The Sober Intoxication of the Spirit
by Father Raniero Cantalamessa

Two Kinds of Intoxication
On the Monday after Pentecost in 1975 at the closing of the First World Congress of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, Blessed Paul VI delivered an address to the ten thousand participants gathered in the St. Peter’s Basilica in which he defined the charismatic renewal as “a chance for the Church.” When he ended reading his official discourse, the pope added these words extemporaneously:

In the fourth-century hymn by St. Ambrose that we read this morning in the breviary, there is a simple phrase that is difficult to translate: Laeti, which means “with joy,” bibamus, which means, “let us drink,” sobriam, which means “sober” or “temperate,” profusionem Spiritus, which means “the outpouring of the Spirit.” Laeti bibamus sobriam profusionem Spiritus. This could be the motto for your movement: its plan as well as a description of the movement itself.[1]

The important thing to note immediately is that the words from Ambrose’s hymn were of course not written for the charismatic renewal. They have always been part of the Liturgy of the Hours of the universal Church. This is therefore a joyful exhortation addressed to all Christians.

To be more accurate, in St. Ambrose’s original text, instead of “profusionem Spiritus,” “the outpouring of the Spirit,” we find “ebrietatem Spiritus,” that is, “the intoxication of the Spirit.”[2] Tradition subsequently considered his original expression to be too audacious and substituted it with a milder and more acceptable word. In doing so, however, the meaning of a metaphor as ancient as Christianity itself was lost. In the Italian translation of the Breviary, the original text of the verse by St. Ambrose has been restored correctly. A stanza of the hymn at Lauds for the Fourth Week of the Breviary says,

And may Christ be food to us,
and faith be our drink,
and let us joyfully taste
the sober intoxication of the Spirit.[3]

What led the Fathers to take up the theme of “sober intoxication,” already developed by Philo of Alexandria,[4] was the text in which the Apostle exhorts the Christians in Ephesus that says,

Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts. (Ephesians 5:18-19)

Starting with Origin, there are countless texts from the Fathers that illustrate this theme, alternating between the analogy and the contrast of physical intoxication and spiritual intoxication. The likeness lies in the fact that both types of intoxication infuse joy; they make us forget our troubles and make us escape ourselves. The contrast lies in the fact that while physical intoxication (from alcohol, drugs, sex, success) makes people shaky and unsteady, spiritual intoxication makes people steady at doing good. The first intoxication makes people come out of themselves to live below the level of reason; the second makes people come out of themselves to live above the level of their reason. Both use the word “ecstasy” (the name recently given to a deadly drug!), but one is an ecstasy downward and the other is an ecstasy upward.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem writes that those who thought the apostles were drunk at Pentecost were correct; they were mistaken only in attributing that drunkenness to ordinary wine, whereas it was “new wine” pressed from the “true vine,” who is Christ. The apostles were intoxicated, yes, but with that sober intoxication that puts to death sin and brings life to the soul.[5]

Drawing on the episode of water flowing from the rock in the desert (see Ex 17:1-7) and on Paul’s comment about it in the First Letter to the Corinthians (“All drank the same supernatural drink... and all were made to drink of one Spirit” [1 Cor 10:4; 12:13]), Saint Ambrose wrote,

The Lord Jesus poured out water from the rock and all drank from it. Those who drank it only symbolically were satisfied; those who drank it in very truth were inebriated. Inebriation of this sort is good and fills the heart without causing the feet to totter. Yes, it is a good inebriation. It steadies the footsteps and makes sober the mind... Drink Christ, for he is the vine; drink Christ, for he is the rock from which the water gushes forth... Drink Christ, that you may drink His words... Divine scripture is imbibed, divine scripture is eaten when the juice of the eternal word runs through the veins of the mind and enters into the vital parts of the soul.[6]

From Intoxication to Sobriety
How do we appropriate this ideal of sober intoxication and incarnate it in our current historical and ecclesial situation? Where, in fact, is it written that such a strong way of experiencing the Spirit was the exclusive prerogative of the Fathers and of the early days of the Church, but that it is no longer for us? The gift of Christ is not limited to a particular era but is offered to every era. There is enough for everybody in the treasure of his redemption. It is precisely the role of the Spirit to render the redemption of Christ universal, available to every person at every point of time and space...

This second path—from intoxication to sobriety—was the path that Jesus led his apostles to follow. Even though they had Jesus as their teacher and spiritual master, they were not in a position before Pentecost to put into practice hardly any of the gospel precepts. But when they were baptized with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, then we see them transformed and capable of enduring all kinds of hardships for Christ, even martyrdom. The Holy Spirit was the cause of their fervor rather than its effect.

There is another reason that impels us to rediscover this path from intoxication to sobriety. The Christian life is not only a matter of growing in personal holiness, it is also ministry, service, and proclamation. To accomplish these tasks we need “power from on high,” the charisms or, in a word, a profound Pentecostal experience of the Holy Spirit.

We need the sober intoxication of the Spirit even more than the Fathers did. The world has become so averse to the Gospel, so sure of itself, that only the “strong wine” of the Spirit can overcome its unbelief and draw it out of its entirely human and rationalistic sobriety, which passes itself off as “scientific objectivity.” Only spiritual weapons, says the Apostle, “have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:4-5).

The Penetrating Rain of the Spirit
Where are the “places” in which the Spirit acts today in this Pentecostal way? Let us listen once again to the voice of Saint Ambrose who was the cantor par excellence, among the Latin Fathers, of the sober intoxication of the Spirit. After discussing the two classic “places” in which one could receive the Spirit—the Eucharist and Scripture—he hints at a third possibility, saying,

There is, too, the inebriation that follows on the penetrating rain of the Holy Spirit. We read in the Acts of the Apostles... of those who spoke in foreign tongues and appeared, to those who heard them, to be drunk on new wine.[10]

After noting the “ordinary” ways of being intoxicated by the Spirit, Saint Ambrose adds a different way with these words, an “extraordinary” way (extraordinary in the sense that it is not predetermined or instituted), that consists in re-living the experience the apostles had on the Day of Pentecost. He obviously did not add this third possibility to tell his audience that it was closed to them and had been reserved only for the apostles and the first generation of Christians. On the contrary, he intended to inspire the faithful to desire the experience of this “penetrating rain of the Spirit” that occurred at Pentecost. Also for St. Ambrose Pentecost was not a close event, but a possibility always open in the Church.

The possibility is therefore open also for us to draw upon the Spirit in this new way that depends solely on God’s sovereign and free initiative. We should not fall into the error of the Pharisees and scribes who said to Jesus, “There are six days for us to work, so why heal and do miracles on the Sabbath?” (see Luke 13:14). We could be tempted to say to God or to think, “There are seven sacraments that sanctify and confer the Spirit, so why go beyond them into new and unfamiliar ways?”

One of the ways in which the Holy Spirit is acting today, outside the institutional channels of grace, is the Charismatic Renewal. The theologian Yves Congar, in his address to the International Congress of Pneumatology at the Vatican in 1981 on the sixteenth centenary of the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople, said,

How can we avoid situating the so-called charismatic stream, better known as the Renewal in the Spirit, here with us? It has spread like a brushfire. It is far more than a fad. ... In one primary aspect, it resembles revival movements from the past: the public and verifiable character of spiritual action which changes people’s lives... It brings youth, a freshness and new possibilities into the bosom of the old Church, our mother. In fact, except for very rare occasions, the Renewal has remained within the Church and, far from challenging long-standing institutions, it reanimates them.[11]

The principal instrument by which the Renewal in the Spirit “changes people’s lives” is the baptism in the Spirit. I mention it in this place without of course any intention of proselytism, but because I think it is important that a reality which touches millions of Catholics around the world be known at the center of the Church.

The expression itself comes directly from Jesus who before ascending into heaven, referring to the future Pentecost, said to his apostles: “John baptized with water but you, not many days from now, will be baptized in the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5). This is a rite that has nothing esoteric about it but rather occurs with gestures of great simplicity, peace, and joy and is accompanied by attitudes of humility, repentance, and willingness to become like children so as to enter the kingdom.

It is a renewal and an actualization not only of baptism and confirmation, but also of the whole of Christian life: for spouses, a renewal of the sacrament of marriage; for priests, a renewal of their ordination; for consecrated people, a renewal of their religious profession. People prepare themselves for this, in addition to making a good confession, by participating in catechesis meetings by which they are put in vital and joyful contact with the principal truths and realities of the faith: love of God, sin, salvation, new life, transformation in Christ, the charisms, and the fruits of the Spirit. The most common and beautiful fruit is the discovery of what it really means to have a “personal relationship” with Jesus. In the catholic understanding Baptism in the Spirit is not an arrival point, but a starting point toward Christian maturity and service to the Church.

A decade after the charismatic renewal appeared in the Catholic Church, Karl Rahner wrote,

Even an objective and rational theology does not have to reject all these enthusiastic experiences [of grace] out of hand... Here we are certainly confronted with especially impressive, humanly affective, liberating experiences of grace which offer wholly novel existential horizons. These mold the innermost attitude of a Christian for a long time and are quite fit... to be called “baptism in the Spirit.”[12]

But is it right to expect that everyone should go through this experience? Is this the only possible way to experience the grace of Pentecost? If by the “baptism in the Spirit” we mean a certain rite in a certain context, we have to say no; it is not the only way to have a profound experience of the Spirit. There have been and are countless Christians who have had a similar experience without knowing anything about the baptism in the Spirit, receiving a spontaneous outpouring of the Spirit at the occasion of a retreat, a meeting, a reading, or, according to Saint Thomas Aquinas, when someone is called to a new and more demanding office in the Church.[13]

Having said that, however, it must also be said that what is commonly called the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” or the “outpouring of the Spirit” has shown itself to be a simple and powerful way to renew the lives of millions of believers in almost all of the Christian churches. Even a normal course of spiritual exercises can be concluded very well with a special invocation of the Holy Spirit, if the person leading it has experienced it and the participants desire it. I had that very experience last year. The bishop of a diocese south of London took the initiative to convene a charismatic retreat that was open to the clergy of other dioceses as well. About one hundred priests and permanent deacons were present, and at the end they all asked for and received the outpouring of the Spirit, with the support of a group of laypeople from the Renewal who had come for that occasion. If the fruits of the Spirit are “love, joy, and peace” (Gal 5:22) by the end they were almost touchable with hands among those present.

This is not a question of adhering to one movement rater than to other movements in the Church. Nor is it even a question, properly speaking, of a “movement” but of a “current of grace” that is open to all and is destined to lose itself in the Church like an electric discharge that is dispersed within a mass and then disappears once it has accomplished its task.

Saint John XXIII spoke of “a new Pentecost”; the Blessed Paul VI went further, speaking of a “perennial Pentecost”. This is what he said during a general audience in 1972:

The Church needs her perennial Pentecost; she needs fire in her heart, words on her lips, prophecy in her outlook. […] The Church needs to rediscover the eagerness, the taste and the certainty of the truth that is hers […] And then the Church needs to feel flowing through all her human faculties a wave of love, of that love which is called forth and poured into our hearts ‘by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us’ (Romans 5.5)”[14].

Let us conclude therefore with the words of the liturgical hymn recalled at the beginning:

And may Christ be food to us,
and faith be our drink,
and let us joyfully taste
the sober intoxication of the Spirit.[3]

[1] See “Pope Paul Addresses the Charismatic Renewal,” New Covenant, July 1975, p. 25.

[2] Sancti AmbrosiiOpera 22Hymni, Inscriptiones, Fragmenta (Rome: Città Nuova, 1994), p. 38. The Latin stanza: “Christusque nobis sit cibus, / potusque noster sit fides; / laeti bibamus sobriam /ebrietatem Spiritus.”

[3] St. Ambrose’s hymn “Splendor paternae gloriae” [“O Splendor of the Father’s Glory”], in Brian P. Dunkle, Enchantment and Creed in the Hymns of Ambrose of Milan (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 222.

[4] See, among many examples, On the Creation of the World in PhiloPhilosophical Writings, ed. Hans Lewy (Oxford: East and West Library 1946), p. 55. See Legum allegoriae 1, 84, “methe nefalios.”

[5] See St. Cyril of Jerusalem, The Catechetical Letters of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, 17, 18-19, reprint of Nicene and Post- Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. 7 (N.p.: Veritatis Splendor, 2014), p. 592; see PG 33, p. 989.

[6] St. Ambrose, Commentary on Twelve Psalms, 1, 33, trans. ĺde M. NíRian (Dublin: Halcyon Press, 2000), p. 21; see also PL 14, pp. 939-940.

[10] See Saint Ambrose, Commentary on Twelve Psalms, 35, 19, p. 47.

[11] See Yves Congar, “Actualité de la pneumatologie,” in Credo in Spiritum Sanctum, ed. José Saraiva Martins, vol. 1 (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1983), p. 18, republished as “Pneumatology Today,” in American Ecclesiastical Review 167, no. 7 (1973): pp. 435-449.

[12] Karl Rahner, The Spirit in the Church, trans. John Griffiths (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), pp. 10-11.

[13] See St. Thomas Aquinas, S.Th. I,q.43,a.6 ad 2.

[14] Insegnamenti di Paolo VI, vol X, Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, p. 1210 s. (Discourse of 29 Nov.1972); translation in E. O’Connor, Pope Paul and the Spirit, Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, Indiana 1978, p.183).

[Excerpt from an Advent sermon given in Rome December 16, 2016, (c) by Raniero Cantalamessa, English translation by Marsha Daigle-Williamson, First published in]

Illustration credit: Breath of Life by Graham Braddock, (c)
Description by the artist: Originally I painted the face of Jesus in the clouds breathing life and renewal into His church, which I symbolised in the form of a traditional, steepled church building. Some people thought the face in the sky represented the north wind. A few years later I painted the dove over the face so that it was no longer visible. Eventually, I decided that there was a place for both, and I repainted the face of the Lord so that it partially obscured the dove. Which did you see first? The dove, or the face of Jesus?
This is a detail from a larger work entitled, ‘Breath of Renewal’.

Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap. (born July 22, 1934) is an Italian Catholic priest in the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin. He has devoted his ministry to preaching and writing. He is a Scripture scholar, theologian, and noted author of numerous books. Since 1980 he has served as the Preacher to the Papal Household under Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis. He is a noted ecumenist and frequent worldwide speaker, and a member of the Catholic Delegation for the Dialogue with the Pentecostal Churches.

Return to Table of Contents or Archives  (c) copyright 2017 The Sword of the Spiri