This Sunday is Pentecost in the Christian tradition. It is the day commemorating the Holy Spirit’s descent upon the Apostles, and is sometimes thought to represent the birth of the early church. It is considered a celebration of great joy that marks the end of the Easter season. In some traditions, the celebrations are marked with the colour red in various forms to symbolize the Spirit’s fire and to acknowledge the light provided once the recipient has been given this gift.
The author of this text, George Croly (1780-1860), was a literary man who wrote poetry, plays, novels and theological works. He eventually became rector at St. Stephen Walbrook in London where he is described as a powerful preacher who managed to fill a previously empty church, and even caught the attention of people like Charlotte and Anne Brontë who made a special visit to hear him preach on their first trip to London. He was also appointed as the afternoon preacher at the Foundling Hospital, although he didn’t last long there as his style was criticized as being inappropriate for the children. I found an amusing quote by a Mrs. Hall (whoever she may have been …) describing him thus: “Dr. Croly is an almost universal poet. He is grand and gorgeous, but rarely tender and affectionate; he builds a lofty and magnificent temple, but it is too cold and stately to be a home for the heart.”
So, here was an apparently successful, spiritually driven man who, if I read these words correctly, had doubts. Doubts about his strength, his faith, his patience. His need – his desire – to receive something from the Spirit to support his weaknesses and renew his energy.
Spirit of God! descend upon my heart.
Wean it from earth, through all its pulses move.
Stoop to my weakness, mighty as thou art,
And make me love Thee as I ought to love.
Hast, thou not bid me love Thee, God and King?
All, all thine own, soul, heart and strength, and mind.
I see thy cross, there teach my heart to cling.
O let me seek thee, and O let me find!
Teach me to feel that thou art always nigh.
Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear,
To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh;
Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.
Teach me to love thee as thine angels love,
One holy passion filling all my frame;
The baptism of the heav’n-descended dove,
My heart an altar, and thy love the flame.
I suppose renewal and seeking the presence of God is what Pentecost is all about. This receiving of something, slightly intangible, that we can carry with us into our lives. But even if one isn’t a believer in these specifics, I suspect there is a need to find something that is the unseen support for whatever is encountered. It is difficult to imagine facing all we need to face – good and bad – without some kind of spiritual or emotional or psychological strength. And, in fact, in those moments where these supports are depleted, most of us require assistance.
I understand that faith is critically important to many. I understand that others are baffled by the concept. It is a very personal thing, one that I don’t really comprehend – why some are so committed, others dismissive, others wavering, others struggling with guilt, others happily indifferent. But, I have long felt that the Holy Spirit is the spiritual embodiment of wisdom. And, as such, offers an open door to the pursuit of whatever knowledge and guidance is available. For me, the idea of receiving this spirit is not a simple matter of resignation, basking in the glow of some ethereal creature, it is alternately an act of discovery, an act of pursuit.
We all have doubts. I read these words and find myself wondering if asking for things like the skill of love, faith, strength and patience is really enough. Surely wisdom requires us to do more than ask. It is tempting to simply request what we need and sit and wait for it to arrive. My experience is that that rarely happens. I’m not convinced that this is the essence of faith. I’m not convinced that we receive everything we think we need simply by asking.
But there is something to be said for finding that thing that provides the strength with which to seek the fulfilment of our needs; the easing of our doubts. It might be spiritual or found within our relationships. Perhaps it is found in physical exercise, meditation or a walk in the woods. Maybe it emerges when we listen to music, read a book or stroll through an art gallery. Whatever it is, let it descend upon your heart. Let it open you up to the wisdom that is found all around. Let it require you to actively live your life and seek what you need. Let it guide your steps as they then illuminate a path for others who also seek. Let it be a holy passion filling your frame.