The Holy Spirit as personal life experience

Speaking of our Christian origins, the Protestant theologian Edouard Schweitzer has written these words which enrich our ecumenical reflection: “Long before the Holy Spirit became an article of the Creed, he was a reality lived in the experience of the primitive Church.”

Indeed, each page of the Acts attests to his presence, his drive, his power. He would guide the disciples day by day as the luminous could led the chosen people though the wilderness. On each page his presence is felt as a watermark, delicate but indelible.

This ‘experience of the Spirit’ is of ecumenical value to all Christians as something happening now. We have to re-read the Acts – together – not in order to search for an idyllic Church, which has never existed, nor because we feel that the primitive aspect is the most valuable – the Holy Spirit does not confine himself to the past – but so that, together, we may steep ourselves in the faith of the first Christians, for whom the Holy Spirit was a primordial and personal reality. Receiving the Holy Spirit left observable effects; St. Paul, arriving in Ephesus, was astonished to perceive no trace of these among the converts there.

By looking at the experience of the Spirit from this vantage-point, before even attempting any conceptualization or systematic formulation of it – however essential these will become in their proper time and place – we will be, as it were, restored to our native land, to our common and virgin birthplace, where it is easier to rediscover the meaning of Christian brother-hood and of the fellowship in the Holy Spirit that was once its very soul.

What instantly strikes one on encountering ‘charismatic’ Christians of various confessions is the witness they share about their personal encounter with Christ Jesus who, through the Spirit, has become the Master and Lord of their lives.

They witness to a grace of inner renewal, to a personal experience, which they call ‘baptism in the Spirit’. This experience has allowed them to discover, in a new light or with heightened intensity, the ever-actual power of the Spirit and the permanence of his manifestations.

Generally speaking, they are not referring to a dramatic conversion, as St. Paul knew it, nor even to a sensational experience; rather, the Holy Spirit becomes a more and more conscious reality in their everyday lives in a way that would have been unthought-of before.

These Christians of various denominations attest that they have lived – and continue to live – a grace of re-christianisation, or again, in the case of Catholics and traditional Christians, a new awareness of what the sacraments of Christian initiation had already deposited in us germinally, but now rises to full consciousness.

As they would put it, the Lord has become perceptibly alive, in himself, in his Word, in their brothers and sisters. Their renewed faith will then be expressed in joy and thanksgiving, with their whole being, their sensitivity and complete spontaneity. In short, this is a rebirth which finds its origin in an unmistakable spiritual experience.

For it is well and truly an experience. I have already discussed in a previous study why, and in which sense, experience and faith are not mutually exclusive terms, and how an attentive reading of the Gospel shows that they harmonize with one another.  This is not the place to analyze the laws and guarantees of their harmony; it will be enough for our purpose to note that here we are on a ground where Christians of various traditions can get together and find, at this initial level, a common substratum. This is an important prerequisite of dialogue.


Source: L.J. Cardinal Suenens, The Holy Spirit, Life-Breath of the Church, vol. II, pp. 122-124.