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Talk: The Holy Spirit

Education is a central aspect of the Cathedral’s mission.  We offer opportunities for learning, dialogue and engagement with issues of public debate.

At the Cathedral, people of all ages can learn about faith and discipleship. We run a Sunday School and are developing work with young people; there are occasional study groups and Lent Lectures.

The Cathedral is a theological and educational resource for the Diocese, supporting the work of clergy and parishes. The Cathedral works with the Diocese in planning and delivering an annual summer school.

Working with other institutions in and around Stag Hill, for example the University of Surrey, the Cathedral is committed to engaging with issues in the public sphere (including social responsibility, science, ethics, the arts and inter-faith dialogue).  There will be an annual series of talks alongside seminar based groups.

Transcripts of these talks are, where possible, included below.

For details of forthcoming talks, please see the Cathedral Diary and What's On 



Christopher Herbert
Sunday 8th June 2014
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Go to my lap-top. Turn it on. Wait. Wait a bit more---the lap-top is four years old. Wave my hands in a circular, hurry-up motion. Wait. You know the story. Eventually, Google appears on the screen. And so into the search box I type “Holy Spirit”, and then click on Google Image. And without expecting it, I have opened a dove-cot of gigantic proportions. There are hundreds of images of doves: pure, white doves fluttering around, usually against a Mediterranean-blue sky. So far in my search for images of the Holy Spirit there are only a few images of flames:  they have been overwhelmed, blotted out by a swirling cloud of the whitest doves you have ever seen. I suspect that it’s something to do with the preponderance of American evangelical and Pentecostal web-sites on Google.

So, I change my tack. I decide to abandon the swirling clouds of doves and return to one of my favourite periods in art-history, the 15th century in Northern Europe to see what images I can look at there. There is only a handful, but, at least in my eyes, they are stunningly lovely; less like propaganda and more like art.

The first image is from an artist called Robert Campin, sometimes known as the Master of Flemalle. He was born in about 1375 and died in 1444. Most of his life was spent in Tournai, on what is now the French-Belgian border, where he had a workshop to which a number of other artists were attached, including Rogier van der Weyden. One of the paintings which I find very moving, he created for an altarpiece. It’s an image of the Holy Trinity. God the Father stands in what seems to be a niche in a church. He wears a conical hat which is surmounted by a small cross, and around the base of the hat is a jewelled crown. He has a curly, long beard; his eyes are heavy with suffering. He is dressed in a long cloak whose folds extrude over the edge of the dais on which he is standing. Although up-right and elderly, he supports the slumped figure of his Son whose hands and feet still bear the wounds of the crucifixion. One of Christ’s hands reaches a little awkwardly along his chest to point towards the deep wound that has pierced his heart. His face hangs downwards to his right, but perched on the sinews and muscles that join shoulder and neck is a dove

This is technically called a Trinity of the Broken Body, for the emphasis is upon the dead and broken body of Christ, and on the empathetic suffering of God the Father. It is immensely sensitive, the whole thing painted in grisaille to make it look like a Gothic sculpture.

Originally, this painting was part of an altarpiece but most of the rest of it is missing.  Just this fragment remains, plus an image of Veronica and the Sudarium, and an image of the Virgin Mary suckling the Christ child.  It is now housed in Frankfurt. It was probably created in about 1410.

Meanwhile in Florence, a young and talented artist called Massacio, just fifteen years after the Campin painting of the Holy Trinity, has also painted a fresco of the Trinity. But his version is different. God the Father is standing in a trompe l’oeil chapel. He supports not a dead and all-too-human Christ but instead Christ on a crucifix. At the foot of the Cross is the Virgin Mary and John the Evangelist, and beneath them the donors, but no-one is certain who they might be. It is a virtuoso piece, using the new mathematical discovery of single-point perspective. Oh…and by-the-way, a dove hovers over the scene.

So: a fifteenth century painting from Northern Europe emphasising the suffering of God the Father and the Son, and a fifteenth century Italian painting of a more aloof, hieratic kind. Both paintings feature a dove. These, after all, are paintings of the Holy Trinity. And yet, it has to be said, if the dove were not there, neither painting would be missing anything.

I draw your attention to these two great paintings simply because it shows, at least to me, that even the greatest of artists trying to indicate the third person of the Trinity, can’t quite bring it off. The artists are fine when it comes to depicting the relationship of God the Father and God the Son…the tenderness, the anguish, the grief, the sacrifice, but they simply cannot bring the same kind of humanity, the same kind of personhood, to the image of a dove. And I can see why. It’s a problem I have myself, if I am perfectly honest. I can associate myself imaginatively, sympathetically, with other human-type characters, such as God the Father and God the Son, but the dove seems like an added extra. It leaves me emotionally unmoved and even intellectually unchallenged; which is, from a theological perspective, a bit of a problem, to put it mildly. And for the avoidance of doubt, let me say that I realise that all the images we have of God the Father and God the Son are also inadequate. They are, as it were metaphors for a reality, or if you prefer, the Reality behind and within all reality, which is beyond all understanding.

I understand how the visual image of a dove came to be associated with the Holy Spirit. Turn to Mark, chapter 1, verses 9-10, and there it is: “It was at this time that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptised in the Jordan by John. As he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens  break open and the Spirit descend on him like a dove…” It’s where all those Google images of the Holy Spirit come from…but I want to suggest, I hope not heretically, that the concentration by visual artists on the dove as an image, has meant that we have missed the drama that precedes its arrival: “ As he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens break open…” It’s that cosmic, breaking open that has been overlooked. Put it another way: Mark’s story, condensed as it is, has a powerful dynamic action. Jesus comes up out of the water, he breaks its surface, and, at the very same time, the heavens above also break open, but this time the movement is downwards. The ascent of Christ from the water is met by the descent of the Spirit from the heavens. For those with eyes to see, that is for those with in-sight, this episode pre-figures his crucifixion and resurrection. The Christ comes up out of the waters of death and is then ablaze with the glory, the radiant glory of God…

Let me just stay with this rending of the heavens at the descent of the Spirit, and read to you from Isaiah 64, verse 1: “Why do you not tear asunder the heavens and come down that, when you appeared, the mountains might shake, that fire might blaze as it blazes in brushwood when it makes water boil…” The thrust of this text from Isaiah is about an heavenly epiphany, of the very heavens being ripped apart as God himself descends to earth in a tumult of smoke and fire and with the terrifying force of an earthquake.

I return to the image of the dove. It seems so inadequate as a simile. It captures none of that majestic and awesome terror. But consider this; perhaps when Mark wrote of the Spirit descending like a dove, he did not mean it in any literal sense. He was referring to the arrival of the Spirit with the kind of purity, beauty and piercing grace that a dove has.

It was actually Luke who made the dove “real”. I quote from Luke 33, verse 21: “During a general baptism of the people, when Jesus too had been baptised, and was praying, heaven opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove…”  and ever since, the image meant by Mark as a simile, has become literalised. I guess this is a bit unfair, but it is Luke who is to blame. It’s his description of the Holy Spirit descending as a literal dove which has meant that artists as brilliant as Campin and Masaccio have fallen for it…

It is, of course, an image which echoes even faintly, the Creation stories in Genesis where God the Creator hovers over the waters.

Morna Hooker in her Commentary on Mark quotes a comment from a Babylonian Talmud which says: “And the Spirit of God was brooding over the waters like a dove which broods over her young but does not touch them…” It’s a nice, tender image but whether and by whom it was known when Mark was composing his gospel is not open to us to know.

The dove is also an image which poets have used. Inevitably, I’m afraid, I’m going to quote from T S Eliot. It’s from his Four Quartets, Part IV of Little Gidding:

The dove descending breaks the air

With flame of incandescent terror,

Of which the tongues declare

The one discharge from sin and error.

The only hope, or else despair

Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre,

To be redeemed from fire by fire.

I don’t really need to point out that here Eliot intertwines two of the images of the Holy Spirit: the dove and flames. But even visual artists have also used an intertwining technique.

One of the other images of the Holy Trinity painted by Campin, some 25 years after the first, and now in St Petersburg, is of God the Father, again as a bearded, elderly man, seated on a throne, supporting the dead weight of his Son. The dove this time is not perched on the shoulder of the dead Christ; instead it hovers just above the shoulder in the space between God the Father and God the Son. But it is on the arms of the throne on which God the Father is seated that Campin has added a couple of small details. One is of a pelican, which, you will know, was believed in mediaeval times to feed its young from its own breast. It’s a reference to the wine of the Eucharist as well as to the self-sacrificial nature of Christ’s death. Opposite the pelican is a lion. Why? Because again in medieval bestiaries and legend  it was believed that lions roared their young to life three days after they were born…

What then seems to be a relatively straightforward image of God as Holy Trinity becomes shot through with two other images drawn from contemporary legends. Image has been laid on image in a way that is not too dissimilar from Eliot conjoining the image of the dove with the image of flame.

Elisabeth Jennings, a poet I much admire, adopts a similar strategy in her poem entitled “Whitsun”.

It’s Whitsun in a day or two and I

Think of the tongues of fire, the Holy Ghost,

Brooding and teaching men the way to die

And never to feel lost.

A Holy time indeed but weather wears

A different look. It’s grey but, nonetheless

A few bird’s songs are audible. My verse

Has come back. Happiness

Is how I write and I know God is near

Tongues of fire bear poetry to its height

While holy rhythms take my words to where

There never is a night.

The dove here is not mentioned per se, though the Holy Ghost is described as “brooding”. Even so, there is a resonance in the plain, everyday fact: “It’s grey, but nonetheless a few birds’ songs are audible” And then she continues by internalising the theological doctrine she has outlined in the first verse: “The Holy Ghost brooding and teaching men the way to die…” has become “My verse has come back…”. Her poetry, which is her life, her source of all that gives her life meaning, is restored:  “Happiness is how I write and I know God is near…”

And before I leave the image of the Holy Spirit as a dove, I am bound to quote G M Hopkins’ The Windhover, which is not, of course about a dove, but is about the way in which a glorious falcon wrings from Hopkins’ soul a poem of astonishing skill and beauty. In seeing the falcon, he also “sees” Christ. It is an epiphany.

The Windhover

To Christ Our Lord

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-

      dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding

      Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding

High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,

      As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding

      Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding

Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here

      Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion

Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

      No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion

Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,

      Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

Well. Could it be that the descending, plummeting falcon is also an epiphany of the mystery, power and magnificence of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity? But my question goes further than that: could it be that the concept of the Holy Spirit is one which is beyond the pictorial imagining of painters? What many of them seem to end up doing is taking the easy way out. They do a St Luke, if you’ll pardon the expression. It’s all rather bathetically literal. There are doves everywhere. Whereas poets, through rhythm and silence, through structure and language, through stress and pulse, can catch a glimpse, but only a glimpse of the Holy Spirit’s wistful  and mysterious glory?

Let me move to the next visual image of the Holy Spirit. It’s St Luke again: “The day of Pentecost had come and they were all together in one place. Suddenly there came from the sky what sounded like a strong, driving wind, a noise which filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them flames like tongues of fire distributed among them and coming to rest on each one. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance…”

I’m afraid that the visual artists have not been able to do any better with this image than they did with the doves.

In 1305, or thereabouts, as part of his immense and complex Maesta, Duccio painted a scene of Pentecost. There, central to the small painting, is the Virgin Mary surrounded by the disciples. (Siena had a real cultic devotion to the Virgin Mary, hence her centrality in this scene).

Resting on each of their heads is a little flicker of flame, and that’s it. It has the ease and immediacy of a kind of logo. Anyone looking at the scene and knowing their NT would be bound to say, “Ah…that’s Pentecost”, and rapidly move on. There’s nothing to arrest the eye, nothing to stop one in one’s tracks.

Now listen to this. It’s William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” and we join the story at the point where the boys have decided to light a fire…which they do, but it seems initially to go out. Then Piggy, having loaned his specs to act as a magnifying lens to light the original fire, which seemed not to have caught, looks out and says:

 “You got your small fire all right.”

Smoke was rising here and there among the creepers that festooned the dead or dying trees. As they watched, a flash of fire appeared at the root of one wisp, and then the smoke thickened. Small flames stirred at the trunk of a tree and crawled away through leaves and brushwood, dividing and increasing. One paten touched a tree trunk and scrambled up like a bright squirrel. The smoke increased, sifted, rolled outwards. The squirrel leapt on the wings of the wind and clung to another standing tree, eating downwards. Beneath the dark canopy of leaves and smoke the fire laid hold on the forest and began to gnaw. Acres of black and yellow smoke rolled steadily toward the sea. At the sight of the flames and the irresistible course of the fire, the boys broke into shrill, excited cheering. The flames, as though they were a kind of wild life, crept as a jaguar creeps on its belly toward a line of birch-like saplings that fledged an outcrop of the pink rock. They flapped at the first of the trees, and the branches grew a brief foliage of fire. The heart of flame leapt nimbly across the gap between the trees and then went swinging and flaring along the whole row of them. Beneath the capering boys a quarter of a mile square of forest was savage with smoke and flame. The separate noises of the fire merged into a drum-roll that seemed to shake the mountain.

“You got your small fire all right” said Piggy.

It’s a wonderful description of small boys on the exciting edge of a dangerous blaze… and what a description of fire. It’s miles away from the quiet image of Duccio’s Maesta…here in the Lord of the Flies the fire is raw, powerful, frightening, out of control.

There is only one Biblical passage which for me has the same quality. It’s from Hebrews, chapter 12:

18 You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; 19 to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, 20 because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.”[c] 21 The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”[d]

22 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

25 See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.”[e] 27 The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.

28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire.

It begins to look as though, as with the image of doves, any attempt to paint Pentecost only results in images which simply do not do justice to that profound mystery which is God the Holy Spirit. It begins to seem that His power, might, awesome and ferocious beauty cannot be captured in the visual arts. And if this true, it leaves us with quite a problem.  We live in an age which is saturated with visual images, is it really the case that the Holy Trinity and especially the Holy Spirit is above and beyond our visual imaginings?

There is one more image to go…the image of the breath of life. Shall we do any better with this?

I know someone who collects religious nick-nacks, all in the worst possible taste. I came across one which she would love to have. It features a soft-focus Jesus on the lid of a tin of mints holding what is called a Messiah Mint in his fingers. Underneath it is the caption “Don’t worry, when Jesus breathes on you it’s always minty fresh…” How tacky is that…

Well. The question is whether there are any visual images which capture the truth of what Jesus was saying in John’s gospel:  “And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20, v 22). The Greek word used here is unique in the New Testament. And is probably meant to take our minds hurtling back to Genesis 2, verse 7: “The Lord God formed a human being from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life…” It’s a wonderfully intimate moment, the Spirit of God in-forming the spirit of humanity, and therefore John in his description of the Holy Spirit has created a scene in which a new humanity is born in Christ: old Adam, new Adam. It is partly what Michelangelo was trying to capture on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel…God reaching out to touch Adam with life…but, no mention in Michelangelo of the far closer, far more intimate act of breathing of life into Adam. And that tiny existential distance which Michelangelo has created where the fingers do not quite touch, of course brings to mind the Titian “Noli me Tangere” where Mary Magdalene reaches out to touch Christ, but he arches away from her outstretched hand. The distance between the human and divine, whether in Michelangelo or in Titian, is, it would seem, always there…which makes the gift of Jesus in breathing the new creative life into his disciples even more profound. His breath is our breath…

But, in spite of looking, I have not been able to find any serious attempt by visual artists to portray this moment of Jesus breathing upon his disciples. So… it would seem, as with the pictorial images of doves and the flame, we have come to an impasse.

What is to be done?

I want to read another of Elizabeth Jennings poems to you: it’s called Regions of Memory.

Regions of memory---I returned from there

Not with a map but with a hard-learned awe.

I know the spirit’s travails and its peace,

Have found there is no law

To help you through the trees and gardens of

Memory. All life is different where

The mind is moved by hidden brooks of love,

Forests of kindness, almost a sacred air.

You cannot find in books

Useful guides to paths where memory

Treads softly. I have come back to a place

Of argument and discord but can see

Skies of sifted gold, a silver space

Where everyone is free.

Regions of memory---when you’ve been there

For long you’re changed. Those regions teach you how

To deal with enemies like dark and fear;

And how to praise. Here. Now.

Why have I chosen that poem, which was written by Elizabeth Jennings after an operation? Because it seems to me to contain a truth about the Holy Spirit.

Let me try to explain. What I have been doing in this address so far is to have traced the ways in which the visual images of the Holy Spirit have developed across the centuries. In fact, there has been hardly any development…the old and faintly tired images of doves, flames and, to a much lesser extent, breath, have been used and used until they seem to me to have little energy left in them. Even the greatest of artists have struggled to create compelling images. As a result, all that we now have are endless clip-art versions of the Holy Spirit which convey nothing of God’s inherent and utterly beautiful, mysterious and beckoning self.

But I want to argue that John’s Gospel points us in the right direction. It’s inward…with all the possibilities and dangers of self-delusion that are built in to that. And it may be that we shall not find any visual images in this quest, but we might find a way to express the truths of God in refreshing ways.

Let’s see. I return to the poem and to that phrase:

 All life is different where

The mind is moved by hidden brooks of love…

This is where this lecture has to move inwards as well, and I have to be a little bit personal.

My own experience, having been ordained for 47 years and having tried, like all Christian people, to follow the call of God, is that there seem to be within the human soul, hidden streams which now and again break the surface. Those streams are very difficult to define and  the process of eruption can be quite disturbing, but they are there. And at certain moments, those streams which have quietly flowed underground coalesce and break through to the surface, usually with surprisingly good and exciting and entirely unforeseen results. Let me give an example. I have always had a great interest in art, but that interest only broke through to the surface when I was a bishop and I went on to study for a couple of degrees. I cannot begin to tell you how wonderful that process was…and now I find that I travel the country and indeed in Europe lecturing to groups of people about a variety of subjects…all of them related to my vocation of being an ordained minister within the Church of God.

I cannot claim that this is the fruit of the Spirit, that would be too huge a claim, but what I can say is that as one form of explicit Christian ministry has come to a formal end, another has taken its place.

Let me offer another personal example.

I decided when I was about to retire that, if possible, I should like to continue my thinking about the Care of the Elderly. It then transpired that I was asked to be a Non-Exec, unpaid, member of the Abbeyfield Board, responsible with the Board and its officers for developing the Abbeyfield programme across over 700 homes in the UK and across the world. One of the key focuses of our attention has been a developing interest in and commitment to, the spiritual lives of our residents. It has been a fantastic time… We now have a very good Report in place and a programme of training is being devised for all our staff. In turn, that has led me to be in touch with experts in the field  in other organisations across the UK, and here in Guildford with Dr Anne Gallagher at the University and her pioneering work in the ethics of nursing care.

Again, I am not claiming that this is the work of the Holy Spirit, except that when there are significant changes happening in any field which are international, and which are within organisations which have previously had no contact with each other…when that kind of thing is going on I sense, it’s no stronger than that, that God the Holy Spirit is at work. I am not claiming this to be self-evident---many of the people with whom I have contact would not share my view, which I fully understand, but…something is going on which seems to me to be significant.

So, what can we say in the 21st century about the Holy Spirit? I take one of my answers from John V Taylor, a Bishop of Winchester who in his book about the Kingdom of God talked of the Holy Spirit as the “Go-between God”; that is, one who acts as the subtle and very beautiful intermediary between each of us as we live and seek for him and as we relate to each other. God the Holy Spirit is, as it were, the equivalent of the space between the notes of a piece of music. Without that space there would be just noise, with it there is possibility.

Now from all of this I draw a tentative conclusion…that God the Holy Spirit is at work in the Church and in the world in ways which are frequently at the very limits of our human understanding, right on the edge…

But none of this can be expressed visually. It is however, being explored by poets and by musicians, by scientist, by mathematicians, by each one of us in our relationships one with another, and for that we should be grateful.

Meanwhile, we as a Church ought to be very careful in our claims. We simply cannot capture or contain the power, the gentleness or the wistful, creative beauty of God and claim it for our own…which is something the Church and its ministers are always tempted to do. What makes us think that we have the answer? What we have is the merest glimpse of an answer…and that should be enough. Claims about speaking in tongues come and go, and, in my view, frequently belong in the file marked “I have something you haven’t got, so I can feel superior to you”, as though God the Holy Spirit is only to be experienced in the bizarre. My view is that this is an inherently fragile theological belief. If God be God, then, by definition, he is beyond our capacity to know him in his fullness this side of the grave.

We are given, by grace, (note the word), enough evidence to talk with some degree of confidence about the Holy Spirit, but always with provisos.  He is always beyond us, just out of reach, but bringing to us and to our world the unfathomable joy of surprise. Wherever we humans are exploring truth, love and beauty, he is there, not outside the equation but deeply within it.