Summer, Pentecost, and the Structure of our Lives

Nicholas Beasley

My children rose early and unprompted on the first day of summer break, earlier than they did on the last day of school, when parental effort was required to motivate them toward the learning enterprise. They must have wakened with a clear idea of the call of that first summer day, that it would be wonderfully unstructured, free for them to use as they saw fit. After nine months of a rigorous schedule of school, music lessons, homework, and sports practices, a time of openness and less direction is so enticing. It is a blessing to parents as well, beholden as we are to the structures created by coaches, school administrators, and scout troops. 

But it is a commonplace among families that this reveling in summer freedom is only good for so long. Humans are ritual creatures, nourished by routines, by structures that channel our energy, engender cooperation, and prevent all kinds of chaos. A week into summer and schedules of chores are announced, screen-time restrictions are put in place, a quiet hour of reading in your room after lunch is established. And by the end of summer, even reluctant students (and certainly parents) are ready for the structure of the school year, ready to reengage with patterns of behavior that have proved helpful to us for generations. 

The anthropologist Victor Turner wrote about a dynamic of structure and anti-structure that he observed in the ritual lives of humans. We need a certain amount of structure and rituals that speak to that structure to be well, as persons, families, and as societies. We don’t do well with perpetual revolution; my eight-year old is not ready to guide our family. But structure can be crushing if it is never lifted or if it is inflexible and doesn’t allow for growth and development. So a healthy life includes moments of play and freedom in which schedules, hierarchy, and order fade into the background of our consciousness. We all need to blow off some steam, trade our dress shoes for flip flops, and let the youngest pick the restaurant sometimes. 

Sunday was Pentecost, the feast of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who brooded over the waters at the beginning of creation and participated in the ordering of the world. We speak of the Spirit as a giver of order in the life of the church, a Spirit given in the well-structured rites of baptism and ordination, a Spirit who can be counted on to work in the faithful administration of the sacraments. But the Bible also shows us the Holy Spirit as an agent who upends structure, working in all kinds of people, undermining social conventions, giving many a voice to call upon God. God is at work in the Spirit binding us together in our structured relationships, seasons, and institutions. And God is also at work when the Spirit raises up a prophet who demands we see the lack of health in structures that do not promote holiness and love. 

Summer might give you a chance to consider your own life and discipleship in that light. Are you in need of the structure that God might give you by the Spirit? You may need the discipline of more structured prayer, like the Daily Office, perhaps kicked off on a monastic retreat. Or are you in need of a season of freedom, exploration, and renewal? The Spirit might be leading you to have intentional conversations about the structures of your life, breathing new life into them as you sense both the goodness of the givens of life and the wonder of our creative power. A life fully lived in the Holy Spirit is one of structure and freedom, in the way of Jesus, who honored the ways things had been, even as he brought in the new life of the Kingdom.