A God Unknown

When Paul visits Athens and addresses the council of the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-23), he begins with a reference to an altar inscribed to an unknown god. In our post-Resurrection age we seem to be in something of the same situation as the one who sponsored that altar since we are aware that there is a God in our lives, a very active Spirit, and yet we have little or no objective conception of the Spirit’s personality or face.

Now to some extent the story of the Old Testament is the epic saga of how the Jews came from a culture of polytheism (cf. for example the story of Jacob, his uncle Laban, and the “household gods,” Gn 31:17-35) to a personal knowledge of a God who cared for them, took care of them, would call them to task for their infidelity and generally shaped them into a people who looked to Him as their unique and eternal uncreated God and salvation.

God the Father

Only in the New Testament did we gain a better understanding of that God as an individual with a more developed particular character, flavor and the name of “Father.” We discovered that He is not just a divinity, not just an immense power or a philosophical conclusion, but a very specific Person with very deep feelings and with generous plans for us.

Jesus himself was that revelation of the Father, and in His life and death, in His words and ministry, He also told us all He could about who He himself was as God — but again we did not truly plumb His depths (not that we have done so even now!). It was only in His leaving us in the Ascension and in the coming of the Holy Spirit that we really began to see that Jesus is truly both completely God and completely human and to understand what significance this has for us. Only in the Spirit can we begin to grasp what Jesus told us and showed us, to enter into His mystery in any real way.

Luke and the Holy Spirit

We might consider the two books attributed to Luke to be a special history of that Spirit at work in the world. The first, Luke’s Gospel, has the Holy Spirit bring Jesus to take our human flesh after all those centuries of preparation and to live our humanity perfectly under the Spirit’s guidance. In the second book, Acts, we see the action of the Spirit directly in the Christians, the new People of God, as the Spirit expands the limits of the Chosen People in terms of race, location and beliefs after Christ’s Resurrection. In this way we discover that the Holy Spirit is alive and at work even now, and only now do we start to seriously appreciate just who Christ is/was and how little of that we truly comprehend or can respond to.

And yet, as Christ brought the Father into better focus for us, and as the Spirit has done the same for our idea of Christ and our presence to Him, it would seem that there is now no one who can do that same revelation of the Spirit and development of His word to us. We still have almost no idea or understanding of the Spirit himself in the same personal way that we do of the Father and Jesus.

Just to take a simple example, we are fully conscious that the Father does not show any of the physical sexual characteristics of human males, but Jesus addresses Him and speaks to Him as “Father” and so we have in our psyches that very human notion about the First Person being male, like it or not — and when Jesus tells Philip “To have seen me is to have seen the Father” (Jn 14:8-9) it certainly doesn’t change that fact, even if Jesus meant something else by His words. If we now have a “face” for the Father, even though we are aware that it is a human fabrication, there is some reason for it.

We have no direct and even relatively clear words from the Spirit; quite the contrary. All we can do is watch and pray that we might understand and so follow (or follow and so understand — the sequence is unimportant). We are “born again” in the Spirit, who warms, fosters, encourages, lifts us from our infancy, and teaches us the things of God; the Spirit forms us individually and as the Christian family, and He gives us the right values as He leads us to know and love the Father and Son and what they are all about.

Gender Role

Does this sound like mothering? To assign such a gender role to the Spirit is just as weak as our making the Father male, and yet the only “persons” we know are gendered and take on gender roles in every human society. Even if that gender aspect of personhood comes to us from human experience and is virtually worthless if we apply it directly to the nature of the Spirit (or even to the Father or the Son), it is all that we have as we seek to truly encounter, know, love and serve our God and sing His (!) glory with every fiber of our own little beings.

The Spirit teaches us the rudiments of interaction of all sorts with the Three, and He is our inspiration, our wisdom, our encouragement and our refuge. He is the “other Paraclete” (after Jesus) that Jesus promised (Jn 14:16), yet that title means little to us even when we say that “paraclete” is originally a legal term meaning helper, comforter, encourager, counsel, defender, champion or mediator.

Little Mentioned

We might expect that the liturgy could teach us more about the Spirit as we pray our way through the liturgical year, but that is simply not true. In the Eucharist we actually find relatively little mention of the Spirit or reference to Him, especially in comparison to Christ but also in terms of the presence of the Father, to whom we address almost the entire eucharistic celebration — although we usually speak rather vaguely there to “God” or “Lord.” On the whole, when those words appear alone in any part of the Eucharist they seem to refer primarily to the Father and sometimes to the Son but never to the Spirit.

We name the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist’s opening sign of the cross and in the following welcome, and there is a bit concerning the Spirit at the end of the Gloria. We mention the Spirit when the celebrant blesses the deacon before he reads the Gospel, and we have a mention of the Annunciation and several full lines at the end of the Creed. The Spirit appears maybe twice in the body of the eucharistic prayer and then again at the minor elevation at the end of that section. One of the two possible celebrant’s prayers before the distribution of communion mentions the Spirit, who appears as part of the Trinity at the final blessing, and we sometimes see the Spirit indicated in a tag at the end of a prayer, again as a member of the Trinity. All this is really not much, and only twice in all of this is the Holy Spirit’s appearance much more than just an off-handed inclusion in a formula.


In looking at the whole liturgical year, the situation is even more bleak. We celebrate the Spirit on Pentecost, but on that feast our homilies might address any part of the Pentecost story or the other readings, not necessarily centering on the Spirit but usually at most on the action itself; we might speak on the founding of the Church, for example, on the new People of God, or on a number of other things without really addressing the identity of the Third Person.

On Trinity Sunday the other two Persons can easily take center stage in a similar manner unless we pay attention. The only text fully and directly centered on the Holy Spirit in the whole year’s liturgy is the sequence in Pentecost Sunday’s celebration, and it tells us so many more things about the Spirit that we recognize as true than any other part of the liturgy does in the whole year.

A Problem

It seems to me that all of this points to the existence of a problem concerning our knowledge of the Spirit and our way of relating to Him, but pinpointing exactly where the problem lies is another matter. Is it in the very nature of the Spirit to be almost impossible to know and describe? Is it only because He is the last of the Trinity to become explicit in our history? Are we just not paying enough attention? Or what? And more importantly, what can we do?

Help is fortunately at hand, and that is the Spirit himself. In my opinion we simply need to pray, to ask questions, to open our hearts and minds to Him, and to wait: no one can reveal the Spirit to us better than the Spirit himself can, and if we can pray for this enlightenment, can we ask all the questions that come to us. If we are able to open our minds and hearts and wait attentively and with yearning, we might be able to grasp in some rough way the role of the Spirit in our lives and in our world.

And all that we do to be ready and attentive will be worth the effort.

FATHER KESTERMEIER, S.J., received a doctorate in French literature at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) and, since then, has been teaching English at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, since 1995.