by Rev. Richard McAlear, OMI
Eternal life with all the promises and blessings it holds is contained in this simple truth: to know God and Jesus Christ, His Son (Jn 17:3).
How do we know Him? This is not the kind of knowledge that is acquired from books and study, from theology or philosophy. Rather, it is an intimate knowing of the heart which can only be born of a living relationship of love. It is the knowing of love that does not immediately lend itself to categories, formula or intellectual concepts but instead is more akin to the intimate relationship of Adam and Eve. Adam "knew" his wife: they became one. We know God and become one with Him in the bond of the Spirit. It is loving union.
To truly know Jesus Christ is to be united with Him in heart and spirit. This is the mystery of revelation in its deepest sense: God’s self-giving, which is communicated by and in the Spirit to the person. Thus St. Paul can say that he knew Christ once in the flesh, because he knew about Christ (11 Cor. 5:16). When, after his conversion experience he knew Jesus Christ in the Spirit, it became an intimate personal relationship, a matter of the heart, a union of love. This is why we speak of the soul as the bride and Christ as the bridegroom.
It is the Holy Spirit who reveals Jesus Christ to the disciple and it is the Holy Spirit who unites disciple and Lord into a single mystery of life and love. From this core, all else will flow in the spiritual life. This is the Spirit’s eternal role. Within the Trinity, He is the bond of union - the personal love - between the Father and the Son. It is that love that makes them one; "The Father and I are one," says Jesus (Jn. 10:30). The love between them is so deep, strong and real that the two are in fact one and totally indivisible.
This same work of the Holy Spirit unfolds in the economy of salvation. Jesus’ desire is for each one of His disciples to know, love and to be one with Him. For this He imparts to us His Spirit which is His own love. The same bond that unites Him to the Father, unites Him to His disciples. This is His Glory: the revelation and sharing of His love - with the Father from all eternity and with His disciples now in time.
Without the bond of the Spirit, we will always be incomplete in our relationship to Jesus Christ. We will know Him only in an abstract way, in theological terms and as doctrine and theory. However, by the work of the Holy Spirit, we are bonded to the person of Jesus in a living relationship and come to know Him in love. Ultimately, the fullness of this unity will be unfolded in heaven, but we already have a share in it now, our "down payment". This is the treasure, the pearl of great price, the kingdom within of which the Gospel speaks. He who lives in unapproachable light has become incarnate and allows Himself to be known and loved in Jesus, son of Mary. Throughout time it is the gift of the Spirit that makes this a living reality in the human heart.
For example, a mother knows her infant child with a knowledge that goes deeper than the intellect, mind or reason. It is a knowing bond between mother and child that is truly spiritual, i.e., of the spirit. It is the intimacy of a loving union. In a sense, this bond makes them one and it interlocks their spirits.
The Holy Spirit reveals Jesus, unfolds His mystery and works in the depths of the soul of the disciple in the intimacy of love. It is the Holy Spirit who unites two and makes them one in loving union. "I live now, no longer I, but Christ lives in me," (Gal 2:20) says St. Paul. This fulfills the desire of God’s heart to have His children at home with Him and it fulfills the need of the human heart to find a home in God. In this union is all peace, fullness of life and true joy.
The Spirit of God knows everything and even searches the depths of God (I Cor 2:10). The mysteries of the Kingdom are known to the Holy Spirit and He who is the Spirit of Truth reveals them. This is the kind of knowing or understanding that transcends the mind and human logic. It speaks directly to the heart and can only later be articulated in theology. Theology draws from the spiritual truths of revelation and gives them words, formula and dogma. It must proceed in this way if it is to be authentic.
This is true because the things of the Spirit are understood in the Spirit, i.e., spiritually (I Cor 2:13-14). To those who do not possess the Spirit these things appear to be utter nonsense or, at best, incomprehensible. Such, for example, are the mysteries of the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, the Divinity of Christ and the Eucharistic Presence. Especially this is true of the mystery of the Cross, a stumbling block and a scandal to some but life and salvation to those who are called (I Cor 1:22). Because these mysteries are revealed, not just learned, no amount of education or theological study can explain them, unlock their depths or uncover their truth. They are revealed by the Holy Spirit, and grasped spiritually by even "the merest of children".
Four gifts of the Holy Spirit are involved here: wisdom, knowledge, understanding and counsel. These gifts are born in the hearts and souls of Christians who humbly and gratefully accept them. So often the simplest understand intuitively what the educated miss. It should be a source of wonder to consider that in our tradition, an uneducated Catherine of Siena and a simple soul like Theresa of Lisieux should be Doctors of the Church and should be spiritual guides to millions. Throughout the world we find souls of great simplicity living lives of prayer and holiness. They are found in convents, parishes and missions among the lay and religious alike. Their grasp of the spiritual life is intuitive and born of a love for God dwelling in their hearts by the Holy Spirit.
This fulfills what Jesus told us would be: "You will no longer have need for anyone to teach you" (Jn 6:45). Each disciple should have the wisdom which comes from the Spirit. In another place He is just as clear - "The Spirit of truth will come and teach you all things" (Jn 16:13).
Of course there will always be a need for theology and tradition, guides and directors. Practical knowledge is acquired by study; learning is accumulated through the ages and becomes wisdom. In this sense we will always need to learn. The spiritual cannot be disembodied, but rather is incarnated in history, in the Church, in tradition. The truly wise are open to be taught and guided by those who have walked the journey and have left guideposts for those who follow. What is born of the Spirit, must be always nurtured in the community of the Church. The spiritual journey is never an isolated walk, and we need scholars to be part of it, aiding, supporting, teaching and directing.
Theology is a necessary discipline that keeps spirituality balanced, rooted and fruitful. It gives us tools to distinguish the true prompting of the Spirit and to discern God’s will. Theology can preserve orthodoxy and help prevent excesses of enthusiasm and emotion. There is, and always will be, a need for the practical - the teachings and the foundation that theology provides for those on the spiritual journey. However, theology cannot stand alone. Knowledge is not understanding. The practical is useless without a perceptive understanding of the mystery of the Kingdom of God. Theology will articulate theory, unfold the implications of doctrine, explain the dogmas and formulate the Christian creed. However without the Spirit of Truth, the breath of God’s wisdom and understanding, theology will be dry and wearisome, like a body without a soul. It runs the risk of being self-serving, unless it is under the spiritual life of the Church and strives to illuminate the path of holiness. Theology is a humble service animated by the Spirit of Truth to build up the Body of Christ in love. It must draw deeply from the faith relationship to Jesus in the bond of the Spirit.
What the Holy Spirit imparts is an insight deeper than any words or theological formula: just how high and deep and broad and wide is the love of God that surpasses all understanding (Eph. 3:18). The union with Jesus Christ that is born in love leads ever more deeply into this great mystery of God’s love. He gives understanding to the simple and wisdom to the humble of heart. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth.
Condensed from Fr. McAlear’s paper, "The Holy Spirit and Spirituality," presented at the Association of Diocesan Liaisons Conference, San Antonio, Texas, April 28, 1998.