Human Constraints and Knowing the Will of God
Homily for Pentecost Sunday 2016

Douglas P. McManaman
May 15, 2016
Reproduced with Permission

What is particularly interesting about the descent of the Holy Spirit is its visible result: "All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability". The Apostles were able to communicate with foreigners, and the foreigners were amazed: "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own language?"

This is a reversal of what occurred in the story of the tower of Babel. According to the eleventh chapter of Genesis, the world at that time had one language: "The people said to one another, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves". Whether or not there was a time when people spoke just one language is immaterial; the tower symbolizes the sin of pride; it is a symbol of the human heart that soars high, beyond its limitations, in the desire to be looked upon by others with awe. It has much the same symbolic meaning as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the second chapter of Genesis, which is the desire to be self-sufficient and independent of God, as a tree stands independently. The punishment God inflicts upon man for this sin is the diversification of language, with the immediate result that they simply cannot understand one another. They could not fulfil their plans because of the limits and constraints imposed by language.

The good news in this story is that the plans of those who despise God, the plans of those who scheme and plot to establish their own kingdom on earth - at odds with the kingdom of God - , will fail, because human persons wounded by original sin are incapable of the cooperation needed to achieve those plans. There are many barriers to collaboration: personal pride - the permanent desire to be more than what we are - , and the limits of language, which in this story represents the entire range of human constraints, both intellectual and moral - sin only tightens those constraints. People have their own language and their own way of doing things, and so this personal pride that makes individual collaboration difficult exists also on the national level. Part of the good news is that those in positions of power have far less power than we often realize, because their knowledge simply does not extend to the necessary details and conditions required in order for them to realize those plans.

But today, the miracle of Pentecost is an ability to communicate. It is not that we are back to a single language; rather, the Apostles can communicate in languages they never learned. What this means is that those upon whom the Holy Spirit descends are able to do what would not be possible in their natural state. A portion of the human race will continue to rebel against God and scheme to overcome the kingdom that Christ came to establish, and they will continue to find themselves constrained by the limits of knowledge and other factors they cannot control, such as unforeseeable chance occurrences, but the weak and sinful members who belong to Christ's Mystical Body will be given the power to do what they could not do on their own strength.

Each one of us received the Holy Spirit when we were baptised and confirmed, and with that gift of the Holy Spirit, each one of us has been given the charisms we need to fulfill our personal vocation. And many of the faithful have no idea what their charisms are; they have not discovered them, possibly because they have some preconceived idea about what a charism should look like. But there is nothing more ordinary than speaking a language, and yet the miracle of Pentecost is that the Apostles were speaking languages they did not labor to learn. The result was that they were able to communicate the good news to others with whom they were not able to communicate earlier.

What most of us do every day is very ordinary, but the gift of the Holy Spirit descends upon our ordinary life and gives us the ability to achieve what we could not otherwise achieve. We are able to touch lives in a way that we could not do without that charism.

I remember a few years back my brother expressed his frustration with the popular exhortation to "do the will of God". He would ask: "How in the world am I to know what God wants me to do? How do I know what the will of God is?" And I wasn't having any success in explaining it to him, probably because I was in the dark and didn't really know myself. We were out for lunch one day with a friend of his who is a retired engineer. When my brother brought up the topic, his friend wondered about it, and then said: "Perhaps what needs to be done". That satisfied us both. You know what needs to be done in your life, and I know what needs to be done in mine; perhaps that is how we know the will of God. The Holy Spirit gives us the ability to want to do what needs to be done, and with an effectiveness that is beyond our natural ability.

Those of you who are teachers know what needs to be done, and there is a teaching charism. A teacher who is anointed with the charism of teaching is able to reach students in a way that is simply not possible without the charism. And there are teachers like that; they say they are not doing anything special, just teaching the old fashioned way, but because of that charism of the Holy Spirit, they are reaching kids.

Nursing is ordinary work, but the charism of the Holy Spirit enables the nurse to touch patients in a way that she may probably not even aware of. Back in 2001 and 2003, I'd spent a lot of time in the hospital; my mother who broke her hip spent 9 months there before she died, and shortly thereafter that I had colon cancer. Some nurses were just different; they radiated something, there was a presence; you knew you were loved when they were in the room. I recall this one nurse who was taking care of my mother; she was so radiant we wanted her to remain the entire week, but they are on shifts, and that would be her only night on that floor. I don't know her name and wouldn't know where to find her, but out of them all, she was memorable. I too saw a lot of nurses in those years and out of them all, four were memorable. They had a charism.

I know a mechanic who has a real charism. He has a crucifix in the front office, and the bill is always about a third of what it would be anywhere else. He deals with everyone honestly and with a genuine sense of reverence. He is a very busy mechanic because of who he is. His ordinary work is elevated by the charism that permeates his life and character.

An ordinary court judge would, if he or she is open, be given the charism that sharpens intuition - some people know when others are lying. The psychologist would be given the charism to know what to say in very specific situations, and what not to say. A parent open to the "manifestation of the Holy Spirit" is given the necessary charisms to parent in a way that is outside the ordinary scope and limits of natural parenting.

The way to discover your charisms, the way to allow them to be released in your life, is to begin to see yourself from God's point of view, not your own point of view, much less through the eyes of others. And the way to begin to see yourself through God's eyes is to pray not so much to know whether God wants you to do this and not that - most of the time we simply cannot be sure, especially when we are talking specifics - , but to pray for the grace to want to do what God wants you to do. What God wants you and I to do is just what needs to be done, and we typically know what that is, and the charism of the Holy Spirit will enable you to do just that, but with a power and effectiveness that you and I could not achieve on our own. The only thing that gets in the way of that power is ourselves, our own fear and unwillingness to allow the Holy Spirit to take control of our lives and to lead us where He will. But if we allow Him total control over our lives, he will anoint everything we do with a power that will affect others in ways we simply cannot do on our own.