Life in the Spirit

Navone art 5-13-16

Ecstasy of St. Paul, Nicolas Poussin (1643).

God is Spirit
God, in whom we live and move and have our being, is Spirit. We do not, and cannot, exist apart from God; for we are the created effects of the uncreated Cause that is effecting our existence. Our cognitive-affective consciousness is the created effect of the uncreated cognitive-affective Consciousness (Spirit) that is effecting it. This is the meaning of the concept “concursus” in traditional Catholic theology; all creation is, here and now, being effected by the uncreated Cause effecting it.

Prayer, in this context, is our conscious reciprocity with the originating Spirit, the uncreated Consciousness, of our created consciousness. We can pray because our consciousness is a created participation in the uncreated consciousness of God. We do not see the Spirit with whom we communicate in prayer, any more than we see ourselves in the immediacy and intimacy of our cognitive and affective consciousness; for our communion with the Spirit in the reciprocity of prayer is a created and intimate participation in the Ultimate Reality that is effecting our conscious spiritual life.

Spirit alone is the source of spirit. Our human spirit does not derive from matter because matter cannot give what it does not, of itself, possess: spirit. The ovum and sperm of our parents are not the source of our human spirit, of our cognitive-affective consciousness.

Our human spirit is a created and finite participation in the uncreated and infinite Spirit that creates, sustains, and activates it. The knowing, loving, and enjoying of our relational existence is a participation in the knowing, loving, and enjoying of the Spirit, in which we live, and move, and have our being. Our cognitive and affective consciousness is transparent to the Spirit effecting it. Although hidden to others, it cannot be hidden from the all-encompassing Spirit, the Ultimate Context apart from which nothing is truly understood or knowable. The uncreated Spirit is the source, ground, and destiny of all creation, and those who truly worship the God who is Spirit, worship affectively, in spirit, and cognitively, in truth. They worship with their loving hearts and enlightened minds. True worshipers love in the Spirit’s loving, know in the Spirit’s knowing, rejoice in the Spirit’s rejoicing, and forgive in the Spirit’s forgiving.

The Gift of the Spirit
When Old Testament writers wanted to speak of a holy person, they said he or she was filled with the Spirit of God. The new law tells us that the Holy Spirit is the divine initiator, and the driving force, for the Christian, and the Church. This is the Spirit of light who indicates the path; the Spirit of strength who urges us along it; the Spirit of peace who guarantees order. This is the Spirit of unity, universality and holiness, who consecrates human activity, gives us access to God, teaches us that Jesus is Lord, and leads us through Jesus to the Father. As Christ reveals the Father, the Spirit reveals Christ, and the presence of the Spirit reveals the Church, Christ’s body. As St. Paul reminds us incessantly, the Spirit is essentially a principle of action. He inhabits us, attests to the truth of Christ, intercedes for us, joins himself to our spirit, and cries in our hearts (Rom 8:11, 16, 26; Gal 4:6).

The gift of the Holy Spirit is the active presence in us of the glory of the Lord, who transforms us into his image, and to be in Jesus Christ is to live in the Spirit. Life in the Spirit is the experience, therefore, of an activating presence made manifest in our conduct and conditions. Its keynote is newness of life, the conversion notably absent from secular philosophies. The law yields to the blessing of Abraham in the spirit of the promise, the law of the flesh to the law of the spirit and justice, the works of the flesh to the fruits of the Spirit, the divine anger to the reign of joy and peace. Little children become spiritual adults.

Life in the Spirit is an organic principle, showing us how to imitate Christ, and giving us the power to do so, for the Spirit is the origin of Christian conduct, and the absolute author of its holiness (Gal 5:13-26). But how is this life in the Spirit to be attained and manifested? It is neither a question, nor pious practices, nor simply of a moral code; the former may be unrelated to interior dispositions and the needs of current history, while the latter could be constructed from motives unconnected with the supernatural.

Life in the Spirit has for its first requisite a willingness to be led by the Spirit, the initiator. It is a life hidden with Christ in God in the sense that life is judged in terms of the mystery of God, communicated by the Spirit who manifests the truth of Jesus. But the Spirit who brooded over chaos, and out of it brought order, who poured himself out first on the prophets, and now on the Church, whose title of “Paraclete” means befriender, is essentially an “organizing” Spirit concerned with our spiritual relationships, with community, with oneness in worship and service. Through the Spirit, Jesus is in the midst of us. The Spirit has a mission, infinitely committed to establishing a new order of human beings whose bond is the peace of God. The Spirit was involved in creation from the beginning, as the author of the individual’s life and growth, and finally as the source of that common fellowship under the sovereignty of God’s love. So life in the Spirit becomes Church to the wider world, cooperating with him as he leads all things united in Christ to the Father. And the moral order is simply a state consistent with the Christian’s role as a temple of the Spirit’s holiness, his eternal gift to humankind. For the Spirit “yields a harvest of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, forbearance, gentleness, faith, courtesy, temperateness, purity. No law can touch lives such as these; those who belong to Christ have crucified nature, with all its passions, all its impulses. Since we live by the Spirit, let the Spirit be our rule of life” (Gal 5:23-26).

Life as a Child of God
Not only did Jesus teach his followers to call God “our Father”; but he gave the title “sons of God” to the peacemakers (Matt 5:9), to the charitable (Luke 6:35), and to the just who have risen (Luke 20:36). Christians are now the sons and daughters of God through their faith in Jesus Christ (Gal 3:26; Eph 1:5). Through the gift of the Spirit, we have become the adopted children of God (Gal 4: 5-7; Rom 8:14-17). We are called to reproduce in ourselves the image of the only Son (Rom 8:29), and are made co-heirs with him (Rom 8:17). Through the gift of the Spirit, we are sons of adoption in the Son by nature. To all who believe in Christ, God gives the power of becoming the children of God (John 1:12).

For Paul, becoming a Christian meant life in the fullest sense of the word, life “at home” with God as Father, and Christ Jesus as brother, life as a beloved son or daughter whom God has adopted, not by mere legal fiction, but by the gift of divine life imparted and preserved by God’s only Holy Spirit. In comparison, the life which Paul had lived previously seemed like a state of slavery in which he stood outside the family gathering. His whole existence had been ruled by commands and precepts which came from afar; his whole function was to carry out behests which kept his life a service. In the period of the old covenant to which Paul had belonged, even Moses, though faithful in every part of God’s household, was only a servant (Phil 3:7-11). Nothing man did could release him from the spirit of fearful awe. Though he spoke of God as Father, he uttered the word as a slave speaking of his master. For him, the door was always shut to the intimacies of family life with God.

The salvation which Christ accomplished changed all this. When the Word became flesh, he left his Father’s house to mingle with human beings, to take upon himself their state of servitude, and to become flesh in their flesh, their brother. When, therefore, he returned to his Father, he bore in his own body an eternal blood bond with every human being on earth. By sharing our flesh, and through the love which this brother bears us, every slave now has access to the full love of the Father. The only thing yet necessary was the deed of adoption, the gift of the Holy Spirit who, with creative power, would turn the heart of a slave into the heart of a child. The loving Christ, all powerful as God’s own son, has seen to this. His first act, on returning to his Father’s home, was to send back upon his siblings his own Spirit to be their Spirit. If only a person accepts Christ for what he really is, as Paul accepted him at the gates of Damascus, the work is done: from being a slave he now becomes a child of God.

When the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying Abba! Father! So, through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir (Gal 4:4-7).

Love and Liberty
Paul’s new life, therefore, was a life of liberty precisely because it was totally inspired by “the law of faith” (Rom 3:27), “the law of the Spirit” (Rom 8:2). Faith made him cling to the Father with devoted committal, while the Spirit filled his heart with overflowing love. Therefore, the apostle constantly wanted to do all the things he had to do. Hence, Paul could make his own the world of Christ, his brother: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). This is the perfect liberty of the children of God who love, and who are loved, and who do always the things which please their Father.

All this Paul had said of himself. But he has spoken as a Christian, knowing full well that the least child in the family of God enjoys all the privileges which are his. To each one, baptism brings the fullness of the Christian mystery. All who are baptized have “put on Christ” (Gal 3:27); clothed inwardly and outwardly with likeness to God’s own Son, they are received and cherished by the Father as sons and daughters. Every Christian has received the Spirit of Jesus, who constantly breathes faith and love into his heart, and ceaselessly “bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8:16). Everything, therefore, which Paul has written of his own life, he has written in the name of every son and daughter of God. The “I” of Paul is the “I” of every Christian.

Practical Conclusions
Those with authority in the Church must see the Church for what it really is: a divinely structured organization intended by God to show forth the perfect life of his own Son, Jesus Christ. The Spirit of God, therefore, must be allowed full play in the life of every Christian. St. Paul emphasizes the respect which authority must have towards manifestations of Jesus’ Spirit in the Church: “Do not extinguish the Spirit. Do not despise utterances he inspires. Hold on to that which is good, and have nothing to do with any kind of evil” (1 Thess 5:19-22).

Final doctrinal decision and jurisdictional directives rest with those whom “the Holy Spirit has placed as bishops to rule the Church of God” (Acts 20:28). But the very responsibility of rule demands full recognition of the illuminating and often charismatic activity of the Holy Spirit in the Christian himself. Vatican II has affirmed that, under the action of the Holy Spirit, there is true progress in the Church’s understanding of the realities and words which have been handed down. It explains that this takes place “through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts, through the intimate understanding of spiritual things which the experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession, the sure gift of truth” (Dei Verbum #8). It is clear, therefore, that true development can and must take place in the Church. Authority must humbly watch for its signs, and “breathing” of the Spirit; and, when these signs appear, must provide for progress by wise adaptations and sound encouragement.

Sometimes in the past, authority has repressed rather than supported. How many saintly doctors, even St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John of the Cross, have met with criticism from those who should have encouraged them, and have even faced condemnation from men in authority who preferred their own limited thoughts to the authentic voice of the Spirit. For Paul, such negative repressiveness is a sin against the Spirit who breathes where he wills (John 3:8). No Christian writer has defended Christian liberty so forthrightly as Paul, who was convinced that the liberty of the children of God, and the liberty of the Holy Spirit, are one and the same thing. He writes: “The man led by the Spirit can scrutinize all things, while in turn, he is subject to no merely human scrutiny. Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:15-16).

The very presence of the Spirit in the heart of the Christ prompts an intense devotedness to God, and a burning love for the Church. The Christian enjoys liberty only because he has been received into the family of God as a son, and as a brother. This divine vocation rules out every form of self-seeking, rugged individualism, and claustrated indifference to the interests of the Father, and to the good of his family, the Church. There are things to do in this family life, ways of acting to follow, a whole program of conduct to observe. Children must be worthy of their father’s love, and vitally concerned about the needs of their family. Even human love has fixed ways of proving itself. If these ways are despised, love dies; if proprieties are neglected, love cools. In the language of St. Thomas Aquinas, full Christian living involves not only activity springing from love, but also careful regard for the proprieties of love.

Christian life, therefore, must always have its imperatives, precepts, normative directives, and fixed ways of acting. If only these are rightly understood, they will be recognized as essential to true Christian life. Certainly, they are not the “laws” which a master imposes from afar upon a slave. Rather, they are the blueprint of the very form of life which love prompts the child of God to live. A father tells his son to help with the household work, not as though he was giving a command to a slave, but as describing the very act which a son’s love should prompt him to do. In heaven there will be no occasion for “commands” or “precepts”; for as perfects sons of God, all shall know fully the exigencies of love. But here upon earth, our Father should often remind us of all that life in his family, the Church, really means.

He has provided, therefore, that his Son, our elder brother, should speak to us through the authoritative decisions of the Church. We shall not always understand why the Church has spoken; often we may feel that the word of authority is not the best word. But because we are only young children in the family of God, we must recognize that sometimes the world of Christ in his Church is uniquely intended to school us in the spirit of humble faith, the true spirit of God’s real sons and daughters.

Life as God’s child means life in the Spirit of Jesus. The gift of the Spirit constitutes the reality of our adoption; his rule in our hearts forms the very substance of Christian existence: “Whoever are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God” (Rom 8:14). The son of God upon earth, therefore, always has a touchstone to determine how fully he is living his Christian life. If the Holy Spirit has full sway over his heart, the Christian will show forth the fruits of the Spirit in his conduct, the fruits which Paul has described as “love, joy, peace, long-suffering, affability, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22-23). The Spirit is where the Spirit acts in our minds and hearts, in our words and deeds, manifesting the coming of the kingdom under the sovereignty of God’s love.

Here is a matter for examination of conscience. In the whole process of ferment within the Church, one norm must always rule supreme as the standard for personal conscience: Is the Holy Spirit really in control? If there are “enmity, contention, jealousy, outbursts of anger, quarrels, factions, schisms, envy,” then, as Paul makes clear, the Holy Spirit is not present, but only selfishness and sensuality (Gal 5:19-21). If, on the other hand, the fruits of the Holy Spirit are observable, even in the midst of differences, if conduct is ruled by charity, joy, peace, gentleness, self-control, then the Spirit is very much present, and we are living in truth, as children of our Father. We have St. Paul’s word for this, a word which sums up all that he has written on Christian life and Christian liberty: “Whoever are led by the Spirit, they are the sons of God” (Rom 8:14).

Fr. John Navone, SJ About Fr. John Navone, SJ

Fr. John Navone is an emeritus professor of theology at the "Gregrorian" in Rome, the Pontifical Gregorian University, where he taught from 1967–2010. He is now at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. Pope Francis acknowledged the impact of Fr. Navone's "theology of failure" on his thought in his interview with S. Rubin and E.F. Ambrogetti, Il Nuovo Papa Si Racconta, Milano, Salani Editore, p. 65. Articles published March 29th in both Italy’s Corriere della Sera and Il Foglio also made note of it. Pope Francis had read the book in the Italian translation, La teologia del fallimento, Paoline, 1978). Navone is the author of more than twenty-five books; his most recent is Atheism Today: A Christian Response (2012).