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What Does It Mean to Be “Attentive to the Spirit”?

Fr Rich AndreFr. Rich Andre, CSP
May 26, 2023

The Paulist Center mission statement begins by describing our community as “Attentive to the Spirit.” This is refreshingly appropriate, since the spirituality of the Paulist Fathers revolves around individual devotion to the Holy Spirit. But what does it mean, to be attentive to the Spirit?

One of my most intense experiences of the Spirit occurred on May 26, 2001. As sudden as a flash of lightning – like Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus? – the Spirit invited me to consider discerning for the Catholic priesthood. I now realize that the Spirit had been gently calling me for several years in more subtle ways, but I had been too stubborn to listen!

I made my first 8-day directed silent retreat in May 2004, and it was another profound experience. By day #3, I felt “in the zone” with the Spirit. Between prayer exercises assigned by my director, I floated through the days, letting my mind and body wander over the property. I repeatedly came across thoughts and images that led to profound spiritual insights. With each successive day, the insights multiplied, and that sense of being guided by the Spirit intensified. On many of the retreats I’ve made since then, I’ve re-entered “the zone” with the Spirit. But alas, that feeling – or confidence? – ebbs away in the weeks and months after each retreat ends. I’ll regain it for brief moments, but then it evades me again.

I was graced with a lot of hospital chaplaincy experiences as a student, culminating with my clinical pastoral experience (CPE) at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the summer of 2008. This, combined with excellent pastoral classes at the Washington Theological Union, helped me to develop the skills to be truly present to people in hospital and counseling stations. Most of the time, I can let go of my own agenda and allow the Spirit to use me as an instrument. It’s startling how often people tell me that what I’ve said or how I’ve showed up was inspiring, the answer to a prayer, or life-changing. I’m humbled, because I know the gift is not from me: it’s from the Holy Spirit!

What’s the difference between being attentive to the Spirit and just doing whatever you want? It takes a fair amount of effort to discern between the sometimes selfish desire to be independent for its own sake and a true devotion to the Holy Spirit. I didn’t really understand how to consistently distinguish between them until 2018. Many of us have felt a decision confirmed by God when we experienced a sense of peace. But according to Galatians 5:22-23, there are eight additional fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I now realize that if I take a question to prayer, God’s desired answer will be confirmed by my experience of at least one of the Spirit’s fruits. I may feel a greater desire to be kind or generous. I may suddenly discover the ability to conquer a bad habit or to respond to a heated situation with kindness.

Come once again, Holy Spirit, and renew me. Renew us all. And renew the face of the earth!