Andrew Neaum


“Spirit”, as opposed to “matter”, be it Holy Spirit or unholy spirit, is difficult to get your mind round. Indeed, the very notion or concept: “Spirit” is as impossible to grasp as the wind, as invisible as breath. Little wonder that in both Hebrew and Greek, the word for wind, for breath and for spirit is exactly the same word: “ruach” in Hebrew, “pneuma” in Greek.


So what is spirit? Breath and wind are, after all, only metaphors, good ones, certainly, but like all metaphors, essentially untrue, in that they are just comparisons. They are not actually to be identified with that to which they are compared.


We do know what wind and breath are. They are moving molecules of air, that is matter, whereas spirit, by definition, is not matter, it is the antonym of matter.


So what is spirit, as opposed to matter, be it Holy Spirit or unholy spirit?

Two realities

As far as humanity is concerned there are two realities. There is physical, material reality, made up of quarks, atoms and molecules, perceived, known and understood by way of our senses, by touch, smell, sound, taste, sight and so on, aided and abetted by marvellous telescopes, microscopes, and the whole wonderful apparatus and technologies of science.


Then there is spiritual reality, which is totally immaterial, unsubstantial, made up not of particles, atoms and molecules, nor perceived, known and understood by way of our senses. It is therefore totally inaccessible to all those marvellous telescopes, microscopes, and the whole wonderful apparatus and technologies of science. About spiritual reality therefore, science can have little if anything to say.


The spiritual world is made up of things that are easily as real as those that make up the material world, things like truth, love, value, beauty, goodness and so on, but not of spooks, ghosts, phantoms and fairies, all of which are either naive attempts to objectify, or materialise, the spiritual, into being what in essence it isn’t. Or, on the other hand (as with angels especially) are “imaged” spiritual realities, spiritual realities imaginatively actualised, that enable us sometimes to acknowledge, react to and take them seriously in important, imaginative ways.

Dying for the immaterial

Spiritual reality is indeed as real if not more real, than material reality. We demonstrate this by being prepared to die, that is actually to give up our material existence for the sake of immaterial, spiritual realities such as truth, or love.


However as Christians we recognise, being material as well as spiritual beings, that in our space/time context, we simply cannot have one reality without the other.


So we avoid the trap that some religions and heresies fall into, of denigrating or despising the material, because in fact the material points to the spiritual, is suffused with the spiritual, as Elizabeth Barret Browning suggests in this passage from her long poem “Aurora Leigh”:

                                                                Earth's crammed with heaven,

                                                               And every common bush afire with God,

                                                               But only he who sees takes off his shoes;

                                                              The rest sit round and pick blackberries.


By “the rest” she means thoroughgoing materialists like Richard Dawkins and co.


The great and sophisticated Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, which states that our entirely spiritual God, in Jesus, wonder of wonders, became flesh, that is became material, points to a beautiful compatibility between the material and the spiritual. What is more the great and sophisticated Christian doctrine of the Resurrection suggests that even beyond space/time, that is, after death, the material has some sort of place or significance, or resonance.

Missing the breeze for the trees

So, on this feast of Pentecost, when we celebrate the Holy Spirit of God at work within space/time, we remind ourselves that to Christians there is more to reality than what merely meets the eye. There are two realities, the spiritual and the material, different but by no means incompatible.


The spiritual is to be discerned in and through the material, though never totally identified with it. Nor is it to be objectified into quasi material beings, like conventional spooks, ghosts, phantoms, fairies or whatever. Rather, and far more subtly, it requires to be metaphored, of similed into perceptibility.


The disciples on the first day of Pentecost, were overwhelmed by spiritual reality, by truths beyond telling, by love beyond expression, A reality metaphored into visibility as flame, into audibility as rushing, mighty wind, into further audibility as the babbling of glossolalia or “talking in tongues”, and then personified in lives totally changed, turned upside down.


To focus only on the metaphor or on the simile itself, that is on the tongues of fire, the sound of a rushing mighty wind the ecstatic babbling of over excited disciples, is to miss the wood for the trees, or rather is to miss the breeze for the trees. It is to miss spiritual reality for material reality.

Powerful beyond telling

The spiritual reality is, above all else, God’s love which had to be articulated and perceived only in metaphor and simile, until made more visible and real in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.


The spiritual reality that is God’s love, once perceived, acknowledged, and accepted, has the power to transform and metamorphose, to suffuse the material with hope, joy, direction and peace. The spiritual reality that is God’s love, is the very Holy Spirit of God, powerful beyond telling. We celebrate this at Pentecost.

Opening up

One of the great reasons for being church-goers is to open ourselves to the power of God’s Holy Spirit of love.


In church, Love’s great story is told, retold and told again. It is made present on the altar, week in week out. The church calendar ensures that the whole narrative, not just the best bits, are told year in year out.


In Church, God’s love is metaphored, similied, storyified, liturgified, sacrament-alised. It is sung, told, painted, stain-glassed, sculptured, enacted and reenacted, over and over again. It invites, encourages, softens us up to a power that metamorphoses and changes lives.


The spiritual reality that is God’s love, is also personified in the lives of the community that gathers at the communion rail week in week out.


This Spiritual reality that is God’s love, the very Holy Spirit of God, invites us to love more than just ourselves and our families and friends. It challenges us to accept more than just comfort and ease, to forgive rather than to grudge or avenge, to embrace our neighbours, strangers, enemies, circum-stances and world, and by doing so to transform not only ourselves, but the world, breaking down rather than erecting barriers.


If we are here in church for the best of reasons rather than just for comfort, reassurance and reinforcement. We are here to open ourselves to the spiritual reality that is God’s Love, God’s Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit. We are here to be radicalised then, to be bowled over, opened to the other, to others, to embrace not merely family and friends, but beggars, thieves, scoundrels and scallywags, to turn the world upside down or be crucified in the trying.


Who would want anything else than to be Christlike, Godlike, Spirit-filled? Happy Pentecost.