The Spook.


We don’t refer to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as the ‘Big Daddy, Junior, and the Spook.’

I’d like to just jot down a few notes about the aspect of the Divine which, in the Christian tradition, we call the Holy Spirit. The main things I’m interested in doing though is getting behind those particular English words and their implications.

In the Semitic languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic), the word which gets translated “Holy” is “ha-Qodesh” (or HaKodesh), which literally means “separated” or “set to one side”, but which comes to refer to those things set aside for sacred use: the Hebrew language, the ark of the covenant, the Temple. It acquires this sense of being reserved for the particular uses related to the Divine.

Spirit in English comes directly from Latin (“spiritus”) and means both a non-corporeal entity (as in “the spirit was angry and threw the medium’s crystal ball at her head”) and a certain tendency or drive (as in “the spirit of ’76” or “school spirit” or “high spirited”). Because the Holy Spirit is one of the three Persons in the Trinity, I think the name tends to inherit mostly that first meaning. Perhaps because “spiritus” is a male-gendered noun in Latin, we also take the Holy Spirit to be masculine. The aggregate is kind of like Casper, the friendly ghost. A benign, helpful ghost sent by God.

The correlate word in Greek is “pneuma” and hence “Pneuma Hagion”. Pneuma means spirit and also air – it’s the root word of “pneumatic”. It doesn’t seem to usually refer to non-corporeal entities, at least in the Greek of the early Christian Period, I think one would usually use the word “daimon” to refer to what we’d call a spirit. “Demon” in English is reserved for malign spirits, but “daimon” is a value-neutral word in Greek. “Pneuma” is grammatically neuter in Greek.

In Hebrew, the correlate is “Ruach” (hence “Ruach ha-Qodesh”, the Aramaic is very similar, “Rukha d’koodsha”) which means air, atmosphere and breath. “Ruach” is grammatically feminine. It’s not completely clear that the modern distinction we make between the metaphysical idea of our “spirit” and the physical notion of our breath was made by Middle Eastern folk in that time, they may have simply seen that breath is the animating, driving force of life.

What is almost certain is that the modern distinction between atmosphere and vacuum was not present in the thought-world of people in the first centuries of the common era. When we think of air or atmosphere, we have the dual notion of “vacuum” which co-defines the meaning. They had not concept of vacuum or of outer space, just air which stretches from the space between you and me all the way up past the celestial bodies, past the angels, to YHVH itself.

The other things to notice about “ruach” is that is invisible and only noticeable in movement. We can sense wind, voice and breath but when it doesn’t move, air doesn’t seem to be there at all. The breath is a process of inhalation and exhalation, and for the early Jewish Christians, the Holy Spirit would have been a process as well: a process which connects you and me via voice and breath, connects all of humanity to each other, to the Holy Beings and, ultimately to God. Neither wholly outside me, nor wholly inside me, but passing from the one to the other with each breath.

Ah, and female. The Holy Spirit (like the “shekinah”, the Presence of YHVH in the Temple) is a She.

This short sequence of linguistic digressions leads us from the benign Casper of Sunday School: anthropomorphic, kindly, somewhat useless, male to the more radical and immanent Ruach ha-Qodesh of antiquity: feminine, always moving, present in action, the voice and breath set aside as sacred, connecting us to the Father and to each other.

And there She is. Closer than my very breath. In She rushes, whispering encouragement, drawing my attention as She rushes out, out and up. Present in every word, the winds of change, blowing where She wills.

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