We have spent the last several weeks meditating on the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, as listed in Isaiah 11. I hope you noticed on Pentecost that the great traditional Holy Spirit hymns, the Veni Creator Spiritus and the Veni Sancte Spiritus, both refer to the “sevenfold gift.” This Pentecost week, let us wrap up the series by thinking about why this list of seven is important.
Biblically, seven is a symbol of fullness. The seven Gifts of the Spirit remind us that the Holy Spirit penetrates into every aspect of our life. Or rather, because the Holy Spirit is the love of Father and Son, the seven gifts remind us that love penetrates every aspect of our lives.
The love of God does not leave us as we were. It changes, to be sure, the way we treat other people. This is the most obvious consequence of love: that we love our neighbor.
But the Gifts take us deeper into that simple idea with the gift of Piety. Although it is true that love of God causes us to love our neighbor, it is more profound to say that love of the Father, and conformity to the Son, suffuses our relationships with a sense of family. It is not merely a question of love of God “plus” love of neighbor: in the filial relationship that is Christianity, those loves meld together.
Even more the fullness of the seven gifts reminds us that even this is not enough to describe how the love of God penetrates everything. It penetrates our mind, our way of looking at things, in the gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, and knowledge. It penetrates our feelings, with the the gift of fear, or tender concern for our relationship with God. It penetrates our visceral reaction to challenges, with the gift of fortitude.
The love of God penetrates everything. This is the first meaning of the seven gifts: fullness.
But equally important is that this fullness is a gift. The gifts of the Holy Spirit teach us the true meaning of grace. Grace is a pure gift, a Spirit breathing into us from the outside. To understand the true importance of Christ, the promise of the Gospel, it is essential that we appreciate that our transformation begins with this gift, not with our own strength.
The gifts remind us of this by speaking to us of a Spirit breathing through us. A traditional metaphor says they are like sails that receive the divine wind. We are not left to our own power, but feel the Spirit sweeping through us, impelling us forward.
The seven gifts make this concrete. It is nice to say that grace is given to us as a gift, but what does that mean? The seven gifts say, “here is what it means: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord!”
The gifts helps us to think concretely about all the places the Spirit blows, all the aspects of ourself that are transformed by God’s presence. They give us something to pray for: God grants us all of these things. It is nice to know, for example, that God grants us the understanding to penetrate his Word – and also the fortitude to follow through on what is too hard for us. He gives us counsel to help us see the right path – and he also gives us that tender feeling of fear, to cling to him. A concrete understanding of what grace means.
Grace perfects nature. The gifts also help us to think about how the Holy Spirit brings us alive.
God doesn’t come to wipe out our personality, he comes to enliven it, every corner of it. Faith doesn’t make us cease to be reasonable – but neither does it leave us to our own intellectual power. It brings our minds alive in ways we could never imagine, through various kinds of intuitions of the Spirit. The moral demands of the Gospel are beyond our abilities – but God gives us the fortitude to live out the fullness of life.
The gifts replace nothing that is human. They enliven.
Finally, the gifts remind us of the interiority of the Gospel. It really is the inner man that Jesus brings to life. The Gospel is not primarily about exterior actions. It’s about bringing us alive, so that we see, and feel, and truly love.
And yet all of these gifts enliven our interior precisely in ways that help us to live out the Gospel in all the fullness of our concrete lives.
Do we appreciate the fullness of grace? Are there areas of ourselves that we think the Spirit can’t reach?