When I was younger I never really understood the Holy Spirit. He was to me the red-headed stepchild of the Trinity. I had an understanding of God in all His glory and His Son’s sacrifice to free us from sin, but the Holy Spirit was an enigma.
Was it a peaceful dove or a torrent flame that would cause me to speak in tongues? All I knew at 13 is that I didn’t want to speak in tongues. Even now, the thought of it freaks me out.
Still, in blind faith and with my other eighth grade classmates, I received the sacrament of Confirmation. It was one of those milestone events where you wear a new dress, spend a lot of time on hair and makeup (only to look like some caricature version of yourself), get lots of pictures taken, and maybe a few presents.
I did not have the maturity to understand that it wasn’t just a prequel to my graduation ceremony from where I would enter high school. Nor did I have the foresight to know the gifts conferred on me that day would grow from a spark to a steady fire, and how badly I would need that fire in a world that could be unnaturally cold.
I haven’t spent too much time between ages 13 and 40 thinking about the Holy Spirit, but credit Him with the burning desire to start this blog. I was in mass when I had the idea and even though it made so much sense to me, I didn’t want to want to do it. I didn’t have the courage or capacity to write about God. It was uncomfortable. Sometimes, it still is – but at least now it’s a brave uncomfortable. And I assure you, I haven’t felt brave about much of anything in my life.
So when asked to sponsor a dear friend’s child for her Confirmation, it felt like a perfect circle had formed from the girl I was to the girl I would sponsor – in the center of which was the Holy Spirit with the gifts He would bestow: wisdom, understanding, fear of the Lord, counsel, knowledge, fortitude, and piety.
Annie was a third-grader when I first met her. I was a volunteer coach for Girls on the Run, a program which teaches young girls life skills through interactive lessons and running games. I loved the lessons we taught because they were about being inclusive, not gossiping, being a friend and believing in yourself. I loved Annie because she reminded me so much of myself at that age. She was self-conscious, yet somehow very unaware. She was quiet, but passionate. She was an observer on the cusp of participating.
When her mom would complain to me about her math grades, I would defend her explaining what a struggle math was for me. When she would grumble about Annie’s attitude, I would counter with how difficult it is to be a middle child.
I had such affection for her from the start. After she asked me to sponsor her I quit using her given name and simply called her God Baby. She never seemed to mind, and I was awfully proud to claim her.
On her confirmation day, she looked nothing like the third grader I remember. She was beautiful, as much so for her indomitable spirit that just made you want the world to be eternally in her favor, as for her physical appearance that the world would no doubt favor.
I watched her and her friends gather before the ceremony and share compliments about hair, shoes and dresses — all those things that make more sense than the Holy Spirit. Those things that at 40 you realize are very insignificant no matter how much you may still enjoy them. It was sweet to see their effervescent joy on what was clearly such a significant day, even if it may be years later until they really understand why.
The Bishop Emeritus anointed the candidates with chrism and clearly announced, as he laid his hands on their foreheads, “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.” He was loud and clear, and I understood the importance of what he was doing so much more than when I experienced it for myself.
When it was God Baby’s turn I placed my hand on her shoulder as the retired Bishop placed his on her forehead, and being ever prone to tears, I was surprised to find that I was smiling – like big-teeth, can’t-contain-my-joy smiling. I was thrilled for her and the other candidates. The hope for humanity as this group of young people declared their commitment to stand witness for God was as bright as the colored light that streamed through the stained glass windows.
When I went back to the pew I prayed for God Baby. I felt the tears well as I imagined her enduring the trials of a teenager and the freedom of a young adult. I knew how confusing those years would be and how liberating. I prayed she would make good choices and survive bad ones. I blinked back my tears as she sat so innocently next to me blissfully unaware of all that lay ahead. I thought of the gifts of the Holy Spirit again and felt peace that they would guide, protect and most importantly keep her always close to God.
The next day, an alum from the parish grade school who is studying for priesthood preached the homily as a Deacon for the first time. He spoke with passion about God’s love for us. He referenced his own rebellious teenage years and how he came back to God. He talked about his classmate, a young mother, who had recently passed away from cancer. Doctors urged her to have an abortion so that she might live. She chose to lay down her life for another, just as Jesus did and have her baby despite the fate it sealed for herself. His voiced cracked with emotion as he told the story. Tears snuck down my face. He begged us to put aside hatred and anger and to simply love one another.
He spoke with such conviction and grace. The congregation applauded when he was finished. They were clearly moved by his passion and love for the Lord.
The Deacon definitely stood witness to the Holy Spirit that day. I looked over at the pew where God Baby sat with her family and thought I finally understand what it means to know Him both as a peaceful dove and a burning flame.