Friday, June 3, 2011

11-05-29: 6th Sunday of Easter

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 8:5-8, 14-17 / Psalm 66 / 1 Peter 3:15-18 / John 14:15-21

Back in grammar school days when the Mass was in Latin and, as altar boys, we had to serve the Wednesday night Benediction, it was always neat to be able to light the charcoal and watch it spark, first turning red than white. I loved the smell of the incense as the priest swung the thurible in front of the monstrance. Then we would all recite the Divine Praises which have remained the same despite the retranslations over the past forty or so years. Father Reilly, a stickler for proper observance and rubrics, would wait for us to mispronounce the epithet used for the Holy “Ghost” as we would inevitably invoke the parakeet instead of properly saying “Paraclete” as was written. Most of the congregation I’m sure did the same.

“Paraclete” is one of those words that is not translated, but simply transliterated, into English from the Greek. Commentators say it’s just untranslatable though today’s gospel makes a go of it and translates “Paraclete” as Advocate. If we were to attempt a literal translation it would be rendered “someone who is called to the side of (another)” in order to render assistance. This Paraclete we have come to know as the Holy Spirit whose presence, by definition, remains intangible. We know of this presence only by the effects it engenders. We might venture to “prove” his existence the same way scientists “prove” the existence of protons or gravity – by their effects, how they change the behavior of that which they touch.

All of us have had the experience of encountering this inexplicable phenomenon even if only as witnesses. Take the recent earthquake/tsunami in Japan or the tornadoes in America’s Midwest, for example. Horrific devastation, loss of all that one holds precious, and yet, people find some inner strength to help others, they muster up the fortitude to carry on. I saw it recently when watching a powerful documentary about a battle during the Korean War where veteran survivors of the battle recalled the heroism of one of their comrades in the face of horrendous suffering and utterly gruesome carnage as he kept going back into the fray to help his wounded friends. It’s witnessed as well in the determination a young couple just realizing their first born has Down Syndrome or the teenager rejected by his first love. How, one wonders, do they all stay afloat, not give up and fall into despair? It’s something, I think, reflected in the words of that old Protestant Hymn: “Help of the helpless, abide with me.” Or the poignant translation of the poem by the Persian mystic, Rumi. “Be helpless, dumbfounded,” Rumi writes. “Then a stretcher will come from grace to gather us up.”

Spirit, ghost, companion, comforter, stretcher, “parakeet”: it doesn’t matter what we call it, or him, or her, because this “one called to our side” doesn’t ask to be adored or worshipped but only invited. At the moment when all seems lost, when orphan hood, with all that that word conjures, threatens to become a reality - then he comes, like a hint of incense in the air or a stretcher from that place called grace, a hand on your fevered brow, an arm around your shoulder, or a smile that says – you’re accepted just the way you are. This Paraclete – for lack of a better term - can take any and many forms; and this seeming absurd name, reminding us of parakeets, marks our inability to define or clearly identify him as he makes his presence known through unexpected agents and surprising encounters and, as the poet attests, “blesses us unawares.”

[N.B. It’s that time of year once again to sign off on these Pastoral Reflections and give the patient readers of this column a well-deserved break! Until September…tfb]

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