Posted On September 1, 2023

Oil, fire, garment: gifts for walking in the Spirit

Bend the stubborn heart and will;
Melt the frozen, warm the chill;
Guide the steps that go astray.

If you’ve ever had to go through physical therapy, you know that sometimes in order to bring your body back to normal functioning, you have to first go through pain and struggle. A friend of mine once shared with me how she had to go through several sessions of PT after a knee surgery and how those sessions were so painful that she would be brought to tears. However, through the wise touch of this skilled physical therapist, my friend was slowly but surely able to walk again. If she hadn’t gone through the pain of physical therapy, she would still be limping to this day.

In the Sequence of the Holy Spirit, we find this phrase: bend the stubborn heart and will. There is much in us that is rigid, just as my friend’s knee was tight and locked after her surgery. For example, I recognize the rigidity of my stubbornness, the hardness of my heart which judges others, and the interior tightness of toxic shame. All of this impedes the “muscles” of my heart from loving freely and from beating in sync with Jesus’s heart. I need Someone who is stronger than I am, capable of bending my stubborn heart and will: I need not a physical therapist but a soul-therapist.

The Good News for me and for you is that this Strength exists, and it is much more than a force: it is a Person that loves me too much to leave me stuck. The beauty of the Spirit who bends the stubborn heart and will is in the simple fact that to do His work, he must draw near, so near that He can bend me from the inside out. If we look closely, we can notice that all three verbs in today’s section of the Sequence speak of drawing near: bend, melt, guide.

Bend the stubborn heart and will; Melt the frozen, warm the chill; Guide the steps that go astray. Like a good physical therapist, the Holy Spirit must come close enough to bend that which is stiff. In order to melt my frozen heart, the flame of the Spirit must burn in my inward self. In order to guide my crooked steps, the Spirit must draw near enough to illuminate my path with His light.

What counts here is not so much what the Holy Spirit does for me, but how our intimacy grows. When the Spirit touches me, am I able to recognize Him? When the Spirit speaks to me, what do I notice in His specific tone of voice to me? When I observe the Spirit’s light, what do I discover about His love for me?

The Holy Spirit is not content to merely free us to walk; He wants to see us run, dance, to watch us follow Jesus with our entire person. A simple “soul-therapy” of survival will not do: He wants us to thrive! The Spirit wants us responsive to the Word, not rigid; with hearts on fire with God’s love, not stuck in cold indifference; He wants us on the narrow road of the Kingdom, not vagabonds led by selfishness.

Our Heavenly Father loves us so much that He has already given us everything we need for this work of bending, melting, guiding: our baptism. In this sacrament, there are various sacramental signs and symbols that speak of the Holy Spirit’s presence in us, and three elements in particular can speak to us today: oil, fire, and the baptismal gown.

In ancient times, oil was used by athletes to loosen their muscles, and by warriors to strengthen them for battle. The Church recognizes the rich meaning of oil, both for the Chosen People of the Old Testament as well as for us today. In the rite of baptism, oil signifies the power of the Holy Spirit who makes us priests, prophets, and kings in Christ. There are two moments of anointing in the rite of baptism, and the prayers that accompany these moments are beautiful:

Anointing with Oil of Catechumens: We anoint you with the oil of salvation in the name of Christ our Savior; may he strengthen you with his power, who lives and reigns for ever and ever. 

Anointing with Chrism: God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has freed you from sin, given you a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, and welcomed you into his holy people. He now anoints you with the chrism of salvation. As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet, and King, so may you live always as a member of his body, sharing everlasting life.

Bend the stubborn heart and will; Melt the frozen, warm the chill; Guide the steps that go astray…

In the rite of Baptism, we also find the symbol of fire, present in the Paschal Candle, from which the baptismal candle is lit. It will be this flame of the love of the Risen Christ, this fire of the Holy Spirit, which will be powerful enough to melt the coldness of our sinful hearts:

Receive the light of Christ. Parents and godparents, this light is entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly. This child of yours has been enlightened by Christ. He (she) is to walk always as a child of the light. May he (she) keep the flame of faith alive in his (her) heart. When the Lord comes, may he (she) go out to meet him with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom.

Bend the stubborn heart and will; Melt the frozen, warm the chill; Guide the steps that go astray…

In baptism we also receive a special gift to help us find the narrow way: the baptismal gown. This white garment reminds us that we are created for a specific goal, a precise destination, filled with beauty and happiness and grace: we are created for the wedding feast of the Lamb, and our baptismal garment is like a compass reminding us who we are and where we are headed. Once again, the prayer that accompanies this sign is rich and beautiful:

Clothing with the White Garment N., you have become a new creation, and have clothed yourself in Christ. See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity. With your family and friends to help you by word and example, bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven.

Oil to bend what is rigid, fire to warm what is frozen, garment to remind me who I am so I can straighten my wandering steps.

I thank you, Holy Spirit, for the gift you are for me: thank you for loving me too much to leave me hardened in will and in mind; thank you for drawing near with your loving flame to warm my cold heart; thank you for observing my every step and for guiding me towards the eternal wedding feast for which I was created. Come, Holy Spirit: bend, melt, guide, for the glory of God. Amen.

Concrete resolution:

  • During my personal prayer, I can read through the rite of Baptism, using my spiritual senses and my imagination to contemplate the Holy Spirit who I received in my Baptism and who I receive anew every day.
  • With the light of the Holy Spirit, I can “diagnose” my heart, becoming more aware of whatever challenge or blockage I most encounter at this time. Is my heart hard? Is it cold? Does my heart stray from the right path? As I grow in awareness, I can give the Holy Spirit permission to come closer and transform me from the inside out.

This month’s meditation is by Sr. Ruth Kuefler, AVI

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