The Paradoxical Spirit

By: Rev. Paul Scalia

In his hymn Splendor paternae gloriae, Saint Ambrose exhorts us: bibamus sobriam ebrietatem Spiritus. Literally, let us drink the sober inebriation of the Spirit. That one phrase – sober inebriation – captures the paradoxical character of the Holy Spirit, Whose descent we just celebrated. He brings us both sobriety and also intoxication. For the Spirit to breathe freely and effectively within us, we must accept both aspects of this paradox.

holyspiritPentecost manifests this reality. The Apostles’ preaching amazes many. But others say, “They have had too much new wine” (Acts 2:13). Poor Saint Peter has to clear this up. Thus the Pope’s first public address begins inauspiciously, with a defense of their sobriety: “These people are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning” (Acts 2:15). And yet, in another sense, the Apostles are intoxicated. They suffer a certain inebriation that prompts them to act without concern for worldly honors, human respect, or even their own lives. They seem unreasonable and out of control in the world’s estimation – as a drunk man would.

We encounter this inebriation in all those filled with the Spirit. They act and speak in a way that seems madness to the world. Thus the poverty of Saint Francis, the joy of Saint Philip Neri, the fidelity of Saint Thomas More – all are inscrutable to the world. We honor those men now. But the people of their time thought them mad. Even our Lord’s family says, “He is out of his mind” (Mk 3:21). If the Spirit that consecrated Him animates us also, then we should not be surprised to receive a similar reaction.

At the same time, however, the Spirit imbues us with a sobriety – a sanity – that the world can neither give nor understand. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom” (1 Cor 1:25). The Breath of God restores us to spiritual sanity by bringing order to disordered passions, docility to rebellious wills and light to darkened intellects. Thus the martyrs, whose carelessness with their lives looked insane, amazed the world with peace and calmness before the executioners. Saint Thomas, whose rejection of wealth and privilege seemed folly, saw more clearly and deeply than any other thinker. Saint Catherine of Siena, whose missions appeared quixotic, attracted followers precisely because of her clarity.

Still today, the Spirit-inebriated Church provides the world with remarkable lucidity of thought. As Benedict XVI observed, she is an “expert in humanity.” The world despairs of any sense or meaning to society, family, marriage, and sexuality. Our culture cannot articulate any coherent principle that would bring structure to society. And yet the Church, imbued by this reckless Spirit, presents the clear truth about man that alone brings order.

A familiar image of the Holy Spirit is the wind. On Pentecost Sunday “there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were” (Acts 2:2). Wind is an apt image, conveying what Saint Francis de Sales calls the “gentle violence” of the Holy Spirit. Wind bursts into a room and upsets everything – throwing papers out of order, slamming doors, overturning things. At the same time, wind drives from a room what is rancid and stale, bringing a freshness and peace. The Holy Spirit – the wind, the breath of God – accomplishes both in our souls. He upends our lives to get our attention, and cleanses us of the foul, fetid air of the world.

An authentic relationship with the Holy Spirit demands of us a willingness to receive both His inebriation and His sobriety. We must be willing to appear as the Apostles did – drunk, absurd. The unwillingness to look ridiculous places a limit on the Spirit’s action. It says, I will follow the Spirit’s lead…provided that I always come across as proper and acceptable. In effect, I will respond to the Holy Spirit on my own terms. At the same time, we must surrender our excitable, mercurial souls to the Spirit’s strong sobriety, which disciplines us from within, bringing order and therefore peace. For a new Pentecost to come, as it always must, let us drink of the sober inebriation of the Spirit.

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