The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 64, No 5, Sep-Oct 2011

Theology for the Laity

Gifts of the Holy Spirit I:
The Nature of a Gift

By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.

Virtues: A Brief Review

       In earlier reflections we have considered the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity, and the moral (or human) virtues, which are Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance. Each of these virtue shares a common character, and our Catechism provides a very simple definition, "A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good." (CCC, 1803) The text continues,

    [Virtue] allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions.

Theological Virtues

       What distinguishes the theological and moral virtues is their origin. The theological virtues are rooted in God, and unite us to God through our Baptism. "[they] are the foundation of Christian moral activity; they animate it and give it its special character. They inform and give life to all the moral virtues." (CCC, 1812)

Moral Virtues

       The moral virtues, by contrast, are "perfections of intellect and will" that we achieve by human effort. They lead us toward God and His love, and they are supported by the theological virtues, but our progress in them is largely the effort of our own hard work. At their heart, all the virtues are good habits; they become easier with practice. But the Catechism reminds us, the theological virtues "are infused by God into the souls of the faithful to make them capable of acting as His children and meriting eternal life." (CCC, 1813)

       The moral virtues are a simpler matter. "With God's help, they forge character and give facility in the practice of the good. The virtuous man is happy to practice them" (CCC, 1810) for the simple reason, says one of the early Church writers (Gregory of Nyssa) that "the goal of the virtuous life is to become like God."

The Disposition to Succeed

       As we practice the virtues over time, the choice to do good becomes easier; at least it should. Ultimately, it should become second nature. However, human experience teaches us that no matter how good our intentions, and no matter how well-disciplined we may be, we can accomplish only so much by our unaided effort. At some point in our development, each of us has had to turn to parents, teachers, a mentor, or "howto" books to arrive at a "next step" in our personal or intellectual development.

Perfection: God's Gift

       We find a parallel in our spiritual lives. The practice of virtue may lead us toward perfection, but only God's assistance can make us perfect. Not surprisingly, we call this assistance a "gift," and - again, not surprisingly - God's gifts come to our assistance only when we have fully achieved what we can accomplish by our own effort.

       Only when we have reached this point, may we 1reasonably look beyond ourselves, to God. The original Catholic Encyclopedia gives a very succinct definition of God's supernatural gifts, "something conferred on nature that is above all the powers...of created nature." The gifts we will consider in the next few Light and Life reflections are the seven gifts the prophet Isaiah identified in the Messiah, when he exclaimed

    There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse
    And a branch shall grow out of his roots.
    And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him
    The spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    The spirit of council and might,
    The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord
    And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
    (Is. 11. 2, 3)

Identifying God's Gifts

       Our more modern vocabulary has named the gifts: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. As we shall see, some of these terms have particular theological meanings that distinguish them from our common understanding of the words.

       To begin our reflection, we should understand that God intends these gifts for our personal sanctification. This does not mean the gifts will isolate us from other Christians, or insulate us from the demands of the world. Our cooperation with God's gifts will inevitably spill over in good works that benefit others, but their primary purpose is not others' welfare, but our own.

The Gifts in Brief

       We shall consider each of these gifts in more detail, and we shall relate them to the moral and theological virtues, but by way of introduction, we may say the gift of wisdom helps us detach ourselves from the world and desire more fervently the things of heaven. Understanding comes to our aid in grasping the truths of our faith. Counsel helps us choose what will most glorify God and aid our salvation.

       Fortitude gives us the strength to face difficulties we may encounter in our life as Catholic Christians. Knowledge is a guide between right and wrong as we strive to make our way toward heaven. Piety inspires us with a love for God as our father, encouraging us to undertake swiftly and eagerly our duties toward Him. The fear of the Lord is often misunderstood. It has nothing to with dread of God's punishment, but rather instills a deep respect for God's majesty, and a fear of offending Him.

How the Gifts Work

       We may ask how these gifts operate in our lives. They do so by making us more readily responsive to the actions of the Holy Spirit. We may likewise ask how they differ from the virtues, as some of the gifts share the same name as the virtues. The answer here is not one of difference but degree. The gifts of God's Spirit are intimately related to the virtues and bring them to completion in our lives. They enable us to embrace the virtues more fully, and live them more completely.

A Difference between Virtues and Gifts

       When St. Thomas Aquinas considers the distinction between the virtues and the gifts, he observes that the moral virtues

    ...perfect man according as it is natural for him to be moved by his reason...Consequently man needs yet higher perfections, whereby to be disposed to be moved by God. These perfections are called gifts...because by them man is disposed to become amenable to the Divine inspiration... This then is why some say...that the gifts perfect man for acts which are higher than the acts of virtue. (ST I-II, 68. 1)

An Example from Nature

       This is, to be sure, a complex statement, and it describes a spiritual reality we have probably never given much thought, namely, that to benefit from God's inspiration, God must prepare us to receive that inspiration. If we consider the matter, though, we can see parallels, in our everyday life. We do not toss seeds on the ground and expect them to grow, nor do we imagine that a child who has not learned to read will be able to tell us the contents of a book. The best fertilizers and libraries cannot replace basic preparation; they can only build upon and augment the all-important first steps that must be undertaken if any project is to reach its fulfillment. Once those foundations are laid, however, the next steps follow naturally.

Spiritual Applications

       We can see a similar progress in our spiritual lives. St. Thomas describes the gifts of the Holy Spirit as "...habits whereby [we are] perfected to obey readily the Holy Ghost." (ST I-II 68.3)

       This means if we cooperate with God's gifts, we ought to discover an ease and speed with which we pursue and choose good in our actions. St. Thomas observes, "...for those moved by Divine instinct, there is no need to take counsel according to human reason, but only to follow their inner promptings, since they are moved by a principle higher than human reason." (ibid.)

       Obviously, this describes those quite advanced along the way of spiritual perfection; the rest of us will undoubtedly need to "stop, look, and listen" for some before we act with such ease and assurance. Nevertheless, the growth that results in such readiness and ease of action is a goal we should look forward to, with the assistance of God's gifts.

       We have seen that this readiness and ease of action are necessary parts of our understanding of virtue as a disposition to do good. We shall encounter the notions of readiness and ease often again in these reflections on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, for just as our progress in the moral virtues makes the promptings of reason easier to follow, our surrender to the gifts of the Spirit makes us more apt to listen to God and the promptings of His Spirit. St. Thomas writes, whose knowledge and power all things are subject, by His motion safeguards us from all folly, ignorance, dullness of mind and hardness of heart, and the rest. Consequently the gifts of the Holy Ghost, which make us amenable to His promptings, are said to be given as remedies for these defects. (ST I-II 68 2, ad. obj. 3)

The Necessity of the Gifts

       If the subject were not so serious, these words would sound almost light-hearted. In fact, St. Thomas writes, the gifts of the Holy Spirit are absolutely necessary for our salvation. This is because we possess the theological virtues only imperfectly. Without God, "Who works inwardly in every nature and every will," we cannot know and love God.

       The gifts of the Spirit build on the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity we receive at our Baptism. Our Catechism reminds us that these gifts "...complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them. They make the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations." (CCC, 1831) In this statement we once again encounter the notion, as we will so often, that the gifts of the Spirit make us "ready" - eager - to follow God's promptings.

The Fulfillment of the Gifts

       Most importantly, the gifts of the Spirit enable us to achieve our full potential as God's children. The importance of the word "children" in this sentence must not be overlooked. It is key to our understanding of what God's gifts accomplish in our lives.

       The legal protections in our country of the last two or so hundred years afford us the luxury of thinking of children as little more than charming young people, whose antics so often delight us. But investigative journalism tells us this is not the case for many young people in the world today, and history teaches us this was certainly not the case in the ancient world. For early Christians, to be a "child" meant one enjoyed an important legal status, with rights denied those who were not children.

       St. Paul was very aware of this when he wrote, "For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God...and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow-heirs with Christ." (Rom. 8:14) St. Thomas links St. Paul's words to a passage from one of the psalms, "Your good spirit shall guide me into the right land." (Ps. 117. 10) When he comments on these two passages St. Thomas remarks,

    None can receive the inheritance of that land of the Blessed, except he be moved and led thither by the Holy Ghost. Therefore, in order to accomplish this end, it is necessary for man to have the gift of the Holy Ghost. (ST 68. 2)

The Gift of Choice

       So far, then, from being mere decorations, the gifts of the Holy Spirit are essential and defining elements of our life as Christians. God created us with free will, and we know that we must choose Him if we are to achieve our potential as His children and enjoy everlasting life in His kingdom. On its face, that choice could not be more clear or more simple. However, experience teaches us that simplicity and clarity do not guarantee that our choices will always - or even often - be easy. The gifts of His Spirit are one more aid God offers to help us freely choose what will lead to Him and His kingdom.

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