There are different kinds of gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone.  To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.

1 Corinthians 12: 4-7

Yesterday I was privileged to participate in a very prayerful and beautiful celebration of the Eucharist for the Feast of Pentecost.  It was perhaps due to the exceptionally engaging communal celebration that I heard the familiar words of 1 Corinthians 12: 7 with exceptional power: “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.”

Because this comprehension of Paul is so familiar to us, at least I tend to miss how radical it is in the entire context of human history.  Perhaps one of the grand ironies of that history is that what Christian moralists are coming to see as an overemphasis in western culture on personal freedom and independence is rooted in Christian revelation.  For, the revelation asserts that the good of all can only be realized in the realization and actualization of the uniqueness of the individual.  Every single human being, however I personally feel about him or her, is a unique manifestation of the Spirit of God and so is necessary if we are to experience God’s desire for the common good.

The implications for daily life of this teaching are, first of all, disorienting.  We are able to move about and function with some sense of stability due to our judgments of the world.  We assign people, at least those of whom we are aware, their place in the world.  When we tell each other our stories, every character in those stories is given his or her assigned place, a place assigned by our current interpretation of our own identity.  And so, we build a coherent narrative of our lives and of the world.  All the others are merely players, with the roles we assign them, in that narrative.

The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips says that “language estranges us from an immediacy we may not be able to bear.”  At any given moment I have a story to tell about my parents and grandparents, my extended family, my confreres and friends.  I have ideals by which I try to live and which I try to realize.   All of these descriptions, stories, and judgments, according to Phillips, have the purpose of helping me to forget. What precisely are we trying to forget?  It is the mystery, what feels to us like the chaos, of life that is too much for us.  

One aspect of the reductionism in which we all, as individuals and as cultures, engage is the refusal and repression of certain manifestations of the Spirit.  This is the problem that we have with what seems to be “other” to us.  This is precisely why the deepest life is not in the “body” of the text of a narrative but in the margins.  In ourselves and in our cultures, the dynamism, the manifestation of spirit, is not in the familiar story but in the unsaid and untold.  Our secrets, both known and unknown, are much more interesting and alive than our familiar self-presentation.  

I know amazingly little of the story of the earlier generations of my family.  On my mother’s side, I only knew, and not well, my grandmother.  My grandfather had died as a young man, and so my grandmother, an Italian immigrant to the United States, had brought up her five children alone.  As an adult, I occasionally heard my mother speak of an uncle here or there, but never knew more than their names.  On my father’s side, I knew both grandparents, and even one of my grandmother’s siblings.  Later in life, however, I would occasionally hear from older cousins on both sides new information, often in a whispered and somewhat shamed tone, concerning the lives of my grandparents.  It is clear that any notion I had about them, any story I had heard or created about them was profoundly impoverished.  And, of course, the same is true of my own parents.  Beyond who they were to me, they were infinitely complex and mysterious in their own right.

If we are at all self-aware this should not be surprising to us.  For, we are similarly mysterious to ourselves.  Despite my efforts to strive for and live up to my ideals, I am constantly experiencing that in myself that reflects one who is very different from those ideals.  Even as I work to develop what I think is truest and best in me, how do I know that I am not inhibiting or repressing a true manifestation of Spirit in me?  Often enough in life, I have discovered that the deeper life in me is more manifest in what I have marginalized rather than what is part of my core narrative.  

Some years ago the personal correspondence of Mother Teresa of Calcutta was published for the first time.  For many who revered her and had made of her life a model hagiography, it was more than a bit alarming, for it revealed how often she lived in doubt and in darkness.  For some people the idol that they had created of her was shattered.  I am sure for some there was the question of how could the Spirit be manifest in doubt, fear, and darkness.  Did it make her life a sham or illusion in some way?  Yet, how can one be truly holy who does not know her own doubt and darkness?  At times for all of us the light is focal, and at other times it is the darkness that pervades our life and consciousness.  What makes the faith of Mother Teresa real is that she does not create a “false faith” in order to avoid doubt.  Her letters reflect a person who bears her life and the suffering that the complexity and truth of her life entail in faith.

To have faith in God, and the work of God’s Spirit, is to have faith in the mystery of ourselves and the others.  As in a family, in community we have each other “pegged.”  We tend to create mental, legal, and social structures designed to keep each other in our place.  This is precisely why communities, as all social and personal structures, have a limited life span.  It is human nature to create the stories, the moral ideals, the acceptable social structures within which the spirit is to operate.  Thus, our life stories, our cultures, our churches at some point inevitably become obstacles to the manifestation of the Spirit.  This is why Jesus, for example, constantly summons his disciples to look to and even abide in the margins of society in order to recognize real and eternal life.

We cannot live in chaos and without direction, however.  So how do we maintain our footing and yet increasingly attend to and move toward the margins, in ourselves and in the world?  Philiips suggests a helpful disposition:  “Rescuing one’s relatives [as well as ourselves and all others] from generalities, symbols and abbreviations—if it were possible—would be more than most people could take, though acknowledging that may be of use.”  We can acknowledge how we limit the other, ourselves, the world, and the manifestation of Spirit in the “generalities, symbols, and abbreviations” that constitute our stories about them all.  While the stories are necessary to allow us a sense of cohesion in life, those stories are always extremely partial. To acknowledge this is to practice, perhaps by little and by little in life, opening up to the mystery that can seem very dark and chaotic to us.  Be it myself, my family, my community, my society, or my church, we are in trouble when we are certain, when we know the truth.  

So, life in the Spirit is more than a bit intimidating, but it is endlessly and marvelously mysterious.  The world(s) in which we live are but faint intimations of how the Spirit would manifest itself, if each individual lived out the life that is truly his or hers.  Thus, to be a Christian believer must mean not only to live in service to the Mystery of one’s own unique call, but to be a servant of the Mystery of every other person’s.  Our first priority can never be efficiency, or productivity, or profitability.  It must always be the creating of environments that serve the unfolding and the manifestation of the unique call of each person, of the manifestation of Spirit that each is called to be.  

This will always be countercultural, for cultural stories, as historical and personal stories, are always designed to “protect us from what we would rather not feel or imagine.”  A spiritually healthy environment is not primarily efficient and comfortable, but it is creative and life-enhancing.  it is a place where the energy of Spirit is always creating new and more authentic forms, forms that are authentic in the sense of ever-increasingly revelatory of the Spirit as manifested in each person.   It is the nature of human institutions, in time, to become preservers of an inhibiting story rather than environments for the releasing of Spirit.  Thus, the pain of the reality that a church, for example, becomes more a structure that seeks the maintaining of its own power through control of persons rather than a milieu that serves the unique manifestation of Spirit in each of them.  Educational institutions tend to become places of indoctrination of the values of a culture rather than a hospitable space for the leading out of the uniqueness of its students.  Families can become constraining environments seeking to imbue conformity and social success rather than the ways of the Spirit within each member.

Jesus proclaimed: “”I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luke 12: 49)  The Spirit is often portrayed as flames of fire.  This is the fire that is the life of each of us, the “manifestation of the Spirit” that we are that is given for the benefit of all.  In our day, the great repression is not of sexuality, as perhaps it was in Freud’s time, but rather of Spirit.  In our churches, in our cultures, and as their source in ourselves, we always are always working to forget this fire and this power.  Instead of living in passion, we seek more comfort and approval.  We exercise power over others, lest they remind us of what we are trying to forget, that the life Jesus promises is so much more than what we are settling for.  Every single person, in his or her mystery, is a reminder of that truth.  The world would be ablaze if we were truly to believe, recognize, and live the truth that “to each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.”

Language and memory, and language as memory, necessarily set limits to particularity, and these limits protect us from what we would rather not feel or imagine.  [Daniel] Mendelsohn wants the end of particularity that writing, howeverb good, can never give; language estranges us from an immediacy we may not be able to bear. Indeed, we might ask of any object we value — a language, a book, a person, a moral ideal — what does it help us to forget?  Rescuing one’s relatives from generalities, symbols and abbreviations — if it were possible — would be more than most people could take, though acknowledging that may be of use.  We suffer most, Mendelsohn sometimes intimates, from the ways we have of avoiding our suffering.  He wants his  history-writing to be a way of talking about this.

Adam Phillips, On Balance, p. 266


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