The 4 spiritual food groups

by Father Thomas Dowd

When the Charismatic Renewal movement began Catholics were introduced to a phenomenon called “baptism in the Holy Spirit”. People whose spiritual lives were lukewarm (or even quite cold) suddenly experienced a new “fire” in their relationship with God, which they attributed to the action of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. I have heard many testimonies to this effect from people who are otherwise very ordinary, and some are even able to pinpoint the day and hour when they “met God” in this new way. I have no reason to doubt the genuineness of these experiences.

Inevitably, however, these stories raise questions among those who have not had the powerful “all at once” experience of God. “What about me, Father? I’m just an ordinary Catholic, I’ve never had these extraordinary experiences. Does this mean I don’t have the Holy Spirit in my life?” I’ve even heard people teach that unless you experience a “fiery” baptism, you aren’t really a Christian in the full sense of the word.

I am sorry, but I just can’t agree with this interpretation. Yes, the Holy Spirit can come in power, like at Pentecost. But God sometimes works in a very subtle way, like when he appeared to Elijah on Mount Horeb:

And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (1 Kings 19: 11b-13a)

So yes, we can have wind blowing and the rocks splitting and the fire burning in our souls…but God is not in those things as much as he is in the still small voice behind it. And I suspect that many people have never had the wind, earthquake, and fire experiences…but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the still small voice.

Try as we might, there is really nothing we can do to “provoke” the wind/earthquake/fire type of experiences. They are very specific gifts from God, and they depend on his will to grant them, and if we seek them excessively then it may distract us from the real gift, which is the gift of Himself. However we can know infallibly that God wants to grant to us and to everyone this gift of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and there are steps we can take to increase this presence in us.

If we really want to grow spiritually, it necessarily involves growing in our relationship with the Holy Spirit present in us. From my experience, there are 4 sure-fire ways to have this growth occur:

  1. Make (and renew) a personal commitment to God through Jesus Christ

    I know this one sounds like a no-brainer, but Jesus made it very expicit himself:

    “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.” (John 14: 15-17)

    The word “love” doesn’t just mean emotions, it means a love of choice — an “alliance” with God, where we pledge to place our lives in his hands, and He in turn places his life in us. Both parties take a risk: in accepting to follow his commandments we have to surrender the idea that we know best what is right and what is wrong for us, and God in turn takes the risk that we might profane his Presence in us through sin i.e. not living according to those commandments.

  2. Get to know your Bible

    What makes the Bible different from any other set of books is that its words are inspired by the Holy Spirit. As the Bible itself says:

    All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3: 16-17)

    The Church has identified a certain list of books as being part of “scripture”, and those are the ones we should focus on (and not on extra-Biblical works like the Gospel of Thomas). As St. Jerome said, “Ignorance is scripture is ignorance of Christ”. More than this, though, is the fact that, if those words really are inspired by the Holy Spirit, contact with those words in our intelligence allows more “room” for the Holy Spirit in our hearts. Like the quoted passage states: “that we may be complete”, which must include the fullest possible presence of the Holy Spirit in us.

  3. Frequent the sacraments

    It is part of Catholic faith that the Holy Spirit is present in a special way in the sacraments. If you desire to live by the Spirit but have not received all (or even any) of the sacraments of initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist), then this is your first step. But our initiation, in a sense, is never really complete! Receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation (i.e. confession) renews the grace of these sacraments, and receiving the Eucharist shows that our Christian life remains a “work in progress”. Frequent confession (say once per month) helps keep sin from creeping into our life. As for the Eucharist, think of these words from the Eucharist prayer:

    Let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy, so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

    The words of the consecration cannot “function” without this presence of the Holy Spirit. And I should add, there is no reason to believe that the Holy Spirit “takes off” after the consecration is over! The bread and wine have truly become the Body and Blood of Christ, true, but this presence not only needs to be effected but also sustained. When we receive Holy Communion the Body and Blood disintegrate in our bodies, but the grace they contain remains — the grace of the Holy Spirit. By eating Jesus’ Body and drinking his Blood, we have life in us — or, more accurately in this context, we receive the Giver of Life.

  4. Live in communion with the Church

    This is, I suspect, the most difficult element for people to accept today. “Can’t I have the Holy Spirit in my heart without having to have the be part of the Church?” many ask. The short answer is: no. It is true that there are many people, such as people who are not Christians, who are not formally part of the Church, and they still have the Holy Spirit knocking on the doors of their hearts. It has been said “There are many people who do not appear to be part of the Church who yet are, while there are many who appear to be part of the Church who are not” (I think by St. Augustine). But the simple fact remains that it is not possible to refuse communion with the Church and expect to be truly living in the Spirit. The Church is more than another institution, it is the Temple of the Holy Spirit:

    You are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. (Ephesians 2: 19-22)

    So strengthening our connection with the Church strengthens our connection with the One who dwells in the Church, i.e. the Holy Spirit. Among other ways, this is accomplished by:

    • Fellowship with other members of the Church — not being a stranger in our own local church communities, but actively seeking out fellowship
    • Getting to know the saints, who are as much members of the Church as those walking the Earth today
    • Getting to know the teachings of the Church, and the reasons for them, and putting them into practice in our lives

    A final point about communion with the Church, which is perhaps the most difficult, is the need for obedience to Church authority, especially in matters of faith and morals. We should not switch off our brains, it should not be a servile obedience, but it should still be obedience nonetheless. Obedience means to be “plugged in” to the Church, and as a consequence it permits the Holy Spirit to flow into our lives with great strength and power.

I call these categories “the 4 spiritual food groups”, and a healthy balanced “spiritual diet” needs all of them. Apart from these things there is also personal prayer, which is not really a “food group” but rather something far more important: it is the “water” of our spiritual diet, such that without it our spiritual life just dries up and dies.


The above exposition is necessarily brief, but as a teacher and preacher I have had the opportunity to expand on these topics, most notably in the context of a parish mission that was given at the Trappist monastery of Notre-Dame-du-Lac in Oka, Quebec. The following are the talks that were given:

As well, I also preached the homily at the Friday night and Sunday morning masses:

There were also a couple of handouts and book references during the retreat, notably to Writing my Personal Scriptures, Annual Reading Plan for the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and Reading Scripture as the Word of God.