Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, CO
I am, by trade, a poet and a professor. In order to write poetry, I have to give myself over to the mysterious work of language, and in order to teach, I have to be comfortable speaking to groups of students about abstract concepts. Despite this training, I was, at first, incredibly intimidated by idea of speaking on the subject of the Holy Spirit. I asked myself, how does one begin to talk about something so experiential, something that cannot, by its very nature, be fully articulated? As I considered these questions, though, I realized that talking about poetry might have equipped me, in some small way, to talk about the Holy Spirit.
Working with words, one soon realizes their limitations. We know the language we have created to communicate with one another, though full of beauty, is, in the end, also insufficient. The Holy Spirit touches that part of us that cannot be reached in the usual ways. Language’s failure becomes the holy spirit’s entrance point. Paul writes of this in his first letter to the Thessalonians when he says, “our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit with full conviction.”
In times of desperation or, conversely, in times of great joy, I have felt this wordless, but convicting presence. Maybe you have felt this as well. I often experience this presence as a revelation. William Paul Young wrote, “The work of the holy spirit in our lives is to reveal the truth of our being so that the way of our being can match it.” The Holy Spirit, then, calls me to first see myself anew, and then to meet that self rather than to return to some false self that is concerned not with God’s will for my life but instead with the image of myself that I wish to project to others. The Holy Spirit, then, asks me to consider who God called me to be rather than who I think others might expect or want me to be.
Hal asked that I talk specifically about my experiences with the Holy Spirit, and I could offer several examples of the way the Holy Spirit has revealed the truth of my being and called me to meet that truth, but I will give just one example. Two years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Up until that point, I had prided myself on being strong, both physically and emotionally. I was someone who believed I was independent, someone who had worked hard to achieve my goals as a writer and an academic all the while birthing and raising two daughters. I assumed I had everything under control, and I aimed to project that to others.
The revelation I faced with my diagnosis is that the strength I had prided myself on was an illusion. Cancer was not something I could fix on my own, not something I could control. I had to embrace vulnerability, live in it and exist there, which was something that was incredibly uncomfortable for me. As I underwent tests and procedures, there was no denying that in this moment I was being called to confront a truth of myself that I had long tried to ignore.
On the one hand, I turned to language, as I often do, to see what words might have to offer, and I learned that I might need to reconsider the words I had previously used to describe myself to myself—words like strength and independence were replaced with words like vulnerability and connectedness. But there was also a feeling that I could not shake, a conviction, we might call it, that these simple substitutions were an insufficient response to the Holy Spirit’s calling.
It was a feeling of deep need for God’s all-encompassing presence, and that need demanded a response of some kind. To return to William Paul Young’s words, the Holy Spirit had revealed a truth of my being that now needed to be matched by the way of my being. It was at this moment that I was introduced, not coincidentally I’m sure, to the practice of Centering Prayer. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Centering Prayer requires silence and sitting; it requires the practitioner to relinquish control and to open oneself to a force which is outside of language.
If I had relied on words and strength to engage with the world prior to my cancer, the Holy Spirit, I believe, was going to use that experience to call me to a wordless place characterized by deep vulnerability. It is here, in this wordless, vulnerable space that I feel most bolstered by God. As I practice centering prayer, I often experience failure. I am unable to turn off the noisy mind, which is characteristic of the desire to control. While I am attempting to sit quietly so that I might be in the presence of the Holy Spirit, I find myself making lists, making plans, fretting, constructing conversations I need to have at work or with my family. And then, from time to time, I am able to quiet myself and see that what this practice is really about is to reveal to me how little control I actually have. Here in this failure to sit quietly, I am confronted with the need for God. And this neediness is, somewhat paradoxically, deeply comforting.
And that is, in my experience, one of the hallmarks of the Holy Spirit—paradox. I think of a story Richard Rohr tells of a man coming to him in deep despair after losing a business he had worked for decades to build, a business he had prided himself on. Without his business, and in this space of profound failure, he didn’t know who he was any more. In response to the man’s despair, Rohr said, “Hallelujah.” Rohr is celebrating the paradox of loss as gain. The man who had understood himself as a success must now understand himself as a failure and in this understanding, he has readied himself for transformation. This is the paradox Jesus tell us of in Matthew 16:25 when he says, “For if you want to save your own life, you will lose it; but if you lose your life for my sake, you will find it.” This isn’t something that happens once, but something we are called to do on a daily basis and in ways we cannot foresee. In my experience, when I am called into a place of contradiction, a place that is uncomfortable, unfamiliar, contrary to what I think I already know, the Holy Spirit is at work. The truth of my being is revealed so that I might, not through my own strength but through God’s, be transformed.
Sasha Steensen is the author of four books of poems: House of Deer, The Method, and A Magic Book, all from Fence Books, and most recently, Gatherest from Ahsahta Press. Recent work has appeared in Kenyon Review, West Branch, Omniverse, and Dusie. “Openings: Into Our Vertical Cosmos” was published as an online chapbook by Essay Press. She teaches Creative Writing and Literature at Colorado State University, where she also serves as a poetry editor for Colorado Review. She lives in Fort Collins, Colorado with her husband and two daughters, and she tends a garden, a flock of chickens, a bearded dragon, a barn cat, a standard poodle, and two goats. Learn more about her work here.