Confirmation, Faith, and Emil Nolde’s “Pentecost”

Recently I had the opportunity to speak as part of an adult faith formation series at St. Mary’s Parish in Waverly, Iowa. The participants—there were about 140 over 2 sessions, so the parish is clearly on to something!—began the evening by reading Acts 2 and briefly discussing Emil Nolde’s “Pentecost” (1909).

I am convinced that Pentecost is a most helpful scripture for thinking about the Holy Spirit in Confirmation. But why that particular artwork?

One challenge facing the pastoral framework of the celebration of Confirmation is the catechetical emphasis on some particular manifestation of grace, most often a fervent commitment to having accepted one’s faith for oneself. When Confirmation is celebrated in adolescence (and we know age is by no means uniform Church-wide), we build up the celebration of the sacrament as a time when we’ll all feel just great for having committed ourselves. However, we typically to fail to work through the full range of experiences and feelings that constitute the life of faith. We tend to think that Confirmation must constitute a uniform experience and lose sight of the broader Christian life, its struggles, doubts, joys, griefs, and hopes.

The problem is all the more pressing in what a recent study suggests (and my own classroom experience corroborates) is a widespread misunderstanding of “faith” among young people. And it’s leading them away from the Church. For many “faith” is the opposite of “doubt.” It is intellectual surety or—the flip side of the coin—a realm of one’s life unsullied by critical thinking. Of course there are many factors leading to such a narrow and disembodied view of “faith” (secular identity politics/consumerism surely among them) but, as Gaudium et spes insisted about atheism in 1965, we bear some responsibility. If a young person emerges from the other side of Confirmation with doubts or questions and simply because of those questions thinks that s/he no longer has faith, we have done them a catechetical disservice.Nolde, Pentecost (1909)

Back then to the Nolde. Looking at the painting, I am always struck by the facial expressions. While all have a tongue of fire on their heads, various faces express resignation, shock, exuberance, quiet prayer, and downright terror. It beautifully depicts a wide range of responses to the descent of the Spirit. So too, the life of faith admits of a variety of doubts, struggles, and challenges. Faith and reason work together, but it is not always immediately apparent to us why and how this is so. We are called to persevere. The disciples at Pentecost understood one another, but did so while speaking many languages. Sometimes we forget the many languages spoken at Pentecost and expect a common sacramental experience/formula in our pastoral approach to Confirmation. Nolde offers us an artistic corrective.

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