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St. Bernard




When I came to you, brothers and sisters, proclaiming the mystery of God, I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of Spirit and power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.
— 1 Cor 2: 1-5 (NAB)

This Scripture passage calls to mind certain excerpts from the writings of Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap.,  in which he tries to navigate the muddy waters of the topic of the anointing as understood and experienced in charismatic circles. I am not limiting the understanding of this concept here to one of the sacramental, nor to biblical exegesis.  I found these quotes several years ago and come back to them often.  I ponder how the anointing changes the game, and how we attain such an intimacy with God which allows Him to use us as vessels of His Spirit. 

“Anointed faith is what gives to a speech prophetic power. Let me try to explain how this happens when we preach about the crucified and the risen Lord. While the preacher is speaking, at a certain point, quite apart from any decision of his, he becomes aware of an intervention, as though a signal on another wavelength were coming through his voice. He becomes aware of this because he begins to feel deeply stirred, invested with a strength and an extraordinary power of conviction that he recognises clearly is not his own. His words come out as incisive, with greater assurance. He experiences a touch of that “authority” that all recognised when they listened to Jesus speaking. The listener is brought to a point of total concentration into which no other voice can reach: he too feels “touched”, and often a shiver goes through his body.

At a moment like this, the human speaker and the human voice fade out of the picture, to make way for another voice entirely. Someone has said: “The true prophet, when he speaks, remains silent” (Philo of Alexandria). The prophet is silent because, at that moment, it is not he who speaks, but another. God says to his prophets, poor sinful human creatures, “You shall be as my own mouth” (Jr 15, 19), and the thought of it makes his messenger tremble.

Of course, this doesn’t happen at the same level of intensity all the way through. There are special moments. God needs only one phrase, one word. The speaker and the listeners have the feeling that drops of fire mingle at a certain point with the preacher’s words and they become white-hot and shining. Of all images, fire is the one that is least inadequate when it comes to expressing this operation of the Spirit. So it was that at Pentecost, he showed himself as “tongues of fire” (Acts 2, 3). We read of Elijah that “he arose like a fire, his word flaring like a torch” (Eccl 48,1), and in the book of the prophet Jeremiah, God himself declares, “Does not my word burn like fire, is it not like a hammer shattering rock?” (Jr 23, 29).

The best thing on an occasion like this is to ask God for a new anointing of his Spirit so that leaving this meeting each one can confidently say, with Jesus: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring the good news to the afflicted.” (Lk 4,18)

What we need to do is simply ask for the anointing before we set out to do any evangelistic work.”
— "Faith Which Overcomes the World" by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa


This quote above touches on the power of kerygmatic preaching, such as Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost, when the crowds joined  the apostles and disciples who previously were troubled but now boldly stepped out to propose a new Way of Life. It wasn't St. Peter's sophisticated eloquence, his edginess in communication, his persuasive rhetorical skills, his pedagogy or methodology of preaching or catechesis, nor was it his powerful biblical or apologetical knowledge that convicted the hearts of several thousands of passersby to ask: What now? If we are to believe that the conversions of Pentecost were the result of mass hysteria, or of some instant psychological empowerment enabling Peter to become the inspirational speaker of the day, or perhaps due to a brilliant marketing technique to make some people follow the new band of brothers, we would have to settle at least for a sudden remarkable transformation of a fisherman. Instead, we have to realize that this moment shattered everything the disciples understood previously. It enlightened their minds, and equipped their hands and feet to do what Jesus already told them to do. 

Three years of being discipled by the Son of God, and then seeing their Master's death and resurrection (which was witnessed also by the crowds) were not enough for them to cross from a fearful and circumstantial reading of the world to meeting the challenges of the culture. Only the self-giving of God and His decision to live on the inside of His beloved creatures initiated a concrete and experiential event which changed the history of the world. 

So where does this new understanding of the anointing come from? You will find it surprising, I think:

You who are named the Paraclete, gift of God most high, living fountain, fire, love and anointing for the soul (Veni Creator sequence).

And now we will see how the anointing, seen as a way of life or a quality of action, is grafted onto these biblical and sacramental roots. There is a very close relationship between this anointing and the sacramental one. Nevertheless, the two are not identical, because one belongs in the objective order of sacraments, while the other belongs in the subjective order of asceticism and mysticism.

How did this second or spiritual sense of anointing come to be accepted? (...)

A new phase in the development of the theme of anointing opened with Saint Bernard and Saint Bonaventure. In their writings the new, spiritual, and modern understanding of anointing became firmly established, linked not so much to the theme of the knowledge of truth as to the theme of the living experience of the divine reality. At the start ot his commentary on the Song of Songs Saint Bernard says: “A song such as this only anointing can teach, and only experience can enable you to understand it.”

(...) anointing is not something that is limited to the area of devotion; it is of interest above all in the area of contemplation. Bonaventure distinguishes between two basic forms of contemplation: an intellectual contemplation, whose goal is knowledge of the truth and that is based on the gift of understanding, and a sapiential contemplation, whose goal is an experience of and a taste for things divine based on the gift of wisdom. The latter is what he calls “the anointing”. He liked to say that the Dominicans tended to experience the first kind of contemplation, and the Franciscans the second. “One Order concentrates first on speculation and secondarily on the anointing, and the other Order attends first to the anointing and the secondarily to speculation.”

The meaning that Saint Bonaventure gives to the anointing comes across more clearly in what he writes at the beginning of his work “The Mind’s Journey to God”:
Therefore I exhort the reader, before anything else, to turn earnestly in prayer to Christ crucified, whose blood takes away the stain of our faults, and I do that lest he think that the reading alone will be enough for him, without the anointing, or that speculation will be enough without devotion, or study without admiration, consideration without exultation, effort without piety, knowledge without love, understanding without humility, or zeal without the grace of God.
This anointing, he says finally, depends not on nature, nor on science, nor on words, nor on books, but on “the gift of God that is the Holy Spirit.” (...)
— Fr. Cantalamessa’s “Come, Creator Spirit”, p. 162 - 169

If we think it is only about the crowds, only about the unbaptized, only about the streets, we might miss the point of training ourselves in following the Holy Spirit's presence under the times of anointing. How many times in the last year or so have you heard clear kerygmatic preaching under the anointing of the Holy Spirit? How many times have you released yourself to proclaim God's mercy in that way? 

It seems that a progression flows from St. Anselm of Canterbury, who famously quoted Credo ut intelligam ("I believe in order to understand"), taking a phrase from St. Augustine, to St. Bernard of Clairvaux's Credo ut experiar, ("I believe in order to experience") which is then carried by St. Bonaventure. For our post-modern world, it creates a link between what we call charismatic and mystical experience of God, firmly showing that the anointing, although sovereignly poured out on individuals and groups, and having its source only in God who is on the move, is firmly set within the context of people who are given to God in totality, even in the midst of their weaknesses and personal turmoil. 

If we are to understand the term “anointing” in a way that embraces the entirety of its usage, especially in the English-speaking world, following the spread of the Pentecostal and charismatic phenomenon, we need to take into account a still-later development of the term. Not only within the Catholic ambit, but outside of it as well, the terms “anointed” and “anointing” are used today to describe the way a person goes about doing something, or to describe the quality of someone’s preaching or teaching. (...) ... in the Pentecostal and charismatic use of the term it suggests the idea of empowerment and persuasive power of efficacy. A sermon is said to be anointed when the listeners are moved to recognize the work of the Spirit in it: a message that moves the hearer deeply, that ‘convicts” one of sin, that pierces the heart. And in this we come back to an exquisitely biblical usage of the term, found for example in the text from Acts where it says that Jesus was “anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10:38). (...)

The outward effects of all of this are seen at times in gentle calm and peacefulness, in delicacy, devotion, or in deep emotion, and at times in authority, strength, power, or ability to take command of the situation, all in keeping with the circumstances, the character of the person concerned and also the responsibility each carries for the work that must be done. The clearest example is Jesus himself who, moved by the Spirit, showed himself meek and humble of heart but also, when the occasion demanded it, able to act with divine authority.
— Fr. Cantalamessa’s “Come, Creator Spirit”, p. 162 - 169

Yes, the anointing is for extroverts and introverts because God made us to receive Him fully. It comes as the thunder, or in silence, as Elijah learned. It comes in the big stadiums and in the lepers' colonies. It comes as a holy anger demanding righteousness, or as quiet tears asking for healing.  

One characteristic of the anointing is that it confers a certain inward clarity that enables us to do what has to be done with ease and mastery. It is, in a way, like “being in form” for an athlete or “inspiration” for a poet: being in a position really to give of one’s best. Yet the anointing itself is something more than we will ever be able to tell in words. There is no mistaking an anointing when we are in the presence of someone who is experiencing it, but though we “see” it, it is never possible to find clear concepts or definitions to say what it is that we see, for it partakes, in fact, of the very nature of the Holy Spirit and of an order of being beyond our grasp.

The Dictionary of Spirituality says, “The spiritual teaching of Saint Bonaventure is suffused throughout with anointing and poetry.” One has intuitive grasp of what that means, though one cannot define it with concepts and words. (...)

The actual anointing does not depend on us, but the removal of the obstacles that prevent the anointing shining forth does depend on us. It is not difficult for us to understand what the breaking of the alabaster jar means in our own case. The jar is our own humanity, our “I”, often the arid intellectualism to which we cling. (...)
However, although our own effort to be surrendered, obedient, plays a part, it is not all that is needed. The anointing comes much more through believing, praying, and in humble simplicity asking for it. (...) What we need to do, simply, is ask for an anointing before we set out to do any work, any service of the Kingdom. (...)

There are times when we almost in a physical way feel the anointing coming upon us. Feelings are deeply moved, the soul enjoys clarity and assurance; all trace of nervousness disappears, all fear and timidity are gone. We experience something of the tranquility and the authority of God himself. Certain songs or hymns are particularly helpful in disposing us to be open to this anointing from on high. (...)
— Fr. Cantalamessa’s “Come, Creator Spirit”, p. 162 - 169

All artists are prophets. The ones who create under the anointing of the Holy Spirit are able to move, heal, and restore lives, communities, and societies. There is a difference between admiring a work of art, even in the beautiful classical form, which was created by an artist who was, as St. Paul describes, still in the flesh, carnal and not redeemed, and admiring a work of art created by an artist who is becoming spiritual and mature in Christ. The anointing which is growing within the spiritual artist will permeate not only the psychological and carnal sphere, but will cross into the core of a human being, resurrecting the dead, leaving the effect of experiencing God or of having a religious, spiritual experience. 

Contemporary praise and worship aims at creating an atmosphere where the anointing of the Holy Spirit will be welcomed, cherished, allowed to influence, and to bring transformative power. It releases its impact to those who are open to it. There is more to creating this atmosphere than following the standard prescription of fast praise, slow worship, silent adoration, and final receptiveness to the new creative word spoken to all in a prophetic utterance. (More about this point will come in later posts.)

And here is the last bit about the anointing the pertains to the clergy, and how ecumenism becomes a natural fruit of operating under the leadership and anointing of the Holy Spirit:

On every side we see signs of how vitally necessary it is, especially for the leaders of the Church, to live and work under this spiritual anointing in its twofold aspect of gentleness and strength. It would be a mistake for ordained ministers to count only on the sacramental anointing, received once only when they were ordained and not to be repeated, and which enables them to be appointed to lead, preach, and to teach. Ordination provides, so to say, the authorization to do certain things, but not necessarily the authority to do them. It assures the apostolic success. (...)

This bishop goes on to describe the effect that this anointing had on his diocese. Where before he had not known what to do for priests struggling with the problem of alcoholism other than to suggest to them that they go to a clinic for treatment, he now invited them into his home and prayed with them, and number were completely healed by the power of prayer. Where before at clergy meetings they had spoken of everything but evangelization and the real spiritual mission of the Church, they now all agreed that what the diocese most needed was renewal in the Holy Spirit. Ecumenism, which had been a kind of abstract doctrinal problem, became a living reality, and the various Christian churches in the area were drawn together in a new relationship and by new contacts.
— Fr. Cantalamessa’s “Come, Creator Spirit”, p. 162 - 169

Do you think your understanding of the anointing is too narrow?

When and how do you experience the anointing?

Join our FB Group to discuss this topic this week.