By Kathy Berken
When I was a young girl attending Catholic grade school in the 1950s, I remember the sisters teaching us that we are temples of the Holy Spirit, so that alone ought to be enough to motivate us to be well behaved. Of course, in those days, everything we learned connected to some church teaching and our conduct.
My cynical self always wondered if those were just resources the nuns used to keep us in line. I mean, why else would they tell us that while the Passion was being read on Palm Sunday and again on Good Friday, that if we stood perfectly still, we would gain some kind of plenary indulgence? Didn’t we all want those to bank on?
As I grew older, I honestly didn’t think as much about being the temple of the Holy Spirit because Vatican II happened. The focus seemed to be the community of believers and how Jesus acted in the world in other people more than about self-focus related to a temple.
Lately, in the context of spiritual direction, I’ve used the image of us being temples of the Holy Spirit often and, admittedly, was surprised because it seemed outdated. When I heard myself ask people if they believe they are a temple of the Holy Spirit, I knew that I needed to have an honest explanation of what that really means in today’s world.
In my practice of centering prayer, I feel that I am immersed in the presence of God. Although I don’t envision an actual object such as a temple, or think of my body as somehow being a house for God, I do imagine that my entire being is one with God’s Holy Spirit.
Further, and what may be of immense help to those of us in relationships with others who are challenging at best, is that if I believe I am a temple of the Holy Spirit, doesn’t it also follow that you, too, are a temple of the Holy Spirit? If indeed you are, then are you not also one with God, also immersed in God’s being?
Looking at others with the same eyes that I see myself is one of the most powerful awakenings I’ve had lately. The awareness that the beliefs I have of myself also apply to every other human being is a game-changer. I’ve been able to be in the presence of people with whom I am diametrically opposed on political and religious issues, and yet when I consciously think, “This person is a temple of the Holy Spirit,” it radically changes the way I feel or think about them. I’m talking about people who can easily raise my hackles to a dangerously high level!
The image of sitting with another person and believing that each of us is a temple of the Holy Spirit, regardless of their upbringing, beliefs or values, has given me a huge dose of compassion. I do not have to agree with or feel compelled to be in any long-term relationship with anyone, but I’m speaking about a present moment of encounter. This might happen in a store, on the street, at a family gathering, working on a retreat, in spiritual direction or on a Zoom call. When I have already decided that this spiritual practice will benefit both of us, and also create the domino effect of affecting the world, then simply to acknowledge within myself that, yes, you also are a temple of the Holy Spirit, can have the real potential to be transformational.
Spring is here. Seeds of peace are available.
(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at The Arch, L’Arche in Clinton from 1999-2009.)