Learning – Jett Villarin, SJ

John 14:23-29, Sixth Sunday of Easter

We see things fall to the ground and we matter-of-factly say gravity. Think about it. What is it about the mass of an object anyway that attracts another object with mass, the way we were taught in elementary physics? What happens with “massless” and speedy stuff like light, which has been known to bend around massive objects?

It was Einstein who grappled with gravity, proposing that gravitational waves are how gravity makes itself felt. The stellar insight of the man was to say that what is waving in those waves is space itself, or this all-enclosing fabric called spacetime, which is dented and warped by objects with mass and movement. And indeed for the first time in September 2015, we detected gravitational waves, the remnant ripples created when two black holes merged some 1.3 billion years ago.

All this is just to prove that physical reality is not what it seems and we are still learning stuff. We are still learning about space and time and perhaps other dimensions that are still out there for our discovery.

In this learning process we realize that the world is teaching us, which itself is a mystery because when we come to think about it, the world need not be intelligible (or knowable) to us creatures. What is it about us anyway that enables us to probe even the most opaque, the blackest holes and crannies in the universe? Ants can’t do the math. Why can we?

And that’s just the surface of things. Consider the learning that has to happen when we add the dimension of history or human freedom or the different axes of social systems that complicate and enrich our reality.

“I have told you this while I am with you. The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.”

Two things we can learn from that promise. First, that the Holy Spirit is an advocate, and second, that the work of the Spirit is to teach and remind.

The Greek word is paracletos, that is, “one called alongside to help”. The Holy Spirit is someone who intercedes for us, who stands in our defense, someone who strengthens and stands by us. Against whom? Surely not against a vindictive God who we perversely think is always after our hide. After Christ (and because of Christ), such a hateful God would only be a fiction of our fears. Against whom then? Our enemies? Who are these? Perhaps we need defending against anything that would distort our peace, disfigure our face, against those who would sever our connections with God and one another and even creation. Perhaps we need guarding against the aggression of ignorance and intolerance; we need to be shielded from an offensive loneliness that is tempting to anyone who navigates a seemingly indifferent universe.

Second, the Holy Spirit is given to teach us everything and remind us of all that Christ has told us. What do we need to be taught and reminded about every so often? What do we unlearn and forget so readily? In his teaching on family, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), Pope Francis tells us:

“We cannot forget that ‘mercy is not only the working of the Father; it becomes a criterion for knowing who his true children are. In a word, we are called to show mercy because mercy was first shown to us…. All of [the Church’s] pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness which she shows to believers; nothing in her preaching and her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy.’ It is true that at times ‘we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.’” (Para 310)

The Holy Spirit comes to teach us that God is love and how that love is set in motion by mercy. The Spirit reminds us that the fundamental stance of the Christian is openness, without which the early Church would not have been able to resolve their differences (as exemplified in the first reading today). There is no room in any Christian community for shuttered minds and hearts. It is the Spirit who opens us up to the joy of love and the liberating breath of mercy. Through the presence of the Holy Spirit in the world, we find the strength to tear down the tollhouse and we learn to let love and mercy through.

When things (like hope and tears) fall by the wayside, we say matter-of-truthly: it is the Spirit, our advocate, who teaches us to pick up the pieces, helping us to remember that we can always be whole again.


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