From time to time, a stubborn and longstanding perplexity resolves suddenly into an intelligible pattern. An opacity clarifies, a lacuna is illumined, and one sees for the first time how to begin thinking about it. The ordered relations of a great mass of ideas are revealed as a new node in their net is neatly knit together, and unsuspected connections to other domains of inquiry suggest themselves. Thoughts that had been stymied by confusion pour forth in a generous, refreshing cascade. Things fall into place.
This recently happened to me respecting the Holy Spirit. I had never known quite how to think about him, had never understood quite what he does within the Trinity. He doesn’t get much attention, compared to the other two Persons. When he does, he is usually spoken of as the Love that flows between the Father and the Son, or as the Life of the Trinity. But these characterizations, while true enough, don’t get at the nub of it. The Holy Spirit is a person, and a person is not just his love or his life, but rather their subject.
What is it that the Spirit experiences, then, that is different from what the Son and Father experience of each other? What does he add to what they are, and know, and do? None of the explanations I had read quite hung together; there seemed to be little to hang them on. I had nothing to work with, nothing I felt I could lay hands on, until the other day, when at last pneumatology began to open to me.
It happened while I was reading Sergei Bulgakov’s Sophia: the Wisdom of God (an amazing book, highly recommended). Not because of any one thing he wrote, but rather because he was shocking and teaching me, shaking things up; and in reading I was again contemplating the Holy Spirit. This is how such conundra are usually resolved, I find: one simply rests the attention on the problem, or on related subjects, and eventually the solution becomes apparent. But it can take years.
Nothing about the way I am now trying to think about the Holy Spirit is new. All that has happened is that I feel as though I finally see what the Scripture and the Fathers, the liturgy and the Doctors of the Church, have always been saying about him. I read or remember them now in the light of this notion I’ve stumbled upon, and it all fits. Indeed, so plain is it to see in the writings of the Church, that I feel now as though I’ve been rather stupid not to have twigged it long since. Yet I have reason to believe that the Holy Spirit is just as much of a black box to many of my contemporaries as he has been to me. So I shall try to share what dawned upon my dim wits last week.
The Holy Spirit is one of three Persons of the singular being of God. Each of the Persons plays a distinct role in God’s existential act. Their roles in the establishment of the Godhead may be understood as phases of a stepwise procedure. Stuck as we are with stepwise ratiocination, there seems to be no other way for us to understand it. So, I explain it that way. But the thing to remember is that all these steps take place as aspects of a single eternal pure act of the Godhead, so that while they have an order of logical priority, they are a single motion, as the act of engraving and what is engraved are one simultaneous motion, appearing together and integrally in history:
- There is the Father.
- The Son apprehends and expresses the Truth of the Father – this being the Way that the Son is the Image of the Father.
- The Spirit apprehends and expresses the Beauty of the Son – i.e., of the Son’s expression of the Truth of the Father, and of his filial relation to his Father.
- The Father apprehends and expresses the Goodness of the Spirit, and thus implicitly of the relation between the Father and the Son.
Note that the Creation and the Trinity both reach their completion with the Father’s judgement that what has been done is Good.
- The Father is the Good
- The Son is the expression of the Truth [of the Good]
- The Holy Spirit is the expression of the Beauty [of the Truth]
- The Father is the expression of the Goodness [of the Beauty]
The establishment of the first step is completed by the fourth step. But all four steps are one dynamic motion. And it is circular; this is why the flux of each of the Persons into all of the Persons is called circumincession.
Thanks to circumincession (and omniscience), each of the Persons knows all that the others know. The Trinity being established, each sees the whole Trinity in both of the other Persons. So they all share in the Goodness, Truth and Beauty that, therefore, characterize the whole Godhead.
The actus purus of the Godhead is consummated in the Spirit’s Beautiful expression of joy, praise, adoration and glorification – of worship – and the Father’s evaluation of the Goodness of the Spirit’s worship is the complete satisfaction and Sabbath rest of God’s being.
The outward operation of the Holy Spirit in the production and maintenance of the created order, in the inspiration of the Prophets, in the Incarnation, and in the Church and all her choirs of saints, angels and martyrs in Heaven and in Earth, is to engender worship. The full and proper motion of the Creation, of the inspired mind, of Mary and her Son, and of the Church and her members, is worship. The enlivening inspiration of the Holy Spirit imbues and sanctifies all his hosts with the Spirit of Holiness and of Truth. Looking upon his creation, and seeing it at its fulfillment everywhere suffused with the Beauty of Holiness, the Father Truly judges it Good.