When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?
Acts 2: 2-8
We have grown used to the picture of what it means to be human, which is embodied in the words: human being. If we see ourselves first and foremost as beings, it is a short step to the image of the isolated individual who has to do battle with others in the struggle for existence. Such images became a political and cultural undertone in the developed world from the late seventies onwards. One of the unexpected effects of the current public health crisis has been the realisation of the strength of community spirit. Far greater numbers have volunteered than were expected; people have tried to help each other even across divides that had been thought unbridgeable. The response to the lockdown, blunt and imperfect instrument though it may be, demonstrates a willingness to put the public good beyond private gain.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that just in this time we are learning more and more about how we are formed by and made for relationship, for community. Modern research on the development of the infant brain demonstrates ever more clearly how we grow into our humanity through what is bestowed upon us from without. The very first gazes of love and affirmation we receive from our parents and caregivers; the way that we learn to speak through hearing and imitating; how we find our voice in a long conversation that has been going on since human beings were first able to speak, transmitting nursery rhymes and songs, poems and stories, technical know-how and wisdom down the generations – all of this makes us what we are.
It can be fruitful to spend a little time looking at our lives in this way, thinking of everything that has acted upon us from the outside. Parents, childhood friends, teachers, favourite authors – we can acknowledge their contribution to our becoming with gratitude. If we look our lives in this way every day for a while, we may notice that our perspective on ourselves begins to shift to the outside: instead of viewing the world from our standpoint, we start to see ourselves in the middle of networks of relationships.
However, it was not random chance that gave us the image of the individual human being as a self-contained entity. If we were only the sum total of the influences that have formed us, nothing new would come into the world. Not for nothing does every hero’s journey begin with the call to leave home, abandon what is familiar and enter the wilderness where they can find a relationship to their own core. After the time of trials and initiation, they can return to the familiar world, bringing something new with them. The journey of every child into teenage years and beyond shows how we recapitulate the journey of humankind, advancing from immersion in the group towards emancipation. We only need to think of the contrast between the world of a small child and that of a teenager to notice that becoming an individual means to begin with carving out an identity apart. The skull and crossed bones on the teenager’s bedroom door under the notice that says ‘Private – Keep Out’ proclaims the arrival of the lonely individual who needs to taste the existential pain of separation.
We all live in a tension: we need to find ourselves, be strong in ourselves, develop a sense of self as independent beings with their own impulses, following the dictates of our own inner worlds. At the same time, we grow and develop in relationship. We find meaning in our relationships with others, in their recognition of the contribution we make. There is a tender space in the middle where our individuality can unfold, perhaps best appreciated when we move out of it . If we only attend to the community, we lose ourselves, merging ourselves completely with those around us, and become ineffective. If on the other hand we insist on bringing our own impulses in our own way, we may become tyrants or else arouse such opposition that we experience rejection.
The community of the disciples as we experience it in the gospels is not yet the beginning of Christian community. As long as Christ is there, the disciples defer to him and refer to his wisdom. The beautiful gospel readings from the farewell discourses that we have been reading in the Easter weeks are a prolonged meditation on a message, which is stated and restated it in different ways: I am leaving you, and only through the pain of that loss will you be empowered to find me within yourselves.
After Ascension, what the apostles have heard becomes their bitter experience. Thrown back on their own resources, they recognise the breach in their community, the consequence of their fateful division. They were not able to contain the forces of incomprehension and impatience which lived in many of them, so Judas took the step outside the circle and betrayed their beloved master. In recognising the gap left by Judas and choosing a twelfth one to replace him, they acknowledge the difficult past. After this, although they must have felt an incredible pressure of responsibility to inaugurate the new community, they grow quiet. On the morning of the Jewish festival of weeks, we find them sitting quietly in prayer. In stillness, they are able to notice the arrival of the spirit.
A new community is formed that does not rest on the Apostles giving up their individuality. The images move between unity and diversity with breathtaking speed. The one fire of the spirit separates into many tongues of flame. One Holy Spirit fills them all, but each begins to speak in their own voice. The people from many different countries experience the apostles speaking about the same thing: the mighty deeds of God, each in their own way.
If we visualise the scene in the upper room, even daring to imagine ourselves in the place of one of the Apostles, we might notice that there is no way of knowing that there is a flame above my own head. No-one was carrying a pocket mirror! As a grieving community, aware that they had not covered themselves in glory as the story of the Passion unfolded, we might imagine that none of them would have felt confident that they deserved to receive a flame. The only way inkling that I too had been blessed by a flame would have come from the way the others were beholding me.
If we continue reading the Book of Acts and the letters that follow, it can feel like diving into cold water. There is an Apostles’ Council; there are disagreements, wrangling, struggles. Do such things really belong in the New Testament? They remind us all too clearly of our own struggles in community, and our constant struggle to mediate between our own impulses and what lives in the community. How different from the world we experience when we read the gospels! Our yearning that that world could carry on for ever echoes the experience of the Apostles at Ascension, when they have to take their leave from Jesus in the form that had known him. How wonderful it would be for our community striving if we could unite around the one true leader and follow them without question! But of course, sooner or later we would bump up against the limits to our own individual spiritual growth. The Whitsun event demonstrates how a human community becomes a vessel for the spirit. Although the community that is founded then is limited by the personalities and historical circumstances that form it, it shines out ever and again as a beacon of the human spirit that has opened itself for the Holy Spirit.