We 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?