The Holy Ghost is sometimes called the “neglected” or “forgotten” Person of the Trinity. It is easy to see why He would be. The First Person is easy to image as a benevolent Father with all the familiar signs of a venerable patriarch. The Son is easiest of all to image by virtue of the Incarnation, by which He shares a nature common to us. To picture Him in the Crib, on the shore of Lake Genesareth, in the Temple, or on the Cross is not difficult because of His Sacred Humanity. But that One of the Blessed Trinity who was manifested as tongues of fire, as a dove, and as a luminous cloud is less easily grasped as a Person with whom we can have a personal relationship.
There is certainly much we can know about the Holy Ghost. Doctrinally, we can study the truth defended by the First Council of Constantinople, namely, that He is a distinct divine Person in the Godhead — this, in opposition to the Macedonian heresy, whose votaries were called the Pneumatomachoi (that is, the “fighters against the Spirit”) by the orthodox faithful. At that same doctrinal level, we can study the “Relations” in the Holy Trinity, without which we would not have the Persons. We can also study the controversy surrounding the Filioque, and many and other aspects of the Third Person in relation to the other Two in Trinitarian theology. Mystically, we can consider His Gifts, how those Gifts are related to the virtues, and His Fruits. We also know that, contrary to a certain proto-charismatic heresy of the Thirteenth Century, we are presently in the Age of the Holy Ghost, which is not a distinct dispensation from that of the Son.
But, for all that, He is still hard to grasp as a Person.
This is as it should be, and for a couple of reasons. When someone hides, we have to go looking for Him. Being less easily brought to our imagination, the Third Person hides a bit, and is therefore to be sought. So, He should be more difficult to image, because we are supposed to experience Him in a subtle way in the depths of our own souls by deepening our prayer life. This is how the great saints come to know the Holy Ghost, in what theologians call a “quasi-experiential knowledge.”
Fundamentally, and in a more objective and universal way, we are meant to seek Him, see Him, and hear Him in the Church, as He was seen and heard in the preaching of Saint Peter on that first Pentecost Day of the New Testament, and in all the acts of the Apostles. I say “acts” without capitalizing the word, because I mean the acts themselves and not the inspired canonical book that relates them. It was only when they had been “endued with power from on high” (Luke 24:49) that the Apostles were able to carry out these acts, including their apostolic preaching, their inspiration to write the canonical books, their miracles, or their heroic fortitude unto martyrdom. It is to the Third Person that all these things are appropriated.
The book of Acts is sometimes called “the Gospel of the Holy Ghost” because it relates this activity of the Spirit through the Apostles. In fact, the only time we “hear” the voice of the Holy Spirit is in that book. Therein, we read of Saints Barnabas and Paul (still as yet, but not for long, called Saul) being given a divine mission through the “prophets and doctors” who, “as they were ministering to the Lord, and fasting, the Holy Ghost said to them: Separate me Saul and Barnabas, for the work whereunto I have taken them” (13:2).
Another reason, I believe, that the Holy Ghost is less easily imaged as a person is because His mission is to keep us fixed on the Man-God, Jesus. He is called the Spirit of the Son (Gal. 4:6), the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9), and the Spirit of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:19). What the Holy Ghost does is not to usher in a new dispensation of His own, a third covenant, or an Age of the Holy Ghost distinct from the Age of the Son; no, what the Holy Ghost does is build on and continue the mission of Jesus Christ.
The Holy Ghost is the Spirit of Christ, who forms diverse individuals into the one Body of Christ that is the Church, just as He moved over the primordial waters in the creation to bring about order (Gen. 1:2). He stands in relation to the Church as the soul does to the human body and is therefore called “the Soul of the Church.”
Because He is the Soul of the Church, it is therefore reasonable to appropriate Church unity to the Holy Ghost. In the human person, it is the soul that maintains the various material organs of the body as a unity. When the soul leaves the body, the body quite literally falls apart. This is what the Holy Ghost does for the Church. What Saint Paul calls, “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3) the Apostle later describes in these terms: “From whom the whole body, being compacted and fitly joined together, by what every joint supplieth, according to the operation in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body, unto the edifying of itself in charity” (Eph. 4:16).
To help us better image the Holy Ghost, I would like to relate the reasons that Saint Thomas Aquinas gives for why the Holy Ghost appeared as a dove and as fire. I would then like to comment on six different titles given to the Third Person.
According to Saint Thomas (ST IIIa, Q. 39, A. 6), the Holy Ghost appears as a dove for four reasons. “First, on account of the disposition required in the one baptized — namely, that he approach in good faith: since as it is written (Wisdom 1:5): ‘The holy spirit of discipline will flee from the deceitful.’ For the dove is an animal of a simple character, void of cunning and deceit: whence it is said (Matthew 10:16): ‘Be ye simple as doves’.” Second, in order to designate the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost (which explanation is too lengthy for our space, but can be read here). “Thirdly, the Holy Ghost appeared under the form of a dove on account of the proper effect of baptism, which is the remission of sins and reconciliation with God: for the dove is a gentle creature. Wherefore, as Chrysostom says, (Hom. xii in Matth.), ‘at the Deluge this creature appeared bearing an olive branch, and publishing the tidings of the universal peace of the whole world: and now again the dove appears at the baptism, pointing to our Deliverer’.” And “Fourthly, the Holy Ghost appeared over our Lord at His baptism in the form of a dove, in order to designate the common effect of baptism — namely, the building up of the unity of the Church. Hence it is written (Ephesians 5:25-27): ‘Christ delivered Himself up . . . that He might present . . . to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing . . . cleansing it by the laver of water in the word of life.’ Therefore it was fitting that the Holy Ghost should appear at the baptism under the form of a dove, which is a creature both loving and gregarious. Wherefore also it is said of the Church (Canticles 6:8): ‘One is my dove’.”
To the Angelic Doctor, the Holy Ghost appeared on the Apostles as tongues of fire for two reasons: “First, to show with what fervor their hearts were to be moved, so as to preach Christ everywhere, though surrounded by opposition. And therefore He appeared as a fiery tongue. Hence Augustine says (Super Joan., Tract. vi): Our Lord ‘manifests’ the Holy Ghost ‘visibly in two ways’ — namely, ‘by the dove coming upon the Lord when He was baptized; by fire, coming upon the disciples when they were met together . . . In the former case simplicity is shown, in the latter fervor . . . We learn, then, from the dove, that those who are sanctified by the Spirit should be without guile: and from the fire, that their simplicity should not be left to wax cold. Nor let it disturb anyone that the tongues were cloven . . . in the dove recognize unity’.” And “Secondly, because, as Chrysostom says (Gregory, Hom. xxx in Ev.): ‘Since sins had to be forgiven,’ which is effected in baptism, ‘meekness was required’; this is shown by the dove: ‘but when we have obtained grace we must look forward to be judged’; and this is signified by the fire.”
And here are six titles of the Holy Ghost that might help us better image Him:
Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost) — Spirit means breath, and the Third Person proceeds from the first Two as a breath of love. He is therefore called uncreated Charity.
Spirit of Truth — Our Lord Himself gives the Holy Ghost this name: “But when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will teach you all truth” (John 16:13).
Gift — The Church’s liturgy calls Him the “best gift of God above” (Veni Creator Spiritus) and also, the “Giver of gifts” (Veni Sancte Spiritus). According to Saint Thomas, “Gift” is the proper name of the Holy Ghost because a gift, being a gratuitous donation, flows from love, and the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son as Love. Therefore, the Holy Ghost is the “first Gift.” Saint Thomas ends these thoughts by citing Saint Augustine (De Trin. xv, 24): “By the gift, which is the Holy Ghost, many particular gifts are portioned out to the members of Christ.”
Paraclete — Jesus calls the Holy Ghost, “another Paraclete” (John 14:16), the first Paraclete being Our Lord Himself. A Paraclete is one who, as the Greek etymology suggests, is “called to our side.” The word means both an advocate and a comforter, or, more generally, a helper.
Finger of the Father’s right hand — This also comes from the Veni Creator Spiritus and it references the Holy Ghost’s artisanship of our souls, and also the fact that Jesus Himself worked by the Holy Ghost in doing what He did: “But if I by the finger of God cast out devils; doubtless the kingdom of God is come upon you” (Luke 11:20).
Seal — He is called this by various Fathers of the Church. Volume III of Our Quest for Happiness cites Saint Cyril of Alexandria on the point: “He imprints Himself invisibly on the souls which receive Him as a seal on wax, and thus communicating His own likeness to our nature, retraces therein the beauty of the divine archetype, and restores in men the image of God.”
Perhaps the personhood of the Spirit is most easily grasped when we consider Him in relation to His Bride, the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was by the Holy Ghost’s spousal “overshadowing” of Our Lady that She conceived Our Lord. And that first joyful mystery of the Rosary is what the Holy Ghost and the Blessed Virgin Mary continue all throughout time by begetting and perfecting the members of the Mystical Body of Christ.