I’ve had a membership to the YMCA for several years. I pay for a full year’s membership, but I use the facilities for only eleven months out of the year. Intentionally, I avoid going to the Y during January. On the first day of January, the Y fills up with people who have resolved to improve their health, lose weight, or appease their doctors. Their good intentions fill the Y with the fitness equivalent of Catholics who attend Mass only at Christmas or Easter. Fortunately for me, new year’s resolutions wear off quickly. When the Y returns to its normal pace, I resume my regular schedule of exercise.
All of us know that the world would be a better place if we could make a few positive changes to our lives. All of us who are honest with ourselves, however, know that our resolutions to make positive changes are short-lived. It’s not that we don’t want to be better people; rather, it’s that we are incapable of doing so, despite our deep desires to the contrary. If only there was a way to follow through consistently on our desires to be more honest, responsible, loving, forgiving, and just.
The second reading today says “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Gal. 5:22-23) This sounds like a way to change our lives in ways that are both positive and permanent. In order for this to happen, however, we must first understand what the word “spirit” means in the Scriptures.
Those of you who were instructed with the Baltimore Catechism probably conceive of “spirit” as a vaguely white, incorporeal substance that inhabits a person’s thoracic cavity. Sin leaves stains on your spirit that can be bleached only by the addition of grace from God.
Those of you who are familiar with medieval philosophy probably understand the word “spirit” to refer to the “really real” part of a person as distinct from the ephemeral, physical part of a person. Those of you who get your moral formation from horror and science fiction literature probably understand the word “spirit” to refer to an incorporeal entity (usually malevolent), that can exert control over the physical world. In the Scriptures, the word “spirit” has a meaning quite different from what most of us assume the word means.
I was invited to the 40th Anniversary celebration of the founding of the nearby Synagogue. As the celebration was held on a Saturday night, dinner was preceded by the prayer service that typically concludes the Sabbath observance. When the Rabbi introduced the prayer service, he mentioned to his congregation that God gives them each an additional spirit in order that they might observe the Sabbath with reverence. This “additional spirit” isn’t a second soul in the western sense of those words. In this context, an “additional spirit” is an attitude or capability that God gives for the purpose of observing the Sabbath faithfully. This is the meaning of the word “spirit” in the Scriptures.
When the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures use the word “spirit,” the word refers to an attitude or a capability. The “fruit of the Spirit” are attitudes given to us by God in order that we might be faithful to our Baptismal vows. God intends for all the baptized to be loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle, and even-tempered.
The attitudes of the Spirit are markedly different from the attitudes that surround us in secular society. Popular entertainment, the news media, and social media portray a wide variety of attitudes; many of those attitudes are self-destructive and anti-social. The attitudes of the Spirit differ also from our personal intentions to improve our lives; these Divine attitudes endure because they are expressions of God’s power.
The “fruit of the Spirit” is not merely an alternative to the attitudes that surround us. Rather than one option among many, the fruit of the Spirit is the only option that is an appropriate expression of what it means to be baptized. These divinely inspired attitudes don’t wear off or lose their efficacy because they are God’s power at work in us.
If you would like to live with “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23), you can do so by beginning each day by remembering the Baptismal Vows we will renew in a few moments and by asking God’s help to fulfill those vows. Without God’s help, our best intentions will be short-lived. With the help of the Spirit, it’s possible to practice virtue that doesn’t wear off or wear out. I recommend the fruit of the Spirit to you, not as a means of coping, not as an alternative to what else is out there, but as the only path to living a decent and faithful human life.