Healing our image of the Holy Spirit – Bradley Jersak

Photo credit: Fr Lawrence Lew OP/Flickr

It’s frustrating when our impression of the Holy Spirit of Beauty and Truth is tainted by previous, spiritually abusive associations. Sects that emphasize the work of the Spirit are as prone to spiritual striving and rigid legalism as any religious movement, despite vociferous claims to “freedom.” Whether it’s the “fire” of Evangelical revivalism, the Pentecostal two-step, tongues-speaking “charismania,” the “prayer lines” of the renewal movement, or the politicized “prophets” who are still ranting away, I can testify firsthand that the sought-after “Presence” is not always so sweet when it blows through. I’ve been in those meetings—I’ve led those meetings, strutted those stages, and lurked behind the scenes in the green rooms. I’m not just a bitter cynic. I am confessing a reality. The pungent odors of bad religion can haunt those settings and our memories and put us off the very thought of the Holy Spirit.

How might we reclaim the ‘Holy Spirit’ when even that name has come to trigger us? First, let’s realize that a “trigger” is not a “keep out” sign but rather an invitation to examine areas of “stuckness” we are ready to see resolved. (Paul Young taught me that). But how?

Perhaps we can start by exercising discernment. Our capacity to do so is actually a gift you’ve been given by You-know-Who! We might begin with a practice of deliberately dissociating the authentic from the spurious, the ugly from the beautiful, in our minds and our language.

For example, what if we were to rename or reframe our overtly bad charismatic experiences as the “(un)Holy Magic.” Could we also rework our narrative by demoting some of the emotionally intense descriptors from “toxic” down to “silly”? In other words, let’s decide to opt out of agreeing to the world-shaking seriousness that the Holy Ghost gurus ascribed to their shenanigans. By downgrading those stories from grave errors to goofy (and embarrassing) missteps, the shame and trauma around them may begin to loosen.

And then, if needed, we could also rename the positive sense from “Holy Spirit” (if that name still causes you tics) to “Spirit of Beauty” or “Spirit of Truth” or “Grace” and identify that name with the sacred areas of your heart—a place where you have experienced a living connection with the One IN YOU who draws you to peace, and to wonder, and resonates with compassion and affection.

In my case, a lateral move from charismatic to contemplative practice helped me retain my life in the Spirit, draining away the adrenaline hangovers and easing off the compulsion to “press in.” I could rest in the Spirit who has already been poured out on all flesh, who is always and everywhere present, rather than hoping against hope that I could “pull down heaven” like the frantic prophets of Baal. I can even worship as a small-c charismatic again. Who knew?

Once we get some traction in distinguishing the two s/Spirits … when we learn to differentiate spiritual halitosis from the aroma of the Breath of Love, we’ll eventually be able to recall with gratitude how, even amid the nonsense, the true and beautiful Giver-of-Life was already with us, loving us, holding us, even cheering on our holy desires, while patiently waiting for the noxious fumes to blow over. As we are healed of the false images of the Spirit, we’ll begin to remember how the divine Sower planted good and lasting seeds among a host of weeds, redeeming our past to smell today’s fragrance.

Picture of Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak

Bradley Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. Read More