Martin Warner asks what are we to say about the activity of God the Holy Spirit? 


Many Christians say that they have been brought to faith by the Holy Spirit through the attraction of gathering for worship in large numbers, speaking in tongues, Spirit-led reading of the Scriptures related to daily life.  There is an intensity to the expectation of answer to prayer, sometimes in dramatic ways, and an acceptance of informality in worship as an expression of simplicity.  

That might not be quite the style of the church you attend.  Nonetheless charismatic and Pentecostal worship does draw, perhaps increasingly, from a wider and more ancient, Christian tradition.  This builds on the conviction that worship is itself the work of the Holy Spirit, using all our senses to draw us into the life of God.  And to illustrate that I want to consider the use of art and music as the work of the Holy Spirit, manifesting the revelation and truth of God alongside phenomena such as speaking in tongues and the gift of prophecy.  

Jon Day, a lecturer on art and literature at King’s College, London, has pointed out that we now rarely think about the smell a painting might have conveyed to viewers in the past. Because of the largely sanitised world that we now inhabit, we have generally forgotten how to see with our noses.  But Shakespeare understood this:  “My eyes smell onions: I shall weep anon”, says Lafeu on seeing the lovers Helena and Bertram reunited in All’s Well That Ends Well.

And as an example of this in art, Jon Day shows us a domestic 17th century scene in Amsterdam by Pietre de Hooch.  With photographic clarity we see lovely clean linen being put away in a well-ordered, respectable house.  But the back door is open and we also catch sight of a canal, which was simply a public sewer: its smell was overpoweringly awful and thought to be a danger to health.  

In the 21st century we look at the painting, and smell nothing.  For the artist the smell was part of the meaning of the painting, but we struggle to understand that.  

Jon Day presses home his point with reference to a painting of the actress, Ellen Terry, by the great 19th century artist, G F Watts.  The picture is entitled, “Choosing” and it shows the actress smelling with one hand a camelia (which has no scent) while ignoring, in the other hand other, simpler blooms that are highly scented.  I’ll leave you to work out how reality, symbol and imagination brought together as components of the theatre in that clever and complex work.  

The use of art and all our senses in an encounter with God is deeply rooted in the Old Testament.  The design of the tabernacle and ultimately of the Temple in Jerusalem, and of the Holy of Holies to which all worship was related, was not the work of a talented individual.  It did not have an autograph attached to it, like Piper, Sutherland or Chagall.  It was revealed by God to Moses and then undertaken by those skilled in the crafts of gold and silver metalwork, embroidery, carving and gilding, and putting together the magnificent materials for the Temple.

In revealing these skills to Moses, we see an account of inspiration which is the Holy Spirit at work.  This flows into the early Christian tradition which created a new version of the Temple and decorated its churches in many similar ways, with a sanctuary as the new Holy of Holies where the sacrifice of Christ the High Priest is re-enacted by a priest clothed theatrically in symbolic vesture which persistently suggests continuity between Old and New Testaments.  

The vesture of flesh in which Jesus enters the highest heavens on Ascension Day to be our Priest, is perpetuated on earth by a human person in vestments. They are not to cover not me, but to veil the glorified flesh of Jesus Christ, just as the veil of the Temple hid the presence of God in the Holy of Holies.  And this is the work of the Holy Spirit, as Jesus says: “He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16.14).  The art of this vesture both veils and indicates the reality of the presence of heaven in our midst.

In worship, the work of the Holy Spirit is to take what is true and real about Jesus Christ and to declare it to us.  Art reminds us that we can look at an image, but fail to perceive the reality that it conveys.  We completely miss the odour of the picture because we have become sanitised by our own condition.  We can no longer smell the reality of mystery, of heaven.  

Wedded to our own time, we fear eternity.  Invested in the material process of style and fashion, the immaterial reality of heaven has no claim upon us.  And although I remain persuaded by St Paul that speaking in tongues is the least of the Spirit’s gifts, nonetheless I do see it as a gift that seems to cross the boundary from time to eternity, from the laboured examination of words and experience which explains them away by analysis.  And in this gift I sense a desire for words to be poetry, for language to be song, for liturgical texts to rise on angel wings into the courts of heaven as the expression of the praise and adoration we stumblingly articulate on behalf of the humbler creation. 

And this is where music plays its part.  It is so often the case that when we read the scriptures, we rarely hear the music.  Textual analysis of the New Testament as identified a number of passaged that seem to be hymns.  The book of Revelation is perhaps an obvious source for this because we are told that people are singing and the words they sing: but the music eludes us.  

The same could be said of reading the Psalms, though for some Anglicans there might be the recollection of a chant that helped convey the meaning of a particular psalm.  On the other hand, we have little idea about the hymn tunes of the worship of the children of Israel in the desert, or what rousing national anthem the trumpets might have sounded as Jericho was besieged and fell.  

But here, again, the work of the Holy Spirit is evident in the mystery of creation.  Stephen Spitzer, professor of Music at Liverpool University, notes that the wings of a female mosquito register as G natural of a female as a D natural.  Together with the cadences of birdsong, the template of rhythm, pitch and melody are woven into the drawing of order out of the watery chaos over which the Holy Spirit hovers in the dawn of time, and to which the Word of God is addressed by the Creator:  Let there be…. And there was.  

As Spitzer notes, music expresses the inexpressible…we use it to order and explain our lives and our societies in a way that seems to be intrinsic to us as human beings.  

The earliest known musical instrument is 40,000 years old.  It’s essentially a flute made from 5 holes drilled into the bone of a huge bird.  And here, again, the Church as seen with Holy Spirit at work.  

First this is expressed by imagining the Spirit as breath, which blows through the words spoken (and perhaps sung) by the prophets, as though they were human wind instruments for the divine life of God.  And second, pushing this further, in the use of rams horns, or the gut of stringed instruments, the early Christians saw the work of the Holy Spirit as drawing from dead animals the living sound of heaven, a symbol of resurrection life in which the new creation is becoming audible in its praise of God who creates and redeems everything that reflects the glory of God.  

When we worship, we celebrate the work of the Holy Spirit.  So let the art of our drama and the breath by which we make music to the Lord, proclaim the mystery of our faith: let it express our conviction that this is where and how earth and heaven intersect.  Beyond worship’s art let us catch the scent of heaven. In the cadences of our words and music let us hear the echo of the praises of eternity.  

And let us rejoice and be comforted by the Holy Spirit in the deep beauty of worship, humbled by the thought that we, each of us, are counted worthy to minister to God in this way, and ultimately we are enriched beyond words by how the Holy Spirit enflames all our senses in ecstasy, justice and perfect harmony.


The Rt Revd Martin Warner SSC is the Bishop of Chichester.