Father Rutler is Pastor of the Church of Saint Michael in New York City. He is the author of twenty-five books and many essays, and has lectured widely at home and abroad.
The poet W.H. Auden once lectured me about the wrongness of modern translations rendering Holy Ghost as Holy Spirit. His frail case was that there are certain drinks, too, that can be called spirits. This made no sense. “Spirit” is a Latinism far older than “Ghost,” which goes back no further than the Old English “gast” and the German “Geist.” As a matter of taste, preference for “Ghost” is as anachronistic as thinking that the Baroque style of chasubles sometimes called the “fiddleback” is much more traditional than the Gothic style.
The Hebrew word for spirit, “ruach,” sounds like breathing, and pneumatic tires are called that after the Greek word for wind. There is indeed a “variety of spirits,” but to confuse the Holy Spirit with any vague parody is foggy superstition. The apostles mistook Jesus for a ghost when he walked on water, and they only knew that his risen body was not a ghost when he ate fish and honey. A modern form of superstition is the vague emotionalism of those who say that they are spiritual but not religious. The Master will have none of that, for he is Truth: “The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63).
Christ told the disciples after the Resurrection that he must leave this world of time and space in order to send the Holy Spirit. There are on record fifteen appearances of the Risen Christ, including three after Pentecost: once seen by Stephen as he was dying, another speaking to Paul on the way to Damascus, and then to John on Patmos. But each appearance was followed by a disappearance enabling the Holy Spirit, as the bond of love between the Father and the Son, to invigorate the Church.
By what seems a paradox, because the actions intersect time and eternity, Christ goes away so that through his Holy Spirit he can be with us always. This becomes most graphic each day at Mass when the Holy Spirit is invoked upon the bread and wine so that they become Christ’s body and blood. That moment on the Eucharistic altar fulfills the prehistoric instant when God breathed his spirit into Adam and, countless ages before that, when the Spirit of God “moved upon the face of the waters” and began everything.
None of this is conjecture, because it is a response to actual events: “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you” (John 14:26). The Fountain of Youth that explorers in futility tried to find, like pharmacists and cosmetic surgeons today, is a ghostly illusion and a superstitious cipher for life eternal: “You send forth your Spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the earth” (Psalm 104:30).