The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit

Author: Rev. William G. Most

We turn now to the Seven Gifts of the sanctifying category. They are: wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, piety and fear of the Lord.

They each perfect certain basic virtues. Four of them perfect the intellectual virtues. Understanding gives an intuitive penetration into truth. Wisdom perfects charity, in order to judge divine things. Knowledge perfects the virtue of hope. The gift of counsel perfects prudence.

The other three gifts perfect virtues of the will and appetites. The gift of piety perfects justice in giving to others that which is their due. This is especially true of giving God what is His due. Fortitude perfects the virtue of fortitude, in facing dangers. Fear of the Lord perfects temperance in controlling disordered appetites.

To illustrate the difference between things done with the Gifts and those done with the ordinary virtues, we will take up the gift of counsel.

There are three kinds of guides a person may follow in making his decisions:

1) The whim of the moment. Aristotle in his Ethics 1. 5 says that to act that way is a life fit for cattle, who do just what they happen to feel like doing.

2) Reason, which in practice is always aided by actual graces, which God gives so generously. For example suppose I see three options open to me, all of which are moral. Ideally I would make at least mentally a list of the good points and of the bad points of each. The I would look over the whole board, and pick what gives the best effect for me. Or if I come to think I need penance for my sins, I would ask: How much have I sinned, so I can know how much penance? what kind of penance will fit with my health? with the obligations of my state in life? And after several steps, a decision is reached. This method is called discursive, since it moves from one step to another.

3) In the third and highest way a soul does not go from one step to another, in a discursive process, but the answer is, as it were, dropped fully made and complete into his mind by the Gifts. This was the case of Our Lady, for example at the annunciation. If she had been operating in the ordinary mode, she might well have reasoned: Now my people have been waiting for centuries for the Messiah (as soon as Gabriel said He would reign over the house of Jacob forever, even any ordinary Jew would have known that He was the messiah). Now he is here. I should share this news with others, especially the authorities in Jerusalem. And what about my husband Joseph? In a short time he will not be able to avoid dark thoughts. But the Gospel shows she did none of these things. God needed to send a special angel to tell Joseph. so the Gifts can lead souls to points not contrary to reason, but far more lofty than what reason would suggest.

Cf. the following from St. John of the Cross: (Ascent 3.2.10; cf. Living Flame 1.4; 1.9 and 2.34): "God alone moves the powers of these souls . . . to those deeds which are suitable, according to the will and plan of God, and they cannot be moved to others. . . . Such were the actions of the most glorious Virgin, our Lady, who, being elevated from the beginning [of her life] to this lofty state, had never the form of any creature impressed on her, nor was moved by such, but was always moved by the Holy Spirit."

But there is a danger: a soul could mistake its own desires for action of the Gifts, since the reasons are not clear to it. Two points must be kept in mind: 1) The full and apparent action of these gifts does not appear until one is well advanced in the spiritual life (hidden assistance by them can come earlier). 2) Ordinarily an inspiration via the Gifts leaves the soul not fully certain--a signal to consult a director or superior. Uncommonly they will give certitude, but only when a decision must be made on the spot, and there is no time to consult.

When a soul acts with usual actual graces God is the most important actor, yet the faculties of the human do churn out the result--hence it is easy to suppose the work is done basically by that soul. But under the action of the Gifts, the soul is more passive, and its own faculties contribute even less.