At Pentecost the Holy Spirit transformed fearful, cowering disciples into courageous, insightful witnesses for Christ. In a very short period of time, thousands upon thousands were baptized and were dramatically imbued with the Holy Spirit. The scriptures speak of the drama of tongues of fire and people falling over backward and offering up ecstatic prophetic utterances of praise and thanksgiving.
But the Spirit generally works with more nuance. St. Augustine referred to the Holy Spirit as “The quiet guest of our soul.” Usually this guest speaks softly within us, most frequently through our consciences. St. Paul tells us in the 6th chapter of I Corinthians that we are “temples of the Holy Spirit.” Drawing on the proclamation of the Prophet Isaiah (Is. 11:2-4,) the Church teaches that we receive seven specific gifts of the Holy Spirit at our baptism and these gifts are strengthened by the sacrament of confirmation. They are gifts and like other gifts they can be put to practical use by us or they can be relegated to the back of the closet along with that tie your mother-in-law gave you last Christmas.
Let take a closer look at these Gifts we are called to embrace and cultivate.
Wisdom: Wisdom is the ability to see things as God sees them. For the wise, the wonders of nature, the importance of historical events, and the more mundane ups and downs of everyday life are put into perspective. Wisdom prompts in us the ability to see God as our loving Father and all people, Catholic or not, as our brothers and sisters.
Wisdom also helps us to discern right from wrong and to make good choices, especially on how to be charitable in the most difficult circumstances and to the most difficult people. Wisdom empowers us to see and evaluate joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, success or failure, from God’s point of view. St. Bernard called Wisdom the “supernatural Gift of the Holy Spirit which enables us to know God and to rejoice in perfect love.” Wisdom helps us to see, embrace and extend love.
Understanding: The Gift of Understanding enables us to know and accept the mysteries and doctrines of our holy Catholic faith. God desires to sanctify our souls and draw us closer so, he grants the interior light of understanding to deepen our acceptance of the Divine mysteries and animate us to serve Him more perfectly. Through understanding we are more able to grasp the meaning of revealed truths and to be stirred into a more active faith. In this way, our faith ceases to be sterile, but inspires in us a mode of life that bears testimony to the faith.
The old cartoon of a light bulb going on when something becomes evident is an illustration of understanding. Understanding often comes to us as an “aha” moment, a moment of clarity and enlightenment, a moment of revelation.
Counsel or Right Judgment: This gift helps us to make right decisions. This is the gift of clarity about conflicting issues in our lives so that we will know how to act appropriately. The exercise of right judgment or counsel avoids the near occasions of sin. There is an awareness of which acts are good and ought to be done, over against those that are evil and ought to be avoided. This gift shows us what are good and wise choices. Through this Gift, we learn how we can best please God and in so doing we are granted interior peace and spiritual consolation. Counsel or right judgment is especially necessary for those who are in positions of leadership, since at such levels of responsibility, natural prudence sometimes does not suffice. We need Supernatural Counsel in our roles as parents, teachers, political leaders, and even simply as citizens. Counsel endows the Soul with Prudence, empowering it to judge promptly and rightly what must be done, especially in challenging circumstances.
Fortitude or Courage: This gift empowers us to overcome our fears and anxieties. Fortitude or courage, in the theological sense, emboldens us to stand firm for the faith and to take appropriate risks for the cause of Christ and his Church. A person with divinely inspired courage is willing to stand up for what is right in the sight of God, even if it means experiencing rejection, ridicule, abuse, harm or even death. The gift of courage or fortitude sets firm our thoughts and will which is required in doing good and in enduring and combating evil.
Fortitude is the stuff of martyrs.
Knowledge: With the gift of knowledge we are able to absorb and retain the teachings of Christ and his Church, principally and practically through the Catechism and Holy Scriptures. Other readings are helpful, but we need these basics. With these basics, we are able to see the roadblocks to faithfulness and so we can discern how to use things rightly, even in a holy way. The gift of knowledge reveals to us the loving providential care of God even in adversity, and directs us to glorify Him without impediment by our circumstances. Guided by the light of knowledge, we put first-things-first, and we know to value our relationship with God above and beyond everything else.
Piety or Reverence: This gift enables us to have an innate devotion to Christ and his Church. A person exercising the gift of piety or reverence recognizes the need for total reliance on God and therefore he or she comes before our Triune God with humility, trust, awe and wonder and above all, love and gratitude. Piety or reverence prompts us eagerly seek to worship God, to study His ways and to serve him and others as faithful Disciples of Christ. The Gift of Piety infuses into our souls a reverence for God and Divine things and gives us joy in prayer. Through Piety, the Holy Spirit inclines us to love God as our perfect and loving Father, to love more deeply His dearly beloved Son and Our Blessed Mother, knowing how much we are loved by them. Piety moves us not only to love these Holy Ones, but also to love other people, as the images and children of God. It causes us to feel the sweetest pleasure in conversing with God, in listening to spiritual reading and in hearing his holy word, of receiving with deep gratitude the sacraments of the Church, especially our Lord’s most precious Body and Blood.
Wonder or Awe or Fear of the Lord: This is the doorway to wisdom. I think this is the most misunderstood of all the spiritual gifts, so I’m going to spend a little more time exploring this one, specifically the phrase “Fear of the Lord.” If you remember, I started this homily by saying that on Pentecost the Holy Spirit transformed fearful, cowering disciples into courageous, insightful witnesses for Christ. This is something that I think every member of the Faithful needs to experience. One can ask, what does this mean?
Many of us live with worldly fear: fear of failure, fear of being harmed, fear of financial instability, fear of so many things. As a reaction to this, there is rejection of any notion that God is to be feared. This position maintains that He is only loving and affirming. When we say the words “Fear of the Lord” that means that we are to view him with awe and wonder. I think that is only partly right. When we have this view only, that there is nothing about God that we must fear, then we fail to take into account fully the power of sin and evil.
So, when we look more closely, we see that this gift of the “Fear of the Lord” is based on irony. To understand this gift, we have to keep in mind that God is both the God of Love and total acceptance and the God of fierce and final judgment. This gift gives us an awareness of Cosmic order and our place in it.
The best illustration for me is the story of our first parents, Adam and Eve. After they had eaten the apple, they became aware of their sin and the result was self-consciousness and the desire to cover themselves in order to hide from God. Fear of the Lord stems from our awareness of our sinfulness and the resultant total vulnerability, of standing stripped bare before the presence of pure holiness and experiencing complete and overwhelming helplessness and embarrassment, even humiliation and shame as we grow increasingly aware of our sin and guilt and other shortcomings in the presence of God Almighty. There is neither pretense nor posturing, just quaking. We want to hide but there is no place to go.
There is a soul-level awareness that God is: omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, present everywhere, at all time, all knowing, all powerful.
There is also an awareness that God is the perfection of all we desire: perfect goodness, perfect knowledge, perfect power and perfect love. And our longing for him is deep.
This gift is described by St. Thomas Aquinas as “filial fear,” the fear of a small child being separated from her parent. It is the fear of alienation, of being lost and abandoned and rejected. It is the fear of permanent separation which is Hell.
When we are told in Prov. 1:7 that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” we need to have this explained. And we have the perfect explanation of this in Luke 12:4-7, Jesus says, “I tell you my friends, do not fear those who kill the body and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear, fear him after he has killed, has power to cast into hell, yes I tell you, fear him.” Jesus is talking about God.
And then Jesus immediately makes the most incredible transition. He says, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, you are of more value than many sparrows.”
This is the irony. When we have that awareness in the middle of our bones of God’s holiness and that we are not holy, we are self-centered and sinful. When we become truly aware of this, then we know that ‘filial fear’ of which St. Thomas Aquinas spoke, that ultimate separation anxiety, when we know that, really know that, then and only then can we fully appreciate the intensity of God’s love for us. I don’t think we can really know God’s love fully until we have that bone level dread. It is then that we can deeply accept the love God has for us on the Cross of Christ.
So in closing, I’ll briefly review the 7 Gifts of the Holy Spirit.
- Wisdom is the ability to see things as God sees them.
- Understanding enables us to know and accept the mysteries and doctrines of our holy Catholic faith more clearly.
- Counsel or Right Judgment helps us to make correct decisions.
- Fortitude or Courage emboldens us to stand firm for the faith and to take appropriate risks for the cause of Christ and his Church.
- Knowledge enables us to absorb and retain the teachings of Christ and his Church, principally and practically through the Catechism and Holy Scripture.
- Piety or Reverence enables us to have an innate devotion to Christ and his Church.
- Wonder and Awe, The Fear of the Lord, is the doorway to wisdom and pure love.
Note we have come full circle. It becomes apparent that Wisdom leads to understanding and understanding helps us to know and embrace the teachings of the Church which requires Counsel or right judgment to make good decisions which in turn requires Fortitude or Courage which requires Knowledge which is the retention of Church Teaching and to apply it in our piety or reverence which is based on Wonder or Awe, the Fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of Wisdom and profound love. And we continue around again and again.
You will note that one builds upon the other. It is combining them together that makes them so important. These 7 Spiritual Gifts are for all of us. They are gifts, we can embrace and cultivate or we can relegate them to the back of the closet, out of sight and out of mind. It is our call.