops, etc. …
Along with these measures to slow the spread, Pope Francis prayed for the world in a special Eucharistic blessing in St. Peter’s Square. The live televised prayer and blessing aired on March 27.
Following that date, the rate of new daily deaths and cases dropped in Italy. [**]
ChurchPOP also supplied the following graph from Wikipedia:
What do you think? The graph shows a steady drop the day following Pope Francis’ Urbi et Orbi Eucharistic Blessing. Is it a coincidence? Is it the result of prayer? Surely the drop was also fostered by human activities such as staying at home, the shuttering of many businesses, and the cessation of certain activities. However, these mitigations were going on before the Pope’s blessing as well.
While we cannot know for certain whether prayer played any role in the drop, as a man of faith I choose to believe that the Pope, along with all of us who prayed, did contribute.I respect that some will reject this outright, but to those I would like address these questions:
What are your reasons for rejecting the possibility that God and prayer could have played a role?
What is your evidence that it is not possible?
Your view is that prayer and God had no impact; mine is that there might well have been. Consider that although I advance the possibility that prayer had an impact, I also point to human activity as critically important. I am also willing to admit the possibilitythat prayer played no role, even if I doubt it. Your view, however, categorically denies that God or prayer could have played a role. Which view do you think is more open-minded and why?
Religious people are often accused of being dogmatic, but in this case are you not in fact being dogmatic?
As I pointed out above, Governor Cuomo represents what I term the fierce or militant secularist viewpoint.This perspective does not simply proposesecular, material causes as the complete explanation for events; it does not simply reject religious interpretations of events or religious views on moral issues; it actively opposessuch views and seeks to remove them from any public consideration. Religious and spiritual truths as well as faith-based explanations are to have no place in public discourse. Some with this stance resort to ridicule rather than reasoned debate. Some also seek to erect legal barriers to keep such views contained within the walls of churches, synagogues, and mosques. We religious are not simply wrong or laughable; we are dangerous because our view is that there are limits to human power and freedom. In crediting God, we undermine their agenda and the programs they set forth. For example, if people think that prayer might help, maybe they won’t be as diligent in following the norms set forth by public health officials. In fact, my experience is that believers have overwhelmingly followed the guidelines/directives issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and public officials.
The vast majority of believers do not think of prayer as “magic”that absolves us of the responsibility to act on our own and our neighbors’ behalf. St. Augustine once said, “God, who made you without you, will not save you without you.” We are not simpletons. We know that prayer and action go together.
I realize that correlation is not causation, but there is a long chain of anecdotal evidence in human history that collective public prayer can be correlated with the ending of plagues and famines. The graph above may be further evidence. Human experience over centuries and across civilizations confirms the common human sense that prayer and asking God to intervene and send grace helps.
To Governor Cuomo and others like him I ask:Why be so dismissive of prayer and of God’s role in history? What do you have to lose by allowing others to praise God and give Him the glory? The vast majority of us aren’t the snake handlers you seem to think we are.
Governor Cuomo, one day you will face God and—like all of us—be judged. I pray for you as I do for myself. I hope that you will then come to know what prayer actually did and what a danger it is to fail to pray and give to God the glory.
Since Pentecost is approaching, in today’s post we will consider some of the biblical images for the Holy Spirit, and in so doing, strive to learn more about what God the Holy Spirit does for us. These descriptions do not reduce the Holy Spirit to simply fire, water, or tongues. Rather, the Holy Spirit is described as being like these things but at the same time greater than they are.
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting (Acts 2:1).
Note that the text speaks of the Spirit as being like a mighty rushing wind. It but does not say that He is a mighty rushing wind, for the Holy Spirit cannot be reduced to mere physical things, even if He is like them.
This text brings us to the very root meaning of the word “spirit.” Spirit refers to breath. This etymology is preserved in the word “respiration,” which is the act of breathing. So, the Spirit of God is the breath of God, the Ruah Adonai.
… the Spirit (ruah) of God was moving over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:2)
… then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (Genesis 2:7).
The very Spirit of God was breathed into Adam! As we know, though, Adam lost this gift and died spiritually when he sinned. As a result, we lost the Spirit of God and died spiritually. St. Paul says plainly that we were dead in our sins (cf Col 2:13).
We see in this passage from Acts an amazing and wonderful resuscitation of the human person, as these first Christians experience the rushing wind of God’s Spirit breathing spiritual life back into them. God does CPR; He brings humanity, dead in sin, back to life! The Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us once again as in a temple (cf 1 Cor 3:16).
This image of the rushing wind reminds us that the Holy Spirit brings us back to life and sustains us. If Christmas is the feast of God with us, and Good Friday is the Feast of God for us, then Pentecost is the Feast of God in us. The Holy Spirit, like a rushing wind, breathes life back into us.
Scripture says, And tongues, like flames of fire that were divided, appeared to them and rested on each one of them.
The Bible often speaks of God as fire, or in fiery terms:
Moses saw God as a burning bush. God led the people out of Egypt through the desert as a pillar of fire. Moses went up onto a fiery Mt. Sinai where God was.
The LORD reigns; let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! Clouds and thick darkness are round about him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. Fire goes before him and burns up his adversaries round about. His lightnings lighten the world; the earth sees and trembles. The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth. The heavens proclaim his righteousness; and all the peoples behold his glory (Psalm 97).
Scriptures call God a Holy fire, a consuming fire (cf Heb 12:29), and a refining fire (cf Is. 48:10; Jer 9:7; Zec 13:9; & Mal 3:3).
So it is that our God, who is a Holy Fire, comes to dwell in us through His Holy Spirit. As a Holy Fire, He refines us by burning away our sins and purifying us. As Job once said, But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold (Job 23:10).
Fire changes everything it encounters. Nothing goes away from fire unchanged; it may be consumed, converted, purified, warmed, mollified, or steeled—but nothing goes way unchanged.
Thus, God the Holy Spirit, like a Holy Fire, is within us. It is changing and transforming us, burning away sin, refining us, enlightening us, stirring the flame of God’s love in us, and bringing us up to the temperature of God’s glory. He is kindling a fire that gives light and warmth in our darkest and coldest moments. Little by little we become a burning furnace of God’s love and we give warmth to those around us.
As fire, God is also preparing us for judgement, for if He is a Holy Fire, then who may endure the day of His coming or of going to Him? What can endure the presence of Fire Himself? Only that which is already fire. Thus, we must be set afire by God’s love.
So, in the coming of the Holy Spirit, God sets us on fire to make us a kind of fire. In so doing, He purifies us and prepares us to meet Him one day, to meet Him who is a Holy Fire.
The fire is described as tongues. Through this we learn that one of the chief fruits of Spirit is to help us witness to others. What is a witness? It is one who speaks of what he has seen, heard, and experienced.
Of this need to witness, the Lord said,
You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high (Luke 24:48-49).
When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me. And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning (John 15:26-27).
The spirit comes as tongues in order to strengthen us for our mission, for witness. And, oh, how this witness is needed today! Evil has triumphed because the good have remained silent; pulpits have been silent; parents have been silent. The tongues of fire remind us that God wants bold and fiery saints who are courageous witnesses in a doubting, deceitful, scoffing world.
Many martyrs have died courageously over the years, yet many of us today are afraid because we think that someone might raise an eyebrow at us. Pray for the courage of tongues, the courage to speak.
Jesus often used water as an image of the Spirit:
On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified (John 7:37-39).
In the Gospel of John, the giving over of the Holy Spirit is described powerfully, even at the very moment of crucifixion:
Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe (John 19: 30-35).
In this flow of water, the Spirit comes forth in a kind of Johannine Pentecost. It is a classic Johannine play on words that he relates that Jesus “gave over his Spirit,” a phrase that can mean that He died or that He gave us of His Holy Spirit.
The Fathers of the Church also see water as a fitting image for the Spirit.
St. Irenaeus said, Like dry flour, which cannot become one lump of dough, one loaf of bread, without moisture, we who are many could not become one in Christ Jesus without the water that comes down from heaven. And like parched ground, which yields no harvest unless it receives moisture, we who were once like a waterless tree could never have lived and borne fruit without this abundant rainfall from above. Through the baptism that liberates us from change and decay we have become one in body; through the Spirit we have become one in soul … the devil had been cast down like lightning. If we are not to be scorched and made unfruitful, we need the dew of God (Against the Heresies Lib. 3, 17. 1-3: SC 34, 302-306).
St. Cyril of Jerusalem said, But why did Christ call the grace of the Spirit water? Because all things are dependent on water; plants and animals have their origin in water. Water comes down from heaven as rain, and although it is always the same in itself, it produces many different effects, one in the palm tree, another in the vine, and so on throughout the whole of creation. It does not come down, now as one thing, now as another, but while remaining essentially the same, it adapts itself to the needs of every creature that receives it. In the same way the Holy Spirit, whose nature is always the same, simple and indivisible, apportions grace to each man as he wills. Like a dry tree which puts forth shoots when watered, the soul bears the fruit of holiness when repentance has made it worthy of receiving the Holy Spirit. Although the Spirit never changes, the effects of this action, by the will of God and in the name of Christ, are both many and marvelous. The Spirit makes one man a teacher of divine truth, inspires another to prophesy, gives another the power of casting out devils, enables another to interpret holy Scripture. The Spirit strengthens one man’s self-control, shows another how to help the poor, teaches another to fast and lead a life of asceticism, makes another oblivious to the needs of the body, trains another for martyrdom. His action is different in different people, but the Spirit himself is always the same. In each person, Scripture says, the Spirit reveals his presence in a particular way for the common good (Cat. 16, De Spiritu Sancto 1, 11-12.16: PG 33, 931-935. 939-942).
Thus, water is another fundamental image of the Holy Spirit, for all things are dependent on water to sustain their existence as well as to activate and empower their gifts. I cannot speak more profoundly than did these two saints and Fathers, so I will let their own words suffice.
We know that the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove. Scripture says,
… and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased (Luke 3:22).
Again, note the use of simile and analogy. The Holy Spirit is not a bird or a body of any sort. Rather, He is seen in bodily form as being like a dove. The Holy Spirit is God; He is the Third Person of the Holy Trinity.
The image of the Holy Spirit as a dove is reminiscent of the story of Noah:
After forty days Noah opened a window he had made in the ark and sent out a raven, and it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth. Then he sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground. But the dove could find nowhere to perch because there was water over all the surface of the earth; so it returned to Noah in the ark. He reached out his hand and took the dove and brought it back to himself in the ark. He waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark. When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth (Genesis 8:6-11).
The dove announced to Noah that the bitterness and death that overwhelming sin had brought was now at an end. The dove brought Noah a sign of peace and a sign that the promise of God to cleanse the world was now fulfilled. Noah, having passed through the flood within the safety of God’s ark, may walk in newness of life.
So, too, for us. In the Holy Spirit is peace, shalom. The long reign of sin is ended, and grace is now available to us. We, having passed through the waters of baptism, may walk in newness of life. The Holy Spirit descends on us like a dove, bringing peace, promise, and every good grace.
Here we have five images that help us to ponder the Holy Spirit’s work in us. Surely there are other images and other ways of describing His work, but these five speak powerfully.
This video, “Romancing the Wind,” features a performance of a kite ballet:
In more dioceses than not, the Feast of the Ascension is celebrated this Sunday. The liturgist in me regrets the move from Thursday, but here we are any way. Let’s ascend with the Lord, three days late!
This marvelous feast is not merely about something that took place two thousand years ago, for though Christ our head has ascended, we the members of His body are ascending with Him. Because He was ascended, we, too, have ascended. In my own life as a Christian, I am brought higher every year by the Lord, who is drawing me up with Him. This is not some mere slogan, but something I am actually experiencing. An old song says, “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore. Very deeply stained with sin, sinking to rise no more. But the master of the sea, heard my despairing cry. And from the waters lifted me. Now safe am I. Love Lifted me when nothing else could help. Love lifted me!”
If we are faithful, the feast of the Lord’s Ascension is our feast, too. Let’s look at it from three perspectives.
I. The Fact of the Ascension – The readings today describe a wondrous event witnessed by the Apostles. By His own power, the Lord is taken to Heaven. In so doing, He opens a path for us, too. The gates of paradise swing open again. Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in! (Psalm 24:7) In Christ, man returns to God. Consider three things about the Ascension:
A. The Reality– Imagine the glory of this moment! Scripture says, As they were looking on, he was lifted up and cloud took him from their sight … they were looking intently in the sky as he was going (Acts 1:9). So impressive was the sight that the angels had to beckon them to get along to Jerusalem as the Lord had said, “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Yes, it was glorious. Jesus had once said as a summons to faith, What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? (John 6:62) He had also encouraged them saying, Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man (John 1:51). So here is a glorious reality and a fulfillment of what Jesus had said.
B.The Rescue – In the Ascension, it does not seem that the Lord entered Heaven alone. As we have remarked, in His mystical body we also ascend with Him. Consider this remarkable text that affirms that: Therefore it is said, When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men. In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things (Eph 4:8ff). Yes, the Lord had earlier (just after his death) descended to Sheol, awakened the dead, and preached the Gospel to them (cf 1 Peter 4:6). Now for those He had justified came the moment to ascend, with Jesus as a “host,” as an army of former captives now set free. Behold the great procession that enters behind Christ through the now-opened gates of Heaven: Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, Judith, Deborah, David, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Malachi, John the Baptist, … and, one day, you! Yes, this is a great rescue. Adam and his descendants have not simply been restored to some paradise-like garden; they have entered Heaven.
C.The Rejoicing – Consider how this once captive train sings exultantly as they follow Christ upward to Heaven. The liturgy today puts before us a likely song they sang: God mounts his throne to shouts of Joy! The Lord amid trumpet blasts. All you peoples clap your hands, shout to God with cries of gladness, for the Lord the most high, the awesome is the great king over all the earth. God reigns over the nations, God sits upon his holy throne (Psalm 47:6-7). I also have it on the best of authority that they were singing this old gospel song: “I’m so glad Jesus lifted me!” as well as this old Motown song: “Your love is lifting me higher than I’ve ever been lifted before!”
II. The Fellowship of the Ascension – We have already remarked that, when Christ ascends, we ascend. Why and how? Scripture says, Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it (1 Cor 12:27). It also says, All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. By baptism we were buried together with him so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God the Father, we too might live a new and glorious life. For if we have been united with him by likeness to his death we shall be united with him by likeness to his resurrection (Rom 6:3ff). When Christ died, we died. When Christ rose, we rose. When He ascends, we ascend.
But, you may say, He is in glory while I am still here. How is it that I am ascended or ascending? Consider a humorous example using our physical bodies. When I get on an elevator and press the button for the top floor, the top of my head gets there before the soles of my feet, but the whole body will get there unless some strange loss of integrity or tragic dismemberment takes place. In an analogous way, so it is with Jesus’ mystical body. In Christ, our Head, we are already in glory. Some members of His Body have already gotten there. We who come later will get there too, provided we remain members of His Body. Yes, we are already ascended in Christ, our Head. We are already enthroned in glory with Him, if we hold fast and stay a member of His Body. This is the fellowship of the Ascension.
III. The Fruitfulness of the Ascension – Jesus does not return to Heaven to abandon us. He is more present to us than we are to ourselves. He is with us always to the end of the age (cf Matt 28:20). In ascending, without abandoning us, He goes to procure some very important things. Consider four of them:
A. Holy Ghost power– Jesus teaches very clearly that He is ascending in order to send us the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you (Jn 16:7ff). He also says, These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you (Jn 14:25ff). I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come (Jn 16:13-14). So the Lord goes in order that with the Father, He might send the Holy Spirit to live within us as in a temple. In this way, and through the Eucharist, He will dwell with us even more intimately than when He walked this earth.
B. Harvest – Jesus says, And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me (John 12:32). While the immediate context of this verse is the crucifixion, the wonder of John’s gospel is that he often intends double meanings. Clearly Christ’s glorification is His crucifixion, but it also includes His resurrection and ascension. So, from His place in glory, Christ is drawing all people to Himself. He is also bestowing grace on us from His Father’s right hand to be His co-workers in the harvest: But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8). Yes, from His place in glory, Christ is bringing in a great harvest. As He said in Scripture, Do you not say, “Four months more and then the harvest”? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying “One sows and another reaps” is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor (Jn 4:35-38). Harvest! It is the Lord’s work from Heaven in which we participate.
C. Help – At the Father’s right hand, Jesus intercedes for us. Scripture says, Consequently he is able, for all time, to save those who draw near to God through him, since he lives always to make intercession for them (Heb 7:25). The Lord links his ascension to an unleashing of special power: Amen, amen, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son (Jn 14:12).
We must not understand asking in the name of Jesus as a mere incantation, for to ask in His name means to ask in accord with His will. Yet we must come to experience the power of Jesus to draw us up to great and wondrous things in His sight. Despite the mystery of iniquity all about us, we trust that Christ is conquering, even in the puzzling and apparent victories of this world’s rebellion. In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Though, at present we do not see everything subject to him, yet we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor … so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb 2:8-9; 14-15). Thus, from Heaven we have the help of the Lord’s grace which, if we will accept it, is an ever-present help unto our salvation.
D. Habitation – Jesus indicates that in going to Heaven, He is preparing a place for us: In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also (Jn 14:2ff). Yes, Jesus has the blueprints out and the hard hat on. He is overseeing the construction of a mansion for each of us that we may dwell with Him, the Father, and the Spirit forever.
Here, then, are the ways that Christ, by His love, is lifting us higher than we’ve ever been lifted before. Yes, love lifted me when nothing else could help; love lifted me.
This is part two of an article on curiosity. We are considering the following four aspects:
I. Premises Related to Curiosity
II. Problems Regarding Curiosity
III. Pictures Reinforcing Curiosity
IV. Personal Requirement of Curiosity
Please see yesterday’s post for an introduction to the topic and a discussion of the first two items. In today’s post, we consider the third and fourth.
III. Pictures Reinforcing Curiosity – We have already reflected a good deal on this aspect in the introduction. Jesus generated a lot of curiosity because of the mystery of His person. How did this simple Galilean “get all this?” This was a cause of wonder in the people of His time. Jesus also generated a lot of curiosity; He cultivated it because He saw the value in doing so.
Jesus seldom gave straight answers to questions. Instead, He would say things like “Come and see.” Or He would answer questions with questions, or respond using parables which were often riddle-like and far from straightforward.
Consider how Jesus deals with this simple question:
[The Temple leaders said] “Who are you?” Jesus said to them, “Just what I have been telling you from the beginning. I have much to say about you and much to judge, but he who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.” They did not understand that he had been speaking to them about the Father. So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM” (Jn 8:25-28).
Notice that when asked who He is, the Lord does not answer pedantically by saying, “I am God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Word made Flesh hypostatically united to my human nature.” Instead, He holds the mystery and refers them to their own hearts, which have stubbornly refused to listen to Him and accept the evidence of who He is.
Indeed, Jesus asserted elsewhere (Jn 5:30-46) that John the Baptist testified to Him. Scripture testifies to who Jesus is because it is clear that He fulfilled countless scriptural passages. He has worked miracles, which testify to His divinity. And finally, the Father is testifying to Him in their hearts. If they will but search their hearts, they will know who He is. They have fourfold evidence and testimony.
Jesus’ reluctance to provide straight answers unnerves even many of us true believers, but it is this very mystery that keeps us curious and ever studying His teachings. The implicit yet clear admonition in this approach is that we should come and see more, come and listen more. We are to ponder more deeply and spend our lives going ever deeper into the meanings of our questions and the answers the Lord provides, which are far richer than a simple one-line response.
While quick apologetics has an important place in this information age, so does holding on to the mystery of what questions really point to so as not to stifle the power of mystery to elicit curiosity.
IV. Personal Requirement of Curiosity – This leads us to the personal challenge and charge. We cannot simply wait for mystery to be rediscovered or to emerge. We are called to be the mystery, to be the one who brings out curiosity in others! There ought to be something of a deep mystery in us as we live among our fellow denizens of the world. If we are truly living in Christ, we will not fit neatly into worldly categories and distinctions. There were at least three “political parties” in Jesus’ day: Sadducees (Herodians), Pharisees, and Zealots. Jesus did not fit into any of their little boxes. The parties only agreed on one thing: this Jesus must go. How about you? Are you worthy of Jesus Christ or just “the party”? Are you worthy of Jesus Christ or just the world?
If we are to be a mystery to the world, we cannot simply desire to fit in, desperately seeking worldly approbation. We will defy categorization because we serve a higher, broader, and transcendent vision.
As such, we will be a mystery to others. Seeing our integrity, they cannot understand us in worldly ways, but neither can they simply discredit us “hacks” or shills for political parties. Jesus is broader, higher, and deeper than worldly parties or categories—and so are those who truly follow Him.
This elicits curiosity because it is a mystery. Of this, Sherry Weddell writes,
The Catholic life is meant to be a “sign of contradiction” in this world. That doesn’t mean that we are to be nay-saying curmudgeons. Rather, it means that we are to live lives of such inexplicable joy, love, faith, and peace (even in trial) that all the normal categories by which nonbelievers try to classify us won’t work. We are neither Jew nor Gentile, fish nor fowl, “conservative,” nor “liberal,” nor any of the other tribes of this world.
Living curiously means more than being “nice.” It requires that we think and act in Kingdom-oriented and countercultural ways in our daily lives. For instance, forgiving and asking forgiveness of those who have betrayed and abused us are perhaps the most countercultural things we can do. … Likewise, being in healthy relationships, caring for the poor, sharing possessions freely, praying for healing and provision, and even simple family prayer times can be startling countercultural witnesses.
To be a witness … means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist (Forming Intentional Disciples, p. 148, 151).
Scripture affirms this as well:
Always be prepared to render an account to anyone who asks the reason for the hope that is in you; do it with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).
This text presupposes that people notice a hope in us, a stable, serene, and confident joy or hope. This is mysterious and elicits curiosity. In curiosity, one might remark, “When all of the rest of us are worn out by stress, complaints, gossip, and office politics, you don’t seem anxious, or obsessed with position, or hungry to hear all the gossip. In fact, I’ve never heard an ugly word come out of your mouth. What is it about you? What keeps you so calm and charitable?”
In a world where so many lead disordered lives (sexually, emotionally, and intellectually); where envy, jealousy, greed, power, and position consume so many; a person that is not disordered and beset with the deep drives of sin and negativity is a mystery. People who get married and stay married and who actually seem to love their spouse and children are increasingly mysterious to others. They elicit the question, “How do you do it?” People who don’t just parrot the angry and often-foolish slogans of the world or who are not endlessly distracted and controlled by the news and the entertainment culture are often mysterious to those around them.
Distinction: Of course, pointing out the value of mysteriousness is not an encouragement to become some sort of spooky oddball. Mystery is not spooky, it is attractive and evokes wonder and curiosity.
There is a remarkable passage in the Acts of the Apostles in which Peter and John elicit this sort of response:
When [the Sanhedrin] saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they recognized that these men had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13).
Here is the goal and challenge for us: Do we provoke astonishment or even surprise from people around us? Are we a mystery that engenders curiosity? Would anyone conclude that we “have been with Jesus?”
The point is that we cannot simply ponder mystery and curiosity as a tool for “the Church.” We must also be the mystery, be the one who evokes curiosity and attracts others to Christ and to the faith.
Summation: In this two-part essay, we have pondered the powerful effect of mystery and curiosity in evangelization. In most cases mystery is very attractive. Curiosity, while not discipleship itself, assists in a process that leads to discipleship; we should not too quickly diffuse its power with simple or pat answers. We must learn to teach and spread the faith not merely by answering questions, but also by asking them. Replies are good, but invitations are often even better. “Come and see” can be a rich response that provides some answers but also insists that there is more to the story. This mystery is not merely to be found in the pages of a catechism, or in the sacred liturgy; it must also be found in us who live in the world but are mysteriously not of the world.
In yesterday’s post we discussed how the word curiosity can have a good and a bad meaning. In that post we focused on sinful curiosity after distinguishing from good and helpful forms of it.
In today’s post we look at a more positive and intriguing understanding of curiosity and apply it to evangelization.
In the world of evangelization, the concept of curiosity is almost never discussed. If anything, evangelizers are encouraged to quickly satisfy any curiosity by supplying all sorts of answers to questions that arise about the faith. Apologetical tracts, books, catechisms, and videos abound. Curiosity, it would seem, is something to be quashed or at least overcome quickly. Allowing a person to wonder why for any length of time seems almost dangerous, especially in a “search-engine” culture. Quick answers, please!
How different this is from the more mysterious and “parabolic” way Jesus handled questions. Ask him a question and you might get another question back from Him. “Are you a King?” asked Pilate. Jesus, on trial for his life replied, “Are you saying this on your own or have others been talking about me?” (Jn 18:33-35) Sometimes Jesus answered obliquely. As Jesus was walking by, Andrew asked Him, “Rabbi, where do you stay?” Jesus just kept on walking and said, “Come and see” (Jn 1:38-39). On other occasions Jesus answered questions or supplied information through enigmatic stories, called “parables” because they do not provide straight answers but are more “parabolic.” They are full of twists and turns, paradoxes and puzzles.
Curious indeed! Come on, Jesus; the people want to know; let’s have some straight answers here! But Jesus, the Master Evangelist and Lord, has something to teach us. Curiosity is important and should not be crushed too soon with lots of stiff or overwhelming answers.
To her great credit, Sherry Weddell in her book from a few years back,Forming Intentional Disciples devotes an entire chapter to this topic. She ranks it as the second threshold to conversion (after trust and before openness). I’d like to combine her insights with some of my own and consider curiosity under four headings:
I. Premises Related to Curiosity II. Problems Regarding Curiosity III. Pictures Reinforcing Curiosity IV. Personal Requirement of Curiosity
Given the length of my reflections, I will cover them in two separate posts. Are you curious yet? Let’s begin!
I. Premises Related to Curiosity
What is curiosity? At its heart, curiosity as we are using the word here is a response to an encounter with mystery. The Latin root of curiosity is cur, meaning “why.” Having encountered mystery, we ask questions such as “Why?”, “What is this?”, “What does this mean?”, “Who are you?”, or “Why are you this way?” Mystery engenders curiosity. This analysis of curiosity raises another question:
What is mystery? At its heart, mystery refers to something we see only partially, something that is mostly hidden from us. Almost no person, thing, or event is entirely devoid of mystery. Even something as simple as a tree elicits questions. Why is this tree here? Who planted it and why? Why this kind of tree and not another? Is the tree healthy inside or rotted? Isn’t it amazing that trees breathe our expelled carbon dioxide and give us back the oxygen we need! How has this remarkable symbiosis come about? Yes, even a simple tree has mysteries that pique our curiosity. There is almost always more than meets the eye.
Far deeper are the mysteries related to the people and complex human interactions.Fr. John Le Croix gives the following definition of mystery: Mystery is that which opens temporality and gives it depth. It [also] introduces a vertical dimension and makes of it a time of revelation.
While this definition may seem complex, a simple example might help. Suppose you and I are at a gathering. Smith enters the room and immediately walks up to Jones, enthusiastically shaking his hand. I comment, “Wow!” You say, “What’s the big deal? People shake hands all the time.” I reply, “Smith and Jones have been enemies for thirty years.” The handshake between the two men has a mysterious dimension, one that the eyes cannot see. Yet that mystery is still real, giving the physical handshake both a depth of meaning and a vertical dimension of revelation.
Mystery is rich, fascinating. It can bestow an aura of wonder and awe upon even ordinary things, people, interactions, and events.
Yes, mystery is wonderful. Mystery attracts! It is mystery that generates curiosity, the desire to know more and experience the depths and heights of what is.
Because mystery is important, so is the curiosity that arises as a response to it. It deserves more attention than it usually gets in our theological and pastoral reflections.
II. Problems Regarding Curiosity
Although mystery attracts, we live in times in which there are many factors diminishing its appreciation and the consequent curiosity. This is especially true when mysteries are not quickly “solved” and curiosity cannot be satisfied quickly. There are a number of factors to mention.
First, there is the notion that a mystery is something merely to be solved rather than savored.When we hear the word mystery today we tend to think of crime novels or police shows on television. A crime is committed; the mystery is who did it and for what reason. The “hero” must get to the bottom of this!
While this may be the case for a crime, the mysterious depths of the human person, the significance of human events, and the truths of our faith, are not things to be figured out or solved.
When it comes to the truths of our faith, there are many mysteries that cannot simply be solved. For example, how can Jesus be God and Man? God, of His nature, is eternal and omnipresent and cannot “fit” in space and time. Yet Jesus, as man, is in time and in space. This is not a mystery we can solve. We must savor it. The early Church knew this and the faithful fell to their knees at the words in the creed that announced the incarnation. Wonder and awe are natural reactions to mystery.
Second, we live in an age of empiricism and rationalism.We often demand that everything be explained, that everything be understood within our categories and on our terms. But not all mystery can be explained or understood in this way, which many find irritating and unsettling. Often, the questions raised by mysteries—especially those not easily answered—are brushed aside with the nebulous statement that “science will eventually be able to explain this.”
But of course the physical sciences cannot really address metaphysical realities; or the moral, historical, or emotional significance of things; or why something is meaningful, beautiful, or upright, or even exists at all.
In an age of rationalism, materialism, empiricism, and reductionism, mystery is often underappreciated—seen as a problem when it is not. Deep down, we are more fascinated with mystery than we like to admit, even in times like these.
Third, we live in an age that demands quick satisfaction and instant answers. In the past, we often had to ponder and research things at length; today we “Google it” and are immediately presented with numerous resources and answers. Reflection suffers because of this; we often fail to ponder the deeper aspects of our questions.
Information gathering is not the same as study and reflection. Quick answers often stifle deeper scrutiny and discernment. As a result, we often miss the more mysterious and deeper dimensions of people, places, events, and life itself.
Similarly, in the Church, if all we do is provide quick answers to questions in an inquiry class, or we engage in cursory apologetics, we miss the depths of Jesus’ reply to Andrew’s question: “Rabbi where do you stay?” Jesus did not give Andrew an address or map coordinates. He extended the mystery and deepened Andrew’s curiosity by saying, “Come and see.”
Apologetics has its place, but the true desire driving every question is not merely information, but a transformation in Christ. “Come and see” is not an invitation that can be forever put off by one-off answers.
Fourth, we live in immodest times. Modesty is reverence for mystery. We live in times of overexposure. This is a broader concept than clothing. Many people both demand and provide too much information. They discuss private matters on national television. What should be discreet is shared indiscriminately. There are constant demands for “transparency.” The people’s “right to know” has very few limits today. While curiosity is a good thing in itself, excessive curiosity is sinful.
Mystery is attractive. Modesty is a virtue that governs access to and protects a great gift. The curiosity incited by it should be satisfied at appropriate times and in appropriate ways. Yes, mystery is a gift to be savored, not merely a problem to be solved or a hidden thing to be exposed willy-nilly.
I wonder if, in the Church, we have not overly exposed our sacred liturgies and other mysteries. Who can deny the evangelical power of televised masses and other expositions of our faith and liturgies?
Yet is there nothing left of the disciplina arcanis (discipline of the secret) of the ancient Church? Until relatively recently, our liturgies were conducted in Latin while facing east. These days, little that is secret or even discreet remains. Everything is casual, in the vernacular, and intentionally ordinary. The sacred mysteries seem almost washed out in the light of scrutiny and overexposure. There is nearly an obsession with explaining all mystery; if there is any curiosity at all, it is seen as a failure in catechesis.
With little appreciation for the mystery we truly celebrate at Mass; curiosity, interest, and attendance have dropped. Few dress up for Mass anymore; little seems special about it. All the more reason to re-emphasize the true mysteries we celebrate.
Mystery is attractive! Curiosity is the natural response to mystery. If we try to make everything understandable (which is impossible), we lose our way.
Curiosity is one of those qualities of the human person that are double-edged swords. It can cut a path to glory or it can be like a dagger of sin that cuts deep into the soul.
As to its glory, it is one of the chief ingredients in the capacity of the human person to, as Scripture says, “subdue the earth,” to gain mastery over the many aspects of creation of which God made us stewards. So much of our ingenuity and innovation is rooted in our wonder and awe of God’s creation and in those two little questions, “How?” and “Why?”
Yes, we are curious as to how things work and why they work as they do. This curiosity burns within us and motivates us to unlock many of nature’s secrets. Curiosity drives us to learn and to gain mastery—often for good, but sometimes for ill.
What a powerful force within us, this thing we call curiosity! It is a passion to know! Generally, it seems quite exclusive to us who are rational, for animals manifest little or none of it. Occasionally an animal might seem to manifest curiosity: a sound might draw its attention causing it to look more closely. But the investigation is probably more motivated by seeing whether the sound is a threat or a food source rather than by curiosity. True curiosity asks the deeper metaphysical questions of what, how, and why. True curiosity seeks to explore formal and final causality as well as efficient and material causality. It seeks to learn, sometimes for learning’s own sake. Sometimes, and potentially more darkly, curiosity seeks to learn so we can exert control.
Of itself, curiosity can be a magnificent quality, rooted in the gifts of wonder and awe as well as in the deeply profound gift of man’s intellect or rational nature.
However, as a double-edged sword, curiosity can also wound us very deeply and mire us in serious sin. Indeed, it can be a very sinful drive within us. Eve grew curious of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and thus Satan was easily able to turn her curiosity into a deep dagger that has reached every human heart.
Understood this way (as a sinful drive), curiosity is a desire to gain knowledge of things we have no right to know. A more mitigated form of sinful curiosity is the desire to know things that are in no way useful to us. In this sense, curiosity is a form of spiritual gluttony that exposes us to innumerable tricks of the evil one.
Sinful curiosity causes us to meddle in the lives of others, to pry. This can then lead us to gossip, potentially defaming others and ruining reputations in the process. Nothing is a bigger invitation to sin and gossip than the phrase “Have you heard the latest news about so-and-so?” Heads turn, ears perk up, and meddlesome curiosity is immediately incited. Almost never is the news that follows such a question positive or even edifying. Sinful curiosity is at the root of almost all gossip, defamation, slander, and even calumny. The vast majority of what we hear through gossip is none of our business. And yet, through sinful curiosity, somehow we feel that we have the right to this information.
There is a whole branch of news, barely distinguishable from gossip columns and scandal sheets, that has emerged based on the people’s “right to know.” Too much secrecy can be unhealthy, but that is hardly the problem in this day and age. Today, too many people know too many things about too many people. Even what is reported (most of it unnecessary) about so-called public figures is not really helpful for us to know. This is not to say that we should have no interest whatsoever in what is happening in the world or in the character of our leaders; rather, it is an invitation to distinguish between what is truly useful and necessary for us to know and that which arises from sinful curiosity.
Sinful curiosity is also at the root of a lot of lust and immodesty. A man may be happily married, but when he sees a woman walk past on the sidewalk he may temporarily push that to the back of his mind. Part of his problem is lust. And in that lustful mindset, he reduces the woman—a person—to her curves and other physical attributes. But another aspect of his struggle is the sinfully curious question “I wonder what she’d be like?” Well, sir, that is none of your business! Now mind you he’s happily married, but he already knows his wife well. Pardon the expression, but the mystery of his wife has been unveiled. This other woman he sees, however, still has a shroud of mystery that incites in him a sinful curiosity. Immodesty also taps into the sinful curiosity of others by revealing more than it should. Modesty is reverence for mystery. Immodesty jettisons this reverence and seeks to incite sinful curiosity.
Sinful curiosity has been turned into a consumer industry by many talk shows that publicly feature topics that should be discussed discreetly. Further, many guests on such shows reveal details about their lives that should not be discussed in a public forum. Too many people discuss terrible struggles of a very personal nature and too many people tune in to listen. This is a form of immodesty as well, even if it does not involve sexual matters; modesty is reverence for mystery and it respects appropriate boundaries and degrees of intimacy in conversations. “Baring one’s soul” is neither prudent nor appropriate in all situations or with all people; it too easily excites sinful curiosity and sets loose a wave of gossip and uncharitable banter. Some things are just not meant to be dealt with in public, and many are incapable of handling such information without easily straying into sin.
A mitigated form of sinful curiosity is the excessive desire to know too many things all at once. This is a kind of “information gluttony.” This sort of desire, though not necessarily sinful, can become so by excess. It is catered to by the 24-by-7 news services. Being informed is good, but being over-informed can easily lead to becoming overwhelmed and discouraged. Generally speaking, indulging in such a steady stream of news (along with talk radio, etc.) provokes anxiety, discouragement, and a sense of being overwhelmed. Such news services tend to generate interest by inciting alarm. Bad and bloody news predominates; the exotic and strange are headlined; the titillating and shocking lead the news hour; that which generates controversy and ratings is emphasized. It’s not long before we have moved away from necessary and important news and back into the sinful curiosity that sets tongues wagging and heads shaking.
Sinful curiosity, even of this mitigated form, so easily draws us into very negative, dark, and even depressing places. News junkies would do well to balance their diet with other more edifying things than what is the latest scandal or threat.
St. Paul gives good advice to all of us when it comes to sinful curiosity and our tendency to collect unnecessary, unhelpful, and unenlightening news. In effect, he invites us to discipline our minds with the following good and solid advice:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things (Phil 4:8).
Curiosity—the double-edged sword—so noble yet so easily ignoble, so wonderful yet so easily debased.