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The iconography of the church often reveals startling reminders of the truths of the faith. When Pentecost is represented we most often see the tongues of flame descending on the heads of the Apostles, but we also see the apostles gathered around the Blessed Mother-reminding us that Pentecost is not just a personal experience, but a corporate experience.
In our individualistic, sentimental society we tend to judge things according to the impact they have on us personally. We want the buzz. We want the experience. We want the ‘personal encounter.’ This is often the emphasis in religion as well. Whether it is charismatic renewal or new ecclesial movements that stress ‘the encounter with Christ’ or some Protestant experience based worship encounter, we look for the Holy Spirit baptism to be some sort of powerful, mystical, emotional, subjective experience.
Nothing wrong with that necessarily. These kind of experiences are fine. We don’t want to deny them or rule them out. However, we do need to be properly skeptical of them, for personal emotional religious ‘experiences’ may be the result of mental or emotional disturbances and they can be manufactured in all sorts of ways from illegal substances to shyster evangelists and cult leaders. The emotional, subjective ‘Holy Spirit experiences’ are all well and good, except that sometimes they’re not well and they’re certainly not good.
In addition to having a proper scepticism about personal mystical, emotional religious experiences it is even more important to remember that the baptism of Holy Spirit is not just a personal religious encounter. More importantly, the Holy Spirit is the inspiration for the foundation of the Church. That is why, in the painting here, and in so much of the church’s iconography, the scene is portrayed as it is–the apostolic church gathered together around the Mother of the Church–the Mother of God.
It is in this apostolic church–inspired by the Holy Spirit– that our own individual encounter with the Burning Bush, the Burning Babe, the Dove Descending, the Fiery Cloudy pillar, the earthquake, wind and fire and the still, small voice makes sense and is validated.
We may experience the infilling of the Holy Spirit in a powerful, dramatic way. Or then again we may not, and whether we do or not may simply have more to do with our personality type than anything else. What is most important to remember is that within the Church and her sacraments the Holy Spirit is given to us in a solid, reliable and unfailing way. In baptism, confirmation, confession, the Eucharist the Holy Spirit is given, fulfilled, renewed and refreshed. It happens. It’s a fact. It’s real–whether we happen to feel the burning in our hearts or not.
This too is pictured in the painting above, for the bodies writhing in supernatural ecstacy are placed within the solid architecture of the church. Therefore the personal and the corporate, the subjective and the objective are both vital in the life of faith. My personal experience is grounded on the Rock, and if I experience anything that goes against the church or is not in union with the church, then I am deluded and I had better be careful lest I am led astray. Instead, my personal experiences are tested and tried– refined and defined by Mother Church.
And in this I humbly rejoice, for as my personal experience is subjected to the authority of the church, rather than my personal experience being suppressed or quashed, my personal experience is magnified, enhanced and taken up into a totally greater dimension.
My own personal life is merged with the Body of Christ the Church and therefore, my life which was once insignificant, comes to assume cosmic importance because it is part of a much greater whole, a small part in a greater symphony, a tiny orbit within the everlastingly complex whirling of the greater created order.