Earlier this year, the Choir at St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Tarpon Springs performed a concert to benefit Catholic Charities. They sang quite a wide variety of music. One of the pieces they sang was an American Folk Hymn titled “Down to the River to Pray.” The chorus of the hymn is:
“As I went down in the river to pray,
Studying about that good old way,
And who shall wear the starry crown.
Good Lord, show me the way!”
The hymn’s melody has a plaintive Appalachian quality to it. It sounds exactly like what it proclaims, namely, “old fashioned religion.” The lyrics describe a warm, heartfelt, simple, trusting relationship with God.
Religion, as a warm, heartfelt, simple, trusting relationship with God, is a very appealing notion. I think it is also very faithful to the Scriptures. It is also very difficult to accomplish. There are a couple of significant obstacles that stand in the way of a daily experience of trusting God.
The first of those obstacles is that we live in a culture that is extremely distrustful. We Americans distrust our government. We distrust foreign governments. We distrust all institutions, particularly churches. We distrust one another, and in the midst of all our distrust we complain that our society has grown fragmented and contentious. (Gee, how did we became so polarized that civil public discourse is no longer possible? Could it be the result of our intransigence and distrust, maybe?)
I was going to use a reference to recent political events as an example of our society’s high degree of distrust. I reconsidered doing so because any reference to any political event would be the immediate cause of polarization among those who read or heard the reference. No further examples of distrust are necessary; each one of us is a sufficient witness to the level of distrust in our society.
The second obstacle to experiencing religion as both a comfort and a call to conversion is the extreme degree of individualism present in our society. Unlike American society in the 1960’s the extreme individualism prevalent today is not a political or ideological statement; rather, it is the result of shallowness, narcissism and a deep-seated anti-social disregard for other people.
The feast of Pentecost speaks directly to the self-destructive situation of American society today.
In the ancient world, wind was a principal source of energy. Peter, Andrew, James and John would have relied on the power of the wind to sail their fishing boats. The Roman Imperial Navy ruled the Mediterranean Sea in ships powered by the wind. Today, in Florida, at the beginning of another Hurricane season we are reminded of how powerful the wind can be.
Specifically, in the act of faith, the Holy Spirit is Divine power that leads us to an appropriate relationship with God. The Holy Spirit is the one who leads us by our warm, heartfelt and simple desire to love God and be loved by God. The power of the Holy Spirit prevents our limited human abilities from going astray when we make an honest, heartfelt effort to trust in God.
The Feast of Pentecost is a good reminder of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. This Feast is also a good reminder of why we need the Holy Spirit in our lives. The distrust and selfishness that have become the hallmarks of our society are obstacles to trusting relationships with other people and God. These powerful social trends will not dissipate without some sort of outside intervention. The Holy Spirit is that necessary intervention.
In order to be decent human beings we must be more than our human nature can be on its own. In order to be decent human beings we need God’s power, the Holy Spirit, the one who directs our desires to their proper goal: warm, heartfelt, simple, trusting relationships with God and others.
Pentecost is intended to recur on a daily basis, because each day it is our mission to announce the Resurrection. The power of the Holy Spirit makes this possible, and the lack of trust in the world makes this necessary.
Each day God offers us the power of the Holy Spirit. Each day we must make a conscious effort to accept God’s offer. Each day we recommit ourselves to learning to trust God and others. In doing so, we swim upstream, against the current of wider society. If it feels like a struggle, that’s because it is a struggle. However, we are not alone in our struggle.
The difference between faith and fear, superstition, self-righteousness, sentimentality, selfishness, dissoluteness and the like is made by a consciousness of God’s presence and the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit led the apostles to proclaim courageously the Resurrection of Jesus. (Acts 2:4) Today, and every day, we take up the mission of the apostles, and we pray, “Good Lord, show me the way!”