Giver of Life, Book on the Holy Spirit, Released by Fr. John Oliver
Fr. John Oliver, the priest of St. Elizabeth Orthodox Christian Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, has released Giver of Life through Paraclete Press. The book tackles a topic not easily grasped, that of the Church's teaching on the Person of the Holy Spirit. An experienced communicator, Fr. John has authored the Conciliar Press story Touching Heaven and has been an Ancient Faith Radio podcaster since 2007. However, he says that writing Giver of Life proved to be a different experience altogether, and in an interview with the editors of antiochian.org, he explains why.
1. The Holy Spirit seems at times to be the most neglected Person within the Holy Trinity. Tell us what motivated you to write about Him in this book.
Actually, the idea for Giver of Life was not mine. Paraclete Press, the publisher, contacted me about writing a book for a series they were doing on the role of Holy Spirit in various traditions. They asked if I’d consider writing the Orthodox perspective. Since it’s such an enormous and lofty topic, with which I have very little personal experience, I didn’t agree to it at first.
But Paraclete said some things that led me to accept the project - they were looking for something introductory; they were fine with lots of direct references to the Church fathers; and they hoped for a book that was specifically devotional in nature. So, Giver of Life is not an academic book, and it’s certainly nowhere close to being any definitive text on the Holy Spirit in the Orthodox tradition. Rather, it’s a reflection on what the Orthodox believe about the Holy Spirit and how He changes our lives.
You mention that the Holy Spirit seems to be the most neglected Person within the Holy Trinity. Interestingly, Fr Sophrony Sakharov, in his book on St Silouan, suggests that that neglect may be partly the Holy Spirit’s design. Here’s what Fr Sophrony says: “The Holy Spirit heals us from the consequences of the fall, regenerates us and hallows us, but all this He accomplishes in an invisible manner, like some marvelous diffident Friend Who does not want to burden us with gratitude to Him. The great blessedness of knowing Him comes gradually.”
2. The description on your publisher Paraclete's website tells us that your book "Presents the Orthodox perspective on who the Holy Spirit is, where the mystery of God comes alive." In a nutshell, just what is the Orthodox perspective on the Holy Spirit, and how does it differ from other Christian traditions?
The Orthodox perspective on the Holy Spirit is really rooted, in part, in wonder. Humanity knows nothing of God apart from what He chooses to reveal to us, and what He has revealed is wondrous - such love, such overwhelming, universal, transfiguring, personal love!
The Orthodox believe that the Holy Spirit is not impersonal, but personal; that He is not an independent object of study, but of one essence and will and power with the Father and the Son; that He uniquely proceeds from the Father alone; and that the person in whom the Holy Spirit is present will necessarily call upon God as “Father,” upon Jesus as “Lord,” upon Mary as “Theotokos,” and will see the human being and all of creation as sacred and the Church as the sole ark of salvation.
One way this Orthodox perspective differs from other Christian traditions is that the Orthodox believe that the Holy Spirit illuminates the whole content of salvation, rather than isolate and emphasize a particular part. For example, the Orthodox see the Holy Spirit as opening a door on the mystery of the Holy Trinity, while some traditions see the Holy Spirit as opening a door only on Himself; the Orthodox see the Holy Spirit as revealing deep truths about the Father and the Son and Mary and the Church, while some traditions see the Holy Spirit as generally detached from those other aspects of the Christian faith; the Orthodox see the Holy Spirit as transfiguring the whole of a person, while some traditions see the Holy Spirit as transfiguring a person mostly in body, with certain evidences such as tongues or tears or physical convulsions.
3. Why do we use green at Pentecost, and what does this teach us about the Holy Spirit?
Yes, Orthodox faithful around the world harvest and bring verdant life into the churches for Pentecost. As a liturgical celebration, the feast of Pentecost is lovely. Winter, with its deadening blanket, yields to spring, and Pentecost almost always falls during spring. Orthodox Christians around the world harvest and bring new greenery of all kinds into the churches—ferns, sprigs, branches, flowers, palms, herbs, even trees.
The splash of green foliage is designed to call to mind not just life but also a special kind of life. It is the life that transcends biological existence and flows from the very Godhead Itself; it is the life that is actually a state of being—immortal, everlasting, changeless. Ferns and flowers fade and die, but souls filled with this “life from above” flourish forever.
So, why greenery? Not because of the life that ferns and flowers have, but because of the life toward which they point. Pentecost is a particular kind of celebration, for it celebrates a particular kind of life - the Holy Spirit, the “Giver of life” as the Orthodox prayer calls Him, descends upon the Church and gives Himself.
4. What are the most popular misconceptions about the Third Person of the Godhead? What are the most comforting and vital aspects of His Personality?
One misconception about the Third Person of the Godhead is that He is not a Person at all. That is to say, some Christians believe He is simply an impersonal force or energy or bond of love between the Father and the Son that they, in turn, share with the rest of us. Such a belief destroys, of course, our whole understanding of the Trinity.
Another misconception is that the Holy Spirit contradicts Himself - that, in different eras and places, He reveals truths that nullify truths He has revealed in the past. This has been called “process theology” - the idea that the truths of God are always in the process of changing, growing, and adapting. For example, some believe that the Holy Spirit who inspired St Paul’s passages on male-female marriage is the same Spirit who inspires churches to affirm same-sex marriages today.
This touches on the second part of your question. The very stillness - or state of being - of the Holy Spirit is certainly part of what is most comforting and vital about Him. The sainthood toward which He inspired the apostles is the same sainthood toward which He inspires persons today. He who changes us does not change Himself.
5. In the "Oh heavenly King" prayer, we invite the Holy Spirit into our lives. Is this, in some ways, a dangerous prayer? How can we know the Spirit is with us in our homes, our work, our prayer?
Dangerous, yes, in that the Holy Spirit comes to slay our old nature that refuses to die easily. For anyone who has ever tried, dying to self is often a messy, painful process. G.K. Chesterton had it right when he said that the problem with Christianity is not that it has been tried and found wanting; the problem is that it has been found difficult, and left untried.
One helpful way to understand the work of the Holy Spirit is by His fruit as listed in the fifth chapter of Galatians. Rather than consider individual areas of our lives - home life, work life, etc - looking for evidence of the Holy Spirit, another approach is consider our lives as one seamless integrated pursuit of the Holy Spirit. Then, as we acquire the Holy Spirit, He brings His love, His joy, His peace, etc, through us into the various areas of our lives.
Consider, for example, the counsel of St. Seraphim of Sarov: “Acquire the Spirit of peace, and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” At first pass, we might hear St. Seraphim saying: be more peaceful; become a peaceful person; go and do peaceful things. Armed with what we believe to be his advice, we might fill our time with charitable projects and good deeds and breathing exercises. Notice, however, that St. Seraphim did not say to us to acquire peace. Instead, he directs us to acquire the Spirit.
The Orthodox prayer to the Holy Spirit refers to Him as the “Treasury of blessings,” so to reach for the fruit of Galatians 5 instead of reaching for the Spirit is to grasp for the blessings without having acquired the Treasury. It’s like trying to live like God apart from God. The goal of Christian life is not to force our behavior to fit categories of “love,” “joy,” “peace,” and the rest - if that were true, Christian experience would merely be an external gloss, like adding a fresh coat of paint to a house that really needs a new foundation. We would be working on the wrong problem.
We all recognize the futility of trying to improve behavior without taming the heart. The Christian may go to church and sing hymns and give alms and adorn the world with plentiful evidence of his faith, yet still fly into a rage when provoked or seethe with jealousy when slighted or burn with lust when aroused or swell with pride when praised. So, some deeper change is needed.
Christian life is about becoming a new creation in Christ; it’s the daily renewal of the inward man (II Corinthians 5:17 and 4:16). It is to follow St. Seraphim’s advice to acquire not peace in and of itself, but the Spirit of peace. Such inner renewal brings the heart under the control of the Holy Spirit, who then releases the attributes of Galatians 5 through us according to His time, His measure, His purpose, and His glory.