There was an Irish comedian called Dave Allen who did a series of shows in which he spoke about the Trinity – the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost (this was the name given to the Holy Spirit many years ago). As part of his routine, he told a story about when he attended a funeral as a young boy and he had watched the priest doing the final blessing at the graveyard.
Some time later he was with his father at a religious event and when he blessed himself, instead of receiving a reassuring pat on the head, he earned himself a smack round the ear! He asked his father what he had said wrong. The young Dave Allen did not hear the priest clearly at the funeral that day, for when he repeated the blessing to his father, he said “In the name of the Father, the Son and into the hole he goes”!
As irreligious or as offensive as some may find a joke like that, Dave Allen was actually touching on a nerve. The fact is that a number of us Christians know a lot about the Father, quite a lot about the Son but often know very little about the Holy Spirit. I once heard the Holy Spirit called the “poor relation” as many Christians often address their prayers to the Father or the Son. It is rare that people might pray to the Holy Spirit. One of the tragedies or our Catholic faith is that many young people have received confirmation but know very little about the Holy Spirit and the gifts that the Spirit gives.
Yet, and this is the irony, yesterday was all about the Holy Spirit. It was the feast of Pentecost, in which Christians celebrate the pouring out of the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus to the disciples. This event changed these men and women forever. And it changed the course of history.
So what or who is the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is the one that brings Jesus to life within Christians. Jesus referred to the Spirit as the helper, the comforter and the advocate. He knew his disciples needed help to do what he was asking them to do and this was it. The Spirit would make them fearless, courageous, full of understanding, knowledge and wisdom and this would lead them to bring greater love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control to whomever and whatever they encountered.
I could write about the Holy Spirit from what I know is in the Bible. But, instead, I want to share with you an actual incident that took place in Liverpool prison six years ago on Pentecost Sunday. (I could write about events in the school also but that is another blog post!!)
I was working as a chaplain in HMP Liverpool and I had organised an afternoon Pentecost service. I had put it on in the afternoon because I knew that anyone who really wanted to be there would come to it as there had already been Mass in the morning. To my absolute astonishment, forty men signed up for the service. But only thirty were allowed in the chapel without prison officers. I took a huge risk and said nothing. Forty signed up so forty were coming.
Pentecost Sunday afternoon came and we all gathered in the chapel. I had about ten Christian volunteers with me who were going to pray in pairs with each of the men. The volunteers were going to pray for whatever the men told them they needed help with and they were also going to pray for the Holy Spirit to be with the men.
So the service began. The men sang every song and listened to every word that was spoken. I gave a sermon to them and one man (we will call him Mark) listened intently to me. However, at one stage he stopped me mid-sermon (he was a burly, tough looking lad so when he spoke, you listened!) and said “Listen lad, what you’re saying is nice and all that but I have been trying to come off drugs for years. I have done everything and nothing has worked. So what can I do?”
I stopped to think. To be honest I panicked. He was respected by the others. A poor answer meant that I could lose the room. And with no officers, forty prisoners and ten non-violent, peace-loving, offer-the-other-cheek-if you-are-hit Christians, that really couldn’t happen.
And then I heard myself say these words: “But that’s your problem Mark. YOU keep trying. YOU keep trying to do everything. What I am saying to you today is that someone else can do it for you. Instead of you trying to control your life, you need to hand it over to this someone so they can control it for you. Instead of you doing it, allow it to be done to you.”
There was silence. Some of the lads beside him tried to read his face. He looked at me trying to figure it out. He sat back in his chair and nodded at me. I continued on.
The Christians with me then spread out in the room in pairs and the lads went to them for prayer. I saw Mark going to a couple and I looked on anxiously. He must have been with them for about fifteen minutes. They prayed and prayed. What was worrying me was that Mark did not look happy at all. He was looking quite angry. When they had finished he sat back in his chair with his head in his hands.
We ended the service and the men went back to their cells. Mark didn’t come near me – I was quite alright with that. That last thing I wanted was an angry Mark bellowing at me that this was a waste of his time, that he could have had a visit with his partner and kid or that he could have been listening to the footy on the radio. I went home wondering what was going on in his head.
The next day I was walking through the wing and I saw Mark bounding towards me. My guard went up and I quickly checked for the nearest alarm button. Then I saw something. A big beaming smile across his face. He said to me “Lad, do I look different?” I looked at him and muttered “Eh..er..well, Mark…” and he interrupted me saying “Well, I feel different. That was amazing yesterday!! I thought it was going to be a load…sorry Father (for some reason Mark always thought I was a priest)..I thought I might be wasting my time. But I never ever thought anything like that could happen to me!!” He then gave me a big hug.
We sat down and he told me that when the couple prayed with him, he could feel all the anger coming up inside him (which is why he was looking angry!). All the anger from his past, all the anger towards those he had been fighting with in his gang, all the anger towards his parents and all his anger at life in general. He had then felt exhausted and suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of peace – a peace that he had never felt before. Ever. And he knew it wasn’t from him. He knew it was the Holy Spirit.
I sat dumbfounded. Of course, I didn’t let on…I kept saying “You see, I told you” and “Of course this happened..” But underneath I was overwhelmed. But the next thing he told me astounded me even further.
“I went back to the cell” he continued “and I got my phone out (I didn’t want to know that part, I thought to myself) and I rang the lads and told them I don’t want no drugs coming in here. I know its gonna get me in a lot of trouble but, lad, I don’t care. I am done with it. I read my Bible until I fell asleep. Things are different.” Cue more back-slapping, hand-shaking and hugging.
This is great, I thought to myself. Something amazing has happened here. But how long will it last? The proof that an experience like this is genuine is how much a person’s life changes afterwards. We can have these euphoric moments but the enthusiasm can fade after some weeks.
I finished in HMP Liverpool two months later. In those two months, Mark never turned back to his old way of life. He became the top cleaner on the wing, a trusted helper for the officers and he attended my Bible study groups. The joy he experienced that day never faded. Yes, there were ups and downs. But he still never went back to his old ways. After that, I don’t know what became of Mark.
The Holy Spirit is powerful. What can seem impossible to us, the Spirit can make possible. What can seem like a habit that can never be broken, a darkness that can never be lifted, a grief that can never be overcome or a loss of direction that can never be reversed – all these things can be undone and changed by the Holy Spirit.
We can’t do it ourselves. Mark learned that. I have learned it. Our culture and our society will tell us that the answer lies within us; we can make the change. But how many self-help books do we need to read? How many psychics do we need to consult? How many diets, selfies, apps or counsellors do we need to get to that place of inner-peace? In the end, for Christians, the Holy Spirit gives us something super-natural that, in turn, gives us a sense of identity and a rootedness that no person, place, experience or thing can give us. And whatever comes our way, we are more than conquerors.
Mark, after his experience in prison on that Pentecost Sunday, would probably say with St. Paul: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39).
That is my prayer for you too.