Help from the Holy Spirit

by Fr. Sebastian Walshe, O.Praem.


During this season of penance and mercy, the evil spirit, always envious of the human race, seeks to prevent us from profiting from God’s grace. His strategy is clever and manifold. First, he tries to minimize our sense that this season should be especially dedicated to prayer, penance, and works of mercy. He tries to get us to treat Lent like any other season. Concerning this we read: “On that day the Lord, the GOD of hosts, called on you to weep and mourn, to shave your head and put on sackcloth. But look! you feast and celebrate, you slaughter oxen and butcher sheep, You eat meat and drink wine: “Eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!” (Is. 22:12-13) (It is remarkable to note, by the way, how successful he has been in destroying the penitential spirit of Advent in our culture, where Advent is generally regarded as the shopping time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, abundant with celebrations).

However, if he fails at this, his plan B is to get us to do penance in such a way that our penances become the occasion for willfulness and self-pity: focusing on our own sufferings in such a way that we become the center of our own universe. Concerning this we read: “‘Why do we fast, and You do not see it? Afflict ourselves, and You take no note of it?’ Lo, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits, and drive all your laborers. Yes, your fast ends in quarreling and fighting, striking with wicked claw. Would that today you might fast so as to make your voice heard on high! Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: That a man bow his head like a reed, and lie in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.” (Is. 58:3-7) We see our penances as a prime excuse to cease being charitable to our neighbor.

But if the evil spirit fails in this regard, he attempts to deprive us of merit by spurring us on to hypocrisy, and this is where the readings admonish us: “All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation Rabbi.” (Matt. 23:5-7). We do our penances, we’ll even be nice to people, giving alms, speaking kindly, but all for show, all to be praised by men.

If we are to overcome the deceptions of the evil spirit, we are in need of the assistance of the Holy Spirit. A Spirit so gentle, so humble, that He even seems to hide Himself in the Scriptures, preferring to draw our attention to the other Persons of the Trinity. Jesus accuses the Pharisees of binding heavy burdens upon men’s backs. But our Lord Himself seemed to give us a heavier burden, saying, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of God. Inward, not just outward holiness. Is our Lord unaware of this? No, the Lord condemns them not simply for binding a heavy burden, but for also not lifting a finger to help. The Lord, however, lifted a finger to help, and that finger of God is the Holy Spirit, an apt figure, proceeding from the arm and body as the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit is mentioned again under the name of Teacher. If the heavenly Father is our common Father, and the Christ is our common Master, it stands to reason that the Holy Spirit is our common Teacher. Indeed, this is what the Lord Himself says, “The Paraclete, the Holy Spirit that the Father will send in My name, He will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have told you.” (Jn. 14:26).

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