Fullness of Life: Why the Gifts of the Holy Spirit Matter

Seven-Gifts-Holy-SpiritWe 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?

The Gift of Fear

Seven-Gifts-Holy-SpiritIsaiah lists seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, or rather, seven key descriptors of the one Spirit who is the heart of the Christ, and of those who are conformed to him. His list ends with “fear of the Lord.” (Indeed, as we saw last week, the Hebrew original cites this gift twice, though the tradition translates the first “fear” into “piety.”)

We might be tempted to do away with fear. Christanity is about love, not about avoiding punishment. Indeed, the whole spiritual life – the whole of Christian doctrine, and our understanding of God – falls apart if we see him just as the divine punisher, rather than the ultimate Good.


But fear is a key part of our Scripture and Tradition. Without an understanding of how fear can be good, we not only lose our ability to pray the Psalms, where it appears abundantly, but we cannot understand the New Testament. Jesus says, “I say to you my friends” – my friends! – “be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom you should fear: Fear him, who after he has killed has power to cast into hell; yes, I say unto you, Fear him” (Luke 12:4-5; cf. Matt 10:28). In fact, threats of hell play a vastly bigger part in the New Testament than in the Old.

In the Acts of the Apostles, the key description of the early Church says, “they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul” (Acts 2:42-43). This is after Pentecost – and notice how positive the rest of the verse is.

Paul tells us “work out your salvation in fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12); “submit yourself to one another in the fear of God” (Eph 5:21); and “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor 7:1). Of sinners, on the other hand, he says, “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom 3:18).

And Peter says, “if you call on the Father” – again, note how positive the setup is – “who without partiality judges according to every man’s work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear” (I Pet 1:17). “Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God” (1 Pet 2:17).

Finally, Our Lady herself says, in the Magnificat, “His mercy is on them that fear him, from generation to generation” (Luke 1:50).


St. Thomas helps us understand this fear by distinguishing three ways we can “fear God.” One way is clearly bad: we can think that God himself, and all that goes with him, is bad, and run away from him. Obviously this is not the fear that Scripture commends. And it points to a deeper truth: God is not evil. He is good, not bad; someone to be desired, not feared.

But another sense in which we can fear God is by recognizing the possibility of punishment. This is not the best kind of fear, not the kind of fear that Jesus has or that is a gift of his Spirit. But it can be helpful – the Church has dogmatically defined, in fact, that we shouldn’t treat this as an evil.

For many people, this kind of fear is a life raft, the last thing that keeps them from falling away. That isn’t love, but it is faith. And it points to a deeper truth.

Hell is a possibility, and punishment is a reality, precisely because God is good. Sin is defined by its opposition to the pure goodness of God. Ingratitude (the fourth commandment), a failure to worship (the second), blasphemy (the third), destruction of the innocent (the fifth), contempt for the truth (the eighth) and all the rest are evil precisely in the sense that they lack the presence of God. To pursue these things is to fall away from the goodness of God.

Ultimate punishment is ultimately nothing but the absence of God: to be an eternal creature (which we are) and to have chosen emptiness over good is . . . Hell.


But this in turn points to a deeper kind of fear, the fear which is tenderness. The fear which would never want to hurt our relationship – the care a mother takes for her child, or a bridegroom for his bride. This is a fear that is not opposed to love, but its fruit. And it is a Gift of the Holy Spirit.

Do we worry enough about staying close to Jesus? About how our actions affect other people?

The Gift of Piety

Seven-Gifts-Holy-SpiritWe have considered the gifts of contemplation: understanding (which helps us to penetrate the meaning of God’s words) and wisdom (which helps us to know God himself). We have seen the gifts of the difficult parts of the active life: counsel (which helps us figure out what to do) and fortitude (which gives us the strength to do it). Now we are considering the gifts of ordinary life: knowledge (which helps us to see all things in relation to our love of God) and today, “piety,” by which we live this out.

Isaiah presents these as pairs: “a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and might, a spirit of knowledge and piety.” The last one, which we will consider next week, is presented on its own: “and his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.”

St. Thomas points out that in each of these pairs, there is one that gives knowledge, and another that follows through on that knowledge. In the case of counsel-fortitude and knowledge-piety, Isaiah 11 cites the gift of knowing first, as if first we know, then we do.

But in the case of wisdom-understanding, the order is reversed. St. Thomas suggests that this is to show that in ordinary life, we know more than we can act on, and so knowledge has a kind of primacy – but when it comes to knowing God, the simple contemplative gaze of wisdom will always exceed the understanding we gain from words. It arises from that understanding, but infinitely exceeds it.


So we already have a clue to what “piety” means: parallel to the other pairs, piety is the living out of our knowledge. The love of God (the Holy Spirit) causes us to see everything in a new light (the gift of knowledge). Piety is acting on that knowledge – not just in the hard cases, but in every case.

Now, if you look at your Bible, you may be confused. The Hebrew original, on which modern translations are based, doesn’t say piety, it says, “fear of the Lord.” This (perhaps unpleasant) phrase is in fact repeated: “the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord; and his delight will be in the fear of the Lord.” We will talk more about fear of the Lord next week; for now, suffice to say that the Hebrew word also means “reverence.” We live out our love of God through reverence in all things.

But the tradition spells this out a little more deeply. Somewhere around the year 250 BC the Jews in Egypt produced a Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the “Septuagint” because, according to legend, there were seventy independent translators who, inspired by God, all gave the exact same translation. The deeper point is that the Jews, and later the Christians, including official Church teaching, counted this translation as itself inspired. There is real insight in the Septuagint.

The Septuagint gives a different word for this gift, another word for reverence, without the element of fear that occurs in the last gift. The Latin translation translates this as “pietas.”

Well, the point is, we needn’t put too much weight on the particular word piety, but it expresses the tradition’s insight into what kind of “reverence” we live in our ordinary lives.


The Latin word pietas is vastly richer than the English word piety – and you simply have to forget what piety means in English if you want to understand it. Pietas is the kind of reverence we have for our parents. It is honoring our father and mother, and other people like them.

This is a fabulous insight into the ordinary attitude of the Christian. The heart of this gift is not that we quake in fear before the Lord, but that we recognize him as Father, and give him the respect he deserves. That is how a Christian treats a tree, and that is how a Christian treats another human being: as if God is Father. This is the root, too, of what we said on Memorial Day about patriotism: the root of patriotism is pater, Father. We act as if God is Father.

The ancient Romans had very neat insights about this (as do the Confucians, and many traditional societies), which the Western Christian tradition has embraced. The Romans said, if you respect your father, you respect his children and his household. Reverence.

When the Spirit of God, the love of Father and Son, is in our hearts, our attitude toward everything is shaped by that love.


Think of someone who annoys you. What would it mean to let your reverence for our heavenly Father shape that relationship?

The Gift of Knowledge

Seven-Gifts-Holy-SpiritWe turn now from the extraordinary and difficult parts of the active life (helped by the gifts of counsel, so we know what to do, and fortitude, so we have the strength to do it) to the ordinary. The gift of knowledge has a generic name, and it points to a general reality. Life in the Spirit doesn’t just help us know God himself (wisdom), understand his words (understanding), and know what to do in difficult situations.

Life in the Spirit changes how we see everything. In Scripture, the number seven is symbolic of fullness. The point of meditating on the seven gifts in Isaiah 11 is to see the fullness of the gift of the Spirit: to see that it’s not just one thing or another that God’s presence affects, it’s everything.


There’s a positive side and a negative side to our spiritual knowledge of this world (that is, all the knowledge that isn’t specifically about God/wisdom, his word/understanding, and hard choices/counsel).

The positive side sees God at work in the world, and discovers more deeply what it means to call him Creator. In Baptism, for example, we see that water is in the Father’s hand. He made it, it belongs to him, and he can do with it what we would never have imagined. The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

Maybe this is the central lesson of the wedding feast at Cana. We see that God can make wine out of water – and so we see more deeply what it means to say that he made wine and water in the first place. He isn’t joining late in the game: he made these things, all things, to express his goodness.

We see, too, that wine is worth making. It’s the most splendid symbol that the world exists purely to express God’s goodness. And so the conjunction of wine and marriage speaks volumes, too. As he made wine, so he made celebration, and friendship, and family. The gift of knowledge finds all things in God’s hands.


The transition to marriage reminds us, too, that God made not only the material world, but man himself. In the birth of Jesus we discover the innermost depth of humanity. Just as God can make water from wine, even more profoundly, he can make saints, and sons, from mere men. In Christ we discover the awesome possibilities of the human person – and again we are reminded that God made us. This is not a last-minute idea, tacked on to an otherwise meaningless creation. God made creation with all these possibilities baked in. That’s what it means to be human, created in his image.

In the Assumption we find human persons, even their bodies, can be taken up into heaven. We look at the world differently. We have a different understanding of created reality, a new, more penetrating divine knowledge of all that we see.

In the Coronation of Mary, and in the very fact of the Preaching of Jesus, we see the possibility that the human person can share in God’s plan, can see as God sees and will as God wills. The gift of knowledge shows the grandeur of man.


At the same time, there is a sad side to the gift of knowledge. We discover, too, what it means to call this world a vale of tears. The more we appreciate the awesome dignity of man, the more deeply we feel his abuse and degradation. The more we know what we are called to, the sadder it becomes to see ourselves rolling in the mud.

It is the gift of knowledge, also, that allows us to make a good examination of conscience, to see into the depths of what is wrong.

But even this sorrow is itself a gift of the love of God. We weep because we care, and because we can afford to care. Sin doesn’t bother those who dwell in darkness, and the shadow of death. But to those who have seen the dawn from on high, it is very sad.


In all of this, remember again that the gifts are not duties, and not just human acts. It’s not that we “ought” to “learn” these lessons. When the Tradition calls these gifts of the Spirit, it sees them more as consequences of our divinization and divine filiation. As the Spirit of God’s love dwells ever deeper in us, we “naturally” come to see more deeply.

Where we have trouble understanding what God is doing, let us ask for deeper love.

The Gift of Fortitude

Seven-Gifts-Holy-SpiritWe are meditating on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. What does Christ do for us? What happens when God is in our life? Christianity is not just about things that happen outside of us. Christianity is something that happens to us. God intervenes in our interior. He pours his spirit into us to transform us. “I will give them one heart,” he says, “and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them a heart of flesh” (Ez 11:19).

Jesus doesn’t just demand a change of heart. He gives us a new heart. Or rather, his Spirit breathes within our heart, to bring it back to life.

Much of this is about a change in perspective, and so the first three gifts, wisdom, understanding, and counsel, are all about how we see. The Holy Spirit blows through our eyes and our minds, driving us to see more deeply, and to see the Father at work in our lives. It’s not only that he changes how we act. More deeply, he changes how we see. It’s not just that he gives us the oomph to get through life. Heaven itself will be an extension of our powers so that we can see the invisible God, and delight in his goodness.


But a full transformation cannot just be about perspective. It also seeps down into our ordinary life.

The tradition distinguishes different “sets” within the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Wisdom and understanding are about contemplation: just knowing God. The other five are about living life in this world. Both are essential, and they are inseparable. When the Holy Spirit comes, he gives us all seven gifts together: contemplation and action. He transforms and enlivens our heart in its entirety, which includes both.

Within the active life, there are the ordinary moments, and the difficult ones. We need counsel and fortitude to help us deal with difficult times. But the Holy Spirit isn’t only there during difficult times. The generic gift of “knowledge” shows that we know God’s presence in all things, not just the “important” ones, and piety (which we will discuss in time) is an attitude that marks all our actions. Fear of the Lord, finally, is about our most basic sense of values, what we hope for and fear to lose.

The Holy Spirit is in all of these things.


Fortitude is, in a way, the easiest gift to understand. There are times that we struggle. Sometimes love demands more of us than we have to give. God does not abandon us at those times. He gives us his strength. Fortitude is the strength to get through: “strength” would also be a fine translation of the word.

It’s really impossible to think about Catholic morals without the gift of fortitude. God does demand the impossible of us. The Church doesn’t teach that the moral life is easy. And – please never forget this – the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church does not teach that you just have to try harder on your own.

Catholic moral teaching (which we might call the doctrine of the difficult parts of the active life, the parts governed by Counsel and Fortitude) is about what the Holy Spirit can accomplish in us. We are not meant to do it on our own, because at the heart of Catholicism is the belief that we don’t have to do it on our own. God helps. He gives us the strength to do what we could not do ourselves. It is the Holy Spirit who makes us heroes.


Christianity puts us in impossible situations. Martyrdom is the classic example. No one has the natural strength to be willing to die. All of our strength is ordered to keeping ourselves alive. Christianity calls us beyond the ordinary, to be willing to suffer what no one is willing to suffer.

Martyrdom literally means, not death, but “witness.” Martyrdom is a witness not just to our values, but to the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. How, people should ask, is that person able to handle such difficulties? There must be something divine going on!

But this is the theme of all our lives. Catholic motherhood is a martyrdom. Celibacy is a martyrdom. Honestly, even being just, in a world that is not just, is a martyrdom. We can do it – we can embrace the true good, come what may – because Jesus has not left us as orphans.

“Hitherto you have asked nothing in my name: ask, and you shall receive, that your joy may be full” (Jn 16:24).


Do I expect God to help me with the hard things in my life?

The Gift of Counsel 

Seven-Gifts-Holy-SpiritThe third gift of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah’s list is called Counsel.

Here we turn the corner from the contemplative life to the active life.  At the heights of life in the Spirit, and at the origin of everything else, is contemplation.  Wisdom is a simple gaze on God, and seeing everything in relation to him.  The gift of Understanding supports this contemplative gaze by helping us to penetrate the mysteries especially of Scripture and the liturgy.  The Holy Spirit helps us go from reading God’s Word to an awareness of God himself.

Notice that there are no visions here.  Normal life is not left behind.  Rather, the Holy Spirit extends our normal abilities, takes us deeper – though much deeper – into the natural process of reading (or listening to the liturgy) and seeing how it all fits together.


But of course for this love of God to penetrate all the way into the human person, it must extend to our actions, too.  The gift of Counsel is the beginning of that process.

Here, too, human nature is not left behind, but elevated.  In fact, Counsel might be the nicest place of all for thinking about what it means to say that grace perfects, and does not destroy or replace, nature.

St. Thomas points out the significance of Isaiah using the word Counsel.  The gift of the Spirit is not “command.”  Sometimes, perhaps, we imagine that it would be, that now and then we will be walking around and hear a voice telling us what to do.  And perhaps sometimes that may happen.  But it is not the ordinary working of the Holy Spirit, and indeed it is not the deepest penetration of the Spirit into our humanity.

A command leaves your own mind out of the discussion.  Don’t ask questions, just obey!  But that is not at all what “counsel” means.  When we take counsel, it is we who are in charge.  We go to a friend, and we ask our friend to help us think things through.  But it is we who ultimately work things out.

The counselor’s job is not to tell us what to do, but to point out what we might not have noticed, or to draw our attention to important details in the discussion.  This is how the gift of Counsel works.  It does not replace our human prudence, does not keep us from thinking things through, or knowing why we make a choice.  Like the contemplative gifts we considered above, Counsel merely extends our own ability to think.  It means we notice the key points for our decision making, pick out the significant details.


Counsel is a key part of being human.  I think sometimes the very modern view of spiritual “direction” held by many devout Catholics today misses this.  Properly, there really isn’t much place for anyone to give us “directions” in the spiritual life.  The word comes originally, I think, from Ignatian retreats, where someone tells you what is the next step in a certain regime of exercises.

But that isn’t life.  In our prayer, we should have the freedom and love to play, to read Scripture, enter into the liturgy, and know God.  In our active life, we should deal with our own lives.  Only we can ultimately make the decision what makes sense in our life – though sometimes a superior may tell us what is required of us for our role within a certain community.

But the Christian life, at least in the Catholic Tradition, is not about being “directed,” not about obedience, in the deepest things, to human authority.  It’s about embracing the reality before us, by making wise decisions.  We don’t really need a “director.”

We do, however, desperately need good counsel, to help us see beyond our blind spots.  We need friends, or we will often make poor decisions.  It is even a good idea – and here’s the root of the “spiritual director” thing – to have people we talk to who are a good deal wiser than us, and deeper into the spiritual life.  But what we ask for is counsel: not the replacement of our personality, but the enlightenment of it.


That is what the Holy Spirit offers us in the gift of Counsel.  He doesn’t overcome us, doesn’t push our own minds out of the way.  He enlightens us, so that we ourselves can think clearly.  And, more deeply, so that we ourselves can connect our spiritual aspirations with all the details of our life.  The work of the Holy Spirit in us is deeply personal, deeply human.

Can you think of a time you didn’t take responsibility for your own prudence?  Do you see how that separates your spiritual life from your active life?

The Gift of Understanding

Seven-Gifts-Holy-SpiritWhen the Holy Spirit enters into our hearts, he transforms us. The first transformation is love: he draws us into the infinite love of the Father and the Son, a contemplative love beyond the limits of mortal man. But this transformation seeps into every aspect of our personality, elevating our human nature into contact with the divine.

Isaiah 11 describes the kind of “Spirit” that will descend on the Messiah. That is, it explains what it looks like when a human person is filled with the divine: spiritual wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. We are conformed to Christ by the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, and so we too receive this sevenfold gift of the Spirit.


These gifts touch every part of our person. Three of them touch our affections: fortitude is about our response to difficulties; fear is about what we really value, and what we cling to; piety is about the choices we make, our sense of what is right and just. But four out of the seven Isaiah names are about our outlook: wisdom, understanding, counsel, and knowledge.

It’s important to distinguish this outlook from what we normally mean by intellectualism. First, these “intellectual” gifts are not gained from study, nor are they natural endowments. Some people naturally have greater intellectual “gifts” than others – but that is not what this is about. To the contrary, this is about how the saints, even the most simple, have deeper insight than the scholars: because they love more truly, but even more, because God is present to lift up our poor human powers.

And here, the truest study is not in books – this is not about book knowledge. It’s about the knowledge of the saints. I might be able to explain things in technical terms better than some of the saints – but I do not know as much as they do. The “intellectual” gifts remind us how insignificant academic study really is.


Why four intellectual gifts? Because there are different kinds of insight. “Counsel” is about practical action, insight into how to deal with our problems. But not all knowledge is practical; indeed, in our relationship with God, practical questions are secondary to just appreciating the gifts God gives us.

But within this more contemplative kind of knowledge, there is one key difference, between the way we know God, as the highest, the one to which everything else is ordered, and the way we know everything else. Knowing God gets the special name “wisdom”; everything else gets the generic name “knowledge.” This distinction reminds us that, on the one hand, nothing else is God, and the way we relate to everything else is different from the way we relate to God. But on the other hand, our love of God affects the way we see everything else, too: our love of God seeps into how we view the world.


Finally, there is our gift for today, understanding. St. Thomas describes the difference in terms of how we know things, and how we understand statements. Again, these distinction are meant to broaden us, not to narrow us, to draw more things into our relationship with God, not to push things away. So we realize that along with knowing particular things, there is also understanding what it is people mean when they speak. That too is a way we are transformed by the presence of the Holy Spirit.

One place this applies is in our relationship with other people. My, how hard it can be to understand, to see what it really is that people are getting at. And how beautiful to say that Jesus and the saints are people of “understanding.” When you speak, they see what you’re trying to get at. We realize that this kind of understanding is divine. It really isn’t easy to appreciate another person’s point of view.

See how “contemplative” and “intellectual” aren’t as academic as they sound at first.


But the deeper place of understanding, says St. Thomas, is in our reading of Scripture. God has spoken to us. But how impenetrable are his words! The gift of understanding is how the saints can really “get” Scripture, when the rest of us are confused, or just nonplussed. It reminds us that the key to understanding Scripture is not book learning, but love of God, and the presence of the Holy Spirit.

It also reminds us how central Scripture is to the traditional Catholic life. One of the gifts of the Spirit, and the one closest to wisdom.


Do we love Scripture like the saints do? Do we ask the Holy Spirit’s help in really understanding it?

The Gift of Wisdom

Seven-Gifts-Holy-SpiritWe are considering the gifts of the Holy Spirit: the way that the presence of Christ’s Spirit in our hearts transforms us. We have seen that this first of all means sharing in the love between the Father and the Son. Above all, the Holy Spirit is nothing but divine love, poured into our hearts.

But the fabulous thing about this is that it actually transforms us. God’s love becomes our love. His presence changes us. So it is not just that the Holy Spirit is nearby, doing his own thing. He is in our hearts, making us love with his love. Traditional Catholic theology uses the word “grace” to point out the two sides of this coin. On the one hand, it is a free gift from God, entirely his gift. On the other hand, it is a transformation of us, so that we are different.

“Charity” is the main name for this transformation, a way of pointing out that it is not just God doing something, it is our hearts, too, which love with that divine love.

But the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit named in Isaiah 11 are a way of thinking about the deeper transformative effect of the Holy Spirit. It is not just that we love and everything else remains the same. That love penetrates into every aspect of our personality: our affections, our knowledge, both practical and speculative, our contemplation, our action – everything is transformed. “If anyone be in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17).


The highest of these transformations is called the gift of wisdom. That’s Isaiah’s word, but “wisdom” is a key word in the Old Testament, and the Tradition – key figures include Sts. Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory the Great, and Thomas Aquinas – has done a lot of work thinking through what it means.

To them, wisdom means, first of all, the ability to see the whole, to see how things fit together. St. Thomas’s favorite example is the architect. The guy laying the bricks in a house sees only the brick in front of him, but the architect sees the whole plan, the way that brick fits into his vision of the whole house.

We can have “wisdom,” in this sense, in limited contexts: the wisdom of this architectural plan, or of a general’s plan of battle, or of a strategy, or an understanding of a piece of music or art. But then there is perfect wisdom, which sees how everything fits together. When God looks at the world, he does not just see one damn thing after another, not just a heap of random occurrences. He sees how it all works together, like the notes in a symphony. Wisdom means gradually coming to participate in that vision, seeing the bigger picture.


A second aspect of wisdom, which must be tied to the first, is seeing the purpose of things, the why. The architect knows why the bricklayer is laying that brick.

The “why” of the universe is the goodness of God. Ultimately, apart from knowing and loving God himself, we can’t know the purpose of everything else, and we can’t know how everything fits together.

In this sense, wisdom is contemplative. As the Holy Spirit draws us into the love of Father and Son, we see the why of everything else: why there is night and day, why there is suffering and joy, why the rose has its petals, why worms crawl around, why history has taken its various turns. The ultimate meaning of it all is only in the love of Father and Son.

But this doesn’t mean nothing else matters. Wisdom finds the purpose of all things in God – but it sees that this purpose really is in all things. It sees the whole in the parts.


Wisdom is a gift, not a duty. It is not just that we “ought” to understand. To the contrary, on our own, it’s pretty hard to fit everything together. Indeed, in this life, where we still walk in the darkness of faith, many things will remain dark. We can’t see the meaning of all of them. But one day, we pray, we will be in the presence of God, and it will all make sense.

Until that day, we share in just a little bit of God’s wisdom. He gives us a glimpse. But he gives that glimpse only in showing us himself, and drawing us to himself. It is in the gift of the Holy Spirit that we begin to discover true wisdom.


Does the love of God help you understand the meaning of life? How could you let the Holy Spirit share this vision with you this week?

First Gift of the Holy Spirit: Charity

Seven-Gifts-Holy-SpiritIn the next weeks we will be examining the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the endowments of the heart of Christ, as named in Isaiah: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. But we do well first to consider the primary gift of the Holy Spirit, charity.

God is love, an eternal communion of Father and Son. The Holy Spirit is the love between the Father and the Son, the gift they share, the tie that binds them.

The Holy Spirit is not first of all any kind of magic trick: not miracles, or speaking in tongues. Nor is he first and foremost the seven endowments named by Isaiah. In the Trinity, none of these things is needed. There is only the God of love, Father, Son, and their infinite love for one another, the Holy Spirit.

Ultimately, this is what Christianity is all about: entering into that loving relationship, joining the Son in his love for the Father, and for all those who are also caught up in that love. The Holy Spirit names what Christianity is all about. No love, no Christianity – because Christ himself is the eternal Son, the eternal relationship of infinite love with the Father.


To say that the Holy Spirit is essential to Christianity is to say, first of all, that Christianity is ultimately about love, and loving union. It means that spirituality is not a side issue. It is Christianity. There is nothing else but love. Or rather, everything else is there to support love. This is the point of the sacraments, the liturgy, the moral law, and devotions, to Mary or the saints or anything else. It is all ultimately about coming to love God. It is all ultimately about conversion of heart.

But to say that the Holy Spirit is essential to Christianity is also to say that this love is a gift, something we receive from God. We could put this two ways. Negatively, we can say that true Christian love is impossible without God. Our hearts are not big enough to love God as God deserves to be loved. Nor are our eyes big enough to see his goodness. He has to show himself to us, and expand our hearts to love him fully. Otherwise our love will fall short.

This is about overcoming sin, yes. But it is also about overcoming our natural limits. Even without sin we just aren’t big enough to love the Father as much as God the Son loves him.

But if it bothers you that I say “deserves,” as if God is annoyed that we don’t love him enough, you are on to something. Ultimately loving God isn’t something we get in trouble for doing insufficiently.

And so we can say the same thing better by putting it positively. God offers us more love than we could possibly imagine. To say that the Holy Spirit is essential to Christianity is to say the Christianity offers us the possibility of a love beyond our comprehension. It offers us the possibility to love God infinitely.

That is the offer of the Holy Spirit, the good news: beyond our wildest imaginings, God calls us into his own loving heart, the loving world of Father and Son in the Trinity.


Grace is the name theology gives for the impact of the Holy Spirit on the soul. It would almost be true to say that we love with a love that is not our own, that we love with God’s love, the Holy Spirit. But the mystery of the Holy Spirit is that he makes this love our own. God who created us creates new hearts in us, hearts that love him infinitely, through the impulse of the Holy Spirit molding our hearts.

We say “grace” to show that this transformation of us does not come from us. It is the Holy Spirit who transforms us, but it is us who are truly transformed. The other seven gifts of the Holy Spirit name the multiple fruits of this transformation, the ways this transformation marks every aspect of our souls.


Let us keep the Holy Spirit in mind this Holy Week. Jesus died of love, and died to share his love with us, to draw us into that love. The heart of these mysteries is the heart of Jesus, which he pours into us in sharing with us the Holy Spirit. It’s not meant to stay outside. It’s meant to transform us from within.

Does your Christianity sometimes forget about the Holy Spirit? How?

The Spirit of Jesus

Seven-Gifts-Holy-SpiritHaving now finished our long series on “names for the spiritual life,” including how the sacraments can serve as models for the spiritual life, today we begin a series on another approach to spiritual theology, the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit.

A first way of posing the question could be in terms of the Imitation of Christ. Christ came into the world to show us the way to the Father, and to conform us to himself as he walks that way. To be a Christian is in some way to come to the Father through conformity with Christ. But what does that conformity look like?

Obviously it does not mean exact physical imitation of Christ. One needn’t grow a beard (if indeed he had a beard) or use the same beard oil as Jesus. One needn’t live in Palestine in the first century. Nor need one literally be nailed to a cross. How then are we to be “like” Christ?

It becomes a question of his internal qualities. These will express themselves outwardly, to be sure, but while outward circumstances differ, the heart of Jesus remains the same. The question “What would Jesus do?” must really become “what would Jesus do in this situation, if he were me,” which really gets to the deeper question of “what does it mean to share the heart of Jesus?”


At the end of the of the Rosary we pray, “Grant that while meditating upon these mysteries of the most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary we may both imitate what they contain and obtain what they promise.” Ah, but what do they contain, and what do they promise?

It is nice in the rosary to notice that they contain both Jesus and Mary. Mary is the first to imitate Jesus, and the rosary shows how she shares his heart while playing a different role. Jesus “makes her heart like unto his own” (as the Litany of the Sacred Heart says), but that doesn’t mean she does exactly what he does. The mystery of the two hearts shows that our conformity with the heart of Jesus will express itself in a unique way in each life.

To pray “grant . . . what they promise” also reminds us that Jesus promises to give us his heart. “Imitation of Christ” is a good term, but imprecise both because we imitate his heart, not his every action, and because we come to be like him more by his gift than by our effort.


Scripture contains some excellent resources for teaching us what this imitation of Jesus looks like. Perhaps this summer we will look at the Beatitudes. Jesus is poor in spirit, he mourns, he is meek, he hungers and thirsts for justice, is merciful and pure of heart, and makes peace. Mary, in her way, is the same, and so too will we be blessed if we are the same.

But the tradition has found an even more profound insight into the heart of Jesus. The prophet Isaiah tells us:

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked
(Is. 11:1-4).

There are two key reasons this passage is a favorite of the Tradition’s. First is because it directly speaks of the heart (or spirit) of Jesus. It tells us what he is like, in his interior.

Second, because it speaks of the Spirit. The New Testament tells us that we have received the “Spirit” of sonship (see esp. Rom. 8). The Holy Spirit is Jesus’s relationship with the Father, and it is that Spirit that he gives to us. We heard in last Sunday’s readings that “whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” Here we have described what that spirit looks like.


In the next weeks we will consider what the Spirit of Jesus – and so our life in the Spirit, or life in Christ – looks like.