Fr. Bernhard Blankenhorn, OP
We often hear about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and perhaps think first of those gifts that St. Paul speaks about, the charisms. Today, we are going to deal with another set of gifts, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, whose roots are not in St. Paul but rather in the prophet Isaiah. What are these gifts, who has them, and what are they for anyway?
Our time today will consist of three parts: we’ll begin with an appetizer, a historical interpretation of the main biblical text of Isaiah 11, something to stimulate the taste buds. For our main entrée, we’ll seek a theological interpretation of Isaiah guided by St. Thomas Aquinas and the Catechism. Today we’re serving prime rib and potatoes with a very woody Cabernet. Then for dessert, we’ll sing to the Holy Spirit and beg for his gifts with the early medieval hymn Veni Creator Spiritus. It is an old recipe which I promise you’ll enjoy. I hope you brought an appetite, but please eat and drink slowly, so that you can savor these delicacies.
The Biblical Text: Isaiah 11
First, let’s read Isaiah 11: “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 counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:1-3a, RSV).
The prophet Isaiah seems to have composed this text sometime in the late 8th century B.C. The twelve tribes are politically divided. Ten tribes are allied in the northern kingdom, called “Israel,” while Judah and Benjamin are in the southern kingdom, called “Judah.” The Assyrians will soon wipe out the northern kingdom, and Judah will only survive under its protection, until the Babylonian exile in 587 BC. Isaiah foresees the downfall of the Davidic line of kings, i.e. the kings of Judah.
The tree of Jesse, the father of David, has been cut, but the stump sprouts a new branch, the Messiah. Isaiah foresees a royal Messiah, a just ruler. He is a descendant of Jesse, presumably through the line of David. “The Spirit of the Lord” will rest on him. In the Old Testament, the “Spirit” is an attribute of God, not yet a divine person distinct from the Father. The Messiah will have God’s Spirit in a permanent way, hence it “rests upon him.” In Hebrew, the word for spirit is ruah. It also means breath or wind. God gave Adam breath and brought him to life. The Psalms praise God’s Spirit for giving all beings life (Psalm 33:6, 104:29-30). It inspires prophets by giving them a divine message for the people of God (Is 48:16 etc.).
Let us look at the list of the Spirit’s gifts in Isaiah 11. Seven spirits are mentioned. The first is simply “the Spirit of the Lord,” the entire gift whose six particular spirits or effects of the Spirit are then presented. 1) The spirit of wisdom (hokma) is a quality that the Old Testament attributes to kings who have to judge difficult cases, especially Solomon (1 Kings 3). It is also a gift imparted to the craftsmen of the tent or sanctuary in the desert (Exodus 31:3), that they might build it according to God’s plan. Wisdom is thus a very practical gift. 2) The spirit of understanding (binah) is connected to the ability to comprehend visions (Daniel 8:15), proverbs (Proverbs 1:1-6) and the law of God (Psalm 119: 34, 73, 100, 125). It deals with discerning the hidden meaning of revelations, and can aid the judgment of moral matters by imparting a deeper grasp of God’s law. 3) The spirit of counsel (esah) seems to involve choosing the proper means for a project (Isaiah 9:5). A king who foregoes the counsel and help of God and relies on his own power is a fool (Isaiah 29:15; 30:1). 4) The spirit of fortitude (geburah) seems to refer to the moral strength to judge matters according to the truth (Isaiah 28:6), and the courage to face great obstacles, for example, in battle (Isaiah 3:25). 5) The spirit of knowledge of the Lord (da’at elohim) allows one to interiorize the law of God, so that one consistently follows the precepts of the Lord (Isaiah 11:9; 33:5). The prophet Hosea blames the priest who have failed to give knowledge to their people, which in turn leads to the people’s death and God’s rejection of the priests (Hosea 4:4-6). 6) The spirit of fear of the Lord (yirat Yahweh) involves reverence or respect for God, so that those who lack fear approach the worship of God with little care, or with words that contradict the heart (Isaiah 29:13). Fear moves the believer to perform his precepts with care (Psalm 112:1; 119:63; 128:1), the primary precept being to worship God.
Isaiah then says in 11:3: “his scent shall be the fear of the Lord.” The Hebrew phrase is odd. What does fear smell like anyway? Many argue that this was a scribe’s addition to the original text, and should thus be ignored. On the other hand, one could argue that the word “scent” or “smell” refers to the cultic sacrifice that is pleasing or loathsome to God (see Leviticus 26:31). The ancient Greek Old Testament (called the Septuagint) translated these two mentions of fear with two different words, although the Hebrew uses one word. The first word (being the sixth spirit) was translated as phobos, the standard term for fear, and the second (“the scent of fear”) was translated as eusebeia, meaning piety or reverence towards God. St. Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible (called the Vulgate) followed the interpretation of the Septuagint and presented the two mentions of fear as distinct gifts. Perhaps six particular effects or gifts of the Spirit were not enough for Jerome or the translators of the Septuagint, since the number six signifies imperfection in the culture of the Old Testament, while seven signifies perfection. Could it be that this scribal addition was inspired by the Holy Spirit? The Church’s teaching on the gifts of the Holy Spirit seems to imply that the answer is “yes” (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1831).
A Christian Theology of the Spirit’s Seven Gifts
It is striking that Isaiah spends no time explaining what these gifts are. I presented you with the most common meanings of these terms in other passages from Isaiah, as well as in other Old Testament texts. But Isaiah 11 tells us almost nothing about these gifts or “spirits,” except that these are somehow the ideal attributes of a messianic king as he brings God’s justice to the earth. Here we find a striking biblical example of a revealed truth that demands much theological reflection on the whole of revelation and the experience of the Christian life, especially as lived by the saints, in order to grasp the deeper meaning of revelation.
The New Testament refers to Isaiah 11 a few times. In Romans 15:12, Paul calls Jesus “the root of Jesse.” In Revelation 22:16, Jesus himself states: “I am the root of David.” Jesus is the Messianic king upon whom the Spirit rests. St. Peter extends this gift of the Spirit to all Christians. He exhorts those who face rejection for their faith by noting that “on you rests the Spirit of God” (1 Peter 4:14), a clear allusion to Isaiah 11. This is why the Church teaches that the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are imparted to each of us at our baptism. You already have them, whether or not you know it. So what exactly are these gifts, and what do they “do”?
There were diverse theological propositions on the nature of the seven gifts in the Church Fathers and scholastics. In fact, there is so much diversity that the overall impression one gains in reading them is one of confusion. The young St. Thomas Aquinas was almost as perplexed about the gifts of the Spirit as most of his contemporaries. In his later years, Thomas attained a certain level of intellectual maturity and finally brought some order to the mess that was the theology of the Spirit’s gifts. Aquinas seems to have come up with the most convincing model for the gifts, one that was widely adopted by other theologians later on. The Catechism seems to reflect his teaching. I’ll present you with Aquinas’ teaching, one that is not Catholic dogma per se, but which seems to be the best way to understand Catholic dogma on this particular aspect of the faith.
In the Summa Theologiae (henceforth cited as ST), Aquinas begins his study of the Spirit’s seven gifts by paying close attention to the language of Isaiah 11. He notes that the prophet does not really speak about gifts but about spirits: “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and fortitude” and so on. Aquinas rightly thinks that this choice of words was deliberate. The word “spirit” or “inspiration” signifies motion coming from the outside (ST I-II, q. 68, a. 1c). While Thomas did not know Hebrew, in fact, the Hebrew language supports his analysis of the Latin term very well: spirit or ruah means breath or wind. Wind is a motion that comes to us from elsewhere.
Now by the words “motion,” Thomas really means action or operation. He says that there are two kinds of sources of motion or action for human beings. Reason or the mind is an interior source of action. I think about something, make a decision, and then act on it. The second source of action for us is God himself: God can move us to do something. You are driving along the freeway and suddenly, out of nowhere, you sense an urge to go to confession or to buy roses for your wife on the way home. Thomas would say that such thoughts or inspirations may well be manifestations of the Spirit’s motion, of God moving us towards holiness.
Now if God is going to move me, then I need to be ready for his motion. If my soul is like a sailboat anchored in a bay with the sails down and a strong wind comes, the boat will not move very far. But if my soul is like a sailboat on the ocean and the sails are up, a strong wind can take it on a long journey without ever having to use the boat’s electric motor. The gifts of the Spirit are like sails on the boat of the soul. We receive them at baptism and have them as long as we remain in grace. I need sanctifying grace to have the Holy Spirit dwell in my soul, so if I destroy the life of grace within me, I drive the Holy Spirit with his seven gifts from my desecrated temple. But where the Holy Spirit dwells, there we find his seven gifts (ST I-II, q. 68, a. 5c).
The gifts are not the same as the virtues. The virtues are perfections or “muscles” of the soul that enable me to act well whenever and wherever I want. If I have the virtue of temperance, I have the intrinsic ability to resist over-eating. With the virtue of faith, I myself can make acts of faith, such as professing the Creed during the Mass and really meaning it. With the virtue of charity, I already have the power within me to perform radical acts of kindness, like cleaning the wood in the Church for a few hours on the weekend. But the seven gifts are like sails. They are dispositions not for me to act when I decide, but rather receivers of the Spirit’s motion. The gifts are my openness and docility to the movement of the Holy Spirit, whenever and wherever he decides to act. “The Spirit blows where it wills” (John 3:8). As we’ll see, the gifts compliment the virtues and in a sense take over when we round out of gas in our virtue tank. When I lack the moral strength to do what is right and just, I can look to the Holy Spirit for extra help. The virtues are like oars that move my boat along the great ocean of life, but when I’m exhausted from rowing, I need a little divine wind to bring me safely to the harbor of the heavenly Jerusalem. In fact, a good strong wind every now and then is pretty essential to keep me from becoming exhausted.
The Individual Gifts
The Catechism only lists the seven gifts, but does not explain what the individual gifts mean. However, it does describe the overall nature of the gifts in a way similar to Aquinas: “These are permanent dispositions which make man docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1830). We can thus turn to Aquinas to fill in this gap, for he has offered perhaps the most convincing explanation. Thomas’ theology is especially beautiful because, inspired by St. Augustine, it connects each of the gifts with the virtues and the beatitudes.
The gift of understanding helps us overcome the limitations of faith. We believe in what we do not see: the Trinity, the work of Christ and salvation. We know new realities through faith, but we know them in an obscure way. We assent to the truth of the Trinity or the moral teachings of Jesus with our heart and mind, but often begin the Christian life with little understanding of these truths. The gift of understanding helps us to recognize that what may at first seem almost impossible by penetrating more deeply into the mysteries of faith. This deepening penetration of the mind’s eye into the objects of faith enables us to recognize that apparent contradictions of the faith (evolution, the suffering of the innocent despite God’s goodness and providence, etc.) really are not contradictions. Such recognition is not attained through a long process of reasoning, but instantaneous. It is the Spirit’s motion in us, not our own intellectual ability. This gift enables us to live out the beatitude, “blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.” The gift of understanding clears away obstacles to the true faith, allowing the mind’s eye to grasp or to “see” the truth of God already in this life, though in a very partial way (ST II-II, q. 8).
The gift of knowledge is related to the gift of understanding, but also has a different function. It enables us to judge what must be believed and what must not be believed. Rather than simply overcoming intellectual problems, this gift enables us to discern what doctrines and practices must be of the faith and what doctrines and practices are opposed to the faith. By the gift of knowledge, Bartolomeo de las Casas, a 17th century Dominican bishop of Chiapas, Mexico, discerned that the enslavement of the Indians was evil, even though the Church had not yet officially condemned slavery. Faith in the dignity of the human being as a creature in God’s likeness and image demanded the rejection of slavery. By the gift of knowledge, we can discern that the adoption of certain non-Christian religious practices (e.g. seeking to empty our minds in meditation without explicitly seeking an encounter with God) or a certain Gospel (e.g. making social justice a higher priority than the salvation of souls) is not compatible with Christianity. The gift of knowledge allows us to recognize more deeply the demands of the faith. This gift leads to the beatitude: “blessed are they who mourn, they shall be comforted.” It refuses to search for our ultimate fulfillment in anything created, anything that falls short of God himself (e.g. social justice over heaven). By this gift, we learn to mourn that God is not yet fully present to us (ST II-II, q. 9).
The gift of wisdom perfects charity. This might surprise us. When we hear the term “wisdom,” which think of an intellectual activity. Thomas does want to show how this gift imparts the highest knowledge of God possible in this life. Such knowledge presupposes that we accept the Creed and God’s public revelation with our hearts and minds, yet it goes further. To know God in the fullest way possible in this life means becoming like him, a process occurs through the Holy Spirit transforming us by love. He makes us like God, so that we begin to have a kind of intuitive or “con-natural” knowledge of who God is. Wisdom is made possible by the Spirit’s motion in the heart, but that motion reaches fulfillment in the mind as he moves us to judge according to God’s ways. Thomas invokes the obscure phrase in the mystical writer Pseudo-Dionysius, who speaks of his spiritual teacher “suffering divine things.” This transformation enables us to judge the things of God and the things of earth by divine standards, by that graced spiritual intuition or spiritual sense. Thereby, we can “smell” what is holy and what is spiritually rotten, as when you listen to a preacher speak about Jesus and you start to sense that something is wrong, but perhaps cannot quite put your finger on it. By this gift, one gains a profound familiarity with God, somewhat as human spouses know each other and can predict the other’s actions, reactions or emotions. This is the knowledge of the saints that exceeds that of the learned yet un-prayerful theologian. By the way, the gift of wisdom is also where Thomas locates mystical union with God: an indescribable union of love (“suffering divine things”) beyond our normal way of knowing which in turn infuses an intuitive knowledge of God. We attain knowledge of God through spiritual union with him, not just through the doctrines of Scripture and Tradition. For Thomas, every Christian in grace attains some kind of mystical union with God in this life, especially in the Eucharist. Most Christians simply fail to perceive it. Through this gift of union, we can go further than the gift of knowledge, as wisdom judges from a higher plane, like a man on a mountaintop surveying the landscape below. Thomas connects this gift to the beatitude: blessed are the peacemakers, they shall be called children of God. Wisdom orders our lives according to God’s ways, which brings tranquility and thus peace. Wisdom transforms us into God’s likeness, reshaping us more and more in the likeness of Christ, the Son of God (ST II-II, q. 45). Wisdom goes beyond knowledge, in that it surpasses the recognition of faith’s demands and begins to recognize the very presence of God in an encounter or the path of God in a concrete moral decision.
The gift of counsel perfects prudence. Whereas the gift of wisdom offers an intuitive knowledge or spiritual sense of how to act according to God’s ways, the gift of counsel is an aid in our own reasoning process about a situation. The Holy Spirit breathes into the sail of wisdom at certain moments in life, but more often, he wants to assist our normal process of reflection on what action to take. God gave us a brain, an upbringing, and the guidance of parents and mentors for a reason. Counsel is like a light that directs our attention to particulars of a situation that we would overlook without God’s help. It is impossible to foresee all the consequences or particulars involved in a situation (buying a house, changing jobs, choosing to deepen a friendship) and how they will affect my relationship with God and my journey to heaven. The Holy Spirit points us to the most important considerations as we make decisions in life. Thomas relates the gift of counsel to the beatitude of mercy: taking counsel is about choosing good means to an end, and the best means to the goal of heaven is mercy towards our neighbor. The gift of counsel grants us a supernatural recognition of how to be merciful in more and more aspects of our lives (ST II-II, q. 52).
The gift of fear must be understood in relation to other kinds of fear. Fear is produced by a coming or potential evil. Now God is pure goodness. So how can we fear him? First, we can fear his just punishments, which are not evil as such (they are just), but evil in our perception. Second, we can fear separation from God, the absence of his infinite goodness. Most Christians begin with what Thomas calls servile fear or the fear of a slave, which is fear of punishment. We do not engage in certain types of behavior because we want to avoid hell, which is God’s just punishment of the unjust. As we grow in the Christian life and develop a closer bond of love with God our Father, we realize more and more that the worst thing that could happen to us is not so much the torments of hell themselves, but rather separation from the God that we love. The worst aspect of hell is the absence of divine love because its inhabitants have completely closed themselves off from this love. We also begin to fear offending the God whom we love, in the sense of disappointing a beloved Father. We call this filial fear, and it is this kind of fear that the gift of fear imparts. Thomas calls it a fear by which we revere or reverence God, and some modern adaptations of the gifts of the Holy Spirit substitute this name “reverence” for “fear.” As we attain spiritual maturity, our fear of punishment diminishes and our fear of losing God’s love or offending his love increases. This filial fear in turn drives us to turn to him more and more and to subject ourselves to the sweet yoke of divine love. This gift corresponds to the beatitude of the poor in spirit: the more we reverence God and seek to avoid offending his love, the more we seek his glory and our glory only in him. The gift of fear leads to the true humility of the poor in spirit. (ST II-II, q. 19).
The gift of piety perfects the virtue of piety. This language is foreign to us. For Thomas, piety does not primarily refer to a Catholic who practices devotions regularly or brings profound sincerity or emotion to the liturgy, though all of these are wonderful. Piety refers to the honor we give to God, our parents and our country, since they provide for us. The virtue of piety honors God as Creator and the source of all that is good. The gift of piety goes further. Thomas describes it as inspiring filial affection. It moves us to worship God as our loving father, not just our Creator, and to cling to him with utter confidence. Piety brings us to an immense trust in God’s fatherly care. That trust itself is a form of worship. The intimate connection between piety and worship brings some intelligibility to the phrase in Isaiah: “his scent shall be the fear of the Lord.” We could say that piety is a sacrifice pleasing to God, like the sweet smell of a sacrificial animal that signifies the filial affection of the one bringing the sacrifice.
The same gift inspires us to honor the saints and our parents, to grow in our affectionate love of them and trust in their help (ST II-II-, q. 121, a. 1). The beatitude of the meek is connected to the gift of piety, clearing away obstacles to piety, but Thomas is vague both on the nature of these obstacles and on the exact nature of that meekness (ST II-II, q. 121, a. 2). His Scripture commentary on the beatitudes proposes that the meek are those who only become angry in the face of injustice (Super Evangelium S. Matthaei, #419), but it is hardly clear how this relates to filial piety.
The gift of fortitude takes over when an evil that faces us (social exclusion, suffering for the faith, etc.) might be too great for us to overcome or resist simply by the virtue of fortitude, our intrinsic ability to resist evil and endure suffering, even our graced virtue of fortitude. Thomas explicitly mentions the threat of death. The gift of fortitude imparts a confidence of mind that is able to look beyond the immediate threat. This need not exclude tremendous fear in our emotions. The gift pertains first to the immaterial soul that is distinct from the bodily emotion of fear. But this gift is not just about overcoming evil. It also imparts the spiritual strength to accomplish very difficult good works. We can think of Mother Teresa and her sisters’ willingness to live a life of radical poverty as the effect of this gift. The beatitude of thirsting for justice is connected to fortitude. Fortitude imparts endurance and patience in the face of great obstacles, thus enabling the relentless pursuit of justice (ST II-II, q. 139).
Oddly, Thomas never seems to discuss whether and how we grow in the gifts. But the answer is implicit in his writings. He consistently draws an analogy between the gifts and the virtues. Just as the moral virtues (justice, temperance, fortitude) dispose our emotions to the movement of reason (so that fortitude enables us to overcome our fears and speak the truth that may not be popular), so the gifts dispose us to the movement of the Holy Spirit. We grow in the virtues, and thus become more capable of pursuing the true and the good. Likewise, we grow in the gifts, becoming more receptive to the Spirit’s motion. I think the lives of the Saints clearly show this. So how do we grow in the gifts? By being docile to his promptings that we sense in the depth of our hearts and minds, by acknowledging our need for his wind, and by praying to the Holy Spirit, as we will in a moment. Happy sailing!
A number of good questions emerged after the presentation of this material. I will mention a few of them and summarize my answers.
First, what is the relation between the seven gifts and the sacrament of confirmation? For Thomas, there is no particular relation. He proposes that confirmation imparts the grace to enter into the army of Christ, to wage spiritual warfare on behalf of the Church militant with the weapon of truth. We might add that confirmation surely deepens our share in the seven gifts, but the important sacrament in relation to them remains baptism. Overall, the theology of confirmation is difficult to explain in abstraction from baptism.
Second, how could the theology of the gift be employed to evangelize, especially in the face of radical skepticism from non-believers? I would propose that the gifts are not ideal for preaching to the non-believer if we want to propose evidence of the workings of the Holy Spirit in our lives. This is because it is quite difficult just for us to discern in our lives between the effects of natural virtue, the normal workings of grace (the virtues we already have) and the wind of the Holy Spirit in the gifts. It is hard enough for non-believers to accept very evident signs of the supernatural, such as miraculous healings at places like Lourdes. So appealing to one of the subtlest cases of the supernatural seems unhelpful when speaking to non-believers. However, the theology of the gifts could be useful for evangelization as a way of explaining to someone who is very open to Christianity the depth of God’s mercy: when we lack the moral strength to carry out a difficult task, we may well receive extraordinary help from God.
Third, if only those who are in grace have the motion of the Holy Spirit in the gifts, how can we explain conversions? Does the Holy Spirit not move people to convert, and so act in them before they have grace? Here we want to distinguish three kinds of grace: the grace of conversion, habitual sanctifying grace and the motion of the Spirit in the seven gifts. We could think of persons who are non-believers as turned away from God, with their backs to him. By a grace of conversion that is not yet sanctifying, God turns them around, towards him. He begins to move them, as Jesus says in the Gospel of John: “No one can come to me unless the Father drags him” (6:44). God draws a person towards full conversion, and they can freely accept or reject this gift. Then comes the gift of justification, before or at baptism, when Christ’s gift of forgiveness and new life is freely and fully accepted: the gift of habitual grace, which is the permanent presence of a share in divine life in the soul, that is, an effect of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We call a person with this habitual grace one who is in the state of grace. At the same time, the “receivers” of the seven gifts are imparted. Then, throughout the person’s life in grace, the Spirit’s wind comes and goes in different sails, as is needed. Such distinctions about types of grace and motions of the Holy Spirit are very important. They allow us to manifest the coherence and intelligibility of the faith (see I-II, q. 109).
St. Augustine, Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume 6 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1979). Available at: http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/ (go to Book I).
St. Bonaventure, Conferences on the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, English translation available at: http://www.franciscan-archive.org/bonaventura/. Scroll down and look for “Collationes de Septem Donis S. Sancti”.
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, question 68; II-II, questions 8, 9, 19, 45, 52, 121, 139. Available at: www.newadvent.org/summa/ .
Benedict Ashley, OP, “The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit”: http://www.domcentral.org/study/ashley/gifts.htm .
Jordan Aumann, OP, Spiritual Theology (Sheed & Ward, 1980).
Bill Dodds, The Seeker’s Guide to the Holy Spirit: Filling Your Life With Seven Gifts of Grace (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2003), $12.
The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit
Gift Connected Virtue Connected Beatitude
Wisdom Charity “Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called children of God”
Understanding Faith “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God”
Counsel Prudence “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy”
Fortitude Fortitude “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice,
for they shall be satisfied”
Knowledge Faith “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”
Fear of the Lord Hope “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
& Temperance for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”
Piety Justice “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”
Copyright (c) Bernhard Blankenhorn, 2007