The Fruits of the Spirit: Getting Specific

Dublin_Christ_Church_Cathedral_Passage_to_Synod_Hall_Window_Fruit_of_the_Spirit_2012_09_26There is a tendency in modern Catholicism to try to simplify everything, to eliminate words until there’s nothing but a simple glance at God – as if it were more humble to think we have immediate access to God than to approach him through little details.

But Scripture, and the Tradition, give us so many little ways, so many concrete ways of approaching our spiritual life. We are not given a Buddhist wall of darkness. We are given a rich panoply of small, concrete approaches.


One little passage that manifests this richness is in Galatians 5:17-25.

For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh. And these are contrary to one another; lest whatever you may will, these things you do.

Here is a first opposition, “flesh” vs. “Spirit.” It is an optic to think about the role of God in our lives. But it is also unclear what it means. So St. Paul gets specific.

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. Now the works of the flesh are clearly revealed, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lustfulness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, fightings, jealousies, angers, rivalries, divisions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkennesses, revelings, and things like these; of which I tell you before, as I also said before, that they who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

The Law helps specify what love of God means. Really, there’s just “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength” – but it’s helpful to get specific. It’s helpful to have an examination of conscience that helps us find what is not love. Here, Paul gets specific – more specific, deeper into the heart – than the Ten Commandments. This long list of sins helps us understand what he means about the “flesh” warring against the Spirit. Notice that it includes many sins that are not “fleshly,” but that are about excluding God from our life: idolatry, hatred, anger, division, etc. It is worth spending time with this list.


But the Tradition seems to find the next paragraph even more helpful:

But the fruit of the Spirit is: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faith, meekness, self-control; against such things there is no law. But those belonging to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and lusts. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.

Here is a deep meditation on what the Cross and the Resurrection mean for us: to be reborn by the power of the Spirit. And what is the Spirit? Well, the Spirit is simply love – and yet Paul can get more specific than that. His list takes us deeper.

Curiously, the Latin tradition gets even more specific, adding three “fruits of the Spirit” to Paul’s list of nine. The Tradition adds patience to long-suffering, has humility and modesty for meekness, and adds chastity to self-control. Specifics are helpful.


One way to use this list is to focus on one a day. (It’s nice that they don’t line up with the days of the week, so you can go through the list and keep getting different fruits of the Spirit to think about on Wednesday, for example.)

On the first day of the month, we might think about love, calling to mind in various situations that love – love of this person before me, love of God who calls to me, love even of his creation as I deal with it – is a fruit of the Spirit. Throughout the day we imagine the Spirit breathing love into us.

But we can see deeper if, the next day, we imagine the Spirit breathing joy into us. And the next day peace, and then patience, and kindness, and goodness, long-suffering, humility, fidelity, modesty, self-control, and chastity. Love is everything – yet working our way slowly through this list, perhaps one gift per day, can help keep our meditation fresh, help us see the many aspects of love, the many parts of the transformation the Spirit of Christ longs to work in us.

The Word of God reminds us that each of these virtues is a gift from the Spirit. Again, we could simply say, “all is gift,” and that would be true. But if we spend a day now and then living patience or fidelity as a gift, perhaps we can better appreciate what it means to say that God works in our lives.

The spiritual life is very simple – but we are not. Thank God that Scripture is a thick book, not just a 3×5 card. Thank God for all the little meditations he gives to us, all the many aspects of his work in us that we can discover.

How could you enliven your days by meditating on the various Gifts of the Spirit?

The Sacred Heart and the Filioque

Holy Trinity, Rublev

Holy Trinity, Rublev

As we considered Pentecost and the Feast of the Holy Trinity, we thought a little about the Filioque.  In the original, Greek version of the Creed, they said the Holy Spirit, “proceeds from the Father; with the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.”  But in the Latin Church we add Filioque, and the Son: “proceed from the Father and from the Son.”

Today we can consider how this Latin-Church insight goes together with the Sacred Heart.

The simple point is this: the Holy Spirit pours out to us from the Heart of Jesus.


Consider some really simple line-drawings of the Trinity.  Sometimes people seem to think the Trinity is kind of like this:


/          \

Son     Holy Spirit

Sometimes people seem to think that the Holy Spirit is an alternate way to God.  Then we sort of end up with a “conservative” Son-religion and a “liberal” Spirit-religion, in tension with one another.  There are those who think you need the Son, and all the dogmatic baggage he brings with him – and those who think you just need the Holy Spirit, who frees us from the Son.

This can cut various ways.  For some people, the Son-religion seems to be the religion of judgment and rules, and the Spirit-religion is the religion of no rules.  But an interesting reverse side of this is that sometimes the Son-religion seems like the religion of mercy, and the Spirit-religion leaves you to do it yourself.


Well, neither of these are right.  (And I don’t think the Eastern Orthodox who deny Rome’s right to add the Filioque to the Creed would be happy with these alternatives, either.)

First, the Holy Trinity is inseparable.  That’s kind of the central point of the Trinity: not three gods but one.  You cannot have the Son without the Spirit, or the Spirit without the Son, or the Father without both.  Thinking through the details of this is tricky, but basic simple orthodoxy has to realize that Father-Son-Holy Spirit is a package deal.

Second, the Son and the Spirit are inseparable.  In fact, we don’t follow the Son-religion or the Spirit-religion, we follow the Christian religion.  But in the early Church (especially the Greek-speaking Church: “Christos” is a Greek word) it was clear that the “Christ” is the “anointed one” (in Hebrew, Messiah), and what he is anointed with is the Holy Spirit.  This is one of the main points of John Paul II’s encyclical on the Holy Spirit Dominum et Vivificantem.  To call him Christ is to see the Holy Spirit as the one who dwells on the Incarnate Son, and the Incarnate Son as the one on whom the Holy Spirit dwells.


So our picture could instead be something like:

Father -> Son -> Holy Spirit

This still isn’t exactly right, but it’s a lot better.  (And again, it’s something the Eastern Orthodox would be perfectly happy with.)

The Holy Spirit is our gift from the Son – poured out from the pierced Heart of Jesus – and what the Holy Spirit does is to draw us into union with the Son.  And this is the only path to the Father: we know the Father precisely and only by receiving the Spirit from the Son, and receiving union with the Son through union with the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is the outpouring of the heart of Christ.  He is the Spirit of Christ.  We could even in a sense say the Holy Spirit is the heart of Christ.


The Incarnation, particularly the Sacred Heart of Jesus, shows us the glory of the Spirit.  Without the Sacred Heart, Spirit-religion can be a bit vague.  But the glory of the Spirit is precisely that he can make us as deeply human as the Son.  The heart of Jesus is the pattern that the Holy Spirit works in us, the image of our own “spiritual” transformation.  The Holy Spirit doesn’t just make us vaguely “spiritual”; he makes our hearts like unto Jesus’s.

And the Holy Spirit shows us the glory of the Sacred Heart.  Jesus is not just a guy who loves a lot.  Without the Holy Spirit, or at least, without a clear sense divinity resting on Jesus, we can fall into the mirror heresies of Arianism and Pelagianism.  Arianism means Jesus isn’t really God – orthodox people know that’s not right.

But Pelagianism is the sneaking suspicion that we’re supposed to make ourselves righteous (with its own converse, that Jesus is somehow an excuse that we don’t have to be righteous); I think orthodox people are much more susceptible to this heresy.  Thinking of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of the Heart of Jesus, reminds us that it is only God who makes us holy.  It is always a gift of God.

At least for us, the Holy Spirit proceeds not only from the Father, but also from the Son, Filioque.  To perfect our understanding of this, we need only to add that so it was in the beginning, and ever shall be.

Do you ever find yourself thinking of Jesus without the Holy Spirit, or the Holy Spirit without Jesus?




Trinity Sunday: The Mystery of God

massacio trinity with virginLast weekend we celebrated Trinity Sunday, the octave of Pentecost.  We could say that Trinity Sunday is the fulfillment of Pentecost: the last thing to say about the Holy Spirit is that God is Trinity.  Or we could say that the real point of the revelation of the Holy Spirit is to help us discover the Triune God.


One way to approach Trinity is to think about the “Filioque.”  Latin has a funny little thing where you can add “-que” to the end of a word and it’s the same as putting the word “and” before it.  “Filioque” means, “and the Filio” – “and the Son.”

What we call the Nicene Creed was first approved at the Council of Nicaea in 325, then significantly modified at the Council of Constantinople in 381.  The finished product said, “the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father.  With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.”  In the second part he gets “Glory be” with the Father “and the Son,” but he only proceeds from the Father.

Later, Roman Catholics added “Filioque”: “proceeds from the Father and the Son.”  It’s a change, an addition to the Nicene Creed.  It was not approved by a Council, but was adopted by the Roman Church.  (Good enough for me!)

It’s significant that it’s in Latin: like the New Testament and much of the first centuries of the Church, the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople were conducted in Greek.  There’s a whole eastern, Greek-speaking part of the Church; before the rise of Islam, much of the leadership of the Church, both intellectually and spiritually, was Greek-speaking.

But the Greeks don’t say “Filioque.”  In fact, historically, it’s one of the biggest fights between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox: they say we added to the Creed, and that’s not okay!


Here’s the interesting thing: both sides, we Romans who say “Filioque” and the Greeks who think we shouldn’t, are both insisting on how little we know of God.

We agree that the Holy Spirit, the one who comes to sanctify us, is divine: with the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified, “Glory be!”

But the Greeks oppose the Filioque because they fear we Romans think we know too much.  We do know that the Father is the source of everything, even the Son and the Spirit – so we know that the Spirit proceeds from the Father.  But we don’t know how, so it’s not appropriate to start adding lines like “and the Son.”

Interesting, though: the reason we say Filioque is not because we think we know so much.  It too is a way of saying how little we know.  We don’t know much about the Son.  But in Latin theology, we say that the one thing we do know is that he’s exactly like the Father.  We say “Filioque” because we say, look, all we know is that they are exactly alike, so if the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, he must proceed from the Son, too.  In a way, we are saying, don’t complicate things by coming up with distinctions between the Father and the Son: what the Father does, the Son does.

For our purposes, my only point is, when we think about the Trinity, and the Holy Spirit, and the Filioque, etc., the main thing we should think is, God is infinitely beyond what I can understand.  In fact, much of what we say in theology and in the Creed is merely there to remind us how little we can comprehend the wonderful mystery of God.


A few words, then, about Sunday’s readings.  In the Gospel, we read that we are baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Let us just add, on Trinity Sunday, that we are baptized into the mystery of God – into something the greatness of which we cannot fathom.  Try to come up with how amazing Baptism is – and it is way more amazing than that!

The first reading, from Deuteronomy, said, “Did a people ever hear the voice of God speaking from the midst of fire, as you did, and live?”  Let the feast of the Holy Trinity remind us how awesome, how incomprehensible, is that God who speaks to us.  How unfathomable that he should call us into relationship with him!

And above all, in the second reading, from Romans, we read that we have been made “sons of God” by receiving the “Spirit of adoption,” who allows us to speak, to “cry, Abba, Father.”  Let us ponder the awesome mystery of the unfathomable Trinity – and know that it is precisely this mystery that has been given to us – no, that we have been drawn into.

How do you ponder the awesomeness of the Triune God?








Glory to the Holy Spirit

massacio trinity with virginThere are many ways to dig into the Glory Be.  It is an astonishingly rich little prayer.  In the past I have written about it as a meditation on the Father-Son: to know God, in his glory, as the relationship of Father and Son – with the Holy Spirit as the reality of their sharing, shared with us, and the affirmation that Father and Son is the eternal reality, in the beginning, now, at all times, and in the “forever and ever” to which we look forward.

Another way to approach the Glory Be, as we approach Pentecost, is as a statement of faith: the simplest and most essential Creed, taking us to the very heart of Christianity so that we can see the realities around which everything else revolves.


We begin with “Glory to the Father.”

“Glory” translates a Hebrew word for majesty, even heaviness.  God is the weighty one, the only immovable and truly substantial one.  Everything else floats away, but God remains.  Everything else is poor, but God is rich, infinite riches.

Of course the angels remind us that God’s glory is “in the highest” – but though that turns our ideas of weight literally upside down, the point remains that he is more substantial than the changing world under our feet.  For the ancients, the heavens were a sign of what is always the same: life slips by, with all its challenges, but there the stars remain, forever and ever.  And God is “heavier,” more substantial than that.  More glorious, luxurious, more wealthy, than even the Sun.

The Greek and Latin traditions add to this idea of glory the idea of light: God is the radiant one, the dazzling one, the brilliant, fascinating, beautiful, resplendent one.  Imagine coming into the presence of the Sun – and having the transfigured eyes to look directly into it – and you have only a faint glimmer of the glory of God.

“Glory to the Father” gets us started by thinking about how fabulous God is.  Though we can say much about Father and Son, here, “Father” just stands for “not the Son.”  Before we talk about the other members of the Trinity, we start with the one we know is above all.  We ponder for a moment how glorious the First one is, the Eternal, the Source.


But we contemplate this glory of the Father so that we can immediately say, “so too the Son.”  As if we say, not just, “Glory to the Father and to the Son,” but “the Glory which belongs to the Father, the very same Glory, belongs also to the Son.”

“Glory to the Father and to the Son” is an affirmation of the divinity of Jesus.  It says, this man who came among us, whose words we hear, whose sacraments we touch, who unites himself to us – he is no less than the Father.  All of that eternal splendor and majesty and awesomeness that we can ponder as belonging to the “Glory of the Father” – that’s who Jesus is!  That’s what bursts out in the Transfiguration, the Resurrection, the Ascension, and his Final Coming.  In heaven we will see all that more-than-the-Sun gloriousness of the Father shining out of the person of Jesus.

It is a way of saying how awesome our redemption is: that our Redeemer, who was one of us, is no less than the Father.  And it points us to the most awesome part of that: that our Redeemer shares in the glory of the Father.  How great, how glorious, is Jesus!


But then comes one more: the Holy Spirit shares in that same glory.

We can think of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in terms of their missions.  The Father is simply the glorious source of all.  The Son became incarnate as Jesus Christ.  The Holy Spirit is what is given to the Church, what dwells in our hearts.

But the Glory Be says, this is so much more awesome than you can imagine.  Just as that Jesus who comes to save you is not less than the Father, but shares in the very gloriousness of the Father – so too the Spirit he gives us.  This is not just the Spirit of “inspired” ideas, or speaking in tongues, or whatever other humanized ideas we might have about the Holy Spirit.  No, he is far more than that: the Holy Spirit is God – or, to make it more vivid, the Holy Spirit shares in the Glory of God, brings all the majesty and splendor of God himself into our souls.

The rest of the prayer, “as it was in the beginning,” only says, this isn’t a passing thing, not a “kind of” thing – the saving glory given to us is the eternal glory of God, the always-and-forever glory of the Father, shared equally and always by the redeeming Son and the Holy Spirit who is given to us.


That is the stunning, overwhelming truth of Pentecost.  That is the gift of the Gospel: the Glory which is the Father’s is also Christ the Redeemer’s – and he gives that very glory to us, in the gift of the Holy Spirit.

What would it mean for your life – for your prayers and for your works – to believe that the glory of God was being poured into your soul?

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?

And to the Holy Spirit

PFA83070Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Do we mean anything when we say these words? Do they enrich our spiritual life, or are they a meaningless formula? Does the Trinity have anything to do with us?

We have seen, first, the value of glory, of thinking of the grandeur and beauty of God. Last week, we saw that God is Father and Son, a relationship of love, and of giving and receiving. We do well, sometimes when saying this prayer, to pause for each significant phrase. Glory. To the Father and to the Son. That is not two phrases, it is one, in which the two parts, Father and Son, reveal one another. But now we come to the the third phrase. What is the Holy Spirit?

We said that names matter: all that we know about the Trinity is in these names. Father and Son are names that point out a relationship. But Holy Spirit is a challenge. God is holy. God is a spirit. Holy Spirit, then, is what Father and Son have in common. But why name it a third thing?

We see deeper into the doctrine of the Trinity if we realize that, in some sense, Father and Son is all there is to it. Holy Spirit does not name a third kind of relationship: not wife, or mother, or anything else. It all comes down to the Father and the Son. Why then say the Holy Spirit is a third thing? (Or “person,” which, remember, is a word that in this context means nothing but “what there are three of.)


We can understand why we think about the Holy Spirit as a third “person” if we think a bit about the Christological debates of the fourth century, in which these things were first hashed out.

The original question was not about the Holy Spirit and not about the Trinity. The question was about Christ. In fact, all of this is just about naming who Christ is and what he does.

The theme was that Christ is our mediator, the one who unites God and man. Now, there are Scriptural arguments driving all of this, and I feel bad not giving them, but we will have to stick to the level of doctrine. On the doctrinal level, the point is that Christ cannot unite God and man if he is not God and man himself. If he wasn’t really man, what good would he be to us who are? But if he were not really God, he could not get us to God. The bridge has to reach all the way to both sides of the chasm. Christ unites God and man because he unites them in his own person.


The first point, then, is that Christ himself, the “Son,” really is God.

But then a second question arises, how Christ unites us to God. The Biblical answer is that he pours out his Spirit on us. The Son becomes incarnate as Another man, somehow who is not me. But then he unites me to himself through the Holy Spirit.

The logic is again the same. If the Holy Spirit were less than God, the Holy Spirit could not unite us to God. Glory to the Holy Spirit, coequal with the Father and the Son!

But see that this is not as abstract and obscure as it sounds. “God became man so that man could become God,” said the fourth-century Church Fathers, and the Church has echoed it ever since. The Holy Spirit that he pours into our hearts is God himself, and he lifts us up into the life of God.

That’s obscure in the sense that it’s hard to think about. But it is the very Gospel. He didn’t just come and preach some nice little thoughts. He didn’t just lift us up so we could be slightly higher than those around us. In fact, it’s not about being higher than anyone. It’s about entering into the life of God. That’s crazy. And it’s the Catholic doctrine of grace. That’s the Holy Spirit we receive. That’s the offer.


When we say, “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit,” first we imagine the glory of God. Then we realize that in that glory is love, and giving, and thanksgiving: Father and Son. And then we affirm that the Spirit is given to us precisely so that we can enter into that relationship of love, and giving, and thanksgiving.

That is Good News, mind-blowing Good News. Settle for nothing less.


Do you recognize the greatness of the Gospel? That God gives his own Spirit to you?

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?