For a long time now, I’ve wanted to join a yoga studio. But I’ve always been a starving student, or a missionary, or whatever. Now that I’m working again, Robert and I decided we have enough wiggle room for me to sign up with the new studio in town, YogaWorks. I was afraid that having a yoga membership wouldn’t be all I had dreamed (why am I always afraid of being disappointed?), but it has turned out to be amazing! I feel strong, my body confidence is way up, and it’s a fantastic stress reliever. After attending for a week there as a guest, Robert decided to sign up, too! So now it’s also a fun and healthy thing for us to do together.
Since September, I’ve been going through a the Ignatian spiritual exercises using a book called Journey with Jesus. Every day I ask myself “examen questions” and one of them is when I sensed Immanuel, God with me, in the previous day. It’s interesting that the most consistent time of sensing God’s presence has been during yoga. I wonder if that is because in a challenging yoga class, I must be totally “in” my body–I can’t disconnect or detach. (I just read a line by Dallas Willard where he states, “our body is a primary resource for the spiritual life.” Huh!) And that integrated activity, where I’m using my mind and my body, somehow becomes an almost spiritual exercise. I find the same to be true when I’m in nature–again, it’s a time when I’m not “checking out” of my body, like when I’m working on a computer or even so consumed in dealing with students at work that I can’t address my body’s needs like thirst–or even needing to use the restroom!
I was thinking about all this the other day, and remembering a piece I wrote last year for my Master’s thesis project, Telling the Treasure: Reflections, Essays, and Anecdotes from a Backslidden Mystic. It’s called “Namaste,” and it’s about the Holy Spirit and a little about yoga, among other things. Since Pentecost Sunday just passed, I thought I’d share the piece here on Eeper.
“God in three Persons, blessed Trinity…” or so the old hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” goes. I’d sung those words a thousand times before I started to think about the three persons of the triune God as, well, three persons. There’s God the Father, of course, and God the Son—that would be Jesus—but what of the third? The Holy Spirit, or as some Bible Belt folk might say, the Holy Ghost. It wasn’t until halfway through my year in Norway that I heard someone really emphasize the importance of viewing the Holy Spirit as a person. For me, that changed everything.
Jan, a guest lecturer in our little discipleship school (and the rapping prophet I’ve written about elsewhere), reminded us of what Jesus said about the Holy Spirit. He called the Spirit the helper, the friend, the teacher, the comforter, and the one who leads us into all truth. One who plays these roles more logically falls into the category of a person, rather than some ethereal force—although I suppose the Spirit is that, too, if we think of the way she (or he) hovered over the waters before the dawn of time. Jan encouraged us to think of the Holy Spirit as a person, and to address the Spirit as such, praying to him as we might to Jesus, asking to guide us, to comfort us and be a friend to us.
And really, it is Jesus we are addressing—the Spirit is the way that Jesus chose to come and be present with each one of us until the end of time, when we will all live in a new city fresh out of heaven, where God will dwell among us in whatever holy and terrifying and joyful and astounding form that will take.
When I was fourteen, I attended my sister’s high school graduation, and the valedictorian’s speech ended with the saying, “Yesterday is history, and tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift—that’s why it’s called ‘the present.’” Though now I would cringe at the use of such a cliché, I remember thinking at the time that it was clever, even profound. For some reason I remembered it the other day, and I thought about how Peter preaches in the book of Acts that the Holy Spirit is a gift. I’ve found that is partly because it is the Spirit who helps us get on in this daily life of ours, whose presence with me in the present is as much a gift as my husband’s is, when he sits with me and lets me cry or talk or merely sigh many heavy sighs.
In the Old Testament, the presence of God is something awful (or awesome) and indescribable—smoke on Mount Sinai, an unbearable glory in the tabernacle’s Holy of Holies. The presence of God is a desert shrub on fire, burning without being consumed. It is a cloud in the wilderness, swaddling the liberated Hebrews as it leads them onward. It is something to be feared and something to be desired.
Then, in the New Testament, wonder of wonders, we read of God’s presence putting skin on, becoming an 8-pound bean bag of flesh and baby smells, staggering around on the surface of our planet with the restrained power of a tsunami in a mason jar. The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us—the presence of God set up camp in the world he made, in a different way this time than ever before. For one thing, he could touch those and that which he made; he could put a comforting arm around the shoulder of a grieving parent, cradle a child in his lap, hang a hand down from a boat and let his fingers skim cool waters as fish nibble on his nails.
It would be nice, wouldn’t it, to live during that time—when Jesus was present among us? I’ve heard many friends express such a sentiment. To be invited to that breakfast on the beach after his resurrection; after a long salty night of fishing, never seeing a sight so welcoming as God himself ready to feed you with grilled fish and hot bread and words you’ve been longing to hear. To be the disciples on the road to Emmaus, walking along as dust clouds envelop your feet and his, hearing the rich tones of his voice as he explains it all to you, clears the fog in your heart with a bright flame that steadily grows until your very soul is set on fire.
At first, if you remember, those two on the road to Emmaus were long-faced, so sad that Jesus had died, when they really had placed their bets on him being the One, the One God promised would come and save them from themselves and from their oppressors. And also, they’d really fallen in love with the guy. But he’d gone and let himself—yes, allowed himself—be crucified, and now he was dead, even though there were some rumors floating around (started by the women disciples, but you know how women like to create drama!) that he had risen from the dead and was at large, showing up in gardens and passing through walls. These two Emmaus walkers were confused but mostly glum. They missed Jesus, and maybe felt a little foolish for having pinned such high hopes on him. I think sometimes we Christians feel like that. We miss Jesus. We love reading about him, we fall in love with him through the Gospel stories, and we wish so much that he could be with us, right here and now.
But Jesus anticipated these feelings, and he reassured his followers right before everything fell apart. He told them in no uncertain terms that he was leaving, but—and this is important—not forever. “I’m not leaving you the way you’re used to being left—abandoned, bereft,” he says. No, he’s sending the friend, the Holy Spirit, by way of the Father. “I won’t leave you orphaned,” he promises. Jesus knows how much his disciples have grown to depend on him for guidance and truth telling, for comfort and friendship. This helper he’s asking the Father to send won’t just be with his followers, but in them, Jesus says.
This is pretty mystical news, and I don’t blame the disciples for not quite understanding it until the once-dead-now-alive Jesus showed up in a room where they had locked themselves in, and breathed his Spirit into each of their fearful hearts. “Peace be with you,” he said to them when he first arrived, and I always picture his eyes filled with mirth as he waited out their dumbfounded shock, and later the sheer pandemonium that surely broke out when they believed it was Jesus—alive, fleshy, hungry, voice ringing out as real as anything. After the commotion died down, I imagine, is when he went around to each of his friends and breathed on them—he had to get pretty close to do this, maybe touching his forehead to each of theirs, one at a time, lingering—saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The friend, the helper he’s promised, has just been delivered. Jesus has imparted his very self into their very selves, to be with them forever.
When I came to seminary and began taking systematic theology classes, I learned that mysticism could be squeezed even out of the Holy Spirit, who, I believe, is mystical by nature. Augustine wrote that the Holy Spirit is the bond of love between the Father and the Son. But as I went on in my studies and more often than not encountered this view, I realized that the Spirit seemed to take a backseat to the Father and the Son. Alister McGrath once called the Holy Spirit “the Cinderella of the Trinity,” and I’d have to agree. She’s been relegated to the attic of the church, or else so domesticated and objectified that the Spirit is more our personal pet than this wild God come to dwell inside us. Jesus released the transcendent, divine Spirit of his own body to be set loose in our bodies and souls. This is the same Spirit that had the power to raise Christ from the dead—who can say what that power will do in our broken and barely breathing hearts?
And yet we are also to call this untamable Spirit our friend, just as Jesus was friend to those with whom he sailed and prayed and drank. But his was a friendship sometimes hard to take. He didn’t shy away from the truth, whether it was calling the Pharisees whitewashed tombs or informing Peter of his inevitable faithlessness; the Son of God had a knack for saying things that simply nobody wanted to hear. And if we accept this Spirit as a friend in our lives, we must also accept that he will say, along with Jesus, “Blessed is the one who is not offended at me,” because the Spirit will lead us into all truth—the truth about God the Father, first of all, continuing the work Jesus set about to do during his time on earth. And also to the truth about ourselves, helping us to untangle the bramble of lies and self-pity and denial and prejudice to get there. The journey toward truth, however, is not a gentle float down a peaceful river. It’s more like the baby Moses’s trip down the Nile, just barely escaping the snapping crocodile jaws and the spears of fishermen while the cruel Egyptian sun beat down, softening the stinking tar that lined the basket in which he lay.
But on this epic journey toward truth and toward the Father, we have the Spirit inside of us, experiencing everything from within us, acting as our comfort, our guide, our constant companion. We might call out to her in our brokenness for healing, in our hardness of heart for breaking, in our groans for the words we cannot find.
What’s more, we discover the surprising gift of unity with others who have this same Spirit dwelling in them. All around the world I have met others who have opened up to the Spirit of Jesus, and we immediately have a connection; we recognize each other as brothers and sisters. When I attend yoga classes, I always love the very end, when we sit cross-legged facing the instructor, hands pressed flat against each other at our hearts in a prayer position. “Namaste,” we say in unison, bowing forward—“The light in me salutes the light in you.” I say it with conviction, knowing it is quite possibly the truest statement I will make all day.
“Holy, holy, holy,” indeed: God in three persons, this baffling mystery of divine diversity woven into unity, and more unfathomable still, who has come to rest inside of me.