A Pentecost Post: My Fear of the Spirit

Something in me is pretty suspicious of spirits, spirits that fill you and speak to you and move you.

Somewhere deep down, I connect all that with the mental illness several people I love have experienced. Sometimes when you’re in a manic state you feel filled with holy fire that cannot be contained. Sometimes you can hear voices that seem to come from somewhere outside you to guide your path. Sometimes everything in the world seems to line up mystically, and you feel at one with everything, and then later the same “spirit” that lifted you up suddenly abandons you, drops you, and you’re so bruised by the crash you can’t get out of bed for days.

It scared me to watch from the outside. I’m sure it was even more terrifying from the inside.

My dad called me awhile back. The last time we’d seen each other in person, he’d felt so spirit-filled that he didn’t eat and stayed up all night conversing with spiritual guides. Now he called me in a state of hollowness, utter emptiness – full of nothing but shame and disappointment that it had all turned out to be crazy and wrong.

“Do you ever hear the voice of God?” he asked, hopefully, wanting to be understood.

I thought, Not really. Not like that. My default has always been to err on the safe side: drink responsibly, keep regular hours, pray quietly in my native language, and don’t invite any visions or voices.

But my internal emphasis on level-headed safety started to bother me the more I thought about it. Would I have been too scared to follow in-the-flesh Jesus? Would I have pushed past the rumors of demon possession and heresy to touch the real man’s robe and meet his eyes? Could I have stood his promise that he’d send his Spirit to come and dwell in me, or would I have turned away?

Was I turning away now? Did I have eyes to see, and ears to hear, all that there was? Was I missing out on the Spirit?

I pondered these questions, turning them over in my heart like smooth stones in my hand. I studied the story of my life and the Story a certain Book tells and I tried to see if they lined up at all.

The answer surprised me.

I looked inside myself and I saw, yes, a lot of fear. Fear of being overwhelmed by God, fear of being too close to God, like we were still back in olden times and touching Mount Sinai was like walking into fire. Fear of looking like an idiot if I let go and let myself be possessed by something greater than myself. Fear of losing my grip on reality.

And I also saw that the Spirit had been there the whole time, working around my fear with the delicacy of a watchmaker and the gentleness of the most loving mother. God understood my fear and was grieved by it, but also was not about to let it stop the Spirit.

The Spirit found cracks in my heart of stone and it made its glory small and wormed its way in.

God knew my fear of whirlwinds, earthquakes, fires. So the Voice came during quiet moments, when I had finally relaxed. So gentle was the Word spoken to me that it had almost seemed like utter silence.

One moment stood out in my memory: sitting in my cubicle toward the end of a long day of paperwork, another day consumed by anxiety that I’d never get out of this windowless building, with no concrete evidence to the contrary. And suddenly I felt myself relax, and I could see past my dark little cubicle and the confines of the dark moment in my life. I hadn’t heard the words, but they were there in my mind: It will be okay. There is more than this.

And also, there was dancing to Reggie Houston’s Box of Chocolates, the New Orleans Jazz band, playing “The Saints Come Marching In.” It was my church’s annual fundraising auction: we had just raised tens of thousands of dollars to keep on giving our homeless friends food and a place to stay in dignity and peace, and now we were celebrating Mardi Gras. I was stone cold sober and utterly high, waving my arms and jumping around in sheer spasmodic joy. People were probably watching, we Catholics being overall a sedate lot, but I didn’t care. I felt like I wasn’t dancing but being danced. Something powerful was moving through me in a way I could understand and embrace.

I’ve now decided I want to hear that voice, give it permission to speak louder. I want to get knocked over by waves of Spirit and lose myself like water in the ocean. I need to say to my primal fear, “Thanks for playing your part in keeping me alive. But I want to see where you’ve held me back, where I could go without you. You’re going to need to move out, ’cause perfect love is moving in.”

It will take some moments of courage and trust, and it will also take some practice. If I hear anything these days, it says to me, Keep listening. Keep your ears open and your eyes peeled, and don’t harden your heart. Just for today: listen.

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