Illustrations of the Holy Spirit
“When we pray, or are faced with a difficult decision, how can we know if the words or thoughts that enter our mind are from the Holy Spirit, or just our own thoughts? In other words, how can we recognize when it is the Holy Spirit present, speaking to us, guiding us and acting in our lives?”
This inquiry was presented by Diane Laux to Rev. Warren Schoeppe. The now late Rev. Schoeppe provided a response to Laux in 2013, at which time he extended to her permission to share his discernment on the subject as she saw fit. Liguorian is honored to have been given the opportunity to share with our readers this insight, which we’ve titled “Illustrations of the Holy Spirit.”
Rev. Schoeppe shares some initial observations on the subject:
- I think the Holy Spirit, quite often, visits someone with a big, unmistakeable grace because of some need that person has. By unmistakeable I mean that you are convinced that it was God and not someone or something else. First of all, we suppose it is for the sake of the recipient; God is, most often, not suggesting anything further, like imitating Joan of Arc. He is helping at a moment of special need or to get someone started on the life of grace.
- From this first awakening, I think that God can and does give other graces, which are attempts on His part to encourage that person to continue to walk with Him. These graces are lesser in intensity and, therefore, not as easy to discern. (The problem you mentioned in your letter.) I found that, as I got older and still working in the parish, that these nudges were easier to discern. That realization cannot be communicated. Each human being has to work toward it.
- I also think that, along the way, God again reveals Himself in quieter ways (quieter than that first “unmistakable” grace). If the person is praying regularly and is reflective, these quiet graces will be discerned also.
- A translation of (Paraclete) is the English word encourager For some reason the people who translate the Bible do not use this word; However, the word fits, in the quiet way that the Spirit works. He never comes so stridently that we can’t resist. His graces are meant for the private individual. By encouragement, God doesn’t push us in a certain direction; rather, he pats us on the back or gets us over a hump in the spiritual endeavor or cheers us up in our striving. I don’t think He can make grace too strong for the average person because of the danger of destroying the person’s free will.
- If you are living up to the Beatitudes and to some of Paul’s lists of virtues (Cf. Gal. 5:22-23, for example) you will be doing the work of the Holy Spirit. You don’t have to wait for a special grace. You can proclaim Christ quite loudly enough by speaking up in defense of honesty and integrity in high places, without doing it in a manner that is offensive to people who think oppositely (just a couple examples, not the whole matter).
- You have to remember that Judas saw Christ do wonderful things and heard him say beautiful things and still went astray. This suggests that God finds it very difficult to encourage our faith, while at the same time allowing us to be free.
- The last thing we would suppose when we receive grace is that God wants us to put on armor and march against the foe or make a spectacle of ourselves. St. John of the Cross was very definite and strong on this point.
- Note also, that the one who grows in ability to recognize the Holy Spirit, likewise grows in the ability to spot temptation from the Evil One. The bad stuff becomes more clearly contrasted with the the good stuff—the direction toward God and heaven and goodness.
- Also, it would be great mistake if we fail to see the visitation of grace as an act of God’s love for this individual me. He really does want me to be saved. He really does want me to come closer to Him. He wants me to grow and grow and grow.
Illustrations of the Holy Spirit
Have you ever wondered how grace works? Have you been frustrated by references to the Holy Spirit that leave you hanging on an abstraction? Have you yearned to understand the what, the when, and the where of this third person of the Trinity who, like the wind, blows where He wills?
The central purpose of this meditation is to convince you that the work of the Holy Spirit (grace) can be discerned in your daily life. Included are examples of the Spirit caught in the act, (referred to as illustrations) with the hope that they give you the confidence you need to begin searching for yourself. The word leaven has been taken out of the gospel to impress you with the quiet, almost hidden way by which the Spirit works. God has a lot of competition for your attention—music, world news, the latest happenings in the entertainment arena, the latest national crisis. Through all the flashing lights and trumpets blaring, how are you to hear this voice—quiet like leaven—unless you make an explicit decision to “slip the surly bonds of earth” for a moment, a minute, an hour? When we place greater and greater value on knowing God, on giving greater weight to transcendent values in life, then setting aside time for God won’t be the big deal we once made of it.
One basic question you might have is this: Did Jesus mean for the Holy Spirit to work in you and me? Or was the Holy Spirit only meant for the apostles and special souls like Teresa of Avila? The answer is in John 14:21: Jesus says, “Whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him.” Clearly, Jesus intends the Spirit for all the baptized—you included.
Now, let’s start with some examples of how the Holy Spirit works, and see whether they shed some light on this proposition that is so often left afloat in murky abstraction.
ILLUSTRATION ONE: As an associate pastor in Phoenix, I was on duty when an elderly woman came in to see a priest. She had become stone deaf. This change in her life was not only frustrating it also turned her into a nervous wreck. She was tense, beside herself, and unable to cope. I got a notepad and began to write down questions about the matter. Her replies made it evident that we could not easily resolve her quandary; so, after about 15 minutes, I told her that we would stop the questions and pray. I prayed with a lot of faith that she might be given peace of mind and soul, and freed from this burden. In a short time, (maybe 10 minutes), she began asking me what was happening to her. She began to calm down, and her voice softened. I had the Bible with me; so I opened it to St. John’s gospel, where Jesus says: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you.” She agreed that she felt exactly that. She could not hear my prayer for peace. Where did the peace come from? It was definitely not within her. Was it coincidence? No, it’s the way the Spirit works.
ILLUSTRATION TWO: Fifty years ago, I had a temporary assignment in a large Catholic hospital in Spokane. One day I went, by mistake, into the wrong room. A very old woman lay in the hospital bed. She didn’t respond to me in any way, as I asked her identity and the usual questions. She just glared at me, her lips shut tight in a straight line. Eventually, I realized I was in the wrong room and apologetically left. Imagine my surprise, a little later at lunch, when I received a note telling me that I was wanted in that same room. It turned out that the lady was unable to speak. So, I asked a series of questions until I came to one that she responded to: “Do you want to be baptized?” I gave her baptism right then and told her I would return later. However, at dinner a few hours later, I received a second note, saying that she had died.
It turns out, I didn’t go into the wrong room after all. And she took advantage of the meeting without delay; otherwise, a day later, she would be gone. Where salvation is involved, we expect also the Holy Spirit to be involved.
ILLUSTRATION THREE: I knew a man who had been deeply intertwined in the grip of alcoholism. He had lost friends and his business was going downhill. He had 6 children and a beautiful and intelligent wife; he was a grievous burden to them. Finally his wife gave him an ultimatum: “You have to choose between us and the bottle.” Her resolve impressed him as decisively real. He thought and thought; it became a spiritual matter. He put himself in the presence of God, and told God with a solemn promise: “I’ll never take another drink in my life!” At the moment he made that act of surrender, the attraction to alcohol ceased; and it did not return. Years later, it was still gone.
This wasn’t a man doing a psychological somersault. He consciously laid out the alternatives. He had made similar promises to his wife before, but this promise was different. It was made to God without reservation. Prayer was involved, love for his family was involved; and the change was instantaneous at a clearly noted moment in time.
ILLUSTRATION FOUR: A middle-aged woman, a friend of mine named Jean, was diagnosed to have cancer in one breast. This was at a time when treating cancer was still very experimental, and the doctor didn’t want to take chances; so he advised her to have both breasts removed. She agreed to this dreadful decision. On the night before the scheduled operation, another woman, came to the same room for some tests. Apparently, this woman had received an intuition that she should tell someone named Jean to read John 14:1-10. Jean was startled, but she followed the advice. It’s the passage in the midst of the Last Supper where Jesus says to the apostles: “Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. Have faith in God and faith in me.” When Jean told me this story, I asked her how that made her feel. She simply said, “Wonderful”!
How does someone go from feeling “dreadful” to “wonderful” after reading words on a page? How does a report on words given some 2000 years ago have such a benign effect? Why hadn’t the well-wishing of family and friends brought about the feeling of “wonderful”?
ILLUSTRATION FIVE: Grace is not something that is transferable from one believer to another, so I can only describe what happened. In 1943, I was a Navy Seabee on the island of Guadalcanal. I was very scared, even though the big events of that island were over and only bombing was going on. I went to an open space near the mess tent, where the Catholic chaplain was seated on a folding chair, prepared to hear confessions. I knelt down in the sand and gave him a rather emotional rendition of my general confession. At my silence, the priest said a few words—maybe a sentence that fit the situation. Regardless, it was just plain, ordinary English words. At that, a pervasive calm happened within me. Not a feeling in my mind or heart or stomach, not a sensible feeling at all, yet palpable and definite. At the same time, my point of view towards my shipmates changed from judgmental to appreciation and tolerance. And any sexual temptation that I experienced lessened remarkably. All this in less than one minute.
The key here is that Jesus describes His “peace” as a peace that the world cannot give. In 1943, war encompassed the whole Pacific; so what was the source of the peace I felt? And how did it enter me? And how were the virtues of charity and purity connected to the peace? And how did the Sacrament come to bear? Saying that my psyche went through a change won’t suffice to explain this event, because the peace stayed with me until the war was over; who did that?
I give these five illustrations, because they seem to be unusual works by the action of God. They are all directed, not only toward blessing the present moment, but also toward eternal salvation. Each incident highlights the action of the Holy Spirit in human life in places where human agency cannot be accounted as a factor. Notice that the results were not anticipated by those who experienced them. The people involved did not psyche themselves up ahead of time. When the Holy Spirit is involved, He accomplishes that which we cannot cause-no matter how hard we try, how hard we hope, how long we pray. Grace comes from God as his gift to us who are in need.
Now for a surprise. Unusual events of the sort illustrated are not the main work of the Spirit. Jesus, related the parable about the woman putting leaven into a measure of flour. The leaven did its quiet, hidden work until the whole was leavened. It worked slowly, at its own pace. We have trouble with the pace of the Spirit, because “An evil and corrupt generation seeks for a sign.” Yes, we want to pick time and place. When our ways are not really adequate, we should have the humility to allow God to make the plan.
The main work of the Spirit is to help us, during our lifetime, arrive at salvation; and an unusual event now and then won’t accomplish that. The following examples are intended to exemplify how simple situations in life can reveal the Holy Spirit at work, and how these can coalesce into a trajectory pointing us toward heaven.
LEAVEN ONE: It can be a sacrament. I promised a woman in Phoenix that I would come to Good Samaritan Hospital about 9 PM and give her the Sacrament of the Sick in preparation for her operation the next day. I wanted to avoid the nurses, doctors, and noise. I kept my promise, and the Holy Spirit relieved her of “all anxiety”. Her faith was at work, and the reward was this quiet sign.
LEAVEN TWO: When your prayer is very dry and your grip on faith seems to have slipped away, scrunch up your might and resolve to change things. Go ahead Grow in faith; strengthen your faith! You can’t. But that night or the next day, without your effort, there it is again, clear as crystal and prayer is a snap. This contrast of faith/no-faith is one of the best indications of the Holy Spirit in our lives, because it can be repeated and the contrast is often unmistakeable. Be awake and aware and watch it happen!
LEAVEN THREE: The teachings of Jesus can help us realize that the Holy Spirit has been at work in our lives. For example, read the Beatitudes; see which are now verifiable in your life. “Merciful.” are you? “Hunger and thirst for justice.” do you? “Peacemaker,” are you? If you measure up reasonably well to these essentials of Christianity, the Holy Spirit has you on that trajectory toward salvation. Do the same thing with the “Fruits of the Holy Spirit” in Galatians 5-love, joy, peace. patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. See how the leaven works?
LEAVEN FOUR: Nature is a big favorite of lovers and hymn-writers. One day I was moving cautiously between two rose bushes, avoiding the thorns. As I looked downward, I noticed a gorgeous, perfectly-shaped, peach-colored bud. In that moment, ideas flowed rapidly: “Creator” “Intelligent designer”: “Impossibility of chance”. I had seen roses for the past half hour, but just this one led to this unexpected surge of faith. The Creator is in nature; it sings his praise. Listen.
LEAVEN FIVE: Impulses to do good and avoid evil can undoubtedly be caused by a certain situation. But they can also come from the Holy Spirit. I’ve learned that my spiritual life will be enhanced to the extent that I study these impulses to learn how to read them correctly. Out of nowhere, a hint comes to visit a sick friend. Just when I need it, a quiet conviction comes to avoid a certain racy channel on TV. A subtle realization comes to me: “You are not generous enough when this situation arises in the family.” Often such a good impulse will be persistent for a week or longer; follow it and see where it leads. As I practice reflecting on such events, their source becomes more and more apparent. Imagine the encouragement that comes with being able to discern the difference between coincidence and the breath of the Holy Spirit.
A caution is needed here. An impulse toward good that contradicts present reality is not from the Holy Spirit. For example, the impulse to phone my sick friend is not good if I am driving on the freeway. The pious impulse to attend the funeral of Aunt Mary in Ireland is not good if my parents lack money to pay the rent. My impulse to say the rosary is not good if it comes when I should be preparing dinner for the family. Reflection is absolutely necessary for accurate discernment to take place.
LEAVEN SIX: The Holy Spirit can help us in the midst of daily life. As a parish priest, I had the weekly sermon to work on. One thing that often stymied me was the point at which I needed to go from the introduction to the main point. Once in frustration, I dropped the work and began to pray, just pray. I didn’t tell God what to do or ask for anything in particular; I just prayed. Within minutes, a solution popped into my head and I was able to go back to work. The same thing happened on another occasion. Then again and again. Very soon, I found it necessary to have ball point pen ready, pad ready, before the prayer. This process was so dependent on that move to prayer that it’s impossible to call it coincidence. And the speed with which it happened; it couldn’t be credited to the cup of coffee I’d consumed earlier.
It’s important to note that I had done the human part of the work. God was supplementing for my weakness and giving me the encouragement.
LEAVEN SEVEN: When a problem arises in a relationship, a misunderstanding occurs or an argument becomes too heated the wise thing is to heal the tiff quickly, but how to do it? If we wait too long, the tension builds. How do we find the right time? Try saying a prayer (even a short one will suffice) ask for wisdom, charity, and the ability to accept the other party. Do not tell the Holy Spirit who was right or relay how you think it should be handled. Then go as soon as possible to the other person. Most often you will find that an effective degree of charity pervades the meeting, and you both part in peace. Of course, the Holy Spirit will be limited by the will of the other party, who may have decided to be mad anyway. But you have done what Christ demands, and the effect on you will improve your state of mind and heart, even if the rift still exists.
LEAVEN EIGHT: We all experience temptations, pride, resentments, selfishness, envy, etc. Pray with perseverance about a specific temptation, no matter how stubborn it may be. (Addictions are a different matter, not included here. They demand surrender.) You will find the Holy Spirit on your side, giving you insight and weakening the temptation somehow. “Our Lord said: If you remain in me and my word remains in you, you may ask what you want and it will be done for you.” (John 15:7) This saying presumes that you will ask for the spiritual good things stored up in the Kingdom; i.e. don’t ask for a Cadillac. Our Lord also said: “For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”(Matthew 7:8) You may follow these two sayings with confidence. Jesus is telling us how things work in the Kingdom.
LEAVENNINE: Mark was a 26-year-old whom I met in an Inquiry Class I was conducting while on a temporary, summer assignment. He was from a Baptist background and was concerned because he had joined the Inquiry series late. However, he was very eager to become Catholic; so we decided that we could meet during his lunch hour until he was caught up. He was faithful to both the regular and the missed classes; so, very quickly, he was ready to be received into the Church. According to plan, we celebrated the Baptism conditionally; and, to my surprise, five minutes after the ceremony, Mark was asking when he could be Confirmed. There was great urgency in his request; so I found a nearby parish preparing for Confirmation, which agreed that Mark could join them. Then, I moved on. In December, I received a Confirmation card from him, explaining in extravagant terms the wonderful experience he had in receiving the Holy Spirit in the sacrament. A few days later, I received a phone call from his godparent; Mark had been caught in an apartment fire and fell to his death. I have no doubt that his urgency came from the Spirit of God.
LEAVENTEN: At a funeral recently, the celebrant said that “grace’ usually comes through a human agent. Another priest I know related that the Holy Spirit is coming all the time and everywhere; whether we are alone or with others. Be that as it may, I think the Holy Spirit used me for the purpose of healing a family rift. I went to the home at the invitation of the wife. The husband and two boys were with us as we talked about many things. The husband was a good person, but wrapped up in selfish ways and the wife felt herself alone with all the family responsibility. I joined them one more time for a follow-up. Many months later, they came to thank me and to explain how their relationships had all changed for the better and how they felt that grace had touched them and encouraged them. Their sincerity left me full of gratitude and confirmed me in my priesthood.
The fifteen instances shared here of ways in which the Holy Spirit presents itself are only a sample of God’s work. He works in many, many ways, especially deep within the privacy of the human soul, whether we are aware or not. These things have been offered so that you might get interested in finding the Holy Spirit as He works in your life.
Why do we need to know this? There are really several good reasons why we need to know about the work of the Holy Spirit in human life. First off, it’s the truth about God and us. Next, this truth will lead us to the realization that, at the center of life. is our relationship with God. Familiarity with the Holy Spirit will lead us to live more Christian lives.
A thick book explaining “Discernment” may not be able to illustrate exactly how God is able to reach you. Furthermore, no book or spiritual practice or course of studies can substitute for the ability to recognize God acting in our mundane, ordinary life. This recognition, in turn, will lead us to be more vibrant members in our local Christian community, thus, building up the Body of Christ. The most reliable teacher is the Holy Spirit. He will reach you if you decide you want to be reached and taught.