It was in September 2002 that I received the anointing described in the testimony that starts off this book. It took place nearly two months after God breathed His Spirit upon me in a quiet little church in a small Middle Eastern town as I stood before a beautiful picture of the mother of our Lord.
I didn’t really comprehend either experience at the time that they happened, and I won’t pretend that I still understand them fully, but I knew that both events were life changing. And they, indeed, have been. I went from being a selfish, hate-filled, hedonistic unbeliever to a man who now determinedly tries to live a life pleasing to God.
The change, however, was not instantaneous as some imagine it to be. I didn’t go from bad to good in one single giant leap when God’s Spirit touched me. Rather, I received the ability to make the change possible and an adviser to guide me through the process. This adviser, the Holy Spirit, whom God has breathed upon all Christians–I am not unique in any way–led me through a metamorphosis that was nothing short of amazing. And though it took a million little steps, rather than one huge leap to achieve it, I did change. And in the briefest time possible.
The wonder was as much the speed with which the entire transformation took place as the systematic manner in which it did. I was, quite literally, educated into being good, and the process was as structured as a traditional educational system is. There were lessons I had to learn. They were rules I had to follow. They were levels I had to pass. About the only thing different from a normal system was that I had just one tutor instead of many, and He remained constant right through all the grades.
The tutor, of course, was the Holy Spirit, and it is the manner and mode of His instruction that is the subject of this book. We are all familiar with how an educational system functions, so I have used the analogy of one here for ease in understanding how the Spirit works and how our spiritual growth takes place. I refer to this educational system as the School of the Holy Spirit.
As with any school, the first step is getting admission into it. Being baptized in Christ is the only requirement for admission into this school, since it is in baptism that we receive the Holy Spirit–our teacher and guide. To graduate from this school, however, we need to grow in the Spirit and there are a few things necessary for this.
First and foremost is a genuine desire to become more holy. I use the word ‘holy’ to mean trying to live a life pleasing to God in every possible way, not just in those matters we consider expedient, and obeying His commandments to the fullest extent possible. Holiness should be our goal and we must be prepared to do whatever it takes to attain it, which includes a total, unwavering commitment. The course is grueling and if we aren’t committed, we will crash in no time.
At this point some might wonder about the need to lead a holy life if it going to be difficult. The reason is, quite simply, because we are required to. When we become Christians, it is not the end of change; it is the beginning of change. As Christians, God calls us to be like Him: holy, pure and perfect (Matthew 5:48; 1 John 3:3, and 1 Peter 1:15). As you can imagine, this is not an easy task, but difficulty should never be a reason not to do something.
Another requisite to grow in the Spirit is heartfelt repentance. Not only should we be genuinely sorry for our sins, we need to be determined to try not to sin again. It doesn’t matter that we might be constrained by sin at this point. That’s because part of the Holy Spirit’s role is to take away the constraints and free us from our tendency to sin, which will happen in time. What is important at this stage is that we are truly sorry for the offences that we have committed against God and we are determined never to sin anymore.
A third requirement is honesty and courage; the honesty to look at ourselves without blinkered vision, and the courage to face up to who we really are. Most of us put up facades for public display and we may have been doing it for so long that we end up even fooling ourselves. The Holy Spirit will rip these masks apart, albeit gently, and reveal things about us that we might not like to see. If we aren’t willing to face up to the truth of who we are and be ready to remedy ourselves without justification, we aren’t going to make much progress.
Another vital requirement is a genuine love for God, translatable into action. Love for God is something that will grow as we grow in Him. But, we need a basic element of it to begin with, because it is only love for God that will help us make a lot of the tough decisions that we will be called to make as we progress through this school. The more love we have for God, the more we will be prepared to do for Him, which will, consequently, make it that much easier for us to grow in this school. Once we meet these requirements, we are ready to begin our education. But before we do so, it will help to know a few things about the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is not a vague, ethereal power who floats about in the heavens, waiting to be invoked by us screaming, “Come, Holy Spirit!” at the top of our voices. He is a real person, with a personality as distinct as that of the Father or the Son, and He is with us at all times. The reason many of us do not notice Him is because His presence may have made us so uncomfortable at times, we relegated Him to the back room of our lives–like a mentally challenged step-brother we’d prefer was neither seen nor heard–and there He’s remained.
Despite His awesome power, the Holy Spirit is extremely gentle. While it was His power that initially drew me to Him, it was His gentleness that helped me fall in love with Him. It probably took less than two weeks for this to happen, and ever since He has been my closest friend, most trusted adviser, and precious confidant. It is my absolute devotion to Him that has contributed largely to what I am today. If we want to transform our lives, we should get to know the Holy Spirit intimately. Once we do, we will simply not have the heart to grieve Him, and this, more than anything else, will help us live good lives.
As a teacher, the Holy Spirit is unique. He adapts Himself to us, both in speech and in behavior, so there is a high comfort level. Furthermore, He speaks our language, both literally and metaphorically, so there is always perfect communication. In addition, He has infinite patience and will take us through a lesson–over and over again, if necessary–until we learn it. He will never scold us for a weakness or punish us for a failure; on the contrary, He will always be there with words of comfort and encouragement when we fall, urging us not to give up but to press on.
The Holy Spirit asks only one thing of us and that is obedience. Our growth and the rapidity with which we grow are both dependent on this. Obey and we move forward. Disobey and everything freezes. It is as clear cut as that. We might try to continue our education on our own, choosing to grow in holiness by doing things based on expediency rather than on the truth, but we won’t get very far. We will quickly reach a point when the lessons are incomprehensible and further progress is simply impossible. Many Christians stagnate at this level, unable to grow further, simply because they work independently of the Spirit, or worse, choose to willfully disobey Him. If we obey Him, however, we will register phenomenal growth until one day we will stand as solid and as unshakable as oak trees; spiritual giants!
To be able to follow the Holy Spirit it is also helpful to know how He talks to us, how to recognize His voice, and how to respond to it when we hear it. The Holy Spirit speaks to us in different ways. He usually speaks to us through our thoughts. If we are doing something that we shouldn’t and we feel an uneasy pricking of conscience, we can be fairly certain that it is the Holy Spirit telling us to desist. As we grow in the Spirit, His “voice” becomes more easily recognizable from the thousands of different thoughts that race through our minds, and with time we will be able to actually isolate His voice from the others. Once we are able to do this, our growth accelerates, because there is much better communication between us and Him.
A word of caution is necessary here. The enemy, Satan, can do an excellent job of imitating the voice of the Holy Spirit. If we aren’t careful, he can have us doing his work even though we believe we are doing the work of God. It becomes very important, therefore, to learn to distinguish between the two. Though the devil can do a pretty good impersonation, there are certain traits that he has which give him away. But it takes time to recognize these. Consequently, it is wise to have a human adviser, preferably a priest, who can help us through in the interim.
In the days following my conversion, I used to counsel with my spiritual director for a couple of hours every week, updating him on some of the things that I was being “taught” by the Holy Spirit. I quickly developed an understanding of inherent differences between the two and certain characteristics of the devil that he simply can’t hide. One of these, for example, is impatience. Whenever I am hustled into doing something with undue haste, I can be certain that the devil is behind it nine times out of ten. Eventually, I developed a pretty good nose for the evil one and can now sense him coming from a mile away.
I no longer need to check everything out with my spiritual director, but if it is a message of some import, I still seek external affirmation. This involves having someone confirm the message I have been given without my actually asking them to do so. The Holy Spirit does not object to this; on the contrary He encourages it! (This is another difference between Him and the enemy; the evil one tells us that we don’t need to confirm anything with anybody.)
If it is something really important I ask for multiple affirmations to ensure that there is absolutely no doubt that the message is from the right source: the Holy Spirit. Towards the end of 2003, for instance, I received what appeared to be a very clear instruction from the Holy Spirit to launch a ministry. As this would affect the lives of many people, especially my family and others close to me, I was simply not willing to take any chances. I asked the Holy Spirit to send not one, but three people to confirm the message was from Him, with the added qualification that all three be leaders in Catholic ministries. Before the month was over, three Catholic ministers came my way, all of whom told me that it was time to begin God’s work full-time!
The Holy Spirit often uses people to speak for Him, especially in the early stages of our growth when we haven’t fine tuned our ears to His voice. He can use just about anybody, and I sometimes think He takes particular delight in using people we dislike to deliver some of His messages. It is His way of teaching us humility even as He tries to communicate with us. His preferred choice of people, however, are ministers. This is to prevent us from being unnecessarily confused. (I use the word “minister” loosely, to cover all people who do the work of God under authority of the Church.)
I have developed a standard practice that I recommend when listening to these people. Listen to them without judgment. Pay closer attention to the speaker whenever your mind begins to rebel at something he or she is saying, because when our minds tell us that something a particular minister is saying is rubbish, it usually is just because it doesn’t fall in line with our thinking. It need not be rubbish at all.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that ministers don’t occasionally speak rubbish. They do. I have heard some of them say very foolish things. Consequently, discernment is required. But how is one to discern what is right or wrong? True discernment is a gift. For a person without the gift, discerning something means evaluating it with his own mind, which is very often unreliable. If we see nothing wrong in consuming alcohol, for instance, and if a minister tells us that we need to stop drinking in order to grow in holiness, we will “discern” that the person is speaking nonsense! So how do we find out the truth? We can do so easily enough by checking for what God has to say on the subject; it’s all there in the Bible. And then, to be doubly sure that we have gotten it right, we should check out what the Church has to say on the subject too, because it is quite possible to misinterpret the things that God says through His Word.
God’s Word is not only a way of discerning truth; it is the best way of listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit. As we read God’s word, we will come across a verse every now and then that leaves us feeling distinctly uncomfortable because it convicts us of something sinful that we are doing. This is the Holy Spirit speaking directly to us, asking us to address the issue immediately. Don’t hesitate. This is one occasion when God Himself has delivered the message and we don’t need any confirmation or affirmations–we just need to obey!
There is one important issue that needs to be addressed here. I had stated earlier that the Holy Spirit never scolds us. How, then, are we to know that we have displeased Him? The Holy Spirit has a remarkably effective way of letting us know: He goes silent!
There are three types of silence I have learned to recognize in the Spirit. One is the mild silence that greets a sinful action we might have committed by mistake. We suddenly notice that the Holy Spirit has gone quiet and we know instinctively that we have messed up, though it is quite possible we don’t fully understand the nature of our mistake. We should ask the Spirit what we have done wrong and He will tell us.
The second is the heavier silence that follows when we disobey a direct order we have agreed to obey, or when we try to justify a sin after He has shown us how grievous it is. The Holy Spirit will simply clam up and refuse to resume any sort of “normal” conversation with us until such time that we remedy the situation!
The third silence is terrifying, and is brought about when we hurt one of God’s children. We only have to hear the sound of this silence once to never want to do anything that will bring it about again.
I experienced this a few months after my conversion when I permitted my infamous temper to get the better of me. During the time it took for my temper to be spent, I hurled abuse at my offender. The attack was vicious while it lasted, and immensely hurtful. Anger expended, shame took over and I retreated to church which was my main place of refuge in those days, hoping for the comfort that God could give me. There was not a sound. I sat for five hours in the church that afternoon, praying that He would utter just one word, but there was just this total, unnerving silence.
Finally, more dejected than I ever recall being in recent times, I prepared to leave. Even as I did so, I picked up my Bible and flipped it open, reading the first verse that my eyes fell upon. I do not believe that verses picked up at random from the Bible are always messages for us from the Holy Spirit, and I strongly discourage anyone from thinking so, but there are instances when random verses from scripture can, indeed, be messages and have profound impact. This is what I read: ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.’
I didn’t waste any time in reconciling myself with my offender. Almost immediately thereafter, the Holy Spirit broke His silence and things rapidly got back to the way they were before. But this deathly quiet is something that I have never been able to forget and I have tried to never give the Holy Spirit a reason to go silent like that again. The Holy Spirit would, however, go silent on me once more, for a very long time and for a totally different reason, but we will come to that later.
One final note before we enter school. It is a good idea to begin our education with a blank slate, so we should try to wipe our minds clean of all preconceptions that may exist. I am not proud that I was an atheist most of my life, but one of the benefits of not being raised in the faith was that there was no conditioning about Christian beliefs that I had to overcome, no paradigms to lock me in. I realized that most of what I had believed to be true about God, life and just about everything else was wrong, so I simply wiped the entire slate clean and prepared to start afresh. Clean slates are easy to write on.
If it isn’t possible to have a clean slate, we should at least try to come with the humility to accept that we might be wrong about a lot of things and have an eagerness to learn what is right. The Holy Spirit often teaches us things that go against what we believe to be true and mental resistance makes it difficult for Him to work effectively in us.
Please also do note that some of the things that He teaches might appear to go against what the Catholic faith teaches. They don’t; they merely go against what we believe the Catholic faith teaches, which isn’t quite the same thing.
Enough said. Let us enter the School of the Holy Spirit.