Commentary by Fr Donagh O’Shea OP, www.goodnews.ie
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
A French writer describes the human spirit as “the unassailable, unchangeable, indestructible core, the keen point of the soul which alone can approach the Absolute and unite itself with the Divinity” (Jacqueline Kelen, La Faim de l’Âme). This idea of spirit as a hard inner core is widespread, even among people from whom you would expect better. Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), in his famous book Walden, gave this account of why he went to live in a hut in the woods: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life … I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” Such aggressive verbs! – to front, to suck out, to put to rout, to cut, to drive, to reduce…. All this tough talk about a hard inner core is somehow unconvincing. People who are sure of their strength don’t talk or write like that. It is more defiant than descriptive.
The word ‘spirit’ means breath. This does not suggest a hard aggressive core but a soft give and take. St Peter, who was probably much tougher than Thoreau, could use gentle language to describe that ‘inner core’: “the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4). It matters a great deal how we describe our inner being; it matters not only for our self-understanding but also for our understanding of God. We are the primary image of God, and if we have a hard mechanical sense of ourselves, our image of God will be similarly hard and separate. It may well match the image of God in, say, Sheehan’s Apologetics long ago, but it has nothing to do with the Father of Jesus Christ. St Paul, who was even tougher than Peter, could write, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (Eph 4:30). The Spirit of God is gentle, which does not mean weak. Real strength is always gentle. One moment’s experience of God’s Spirit is enough to do away with all talk of an indestructible inner core attempting to “approach the Absolute and unite itself with the Divinity” – as if we could do such a thing by our own heroic efforts.
By way of relief, read these lines by Jessica Powers on today’s feast of Pentecost:
That was the day when Fire came down from heaven,
inaugurating the first spring of love.
Blood melted in the frozen veins, and even
the least bird sang in the mind’s inmost grove.