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The Spirit's Gift by Kilian McDonnell, OSB

  Even though Jesus instructed the apostles, something was lacking.  After living three years with the Lord they were still selfish, ambitious, willing to gain at the others' expense. They quarreled about who was the greatest among them. Christ shamed them by bringing a child to sit beside Him. And looking at the child He said, "He who is the least among you, he is the greatest." It was one of those small truths that was too huge for the apostles to grasp. They did not learn the lesson, not even with Christ as their Master and Teacher.

At the Last Supper they were still bickering about who was the greatest, who should have the seats of honor. The child Christ had set in their midst, had taught them little. Christ made another attempt to teach them that in His kingdom he reigns who serves. Taking off His outer garment, He girded Himself with a towel and washed the feet of the apostles. In the Jewish household only the lowest servants washed the feet of guests.

After washing their feet He said to His astonished apostles, "Let him who is greatest among you become as the youngest; and let him who is chief become as a servant." Once again He had shamed them. But still they looked for fame and fortune. After His death and resurrection, just before He ascended into heaven, the apostles asked if He was about to establish His earthly kingdom. Each was eager to be Prime Minister, or Master of the Senate, or Legate to the Romans. Our Lord Himself had formed their souls with His words and actions, by the very proximity of His person.

But something was lacking: the Holy Spirit. Only after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost did the apostles become true men of God, selfless, void of ambition.  Our dependence upon the Holy Spirit approaches the absolute. St. Paul says that we cannot even say the name of Jesus with love and devotion except by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. To be so completely dependent upon the Holy Spirit, and to be almost totally unaware of this dependence, is certainly tragic. We are the blind who are led by another's hand. We axe the naked who are clothed by another's cloak. We are the cold who are warmed by another's fire. We are the hungry who are fed on another's bread. And, like ungrateful beggars, we grasp the food but never acknowledge the hand that fed us. Our ingratitude is all the greater because of our complete dependence on the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit we would indeed be blind men leading blind men, falling into great obvious holes; without the Holy Spirit we would be hungry men who cry into the night for bread, and in our hunger we would die.

We all need the Holy Spirit because without Him we cannot understand the things of God.  St. Thomas calls the Holy Spirit the "Instinct of God." Without the Holy Spirit we will never develop that divine instinct, that religious sensitivity which is so essential to the making of a saint. The man whom the Holy Spirit has formed can discern, where others cannot, the ways of God. Like other men, the man with this instinct for the divine does not wholly understand pain and sorrow. He does not even wholly understand joy. But this much he does know. He knows God when he meets Him in the man who greases his car, in the beggar and the banker. Because this man is "taught of God," he recognizes God in all the events of his life. The persons and events in his life are not without their elements of the unknowable, the mysterious. But by a divine instinct he knows with certitude that in them he has met God.

The Catholic layman has a special need for religious sensitivity. In a world where money is the measure of all things, and unthinking, unlimited activity is the gauge of greatness, it is difficult enough to retain a smattering of virtue, let alone develop a religious sensitivity. Our values and our morals tend to become identified with the values and morals of those around us. Radio, movies, TV, magazines, and the tabloid newspapers have peopled our days with persons who blunt our religious edge and turn us into a species of moral dolts. But for better or for worse this is our world, and it is our work and the work of the Holy Spirit to see to it that we do not make our own the world's spiritual numbness.

Catholics need the Holy Spirit when we pray. The Holy Spirit teaches us how to pray. He also teaches us how to pray often. Those who are led by the Holy Spirit do not find prayer so very complicated. They have learned that prayer is a conversation with God. So they talk. And they listen. They learn to pray anywhere: while riding the subway, while mowing the lawn.

The Catholic layman needs the Holy Spirit when he works. It is perhaps more difficult for the Holy Spirit to introduce religious sensitivity into our dealings with men than into our dealings with God. But when this sensitivity is lacking in a Catholic businessman, what he prays on Sunday has no relation to what he sells on Monday. His business is selling, and woe to the unwary. Business is business and, come what may, sales must go up.

Such a businessman does not know that there is never a time when a secondhand car dealer is more in need of being a Christian than in the act of selling some wreck he has resurrected and simonized. The real test of our love of God is our love of man. Unless the Christian businessman carries over the religious sensitivity with which he prays the Mass on Sunday into his business life, he is a hypocrite of a rather high order. Of his Sunday prayers we can say he was mouthing formulas; like prayer wheels, they have motion but no meaning.

Without the Holy Spirit we might still become good fellows. But saints? Never.

Condensed from The Restless Christian by Fr. Kilian McDonnell. 1957, The Order of Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, Minnesota Suggested reading: Christian Initiation and Baptism in the Holy Spirit by Kilian McDonnell and George Montague. Available at book stores advertising in our newsletter and on-line at


  Read other articles of spiritual enlightenment in the May 2001  edition of The San Francisco Charismatics or return to the Main Menu by clicking on the blue.