Why Is It So Hard to Have a Personal Relationship with the Holy Spirit?

If God is three persons, as we believe, then shouldn’t we have a personal relationship with each one? It certainly seems so.

However, when it comes to the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, it seems that we run into difficulties. I think the issue is obvious. Christ assumed a fully human nature so we can relate to Him the way we relate to other human persons. The Father did not take on flesh, but the very name ‘Father’ makes Him eminently relatable. After all, Jesus Himself said that whoever had seen Him had seen the Father (John 14:9).

But the Holy Spirit? The images Scripture gives of Him do not seem to help us think of Him in personal terms—wind, fire, water, and the dove. As Father John McCloskey puts it,

Many people struggle with devotion to the Holy Spirit and feel they are failing in Trinitarian devotion by being unable to conjure up an image of the Spirit that doesn’t involve doves or impersonal forces like fire and wind.

Of course, many Christians appeal to the Holy Spirit to fill us with wisdom or move us to action. But it still becomes all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking of Him as an ‘impersonal force,’ as Father McCloskey puts it.

The question here is, How do we develop a truly personal relationship with the Holy Spirit?

Check your assumptions about God

The first step is to revisit assumptions we might be making about God. Have we embraced the humanity of Jesus to the point of forgetting about His divine otherness? In Scripture Jesus is also compared to a slain lamb, a rock that yields water when struck, the divine Word, and the divine Wisdom. Jesus assumed human nature, but He also remained wholly different, wholly other from us and these images remind us of it.

If you’re having trouble relating to the Holy Spirit because you cannot put a face to Him, it might help to rekindle a lively awareness that God’s dissimilarity from us is far greater than any similarity. Yes, we are made in His image, but think about how different a photograph is in both appearance and substance from the subject being pictured.

The three persons are always together

In the Trinity, personality consists of relation to another. If you want to get to know one of the three divine persons, you cannot do it by knowing them apart from the others. The Holy Spirit makes present to us Jesus who, in turn, points to the Father. This appears to be Father McCloskey’s approach. He writes,

Our natural relationship with the Spirit, however, is to see Christ through and with and in him. Again, as the Catechism expresses it:

“When Christ is finally glorified, he can, in turn, send the Spirit from his place with the Father to those who believe in him: he communicates to them his glory, that is, the Holy Spirit who glorifies him. From that time on, this joint mission will be manifested in the children adopted by the Father in the Body of his Son: the mission of the Spirit of adoption is to unite them to Christ and make them live in him (690).”

Another way of understanding this is to see the Holy Spirit as the love between the Father and the Son. As Pope St. John Paul II puts it in his encyclical on the Holy Spirit, Dominum Et Vivificantem,

It can be said that in the Holy Spirit the intimate life of the Triune God becomes totally gift, an exchange of mutual love between the divine Persons and that through the Holy Spirit God exists in the mode of gift. It is the Holy Spirit who is the personal expression of this self-giving, of this being-love. He is Person-Love. He is Person-Gift Here we have an inexhaustible treasure of the reality and an inexpressible deepening of the concept of person in God, which only divine Revelation makes known to us (10).

As John Paul puts, it this reality—that the Holy Spirit is both person and the shared love between Father and Son—leads us to ‘an inexpressible deepening of the concept of person in God.’ Rather than attempting to figure out how to box the Holy Spirit into our definition of a person, there has to be a fundamental acceptance of this mysterious otherness of God. Fortunately, God has invited us into the mystery. Within the loving gaze of Father and Son we know that there we can find the Spirit.

Mary also leads us to the Spirit

God has also given us another way of getting to know the Holy Spirit: Mary. We tend to think of Mary and her relationship with Jesus. We forget that she is the Spouse of the Holy Spirit. In Mary, we see the Holy Spirit mirrored. This is clear in the teaching of St. Maximilian Kolbe, who presented the Holy Spirit in Marian terms as the ‘uncreated Immaculate Conception.’ Just as Mary in the timeline of human history was most pure in her love, so also the Holy Spirit is pure love, eternal and divine.

On the cross, Jesus gave us Mary to take into our ‘homes’—our interior life, as John Paul II explained. The Church teaches that she is our heavenly advocate, motherly consoler, and teacher. In all her roles we see a reflection of the Holy Spirit, whom Christ calls the Advocate who would instruct us and whom St. Paul says God sends to dwell within us.

The Holy Spirit Within

Perhaps the Holy Spirit’s otherness as spirit is an opportunity rather than an obstacle to a relationship. In 1 Corinthians 6:19, Paul says that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. When St. Augustine says that God is ‘nearer to us’ than our ‘inmost,’ it seems that the Holy Spirit is especially associated with that intimate indwelling. Church tradition calls Him the ‘Sweet Guest’ of our souls. As Archbishop Luis Martinez puts it:

What delight in the thought! It is not because of the exigencies of His immensity, nor only because of our wretchedness demands it that God establishes His dwelling in souls; love, which attracts, allures, and makes one overcome all difficulties, makes the God of heaven, who is in love with souls, come down to them and unite Himself to them in an intimate and permanent manner. This is love: union or desire of union; and as the Holy Spirit is the infinite Love of God, to Him is appropriated this happy name: ‘the soul’s delightful Guest’.

And even though the Holy Spirit does not have a ‘face.’ We can relate to Him as ‘spirit.’ For we too have spirits, as Scripture often refers to the ‘spirit of a man.’ The catechism explains that “‘Spirit’ signifies that from creation man is ordered to a supernatural end and that his soul can gratuitously be raised beyond all it deserves to communion with God.” In 1 Corinthians 2:10-11, Paul seems to recommend this very way of relating to the Spirit:

For the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God. Among human beings, who knows what pertains to a person except the spirit of the person that is within? Similarly, no one knows what pertains to God except the Spirit of God.

We can perhaps elaborate on this. If the Holy Spirit searches the depths of God, then usually He searches the depths of our own souls. As Psalm 139:1-4 says,

LORD, you have probed me, you know me:

you know when I sit and stand;

you understand my thoughts from afar.

You sift through my travels and my rest;

with all my ways you are familiar.

Even before a word is on my tongue,

LORD, you know it all.

So perhaps this is one way of getting to know the Spirit personally—realizing that He knows us better that we know ourselves. He knows every thought, yearning, movement of the will, and quiver of the imagination. Surely this is an excellent starting point for an interior dialogue with the Spirit!

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