Pentecostal Praise

By The Rev. Ricardo Avila

A guest essay by The Rev. Ricardo Avila. Ricardo received his M. Div. from Church Divinity School of the Pacific and is interim rector at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Long Beach, CA. The parish includes a sizable LGBTQ and Latino population, and provides services for the homeless, as well as space for many local non-profit groups. Ricardo’s long-distance marriage to his husband allows for frequent trips back to the Bay Area.

As my forehead came to rest on the stone floor of Grace Cathedral, having flinched away once from its cold surface, I finally relaxed. Tired, my body sank into the floor while a fleeting thought (it’s now out of my hands) passed by. Up and down the center aisle, the six other transitional deacons also lay prostrate. Everyone chanted “Veni, Sancte Spiritus” around and above us, their surrounding entreaty blending with the sound of my own breath hitting the stone.

Suddenly, tears fell out of my eyes. Not erupting from any burst of emotion, just falling. My chest remembered to sob only after my eyes were already drying. As I lay there, in those final moments before I was ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church, I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Modern Coptic icon of Pentecost.

Then why do I still wonder whether such a thing exists? Had I been at the Pentecost event, would I have joined the scoffers, snickering, “they are filled with new wine”? I’d like to think not. Violent wind, dancing tongues of fire on crown chakras all around me, and hicks from Galilee speaking international languages — surely that would have impressed even this skeptic. Yes.

But I wasn’t there. Instead, I — we — must live in the aftermath of that First Pentecost. We are bereft of that pure experience, yet burdened with every interpretation of the Holy Spirit since. So, maybe it’s not the Spirit I doubt, but rather our feeble attempts to mediate our experiences of the Holy Spirit that are unconvincing.

When clergy friends strike out in job searches, people post comments on Facebook like, “Something about that position wasn’t right for you. Trust that the Holy Spirit is at work and will help you find the best fit, one that uses your unique gifts.” Well, maaaybe. But what I want to write in response is, “Or perhaps the Holy Spirit did her part, and the search committee or the rector screwed up and picked the wrong person!” Isn’t that just as plausible? Or, “Maybe the Spirit has more important things to do than finding us the perfect job.”

Why does this make me so cranky? I think it’s because my faith in the Spirit is already so fragile. And to make the Holy Spirit a repository for our hope of rescue, succor, success, or creativity, is to set ourselves up for disappointment and disbelief — unless we keep adjusting our argument so that the Spirit always wins.

And yet … it took me three and a half years before I found the clergy position I now have, as interim rector at St. Luke’s, Long Beach. And, looking back, I realize that no other job for which I applied was as perfect a fit as this one has been. Not only that: I would never have applied for this position, but for a series of coincidences dating back to 2010. Could the Spirit have been guiding me past all those other opportunities, rejection upon rejection, so that I could land here? Who can prove otherwise? So, why be cranky and doubtful when I can be grateful and trusting?

Come, Holy Spirit. And, when you do, guide us between the Scylla of blind faith and the Charybdis of jaded mistrust.

Mexican icon of Pentecost.

In 2009, I took part in a four-day seminarians’ mission trip to an Anglican church in Piedras Negras, Mexico. Our visit culminated with attendance at their Sunday Eucharist. We had been warned that their worship style was on the Pentecostal side, but we figured it was Anglican — so how crazy could it get? This crazy: 25 minutes into his sermon, the praise band having crescendoed the crowd into a frenzy of clapping and yelling, Padre Miguel suddenly came down the center aisle of the small church and started smacking people’s foreheads, so that, one by one, they crumbled to the floor, slain in the Spirit. Only seven or eight people volunteered, but I was starting to get nervous. Then, a few of us wide-eyed seminarians saw something: as one woman was slain, she paused in her fall just long enough to adjust her bra strap. That was all we needed. Our eyes narrowed back to their skeptical, know-it-all master’s-program slits. I left unconvinced, though grateful for the trip.

And yet … by the end of our first night there, Padre Miguel had not only discerned I was gay — though I’d had no intention of being “out” while there — but he somehow got me to tell him myself. Then, he took me aside, looked at me with his piercing green eyes, pointed at my chest, and said, “Listen: God has a special task for you. You need to become a priest; and you need to be open about your sexuality; and you need to minister to the Latino community. Because there are gay and lesbian people out there waiting for you to show up in their lives, who will be in your church pews one day, and you have to stand at that altar and be for them an example of God’s unconditional love. Because they need to learn to love themselves through you.”

I was sobbing before he had even finished speaking. And … I now minister among just such a community. Not that I’ve changed any lives yet, unless you count the few people who’ve left our Spanish service because I am gay. Was Padre Miguel a conduit for the Holy Spirit? Or is this all just a coincidence?

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful people, and kindle in them the fire of your love. And, when you do come, help us to get out of our own way, so that you can work through us unimpeded.

Recently, an Episcopal deacon friend confessed he’d gone to a Pentecostal church in his younger years. He had spoken in tongues on occasion, though it didn’t feel genuine at first. At its best, however, he described the experience as transcendent. “I sensed the presence of the Creator, and my response to that nearness was to spout praise,” he explained. “I didn’t know what I was saying, it was gibberish, but I knew what it meant, and it was all praise and joy.”

Pentecost Icon.

I asked, “were the words yanked out from you or did you initiate them yourself?” He thought a moment, and then replied, “Neither. They burst forth from me without my impetus, as if something else inside me was responding to God’s presence.” This echoed my experience of spontaneous tears at ordination, while lying on that cold stone floor.

It could be that the Holy Spirit already resides in us. That when we summon it, its arrival comes not to us but through us. I don’t know. Maybe it’s best to leave it a mystery, unexplained and not interpreted. Our attempts to speak of the Holy Spirit probably sound like gibberish to God. But maybe God listens anyway, and hears it as praise.

Image credits: (1) Coptic.net; (2) ChurchForum.org; and (3) Maronite-Heritage.com.

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