One of the warnings I heard frequently as a teenager was not to be in an environment which would drive away the Spirit. Inappropriate movies, inappropriate music, friends behaving badly—hang around with any of them, and the Holy Ghost would take off in the other direction. (Also, rumor had it that the Holy Ghost went to bed at midnight, which was why we should be home by then, too.) But when I think about this idea now, I’m a bit confused by it. If the Holy Ghost can’t be in the presence of anything impure or remotely tainted by sin, it’s not going to be much help to us bumbling, imperfect mortals. And if it’s true that it’s most prone to leave in spiritually toxic situations, it seems that it disappears exactly at the time we need it the most.
One of my sisters was in seminary on 9/11, watching news coverage. In response to viewing the horrific events, someone (on the television) uttered a profanity. Her teacher, she reported, commented, “well, there went the Spirit.” I was rather dumbstruck at the idea that the Spirit would be undeterred by acts of terrorism, but flee at the utterance of a profane word. But so often the Spirit we describe seems prim and proper, and completely unable to comprehend the depths of human experience.
Let me be clear—I do think it can be a problem to to watch movies which desensitize you to the value of human life and dignity, or objectify women; or to spend a lot of time at parties consisting of ever escalating drinking games. I do think such things can be spiritually destructive. But it would make more sense to me to say that such situations are problematic because they make it harder for you to hear the Spirit, not because the Spirit is so delicate and fragile that it can’t handle them and won’t stick around. I would hope for a God who can engage us not just when we put on our Sunday best, but also when we find ourselves in more turbulent settings.
I also struggle with what it means to be “worthy” to have the Spirit. I realize that worthiness isn’t supposed to mean perfection—though that’s a topic that deserves a whole post of its own. But even if you define worthiness in terms of doing your best, I don’t know what sense to make of times when I’ve felt the Spirit, given that so often those experiences haven’t come when I was genuinely trying to do the right things, but rather when I was feeling pretty rebellious. Perhaps one way of looking at it is that these experiences have come when I’ve particularly needed them, rather than being something that I earned. (I say that, but I still get frustrated; there are plenty of times when when I’ve felt like I desperately needed some kind of spiritual connection, some kind of answers, and found myself feeling like I was banging my head against the wall.)
And what about the “gift” of the Holy Ghost, versus access to the Holy Ghost? In LDS teachings, of course, you get the former when you’re confirmed, but everyone has access to the latter. But to be honest, I have a hard time seeing the difference between the two on a day-to-day level. In the sacrament prayer, we talk about the Spirit always being with us—but does that mean that the Spirit isn’t always with everyone? Our teachings about the Holy Ghost, I think, allow us to have a God who is corporeal and thus (presumably) in one place, while also, through the third member of the Godhead, able to exist everywhere.
In sum, I’m confused about a lot of things related to Mormon pneumatology. But I’ve also been thinking about 1 Thessalonian 5:19, which tells us to “Quench not the Spirit.” That suggests to me that while we can’t force spiritual experiences, we do have the agency to reject them; we can’t literally drive the Spirit away, but we can decide to ignore it.