Following the Spirit in Freedom: Lessons from the Lord’s Presentation
“Don’t forget that you are a temple of God. The Paraclete is in the center of your soul: listen to him and follow his inspirations with docility. Don’t hinder the work of the Paraclete: seek union with Christ so as to be purified….”
St. Josemaria Escriva
The Way, nos. 57-58
Traditionally the feast of our Lord’s Presentation in the Temple is a celebration of the religious life—a life spent in the house of the Lord: “One thing have I asked of the LORD, this I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to visit his temple.”1 The Gospel of the Presentation richly conveys this: waiting for Christ, and serving Him, is worth a lifetime. St Josemaria does not exaggerate when he exclaims: “How little a life is to offer to God!”2
The Lord promised Simeon that he would not see death before he had seen the Christ of God. The fulfillment of that promise alone was enough to justify an entire lifetime of waiting and contemplating. But neither he, nor holy Anna, nor we ourselves, could persevere in the lifelong venture of Christian perfection unless we are prepared to follow the inspirations of the Holy Spirit with docility and a willingness for ongoing purification.
A lifetime is not too much to ask in exchange for what the Lord has prepared for those who love Him, but here the Christian paradox comes into play: To live fully, we must die fully. The same Spirit who gives us life also puts to death whatever in us smacks of selfishness, vanity, sensuality. Whatever our state of life, we find out by regular tests and purifications what we really want, and how much it is really “the Lord whom you seek, and the messenger of the covenant whom you desire.”3
A soul purified is wholly docile, and so provides the ideal setting in which God’s Spirit can act unhindered: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”4 The readings for the Presentation underscore this purification: “For he is like the refiner’s fire … and he will purify.”5 The form our individual purification takes will vary with our particular vocation, but certain trials and temptations are constants for all Christians seeking perfection.
Keeping at our post, staying where God has placed us in life and being fruitful there, this puts us in league with souls like Simeon and Anna. When we are tempted to question our role in Divine providence, or when we might feel overlooked and forgotten, it is often then that the Paraclete is doing His most fruitful work within us. He weeds out our inferior motives and aspirations, as well as the superficial appeal of success and notoriety, so as to free us to be truly at God’s disposal, and not servants of our own projects and priorities. Only by being “forced” to discard inadequate hopes and desires can we experience the deeper levels of intimacy to which God calls us.
Christian life is never a merely human enterprise. The examples of the aged Simeon, who lived on a promise, “awaiting the consolation of Israel,”6 and Anna, who “never left the temple, but worshipped night and day with fasting and prayer,”7 show us that something more than human effort alone is needed to make our fidelity deep and lasting.
And in fact the Gospel not only distinguishes Simeon and Anna for their age and perseverance, but also for the fact that they are completely docile to the Holy Spirit: Simeon is said to have the Holy Spirit “upon him,” to have received a revelation from the Spirit, and to be “inspired by the Spirit” to come to the Temple to meet his Lord.8 Anna herself enjoys the Spirit’s gift of prophecy, being called a “prophetess” by the evangelist.9
The promptings of the Spirit had become second nature to them, so that St Thomas Aquinas considers Simeon and Anna as prime examples of righteous people who are “familiar with and wont to be taught by the inward instinct of the Holy Spirit.”10 In fact, St Thomas teaches that, for all Christians, the gifts of the Spirit perfect us for this purpose: to be “disposed … to be amenable to the promptings of God.”11
Following the guidance of the Holy Spirit as second nature demands that we be set free from competing influences and desires, from sin, and impulsiveness. God cannot be served except by the free, as St Josemaria emphatically tells us: “The kingdom of Christ is a kingdom of freedom. In it the only slaves are those who freely bind themselves, out of love of God. What a blessed slavery of love, that sets us free!”12
The path to true freedom in Christ requires the purification of all that is unchristian about us. “Purification! You and I surely do need purification! —Atonement, and more than atonement, Love. —Love as a searing iron to cauterize our souls’ uncleanness, and as a fire to kindle with divine flames the wretched tinder of our hearts.”13
Who will guide and support us in the delicate work of our purification if not the Spirit of Love? The One who alone knows our depths, our weaknesses and our struggles, the One interpreter of our sighs that go beyond words, the One who knows every link in the chain that binds us—He alone possesses the supernatural refinement necessary to make all things work together for our freedom.
The Holy Spirit teaches us to trade our allegiance from worldly servitude to being servants of all that is good, true, and beautiful. It might sound surprising, but as St Josemaria insists, “It is quite evident, as we can see in ourselves and in others, that everybody is a slave in some form or other,” and not only to things base and unworthy, but also in higher things, where a right motivation ennobles our service.
St. Josemaria explains:
“We put effort into a job of work, into an undertaking, large or small, into scientific, artistic, literary or spiritual activities. Wherever there is commitment and real passion, the person involved lives enslaved, joyfully devoting himself to fulfilling his task. We will be slaves either way. Since we must serve anyway, for whether we like it or not this is our lot as men, then there is nothing better than recognizing that Love has made us slaves of God. From the moment we recognize this we cease being slaves and become friends, sons.”14
The self-denial involved in being God’s servants of itself breaks down the barriers of selfishness that keep us from growing close to the Lord. Practices such as prayer, fasting, and vigils, serve to purify the disorders of our nature so that grace can build on a surer foundation and make of us a magnificent temple of God’s Spirit. They are the means we take to deny the slave within us who grudgingly serves a hard master, so as to be submissive to all of the promptings of God.
Isn’t this the lesson that the Presentation teaches us? Mary and Joseph bring the Child to the Temple where they are met by Simeon and Anna, whose entire lives are Christ-bound. At the center of all the activity is a mute Infant, drawing all things to Himself, eliciting prophecies, canticles, and wonder from those closest to the mystery. They are close, as we can be close, because they are willing to be drawn and moved by the Holy Spirit: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.”15
1 Ps 27:4
2 The Way, no. 420
3 Mal 3:1
4 2 Cor 3:17
5 Cf. Mal 3:1-4
6 Lk 2:23
7 Lk 2:37
8 Cf. Lk 2:25-27
9 Lk 2:36
10 ST III, Q 36, a. 5, resp.
11 Cf. ST I-II, Q 68, a. 2, 3
12 Christ is Passing By, no. 184
13 St Josemaria, Holy Rosary: Fourth Joyful Mystery.
14 Friends of God, nos. 34-35
15 Gal 5:25
Originally published 2014
Father John Henry Hanson, O. Praem., is a Norbertine priest of St Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. He entered the community in 1995, earned his STB and Masters in Theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. Currently, he is a formator in his community’s seminary, preaches retreats, is chaplain to several communities of women religious, serves Armenian rite Catholics at the Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator in Glendale, California, and is author of Praying from the Depths of the Psalms (Scepter Publishers 2019). He and his community are cooperators of Opus Dei.