like the dragon

Come Holy Spirit
come like the dragon remembered of old
rattling and clanking on golden wings.
seize our treasures for your glittering hoard.
Burn away all that will burn.
–from Mary F. C. Pratt, “Not Like a Dove”*

And Pentecost arrived in tongues of fire and a rush of wind, and if the early church rejoiced continually, it could not have been because they were always safe and comfortable.

We’ve seen the images of doves since we were children: the dove returning with an olive branch to Noah’s ark, and the dove descending upon Christ at His baptism, and the doves — or pigeons — feeding at the Cathedral in Mary Poppins.  All of them safe, comfortable images, about equally weighted with safe, comfortable feelings.  We didn’t think, maybe, of the consequences of the descending dove — how it led Christ immediately into the wilderness, where the Beloved Son with Whom God was well-pleased underwent extreme hunger and temptation.  We didn’t think of how the Spirit arrived to send so many Christians to torture and death.

In “Little Gidding,” T. S. Eliot says, “The dove descending breaks the air / With flame of incandescent terror,” and maybe we would do well to see the terror in the dove, to fear the flames rather than giggle at the Sunday-school illustration of wide-eyed, robed men with little fires atop their heads.  Maybe we’d be wise to imagine a dragon sometimes, rather than a dove.

Because in summoning the Holy Spirit, we do not summon a gentle fall of white feathers with which to fill a pillow and then drift away to sleep. Because His coming is costly. Because when I think of the consequences of His arrival, I find myself — often and often  — afraid that He’ll come.

*Poem printed in At the Still Point: A Literary Guide to Prayer in Ordinary Time, compiled by Sarah Arthur

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