The first thing we learn about the Spirit is that she hovers. That would be a kestrel then, except that she is not a bird of prey. She is gentle in nature and usually does not destroy the one over whom she hovers.
The Holy Spirit is of course associated with water as well as doves. When Jesus was baptized and came up out of the water it is said that he saw the Spirit come down from heaven like a dove to rest on Him. I have some experience of pigeons swooping down when I leave my flat, and I must say this is a deeply unsettling matter, especially if you don’t like fluttering animals. The Holy Spirit is a bit like that – unusual, unsettling and an agent of often surprising change.
It is now quite a while that human beings have learned to fly, but we have never achieved the grace and beauty birds display on the wing. What does that say about our earthbound nature? We are certainly not physically built to fly, but I often wonder what it would be like to see the world from above. How would we think of all those niggling bits we now consider so weighty? Would we still quarrel with the neighbour about that piece of tree hanging over our garden fence? In a recent copy of the Evening Standard there was a picture of a bird’s eye view of Trafalgar Square that showed clearly what I mean. All the small details were hardly, if at all, visible.
When I was a child I learned to swim in the salty water of the Mediterranean Sea, and I still love the smell and feel of the sea. It was easy to learn because salt water supports the body very well, and offers buoyancy which untreated fresh water does not have. I believe that we are supported and carried by the Holy Spirit constantly if we listen to her.
When I swam far out everything on the beach was tiny, and sometimes even the visible things were blurred. This reminds me that in this life we can never see all things clear enough to understand them.
Personally I am a water person. I love the sound and energy of moving water. It changes a large area nearby. The banks of rivers and streams are always lush and green, even in the scorching heat of summer when the grass and plants further away are yellow with drought. Even the air near waterways is different, fresher than elsewhere.
Another image from the Bible is wind and breath. Where would we be if we had to live without breath? May be we would be tied to the water and use gills to extract oxygen. What a disturbing thought! On the other hand, how would you like to walk around with a hat of flames? This is exactly what seems to have happened to the people on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out and they were forever changed.
The prophet Joel in the Old Testament already spoke about the transforming power of the Spirit of God. He promised that old people without hope would have dreams again, and young people without life experience should see visions. And, best of all, these changes will not be confined to particularly holy persons or the professionally religious! (Joel 2:28)
What a promise this is – but can we really allow God to transform us to such an extent without the feeling that we lose our free will in this? The question is whether we believe that God has our best interest at heart, or if what we call “God’s will” is nothing but another chore.
For me water, wind, breath and fire invoke images of great energy and life. These elements have a lasting effect, since they change whatever is in their path. Big storms and raging wildfires change the appearance of a landscape for many years to come. Even after all the vegetation has grown back the place will never be the same as before.
All these examples point to one common factor. When God touches his creation, the material, situation or person is profoundly changed. So how can we know where this change comes from, especially here in the heart of London where everything and everyone is constantly moving? In such an environment it would be a profound change if all that hustle and bustle came to a sudden halt. Tube strikes, Christmas and heavy snowfalls spontaneously come to mind here as enforced stops. The Quiet Gardens movement offers space where people can just be, if they are drawn to it; and there are of course the numerous churches which are all open for silent prayer and reflection.
I remember vividly one evangelical Bible study many, many years ago when the story was discussed how Moses had to wear a veil because his face shone extremely bright after being with God. Quite clearly he was deeply moved and changed by being in the presence of God. The expectation was that we all should be equally transformed in prayer.
What would our lives look like if we let ourselves be changed by the Holy Spirit, not just in the times we set aside for God but all the time?