Good Letters

20090702-owning-the-spirit-by-mary-van-denendThis month I bought a large framed photograph of the Holy Spirit.

Impossible, you say? Heretical, perhaps?

But imagine this: An empty dance floor in an old school or a city loft somewhere. A row of casement windows open to the breeze, light streaming in. A single metal folding chair against the far wall. And centered in that silent space, something white floats, swirls, and levitates of its own accord: part cloth, part cloud.

It looks to be alive, but if there’s a body within fabric, its ghostly form hides safe as any conjurer’s trick. If it’s just a gauzy curtain, with no visible attachment to ceiling or floor, how, then, does it stay aloft?

Susan Bein, a Portland photographer and a woman I do not know, simply calls it “Dance.”

Ever since I took a theology class at Regent College many years ago, I’ve been fascinated with the Third Person of the Trinity. A professor of Church History emphasized that the early Christians spent the better part of four centuries first debating over Christ’s dual nature, and second, hammering out a doctrine of the Trinity.

By all accounts, we’re still working on that one. Whoever He, She, or It is—the spirit of the risen Christ, yes, but—the nature and function of the Holy Spirit remains one of the ongoing mysteries of our faith.

In the Apostle’s Creed, we claim, “the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son…. He is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the prophets….” I remember sitting in church as a little girl hearing all those hes and hims, and wondering where the shes and hers were. All the pronouns in the Creed are masculine, yet many virtues Scripture attributes to the Holy Spirit inhabit traditionally feminine roles like comfort, nurture, guidance, peace, fidelity, and not the least, wisdom.

Consider these lines: Wisdom is bright, and does not grow dim. By those who love her she is readily seen, and found by those who look for her…. Watch for her early and you will have no trouble. You will find her sitting at your gates (The Book of Wisdom, 6:12-15). And it is that selfsame spirit of wisdom groaning within us when we have no words with which to pray.

Wisdom, interestingly, wears a female face in the Eastern Church too, at least in its iconography, where she goes by “Sophia,” often Hagia Sophia in the Greek. New Age theology, much of it shallow and subjective, now surrounds the “forgotten” Feminine.

I do not mean to disparage anyone’s honest search for a grounded faith that upholds one’s gender in fresh, complementary ways. But that’s not what I’m after.

My own pursuit of this mystery comes with a few tantalizing questions. One such concerns that familiar emblem of the Holy Spirit, the iconic white Dove who appeared to Noah’s desperate boat bearing a slender green branch, promising dry land. Doves were frequently the sacrifice of choice for poor Jews who couldn’t afford a calf or lamb.

And then there’s the Dove hovering over the head of Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan. God could have used a large, powerful bird in either story, a raven, or an eagle. But he chose instead a weak one. The Dove, which has been a feminine symbol down the ages, from various ancient mythologies to medieval paintings of the Annunciation.

When we lived in rural North Carolina common gray Mourning Doves were everywhere. They were considered stupid birds who would just sit idly on telephone wires and let you shoot them, which kids with BB guns often did. Some of those kids had .22’s.

There was no sport in it, no sense to it, just random slaughter. Like what happened to that beautiful young protester on the streets of Tehran recently. Did she rise early for prayer that morning, I wonder—hoping to meet Wisdom at her gates?

But back to my photograph. I learned last week something of the photographer’s secret. Turns out it’s merely a smudge, her own manipulation of the light.

I have to admit to disappointment. I still prefer my enchanted version, not some technique that explains away the mystery. The irony serves to remind me that no single image can claim to own or embody the Holy Spirit. Nor can we fully understand the play of light in a room, much less the mind of God. Certainly not me—privileged, fearful, art-loving, self-serving, God-needing dreamer that I am.

I just want to follow the Spirit’s lead and learn the Dance.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Mary Van Denend

Mary Van Denend is a poet and 2007 graduate of the Seattle Pacific University MFA in Creative Writing program. She works in the field of arts-in-healthcare.

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