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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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