THE GIFTS OF
THE HOLY SPIRIT
preparation for confirmation, most students learn to list these gifts,
i.e. wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, piety and
fear of the Lord. For the gifts of the Holy Spirit are received
in Baptism and completed in Confirmation. And likewise, there has been
in the last 40 years a desire for a more "Spirit-filled" prayer
life and religion in general. However, few of the faithful have reflected
upon what these gifts are or why they are important. This article
will describe what we mean by the gifts of the Holy Spirit in general,
each one in particular, and how they can guide our life.
1830 and 1831 of the Catechism describes the gifts of the Holy Spirit
as completing and perfecting the virtues and making us open to the inspirations
of the Spirit. St. Thomas Aquinas compares the influence of the
gifts of the Holy Spirit to the wind upon the sails of a ship; one can
move a ship to a certain degree by rowing, but more swiftly and easily
by catching the wind in sails. The gifts like sails, allow us
to catch the inspirations of the Spirit and soar above even ordinary
goodness to a level that is "heroic, indeed divine." See
Summa Theologica Part II-I, question 68, article 1. The saints
are people who learned by the end of their lives to respond to the Spirit
through those gifts as a matter of course, to live at this divine level
on a regular basis. And we are all called to live at that level
and so one day to shine forth with the saints in light. Thus,
as Pope Leo XIII said in his 1897 encyclical on the Holy Spirit Divinum
Illud Munus (That Divine Office), we "need those seven gifts which
are properly attributed to the Holy Spirit. . . . By means of
these gifts the soul is excited and encouraged to attain the evangelical
beatitudes which, like the flowers that come forth in the spring time
are the signs and harbingers of eternal beatitude."
actual list of the gifts of the Holy Spirit comes from a prophecy of
Isaiah about the Messiah. In chapter 11 of the Book of Isaiah,
the prophet says of the future king, "The Spirit of the Lord will
be upon Him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel
and fortitude, the spirit of knowledge and piety. And his delight
shall be the fear of the Lord." (There are actually six gifts
listed in the prophecy, but the last gift can be translated as both
piety and fear of the Lord, bringing the number in general tradition
to seven.) These gifts were to be those of the Messiah; and at
His baptism, Jesus in His human nature received this Spirit in fullness.
See Matt. 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22. However, Jesus also
promised a number of times to send the Spirit in fullness upon His disciples.
See, e.g., John 14:26, 15:26-27, 16:7, 13-15; Acts 1:8. At Pentecost,
the promise was fulfilled for the early Christians, and the Spirit guided
them to proclaim the Gospel to many nations gathered in Jerusalem, and
then to be witnesses of Christ and His Church throughout the world.
The gifts of the Holy Spirit allow us to be open to the Spirit as those
first Christians were, and like them to witness to the faith to the
world. Following columns will discuss each of the gifts in turn
and describe how they allow us to be open to the promptings of the Holy
Prince of Egypt, the animated movie about the Exodus, there is a
scene where Moses as a young man wonders what meaning his life has.
In response, his father-in-law Jethro compares our lives to threads
of a tapestry that can only be understood as a part of the whole.
Accompanying that analogy is a song with the refrain "You've got
to look with heaven's eyes." The gift of the Holy Spirit that
is wisdom involves that ability to look at all things with the eyes
the Old Testament, the wisdom literature often presented lady Wisdom
as either a maiden or a matron, inviting her beloved or her children
to learn about the ways of God and be refreshed with His bounty.
See, e.g., Prov. 1:20-33, 9:1-6; Wis. 8:1-16; Sir. 4:11-14. She
was there at creation and teaches us how to judge all things in accordance
with the holiness of God. See, e.g., Prov. 8:22-36; Wis. 9:9-11.
A wise man continually ponders and lives according to the order that
God has set forth from all time. See, e.g., Prov. 2:1-22;
Sir. 14:20-27. In Greek philosophy (the term means "love of
wisdom"), a wise man was considered one who understands first principles,
such as the good, the true and the beautiful, and orders his life and
desires accordingly. Thus, Aristotle in the beginning of Metaphysics,
describes wisdom as, among other things, the knowledge of the highest,
indeed divine, goods, and the ability to live in accordance with them.
Pope John Paul II pointed out in his encyclical Fides et Ratio
(Faith and Reason), the Scriptural writers, were able to incorporate
the desire for truth and learning of Greek philosophy, but with an understanding
that even the highest human wisdom is not sufficient. Jesus raises
us to a greater wisdom, the wisdom of the Cross, the ability to see
all things in the light of God's love shown to us from the Cross and
the triumph of that love in the Resurrection. See, e.g., 1 Cor.
2:6-16; Eph. 1:15-21. St. Thomas Aquinas explains that the gift
of wisdom allows us to see all things in the light of Christ, not merely
with abstract knowledge, but through our friendship with Him.
See Summa Theologica part II-II question 45, articles 1-2.
world calls someone wise if he gets along with the world and thus makes
himself prosperous, popular and powerful. But that sort of the
wisdom is described in Scripture as worldly, sensual, even diabolic,
the sort of wisdom that the Cross overcomes. See James 3:15; 1
Cor. 1:18-25. The wisdom from heaven allows us to sense all things
as directed by the love God for our salvation through Jesus. Thus,
in wisdom we see the good things of this life, not as our final goal,
but as first promises of the good things of heaven. And, therefore,
we can let them go for the sake of the greater calling. Wisdom
allows us to see sufferings as opportunities to join with Christ and
to make of our lives "living sacrifices of praise." Cf. Rom.
12:1; Heb. 13:15. It allows us to sense every moment as a part
of God's plan of salvation at the intersection of time and eternity.
And wisdom enables us to sense each person as one whom Christ died upon
the Cross to save, called by God to be a great and glorious saint, greater
anyone we can imagine on earth. Wisdom, the highest of the gifts
of the Holy Spirit, is associated with love, the highest of the virtues.
For it gives us the vision and the will to understand all things in
the light of our love of God and, more importantly, His love for us.
often use such phrases as "Now, I get it" to indicate that we understand
the essence of something, such the flow of an argument, the point of
a story or a joke, or the way that something works. It reflects
going beyond the surface level to comprehend the deeper level of the
meaning, or the pattern, of the things that are described. Likewise,
the gift of the Holy Spirit called understanding allows us to take what
we know from faith, and go to the deeper meaning and implications of
it. Thus, when Jesus washed the feet of Peter, He said, "What
I am doing you do not understand now, but you will understand later."
John 13:7. The idea is that Peter (and the other Apostles) at
that point only saw the action of their Master washing their feet; later
they would see the significance of His humble service cleansing them
and commissioning them to imitate His example. Likewise, before
His ascension, Jesus "opened [the Apostles'] minds to understand
the Scriptures" and explained how His death and Resurrection, and
the proclamation of the Gospel fulfilled the law and the prophets.
See Luke 24:46-47. By contrast, when He explained the parable
of the sower to the disciples, He added that those outside would "hear
and listen but not understand," for they could not see the implications
of the analogy. See Mark 4:12.
St. Thomas Aquinas explains in the Summa Theologica, the Spirit's
gift of understanding builds upon our faith by enabling us to comprehend
more fully the significance of the things that we believe. We
grow into this deeper understanding by an experience of the divine,
which gives us a sense of how the truth of God is operating in the world
and in our lives. One can draw an analogy to other fields.
Thus, for example, if one visits an historic site, such as Mount Vernon
or a battlefield, one can get a greater sense of what happened there.
Or, if one plays a sport or a musical instrument, or acts in a play,
one understands these fields all the more because of the experience
of them, which gives a comprehension consistent with verbal descriptions,
but deeper than them.
the realm of the spirit, this gift enables us to experience and live
out what God has revealed. For example, we know through faith
that the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God. Understanding
enables us to sense what it was like when the events described were
occurring and to reflect deeply upon the sacred words and apply them
to our lives. We know by faith that Jesus is especially present
in the Eucharist and that He pours forth graces, such as strength, forgiveness
and commissioning in all of the sacraments. Understanding enables
us to sense His presence and experience these graces. We know
through faith that the angels and saints pray with us and for us; understanding
allows us to experience them as "a great cloud of at cloud of witnesses
urging us on to victory." See Heb. 12:1.
with the other gifts of the Holy Spirit, we receive understanding at
baptism, and it is fulfilled in Confirmation. But, in order to
make this gift active in our lives, we need to use our intellect to
learn the faith more and more, focus in prayer on God and His celestial
realm, and strive to be free of sinful and excessive attachments that
cloud the mind. For, as St. Thomas Aquinas argues, the gift of
understanding leads to a delight in faith and is connected to the beatitude,
"Blessed are the pure of heart, for they will see God." See
word "science" comes from the Latin word "scientia," meaning
knowledge. And the word scientia is also the Latin term for the
gift of the Holy Spirit we call knowledge. The connection is fitting,
for the natural and social sciences are studies of created things, of
nature and society. And the gift of knowledge guides the Christian
to judge rightfully created things. Here, as usual, the Christian
approach takes a middle way between two extremes. One extreme
is the tendency to treat things of the world as final ends, to put them
above God and our final goal of beatitude with Him. The other
extreme is the sloth or blindness that fails to see God's glory shining
on in the world. Between the two faults is the Christian vision
that this world is, in the words of the poet Keats, "the vale of soul-making"
guiding us as wayfarers onto our final homeland.
for example, one error is the tendency to see nature as the final end,
whether that tendency comes in the ancient form of pagan worship, the
more modern atheistic belief that the laws of nature determine everything,
the romantic idealization of nature without reference to God, or the
worship of "the environment" as the most important thing to the
point that having children is discouraged on the grounds that they would
place demands upon it. On the other hand, there is what C.S. Lewis
calls in The Abolition of Man, "the trousered ape who has never
been able to conceive the Altantic as anything more than so many million
tons of cold salt water," the one who cares nothing for nature save
what he can get from it. Between the two extremes is the Psalmist
who sings, "The heavens declare the glory of God, the sky proclaims
its builder's craft." Psalm 19:2. Likewise, St. Francis
in his Canticle of the Creatures, like the friends of Daniel
the prophet, calls for praise to God through the things of nature, the
sun and the moon, fire and water, wind and earth, and even death.
See Dan. 3:52-90. As St. Paul says, we should see in visible
nature the invisible attributes of God. See Rom. 1:20. But
we also know that nature is herself fallen and in need of redemption,
awaiting fulfillment in the new heavens and new earth. See Rom.
8:19-22. The gift of knowledge allows us to sense nature
as God's artwork and a gift from Him that we may honor Him.
another front, there is on the one hand the worldly tendency to value
such things as wealth, talents and power above all else. Some
symptoms of this tendency are: the consumerist mentality, the belief
that having more stuff is the key to happiness; the measure of all things
by reference to money, as in the question "How much are you worth";
and the valuing of people in accordance to what they can do, rather
then the love of God that they represent. On the other extreme
is laxness and laziness about responsibilities in the world, which often
results in people vegetating in front of televisions or computer games
without developing their intellect talents, caring for their health,
or taking advantage of good opportunities. The gift of knowledge
guides us to see, as the parable of the talents and the gold coins indicates,
that all of our talents, time and treasure are given by God for a time
to carry out our vocations here on earth. See Matt. 25:14-30;
short, the gift of knowledge gives us the sense that created things
should neither be hoarded nor squandered, neither wasted nor worshipped.
Rather, we see them as gifts given for a short time that we may become
worthy of the lasting treasures of the new heavens and the new earth.
good parent sets clear rules for children and keeps order, but also
allows the children as they grow to make choices and be in charge of
some things themselves, for growing involves making difficult decisions.
Likewise, good teachers give students the information and principles
of a subject, but also call for them creatively to apply that knowledge
in situations where the answer is not obvious. In addition, in
order to develop a spirit of charity and openness to the goodness of
others, parents, teachers, coaches and the like also encourage teamwork
that people may arrive at solutions in a spirit of charity. Likewise,
our Father and Christ the Teacher set forth certain clear rules, such
as the Ten Commandments. See, e.g., Duet. 5:6-21; Matt. 5:17-20;
Mark 10:19-20. But God also calls for us to apply divine principles
in situations where the answer in not obvious, and to sense the wisdom
of other people, especially within the Church, that we may grow together
in charity. See, e.g., Matt. 10:16. The gift of counsel
guides us to apply Christian principles in such situations and recognize
the wisdom of others.
in the early Church, Christian community responded to the outpouring
of the Spirit by speaking in the Spirit and recognizing the fulfillment
of ancient prophesies, always acting together and accepting Peter's
leadership. See Acts 2:1-41. They lived in harmony,
composing prayers and acting with such creative goodness that the people
recognized the Spirit at work. See Acts 2:42-3:10. St. Paul
praises the early Christians for being enriched by the Spirit in speech,
knowledge and the ability to witness to Christ, telling them that they
are being prepared to judge the world. See 1 Cor. 1:4-7, 6:3.
But he also criticizes them for being so filled with their own plans
and expectations that they formed factions to advance their ideas; and
he instructs them to be united within the Church even if that involves
putting their own interests aside. See 1 Cor. 1:10-17, 2:1-4,
6:1-8. Likewise, St. Peter speaks of the glory of all Christians
as a "chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of
[God's] own" and says that each of us should be ready with a defense
of our faith. See 1 Pet. 2:9, 3:13. But he also reminds
us of the importance of acting within the Church and respecting proper
authority. See 1 Pet. 5:5-6.
the natural level, prudence allows one to make good decisions in ambiguous
situations and recognize the rightful authority and wisdom of others.
However, there is a greater level we are called to, a level of thinking
in the Spirit, which often contradicts human wisdom. See, e.g.,
1 Cor. 2:6-16. The gift of counsel enables us to make decisions
in that wisdom, judging as God does, not as man does, and to recognize
the Spirit working in others, whether authorities or people who are
seemingly simple. See, e.g., Luke 10:21, 18:17. We see this
gift at work in the lives of saints, as they have joined or formed religious
orders, explained the faith well, and responded to needs by creating
such things as schools, missions and lay groups. But also in our
daily lives, we are called to live out this gift of counsel to make
decisions, ranging from regular questions such as what to say to someone
to greater matters such as deciding whether to commit to a project to
life choices such as discerning a career or even more a vocation.
If, through prayer, careful discernment, and openness to the wisdom
of others, we are open to the Spirit, then individually and as a Church
we will, like the faithful servants in the parables of the gold coins
and the talents, be able to use our gifts well and train on earth for
the inheritance God has prepared for us in His eternal kingdom.
Kipling wrote a poem called "If," part of which reads "If you
can keep your head when all about / Are losing theirs and blaming it
on you . . . If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew /
to serve your turn long after they are gone / and hold on when there
is nothing in you / Except the Will which says to them 'Hold on'
. . . Yours is the earth and everything that's in it, and – which
is more – you will be a man , my son!" Similarly, when Socrates
was nearing death for his defense of the truth, he said that he did
not fear death, but rather feared doing injustice, for "to go to the
world below having one's soul full of injustice is that last and worst
of all evils."
wisdom describes the natural virtue of courage, the steadfast ability
and willingness to endure hardships, whether sudden and great, such
as injury and death, or (more often) subtle and gradual, such as unpopularity
or difficulties with a task. A courageous person knows that doing
what is right often involves pain and troubles and is willing to endure
them. And any civilization or individual who will accomplish anything
of lasting value must know and live this truth.
such fortitude is limited if it is based merely upon one's own strength.
It is greater, but still limited, if based upon the gathering of good
people together, as in a family, friends, a team, or a regiment.
But fortitude rises to its greatest height when it comes from a sense
of union with God and His angels and saints. The ancient Jews
knew this truth and would often repeat such phrases as "The Lord gives
strength to the fainting; for the weak He makes vigor abound. . . .
They that hope in the Lord will renew their strength, they will soar
as with eagle's wings." (Is. 40:29, 31) and "Like Mount Zion are
they who trust in the Lord, unshakeable, forever enduring."
gift of fortitude gives us that ability to tap into the power of God,
knowing that He is with us in all suffering and struggles. Even
in human affairs, having a good friend can make all the difference in
overcoming difficulties and danger. All the more does the ability
to sense that Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the angels and
saints are with us make it a lot easier to endure struggles.
As St. Paul says "we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses
[the saints] . . . keeping our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfector
of our faith", "If God is with us, who can be against?"
Heb. 13:1-2; Rom. 8:31. What is more, because sufferings, especially
those endured for the sake of truth and holiness, join us more with
Jesus in His suffering and show our love for Him, they can be, not only
endured, but greatly valued. Thus, the early Christians "rejoiced
that they were found worthy to suffer for the sake of the Name" of
Jesus. Acts 5:41. And the letters of Saints Peter and Paul
often contain such things as, "rejoice to the extent that you share
in the sufferings of Christ" and "I rejoice in my sufferings for
your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions
of Christ for the sake of His body, the Church." 1 Pet. 4:13;
gift of fortitude builds upon the natural virtue by giving us that sense
of union with Jesus and with His Church throughout time and space and
into heaven. In the context of that union, we hear and live the
words of Jesus, "You will have troubles in the world, but take courage.
I have overcome the world." John 16:33.
I was younger, I took piano lessons, and would be assigned a few pieces
every week to learn. One week, one assignment was "When the
Saints Go Marching In." At the end of the week, I had not gotten
the music down very well and played the song slowly and hesitatingly.
At that point, my piano teacher said, "It sounds like the saints are
saying, 'Do we have to do this again? Do we have to march
into heaven again?'" Unfortunately, it is common for people
to approach worship and religious duties likewise saying, "Do we have
to enter into the presence of the Lord or heaven and earth again?
Do we have to join the saints and angels in their songs of glory again?"
gift of piety guides us to approach God with a very different attitude.
Among the ancient Jews, there was an awe, a delight at being in the
presence of the Almighty God, who created the sun, the moon and the
stars, whose glory was so great that the angels veil their faces before
him. Many of the Psalms, for example, express this delight, saying
such things as, "It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praise
to Your name most High , , , For You make me jubilant, Lord, by Your
deeds, at the works of Your hands I shout for joy." Psalm 92:2,
5. There was a delight in knowing and living by the law of God,
seeing it not as a burden, but as the path He has shown us to share
in His creative goodness, power, and timeless light. Thus, Psalm
119, the great praise of the law of God resounds with such declarations
as "Your decrees are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.
My heart is set on fulfilling your laws; they are my reward forever."
the more should we as Christians delight in praising God and living
by His commandments, knowing that God comes to us in our worship and
especially at every Mass. As the Letter to the Hebrews says, in
prayer and faithfulness, we "approach Mount Zion, the city of the
living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and angels in festal gathering,
and the assembly of the first born." Heb. 12:22. We are
called to obey God, not only as our Master, but as our Father, who has
adopted each of us through Jesus Christ, and to delight in knowing His
laws and pleasing Him. Thus, Jesus promised that we would be friends
of Him, and therefore of God, if only we obey Him. See John 15:14.
And St. Paul says, "the Spirit itself bears witness that we are children
of God, and if children then heir of God and joint heirs with Christ,
if only we suffer with Him." Rom. 8:16-17. In that context
of being in the family of God, we also celebrate the company of angels
and saints, knowing them to be our elder brothers and sisters, and have
a reverence for all of our fellow pilgrims on this earth, recognizing
them as also part of the family of God.
the gift of piety leads us to be joyful in worshipping God in abiding
in His commandments. For, in so doing, we are joining in His family
and His glorious kingdom, which is too great for us to see now except
in a vague form, but which will be revealed one day when God introduces
each one of His faithful to all the court of heaven, to every angel
and every saint who has ever and will ever live and says, "Behold
my beloved, in whom I am well pleased."
VIII. Imagine if a great
writer or judge, or even the Pope, were coming to visit your house.
There would be a great sense of thrill and honor, but also an anxiety
to make everything exactly right, keeping the house, the family's
behavior, even the food flawless. All the more, when we are entering
the presence of the Almighty God, enthroned above all praises, before
whom even the angels veil their faces, should there be a sense of overwhelming
awe and an anxiety to make everything exactly right. This intense
desire that everything be perfect to God, the aversion to all that might
offend Him, is part of the gift of the fear of the Lord.
the Bible, devout people consistently recognized that their sinfulness
makes them unworthy to enter God's presence. Thus, when Isaiah
was brought before the throne of God, he says, "Woe to me! I
am doomed, for I am a man of unclean lips from a people of unclean lips."
Is. 6:5. And when Jesus guided St. Peter to the miraculous catch
of fish, St. Peter said, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man."
Luke 5:8. In both cases, as with God's calling to all His People,
He does not send the sinner away, but rather calls us to that purification
and growth that will make more worthy to be in His presence. And
thus there is, at the same time, an anxiety to overcome all sinfulness
and sense of guilt at it, but also a thrill and joy at being called
by God, cleansed from sin, and allowed into the presence of the divine.
Thus, both Old and New Testament, describe a delight at the fear of
the Lord, for this fear will lead to a greater union with God and thus
to the heights of holiness and wisdom. See, e.g., Ps. 34:10-11;
Prov. 1:7; Sir. 1:9-12; Is. 11:3; Acts 6:31; Rev. 14:7, 15:4.
rightful fear of the Lord leads the faithful to avoid two errors.
The first error, more common in modern times, is complacency about sin,
the belief that because God will forgive sin anyway, it does not really
matter. The Bible, by contrast, contains constant calls to repent
and warnings that the path of sin leads to a dead faith, a slavery to
sin, and eternal darkness. See, e.g., Matt. 7:24-27, 24:36-35:46;
Gal. 5:19-22; James 1:26-27, 2:14-17. The other error is a paralyzing
fear that leads a person to evade any reminder of God's presence or
to escape from God's presence, as Adam and Eve did. See Gen.
3:8. Oppressed by such fear, people may avoid doing anything for
fear of error, as the foolish man in the parable of the talents did,
see Matt. 25:14-30, or may despair of any possibility of change and
persecute the prophetic voices that proclaim the call to holiness.
See, e.g., Wis. 2:1-20; Acts 7:51-60. By contrast, gift of the
fear of the Lord calls for us to seek to avoid sin and, recognizing
the sin that remains, turn toward God for cleansing, in repentance,
prayerfulness and the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
know that nothing unclean is worthy to enter God's presence and thus
nothing unclean can be in heaven. See, e.g., Ps. 15:1-2, 24:3-4;
Rev. 21:26-27. Thus, we begin every Mass with a Penitential Rite,
and continue lives of penance, trying to have a fear of offending God,
but a fear that leads us to place our confidence in God, that with His
help we can become worthy of His kingdom. As St. Paul says, "Work
out your salvation with fear and trembling. For God is the one
who, for His good purpose, works within you." Phil 2:12.
Moses appointed seventy elders to assist him in governing the people
of God, seventy went to Mount Sinai to be commissioned by God Himself.
Two of them, however, named Eldad and Medad, stayed behind for some
reason. All seventy elders received the power of the Holy Spirit
and were able to prophesy. Joshua, Moses' good friend and assistant
objected to the receipt of the Spirit by Eldad and Medad on the grounds
that they were not on the mountain like the others. Moses replied,
"Are you jealous for my sake. Would that all of the Lord's
people were prophets. Would that He confer the Spirit upon them
all." The prophets would speak of a day when that prayer would
be fulfilled and the Holy Spirit would come upon all of the faithful.
See, e.g., Joel 3:1-2. At Pentecost, Peter declared that these
prophesies were now fulfilled. The Spirit of God has come upon
all of the faithful, and if we wish we can be prophets to the nation.
The gifts of the Holy Spirit enable us to ascend to that glorious calling.