The Spirit Rests Where it Will: A Zen Meditation on Pentecost and the Mystery of the Holy Spirit

The Spirit Rests Where it Will: A Zen Meditation on Pentecost and the Mystery of the Holy Spirit May 28, 2023

(by Jen Norton)



Today is the fiftieth day after Easter Sunday. In the Western church it marks the marvelous fable of the holy spirit coming to rest upon a throng of Jesus’ followers who had gathered in Jerusalem for the festival of weeks. While I might argue the point, Pentecost is usually called the birthday of the Christian church.

I have a favorite trope that I cite from time to time. It goes “the spirit lists (or rests) where it will.” As someone walking the Zen way, I’ve always felt that line captures something of the (if you will) spirit of Zen’s awakening. Awakening has no hard causal associations. Sure there are practices that incline us in that direction. But the moment, the turning, the noticing, well, just like the spirit coming when it and not I want it. Like the bottom falling out of a bucket. Like tongues of fire resting on a crowd.

I’m also taken with the vagueness of the holy spirit in the scriptures. In fact the existence of the spirit is the weak link in the theory of the trinity. What it is precisely is elusive, certainly not clear from the texts of the scriptures. It’s only later as creeds were being developed, that the spirit becomes a face of God.

In English it was for the longest time also called ghost. I recall a child learning to cross herself saying “In the name of the father. And of the son. And of the holy monster.” That family quickly shifted its use from ghost to spirit.

Although, me. I rather like that childish use. Monster. While our contemporary use for monster is an imaginary beast, its etymology suggests something else. “To point out, to indicate, to demonstrate.” I like taking all those things together, including imaginary beast. And. Well…

Monster. Ghost. Spirit. Elusive. And yet present. Like the wind. Like tongues of fire.

So, I just love the spirit and references to it. Especially that line about when it comes, if it comes.

While I know the line is biblical, I have to admit over time I’d forgotten the actual citation. So, a while back I googled it. What follows started as a meditation about that search which I then wrote up. Here I take that little project and expand it for this meditation. Using quotes around the phrase in either variation I looked. I was distressed to discover me providing the first two quotes for each variation. And there were very few references following.

I did find an interesting citation from the Book of Numbers, Chapter 11, verses 25 and 26. In the King James version it goes

And the Lord came down in a cloud, and spake unto him, and took of the spirit that was upon him, and gave it unto the seventy elders: and it came to pass, that, when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, and did not cease. But there remained two of the men in the camp, the name of the one was Eldad, and the name of the other Medad: and the spirit rested upon them; and they were of them that were written, but went not out unto the tabernacle: and they prophesied in the camp.”

It does have something of the quality or spirit, if you will, of my increasingly unlikely memory. I searched a Jewish website for a translation not read through a Christian lens, and in fact the text isn’t in fact much different.

And HaShem came down in the cloud, and spoke unto him, and took of the spirit that was upon him, and put it upon the seventy elders; and it came to pass, that, when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, but they did so no more. But there remained two men in the camp, the name of the one was Eldad, and the name of the other Medad; and the spirit rested upon them; and they were of them that were recorded, but had not gone out unto the Tent; and they prophesied in the camp.”

So, certainly interesting. Whatever it is that has happened to the large group also happens to people not at the pentecostal moment. Although to me the description feels a bit more like contagion, or, a contact high. Which has its own lessons, and perhaps warnings. And not the full throated assertion that the spirit, wisdom, the great heart, God if you will, comes without condition.

Now, I know in my heart of hearts that “spirit resting where it will” is a true thing.

I’ve seen spontaneous manifestations of deep wisdom erupt in all sorts of conditions among all sorts of people. It presents in two principal ways. The one is our noticing that we are all of us connected. The other is how no thing is substantial in and of itself, but at the same time everything holy. For me this is the heart of my Zen life. And my Buddhism. And, I would add, my universalism. We see traces of these insights, this insight in the writings of nearly all the world’s religions. And, as the google machine can attest, I’ve been pleased to cite this rather explicit version from the Bible a lot. So, it was mildly disappointing that my memory had failed and the quote isn’t there in the Jewish or Christian scriptures.

Still, I sure thought it was there. And, I’m pretty familiar with the Bible. At the same time clearly I had the quote wrong. Still, the fact that the quote as it bubbles up in my mind uses an archaic term “lists,” for rest, made me feel it was there somewhere. I went to a King James Bible search site. But working through various combinations of words I just couldn’t find it. I was beginning to think oh dear, I have imagined this, when Jan suggested I add in the word “whither.” Another of those archaic terms, and a word that felt right.

I looked. And there it was, or rather, what I had massaged in my heart. The Gospel According to John, the third chapter, the eighth verse. The actual text in the always lovely King James version goes

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

Now one reflection on the text points out that the same Hebrew word used twice in that line is first translated as “wind” and then as “spirit.” Nothing new to me. Or, to anyone with a slight experience of the spiritual language of the world’s faiths. Breath and wind are probably the most ancient metaphors for that transformative force in our lives. It occurs in languages as diverse as Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. But, also in Sanskrit and Chinese. And,  in a whole wealth of others. It’s easy to find lists if you  want to do some web searching.

That same article cites a couple of other scriptural verses I found intriguing. One is Ecclesiastes 3:6,”the wind goes around and the wind returns to its going around” and from the Psalms, 78:39, “a breath, going and never returning…” Now, I admit those lines takes a rumination on wind as spirit all in a couple of directions I hadn’t given a lot of thought to. That wind, that spirit is in constant motion, and it definitely comes from and takes us home. Here the verb of our reality is revealed. And. Sometimes we are graced with insight, but only once. We are left with a gradually diminishing sense of what had happened. And, I have seen it, a crystallization of that experience into some kind of dogma. A sad and often dangerous turn of things.

How we engage spiritual matters does indeed matter. In the Ecclesiastes example, we cannot grasp, we can only experience – but if we do, we find our true home within the wind. The second, that warning about taking something living and crushing the life out of it. The spirit gives life, but the letter kills. Not bad Zen lessons uncovered in the ancient texts of the Hebrew tradition.

But as to that full throated call to this magical quality, that we don’t have to do anything, we don’t even have to be good, and the great realization can settle on us, anyway, it is there, if buried a bit. And I like that. Not esoteric, not hidden, but mostly noticed out of the corner of the eye.

We find it in what I find a complicated and not entirely attractive text, the Gospel According to John. John contains some of the most sublime mystical writings in the whole of the scriptures. And it is riddled with anti-semitism, which some of my Christian friends try to mitigate by claiming pre-anti-semitic, anti-Jewish polemics. A distinction without a difference, i find. And. Well. Okay, I really like contradictions in spiritual texts. Because. And here’s a truth. The spirit rests where it will. That is the great secret of our hearts.

It is there for anyone willing to open and let it rest. Well, on occasion even to those who do all they can to resist. I think of the story of Saul and his fateful encounter on that road to Damascus. How he becomes Paul. For me this is the real universalism. Not the old Christian idea that all dead people go to heaven. Rather that the spirit cannot be contained, and genuine wisdom is available to all of us. And, that wisdom comes like a thief in the night.

Now. On balance I think we’re better off preparing ourselves. You know become fit hosts for the gift. And, not confused when it comes, like for those poor souls that take the gift and put it into a box. Me, I think Zen meditation is a good way to do that. But, maybe you have your own route.

Monster. Ghost. Spirit. Elusive. And yet present. Like the wind. Like tongues of fire.

Turns out there are many true paths.  But there is a bottom line.

The spirit rests where it will.

"I've never really seen a problem with this - perhaps it's having grown up in ..."

Unity and Diversity in Religion
"Asimov's laws of robotics:A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow ..."

Asking ChatGPT for a Zen Joke
"Homegrown retirement communities are gaining popularity, and for good reason! Unlike assisted living facilities and ..."

Creating Community: Are you aging? Are ..."
"Weird. Why do Christians misuse Occam's Razor to support their supernatural claims?https://lutherwasnotbornaga..."

Occam’s Razor, a Feast for William, ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

Close Ad