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  • Writer's pictureFr. Scott Haynes

St. Augustine's Insights into the Holy Spirit

Pope Benedict XVI spoke to a group of young people about the Holy Spirit. He recounted that when he was a child, he believed in the Holy Spirit, but never quite understood the third person of the Trinity. This changed for him when, as a Priest, he delved into the writing of St. Augustine of Hippo. The Holy Father noted that the saint’s understanding of the Holy Spirit also developed gradually too.


The Pope noted that this great theologian had “three particular insights about the Holy Spirit as the bond of unity within the blessed Trinity: unity as communion, unity as abiding love, and unity as giving and gift. These three insights,” said the Pope, “are not just theoretical. They help explain how the Spirit works. “In a world where both individuals and communities often suffer from an absence of unity or cohesion, these insights help us remain attuned to the Spirit and to extend and clarify the scope of our witness.” The Sovereign Pontiff observed that the first insight of St. Augustine came from reflecting on the words “Holy” and “Spirit,” which “refer to what is divine about God. In other words,” he added, “what is shared by the Father and the Son—their communion.” The Holy Father explained further, “if the distinguishing characteristic of the Holy Spirit is to be what is shared by the Father and the Son, Augustine concluded that the Spirit’s particular quality is unity. It is a unity of lived communion: a unity of persons in a relationship of constant giving, the Father and the Son giving themselves to each other.”

Pope Benedict XVI explained further, “We begin to glimpse how illuminating is this understanding of the Holy Spirit as unity, as communion. True unity could never be founded upon relationships which deny the equal dignity of other persons…Nor is unity simply the sum total of the groups through which we sometimes attempt to ‘define’ ourselves. In fact, only in the life of communion is unity sustained and human identity fulfilled: We recognize the common need for God, we respond to the unifying presence of the Holy Spirit, and we give ourselves to one another in service.”

The Holy Father pointed out that St. Augustine’s second insight was “the Holy Spirit as abiding love.” The Pope recalled the simple wisdom of St. John the Beloved who wrote, “God is love,” (1 John 1:16). “St. Augustine suggests that while these words refer to the Trinity as a whole, they express a particular characteristic of the Holy Spirit.” The Pontiff explained: “Reflecting on the lasting nature of love—‘whoever abides in love remains in God and God in him’—[St. Augustine] wondered: Is it love or the Holy Spirit which grants the abiding?” Referencing St. Augustine’s De Trinitate, Pope Benedict said the theologian concluded: “The Holy Spirit makes us remain in God and God in us; yet it is love that effects this. The Spirit therefore is God as love!”

“It is a beautiful explanation,” said the Pontiff. “God shares himself as love in the Holy Spirit.” The Pope remarked further: “Love is the sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit! Ideas or voices which lack love—even if they seem sophisticated or knowledgeable—cannot be ‘of the Spirit.’ “Furthermore, love has a particular trait: Far from being indulgent or fickle, it has a task or purpose to fulfill: to abide. By its nature love is enduring,” said the Pope. “Again, dear friends,” Pope Benedict said, “we catch a further glimpse of how much the Holy Spirit offers our world: love which dispels uncertainty; love which overcomes the fear of betrayal; love which carries eternity within; the true love which draws us into a unity that abides!”

The Holy Father said St. Augustine’s third insight—the Holy Spirit as gift—was derived from Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. “Here Jesus reveals himself as the giver of the living water, which later is explained as the Holy Spirit,” he explained. Quoting for the Gospel of John, the Pope said “the Spirit is ‘God’s gift’ -- the internal spring, who truly satisfies our deepest thirst and leads us to the Father.” Referring to De Trinitate, the Holy Father said “Augustine concludes that God sharing Himself with us as gift is the Holy Spirit.” The Pope continued, “Friends, again we catch a glimpse of the Trinity at work: the Holy Spirit is God eternally giving himself; like a never-ending spring he pours forth nothing less than himself. In view of this ceaseless gift, we come to see the limitations of all that perishes, the folly of the consumerist mindset. We begin to understand why the quest for novelty leaves us unsatisfied and wanting. Are we not looking for an eternal gift? The spring that will never run dry? With the Samaritan woman, let us exclaim: give me this water that I may thirst no more!” “Dear young people,” the Pope said, “we have seen that it is the Holy Spirit who brings about the wonderful communion of believers in Jesus Christ. True to his nature as giver and gift alike, he is even now working through you. Inspired by the insights of St. Augustine: Let unifying love be your measure; abiding love your challenge; self-giving love your mission!” The Holy Father explained to the young people that “there are times [...] when we might be tempted to seek a certain fulfillment apart from God,” and asked the question Christ himself asked of the Twelve Apostles: “Do you also wish to go away? Such drifting away perhaps offers the illusion of freedom. But where does it lead? To whom would we go? For in our hearts we know that it is the Lord who has ‘the words of eternal life.’” Quoting St. Augustine, Benedict XVI said that to “turn away from Him is only a futile attempt to escape from ourselves. God is with us in the reality of life, not the fantasy,” he said. “It is embrace, not escape, that we seek! So the Holy Spirit gently but surely steers us back to what is real, what is lasting, what is true. It is the Spirit who leads us back into the communion of the Blessed Trinity!”

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