What to Call It: The Spiritual Life


Today we continue our considerations of what it is this web site is about. Two weeks ago we talked about sanctity. Last week we called it “the interior life.” This week we will call it “the spiritual life.”

In one sense, of course, “the spiritual life” says the same as “the interior life.” We are talking, not about our outside, not just what we do with our bodies, but our inside, our spirit.

But for the Christian, “the spiritual life” is a more powerful term, because we believe that God has a Spirit, the Holy Spirit. In this sense, “the spiritual life” can also be called “life in the Spirit.” This is important. Our “interior” may be where the spiritual life takes place – but it is more important to talk about what happens there, what goes on. Our interior life does not just involve our interior. It involves God’s Spirit, moving in us. It is not too much to say this is Christianity: to believe that God’s Spirit does something for us, that our “interior” is not left on its own.


What is the Holy Spirit? Obviously that’s a big question, but we can say a couple things in brief.

First, the Holy Spirit is God. Really God. God works in us. The Holy Spirit is another way of God-with-us – like Jesus.

Second, the Holy Spirit is not the Father or the Son. He is the “third person of the Trinity.” But in a good theology of the Trinity, the three are not just Thing One (or God One), Thing Two, and Thing Three, they are Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And we understand these three by understanding what their names mean.

Father-Son is a relationship. That, really, is the heart of the Trinity. The Son is God like the Father, except that the Father is Father and the Son is Son: the Son receives everything from the Father. Holy Spirit, on the other hand, is a generic name: God is holy, God is a spirit. Holy Spirit, then, names what Father and Son share. St. Thomas says the Holy Spirit is the “bond” between the two, the gift that they exchange, the love of Father and Son. Not Thing One, Thing Two, and Thing Three, but Father, Son, and the bond between them.


In Scripture, St. Paul says it is the Spirit by which we cry out Abba, Father. To have the Spirit is to have the relationship between the Father and the Son. If the Holy Spirit is their relationship, then to have the Holy Spirit is, in some sense, to enter into the relationship: to be a son as the Son is. The Holy Spirit is not an alternate route, not another God, in case you aren’t into the Father and the Son. He is the Spirit of Christ, and the Spirit of Sonship.

The Spirit is love. Most basically, what the Spirit does is to fill us with the love of God. It is a love that moves upward, so that we are as in love with the Father, as infinitely grateful to the Father, as is the Son himself, a love that carries us to the heavens. And it is a love that moves outward, so that we driven forward by that love, even to the streets of Calcutta.

The Spirit, says the tradition, is charity. (In Catholic theology, charity, agape in Greek, is divine love, the love of Christ, the love of Father and Son.) To have the Spirit is to have that love. Very simple.


But the Tradition meditates on how that love transforms us. It is not a love that touches one part of us and leaves everything else in place. It is a love that lifts up and transforms every angle of us. Thus, though the Spirit is one, and simple, his work in us is manifold, and complex, as we are complex.

A classic traditional hymn says he is “sevenfold” in his grace. In one sense, seven is just the Scriptural word for “abundant.” The love of God poured into our hearts does . . . lots of things!

But the tradition also meditates on the spirit that Isaiah 11 says rests on the Messiah, the Spirit of Christ: “a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and fortitude, a spirit of knowledge and piety and fear of the Lord.”

Perhaps after Christmas we will consider all these aspects of the Spirit of Christ. For now, suffice to say that the Spirit, the transforming love of God, penetrates into every nook and cranny of our being: our thoughts and our affections, positive and negative, practical and contemplative.

That is what a Catholic means by “the spiritual life.”


How do you experience the Holy Spirit in your life?


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