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?