Photo Credit: Illustration by Abigail Witte

The gifts of the Holy Spirit open us to divine inspirations

The gifts — wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord — help us live our lives in accordance with God’s plan

In beginning a series of audience talks on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, Pope Francis explained that “The Spirit Himself is ‘the gift of God’ par excellence (John 4:10), He is a gift of God, and He in turn communicates various spiritual gifts to those who receive Him.”

The gifts of the Holy Spirit — wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord — help us to live our lives conformed to God’s plan. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes them by saying, “They belong in their fullness to Christ, Son of David. They complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them. They make the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations” (1831).

WISDOM

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“And wisdom is precisely this: it is the grace of being able to see everything with the eyes of God. It is simply this: it is to see the world, to see situations, circumstances, problems, everything through God’s eyes.” — Pope Francis, papal audience April 9, 2014.

Typical images of wise people depict them as aged beneficiaries of long experience with handling life’s realities.

Young people can act wisely too. Youthful confidence in the future may combine with faith in life’s goodness to motivate both the young and old to offer the best they can to make it better.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that giving the best of ourselves lies at the heart of the virtues (CCC 1803), and wisdom is virtuous. Wisdom is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit that “complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them.” (CCC 1831).

Common notions of wisdom tend to reduce it to a set-in-stone quality “possessed by” those who know what to do and when to do it. The wisdom Christian tradition speaks of seems more multidimensional than that, however.

Wisdom moves people into action, but not the reckless action of those who rush in where angels fear to tread. Wisdom is geared to making decisions that demonstrate awareness of what truly is at stake in situations involving oneself, others and the world — situations that call us all to give the best of ourselves.

In simpler terms, wisdom means exercising good judgment. It calls for a willingness to discover, to discern what a situation staring us in the face involves and what others genuinely need, not solely what we need or want.

UNDERSTANDING

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“This gift enables us to understand things as God understands them, with the mind of God. For one can understand a situation with human understanding, with prudence, and this is good. But to understand a situation in depth, as God understands it, is the effect of this gift.” — Pope Francis, papal audience April 30, 2014.

The gift of understanding, described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, differs from wisdom (CCC 1831). While wisdom desires to contemplate the things of God, understanding leads us from merely knowing what God has revealed to living like that revelation matters.

Pope Francis has further clarified that understanding moves us beyond merely agreeing with what God has revealed to taking seriously what His revelation means for our everyday decisions.

This gift helps us to see our everyday circumstances in light of God’s revelation. It challenges us to move beyond asking “what would Jesus do,” to decide to actually follow his example.

The gift of understanding works in multiple ways. First, it helps us to be convinced of the truths of our faith. Second, it also assists us in drawing conclusions based upon our relationship to God, his role in the world and our call to share in his mission.

As this gift grows in us, we order the actions of our lives toward our final end, which is God. We see the world and our life within it in the larger context of God’s plan. This impacts how we see God but also one another — beyond the surface as brothers and sisters in Christ.

KNOWLEDGE

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“The knowledge that comes from the Holy Spirit, however, is not limited to human knowledge; it is a special gift, which leads us to grasp, through creation, the greatness and love of God and his profound relationship with every creature.” — Pope Francis, papal audience May 21, 2014

Knowledge can be a tricky quality to assess. Many of us have heard that it doesn’t take an active Catholic to “know” what the Catholic Church teaches. Inactive Catholics, non-Catholics and even atheists can be just as “knowledgeable” about Catholic teaching as those who practice their faith — in some cases, more so.

The key, of course, is taking to heart what we know and acting on it. That gives us a clue as to what “knowledge” actually means. Knowledge simply for knowledge’s sake, St. James suggested rather pointedly, means nothing without action inspired by that knowledge: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?” (James 2:14).

“God ‘desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’: that is, of Christ Jesus,” declares the catechism (CCC 74). “Christ must be proclaimed to all nations and individuals, so that this revelation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

There is thus a relationship between knowledge and the other gifts of the Holy Spirit.

“If you receive my words and treasure my commands, turning your ear to wisdom, inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call for intelligence, and to understanding raise your voice; if you seek her like silver, and like hidden treasures search her out, then will you understand the fear of the Lord; the knowledge of God you will find. For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Proverbs 2:1-6).

COUNSEL

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“Counsel, then, is the gift through which the Holy Spirit enables our conscience to make a concrete choice in communion with God, according to the logic of Jesus and his Gospel.” — Pope Francis, papal audience May 7, 2014

The gift of counsel is how the Holy Spirit acts within us to guide us as we make decisions. Not just the big ones, but everyday ones too, like what to say or how to act in a difficult situation.

“When we receive and welcome Him into our heart, the Holy Spirit immediately begins to make us sensitive to His voice and to guide our thoughts. … Counsel, then, is the gift through which the Holy Spirit enables our conscience to make a concrete choice in communion with God,” Pope Francis said in a general audience in May 2014.

Jesus is alive, and He desires an intimate relationship with each of us. How often do we remember that we can go to the Lord Himself for advice when we need it?

“My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” These words of Jesus from John 10:27 show us what it means to live with this beautiful gift of counsel. The more we pray and seek the Lord’s will in every situation, the more we come to know and recognize his voice in our hearts.

When we have a difficult situation at work, a family relationship issue, questions of vocational discernment or even an in-the-moment parenting dilemma, the Holy Spirit is there. He cares for all of it. Our smallest worry, we can hand over to him.

FORTITUDE

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“Through the gift of fortitude, the Holy Spirit liberates the soil of our heart, He frees it from sluggishness, from uncertainty and from all the fears that can hinder it, so that Lord’s Word may be put into practice authentically and with joy. The gift of fortitude is a true help, it gives us strength, and it also frees us from so many obstacles.” — Pope Francis, papal audience May 14, 2014

When wondering how we will get through a crisis, when we are faced with decisions that challenge our beliefs, when heaven seems far away, the Holy Spirit provides profound support, a light for our dark path, through the gift of fortitude.

One of the most all-encompassing of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, fortitude supports us in living out the other six gifts and making our way faithfully through our earthly life to blessed eternity with God.

The gift of fortitude equips us with a never-depleted reservoir of God-given perseverance to live out our faith to the last breath, carrying us to heaven. The human, moral virtue of fortitude is developed each time we decide to do the right thing, approach a life challenge with faith and say “yes” to God.

In Scripture, the greatest example of fortitude, gift and virtue, is seen in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Each decision we make to do the good builds within us the virtue of fortitude, which is supported by the gift of fortitude, and enables us to live the other gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The gift of fortitude, present in Jesus, is also available to us. When we feel that our activities are pulling us from our spiritual center, we too can find the understanding and strength we need to go off, reflect and refresh so that we are able to continue our heavenward journey.

A blessed reminder that as we face adversity of any kind in faith and prayer, we are not alone. God’s grace and strength through the gift of fortitude are present even in our weakest moments, equip us for every challenge and lead us on to eternity.

PIETY

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“(Piety) indicates our belonging to God and our profound relationship with Him, a bond that gives meaning to our life and keeps us sound, in communion with Him, even during the most difficult and tormenting moments.” — Pope Francis, papal audience June 4, 2014

For what good is a gift of the Holy Spirit if it is not shared?

Piety is often connected to “being pious,” connoting images of clasped hands, closed eyes and bent knees in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, sacred relics or a crucifix. All well and good since, in a religious context, piety connotes reverence and devotion to God.

But in a Catholic context, piety also emphasizes our reliance on God, on recognizing and appreciating God’s many gifts. And that suggests humility.

At a June 2014 general audience in Rome, Pope Francis declared that the gift of piety “makes us gentle, makes us calm, patient, at peace with God, at the service of others with gentleness.”

Piety, Pope Francis said, renders people “truly capable of rejoicing with those who rejoice, of weeping with those who weep, of being close to those who are lonely or in anguish, of correcting those in error, of consoling the afflicted, of welcoming and helping those in need.”

If piety means compassion, there are many people who have the gift of piety in abundance, who are instinctively compassionate to those in need, who seem to know without even asking what needs to be done. And, if they don’t, their first words are, “Tell me what I can do,” not, “Gee, that’s a shame.”

The challenge to minister with a “compassionate heart” is ongoing. It helps, though, to consider compassion and the piety from which it emanates as, like all God’s gifts, something to be shared. Because that which brings joy and comfort must be shared.

FEAR OF THE LORD

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“Fear of the Lord, instead, is the gift of the Holy Spirit through whom we are reminded of how small we are before God and of His love and that our good lies in humble, respectful and trusting self-abandonment into His hands. This is fear of the Lord: abandonment in the goodness of our Father who loves us so much.” — Pope Francis, papal audience June 11, 2014

The term “fear of the Lord” conjures up images of a person quaking in their boots or falling prostrate to the ground. Surprisingly, this gift of the Holy Spirit is neither of those things.

St. Thomas Aquinas said the fear of the Lord should more so conjure up tender familial images. The gift is similar to a child’s fear of offending his father, rather than a “servile fear” of punishment.

Sin separates us from God. When the Holy Spirit gives us the gift of the fear of the Lord, we want to be holy like our Father. The gift of the fear of the Lord gives us the desire to avoid sin because we do not want to be separated from God our Father.

Pope Francis clarifies that this fear is not the groveling type of fear but an “awareness of how small we are, with that attitude … of one who places his every care and expectation in God and feels enfolded and sustained by his warmth and protection, just as a child with his father!”

When the Holy Spirit dwells in our hearts, we realize just how small we are, how much we need to depend on our Father in heaven. The “fear of the Lord allows us to be aware that everything comes from grace.”

With this understanding, the fear of the Lord is more akin to wonder or awe.

All good things come from God. When we begin to see these good things more clearly, we want to be with Him always. The fear of the Lord is about allowing ourselves to be loved by God.

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