Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.Immanuel Kant
The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.John 3:8 (ESV)
This third Person is called, in technical language, the Holy Ghost or the ‘spirit’ of God. Do not be worried or surprised if you find it (or Him) rather vaguer or more shadowy in your mind than the other two.C. S. Lewis
Sometimes, as was the case with my first visit to the workshop and my trip up the mountain with my Pops, my experiences had cinematic clarity and realism. Other times, the way I came to know or understand something was quite mysterious to me, defying my desire to grasp and analyze and explain. My encounter with Holy Spirit was one such experience, way off the charts for mystery.
As my experiences in Pops’ workshop unfolded, I wondered about Holy Spirit. Both logically and theologically, he had to be there. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are always together. I sensed he was there, but I couldn’t really see him, except as the swirling disturbances and shifting patterns in the dust and sawdust suspended in the air and caught by beams of light; patterns that were not from the movement of air but rather suggested a corporeal form – somehow there but not visible. When I could perceive him, he was in the back of the workshop, in a corner near where Jesus sanded wood. I had also become aware that there were stairs nearby. Jesus was in one corner, Holy Spirit in the other, with the stairs in the center of the back wall, leading down to a closed door, which I presumed to be the door to a cellar.
A couple of weeks after my experience with Pops on the mountain top, I again was taken to his workshop. In a way that remains a mystery to me, I knew that this visit was to spend time with Holy Spirit. I expected him to lead me down the stairs to the cellar I assumed lay beyond the door. This was the first inkling I had of something “below” the workshop. I had a growing awareness that whatever was under the workshop, it was very important. But that understanding would have to wait for another day.
I stood there, in the back of the workshop. I did not speak to Holy Spirit. I simply focused my attention on him, not knowing what to expect but assuming he would lead me down the stairs and through the door. To my astonishment, instead of being led down that stairs, I felt myself ascending upward. At first, I thought I was floating, but later, I came to think of it more as being “relocated.”
Without any perception of physical movement, I was somehow relocated from one place to another. This is not a very satisfying description, but everything I experienced with Holy Spirit was, like his appearance, enigmatic and hard to describe. The experience was real and rich, yet describing physical particulars remains elusive. I was experiencing something completely different from anything else I had experienced in my life.
I was somewhere else, but I did not know where I was. At first, the only thing I was aware of was darkness, complete and utter darkness. Slowly I could discern that there was some kind of structure around me. It was disorienting at first, but eventually, I discerned that I was, somehow, inside a piece of wood; Holy Spirit and I, were together inside a piece of wood. We were not in some void or pocket in the wood. You can put your hand in a beam of light or be “in” the light. You can dive into a pool and be in the water. That is as close as I can come to explaining what I mean by being in the wood. The wood was whole and solid. Our presence didn’t displace or distort the wood; we were simply there within the wood, almost a part of it. Reflecting on this now, I am reminded of Holy Spirit’s indwelling a Christian believer. He is inside us, but he is not physically detectable.
As I tried to get my bearings, being inside a piece of wood, I realized that Holy Spirit was reshaping the wood. From the inside, he was straightening and smoothing out twists and knots. To say that he was straightening the wood may give a wrong impression. As far as I could determine, he wasn’t actually “doing” anything. Yet twisted places in the wood were being straightened and knots smoothed out. His presence in the wood was all that was needed to cause the wood to untwist and become smooth. I came to understand that Holy Spirit’s presence is incompatible with imperfection or corruption. His presence is a perfecting force. Once he is invited in, given the opportunity, his very presence will cause the imperfect to move toward perfection. When Holy Spirit is within us, that is his mission. Holy Spirit’s goal, like Jesus’s, is our perfection. We can put on the brakes and say “no,” but as much as we will let him, he will be perfecting us.
The Work of the Holy Spirit
It is worth a moment to think about how Holy Spirit “works.” Each Christian receives Holy Spirit upon their conversion, yet growth and change varies wildly from one believer to the next. Why would that be? Perhaps we can understand it by a metaphor. Imagine that each of us is given a seed. That seed is planted in whatever soil we have. Most of us have pretty poor soil; if we do nothing, that seed will remain implanted but is unlikely to grow and certainly will not flourish. On the other hand, if we tend the soil by breaking up hard ground, removing rocks and other debris, and making sure the soil remains watered, the seed will grow and flourish, producing much fruit.
So it is with our souls. If we neglect our inner life, Holy Spirit remains but is unlikely to produce the internal changes needed for us to bear kingdom fruit. If we attend to our inner life through repentance, prayer, worship, silence, and solitude, and other spiritual disciples, Holy Spirit has fertile ground to make the changes needed for our formation. We cannot change ourselves, but we can make it easier or harder for Holy Spirit to effect change by how we attend to or neglect our inner lives.
As Jesus had done with sanding, Holy Spirit asked me if I wanted to help. I have no idea how exactly I received that invitation, but I knew I was being invited. I gave an enthusiastic “yes!” But as soon as I said yes, I realized I had no idea how I could help. I couldn’t even discern what he was doing, never mind helping him do it. But that mystery and confusion didn’t dampen my enthusiasm. Being in the presence of each person on the Holy Trinity was proving to be both overpowering and liberating. I was slowly learning to not need all the answers before acting, or at least before being willing to take the first step on the journey, saying “yes” to God’s invitation.
As Holy Spirit and I stayed inside the piece of wood, I became uncomfortable and wanted to leave. It was dark, weird, and confusing to me. Yet I knew I should linger. Eventually, I became more aware of my surroundings. While Holy Spirit was at work inside the wood, someone outside the wood was sanding the outer surface. They worked in tandem to the same end. Of course, the person sanding the wood was Jesus. This, too, shouldn’t have surprised me. It is part of the mysterious working of the trinity. Jesus and Holy Spirit are separate and yet the same, acting in different ways but united in purpose.
Their actions are not separable. Indeed, in the maddening (for me) mystery of the trinity, Holy Spirit is the spirit of Christ (see, for example, Romans 8:9 and 1 Peter 1:11). Jesus and Holy Spirit are united in the loving action of perfecting that which has been corrupted. In the visions shown me, Jesus is working to reveal our true selves, the beings God created us to be. Holy Spirit’s action seems to be a bit different.
Holy Spirit was demonstrating an untwisting of our internal state. One of the key twisting is in how and what we love. Michael Reeves, in Delighting in the Trinity, reminds us that as fallen creatures, the problem is not that we don’t love, it is what we love.
Made in the image of this God, we are created to delight in harmonious relationship, to love God, to love each other. Thus Jesus taught that the first and greatest commandment in the law is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself (Mt 22:36-39). That is what we are created for. What, then, went wrong? It was not that Adam and Eve stopped loving. They were created as lovers in the image of God, and they could not undo that. Instead, their love turned. When the apostle Paul writes of sinners, he describes them as “lovers of themselves, lovers of money, . . . lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Tim 3:2-4). Lovers we remain, but twisted, our love misdirected and perverted. Created to love God, we turn to love ourselves and anything but God.Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity
We are designed and made for love. First to love God, then, reflecting his love, to love others. In our sin, we stop looking outward, outside of ourselves, for the object of our love. As we look to the world to satisfy our wants and desires, we may feel we “love” what we find in the world. In reality, we “love” what makes us feel good or happy or perhaps dulls our pain. In our fallen state, we “love” what serves to mollify and serve the true object of our adoration: ourselves. We do not really love the things outside ourselves. Instead, we twist our natural inclinations to self-love and self-worship. What Holy Spirit was showing me in the piece of wood was his action of untwisting our souls away form of feverish self-love and back toward what we are meant to love: God and our fellow men.
Over time a tree develops knots, whorls, and twists as a result of damage, stresses, and wounds it sustains as it is growing. Any carpenter will tell you, knots in the wood, while they are hard and durable, they weaken the structural integrity of the wood that contains the knot. Where the knots are is where the wood will split, splinter, and break when stressed or carrying a heavy load. That is an apt metaphor for our souls, our interior states. As we grow, we often learn where we need to protect our hearts and where looking outside of ourselves for love can be painful. We become bent inwards, and in doing so, we become hard and brittle. Then, like knotty wood, we crack and break under stress. We do not have the interior health and strength we are meant to have.
I was being shown how Holy Spirit is at work: restoring, repairing, and untwisting us. I was being invited to help, but how could I help with what Holy Spirit was doing? God only heals what we bring to him. We need to know that we need untwisting. Since this mysterious time with Holy Spirit, I have learned that part of what a spiritual director does is to help people become aware of and attentive to their interior state – to pay attention to the state of their souls. A director can help you become aware of the knots in your soul and walk with you as you invite Holy Spirit’s action of untwisting and smoothing.
This time in the workshop left me with the knowledge that somehow, I could help with Holy Spirit’s interior activities as well as helping with Jesus’ activities. It would be much later that I would better understand those interior activities of Holy Spirit.
Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics) (p. 73). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
This description of Holy Spirit is very reminiscent of how he is described in “The Shack.” I cannot help that. I can only relate how God chose to reveal himself to me. I am not surprised that he used images I would find familiar and not disquieting. My perception of Holy Spirit also brings to mind C. S. Lewis’s eldila in his space trilogy.
Here is a great time to remind you that I am my theological understandings derive from my reading, which, with the notable exception of my training as a spiritual director, has not been systematic and is almost certainly lacking both depth and breadth. If you find my thoughts on the work of Holy Spirt helpful, that is fine. If you do not, please let it drop from your mind.
I do not mean to draw any sharp lines between Jesus’s activity and Holy Spirit’s action. I do not believe it would be wise for me to try to do so. The difference shown to me is what I needed to see and understand. I do not pretend to understand it as a theological truth and would be suspicious of any such assertion.
Reeves, Michael. Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith (Kindle Locations 965-972). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition