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Gifts of the Holy Spirit: A primer


Photo Courtesy of Sr. Amata CSFN

Nicholas Senz - published on 03/04/23

What exactly are they? What do they do? What are they for?

The gifts of the Holy Spirit have always been something of a mystery to me. Not in the sense that many things in our faith are a mystery, i.e. unknowable apart from God’s revelation. I mean in the sense of perplexity. I didn’t get them. What exactly are they? What do they do? What are they for?

Let’s start with the Catechism, which tells us, “The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord…. They complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them. They make the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations.” (CCC 1831)

Am I the only person who has ever thought that many of these gifts sounded similar? Understanding, wisdom, counsel, knowledge … it all just sounds like “having information” in some form or other. And what do we mean when we say that the gifts “complete and perfect the virtues”? What really is the difference between a gift and a virtue? (Is there one?) I didn’t understand.

Aquinas to the rescue

So, one day I turned to St. Thomas Aquinas for help, and was not disappointed. In Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 68, St. Thomas answers: “These perfections are called gifts, not only because they are infused by God, but also because by them man is disposed to become amenable to the Divine inspiration” (a. 1, c.).

The virtues help to strengthen our reason and our will to know and love God better—the virtues help our reason and will in their natural movement toward God. The gifts help us to be moved by God in all of those little moments of inspiration we experience in our everyday lives.

Have you ever thought about this: When you receive a gift of the Holy Spirit … where is it? As in, in what way is it yours? What is its connection to you? St. Thomas says the gifts of the Holy Spirit are habits. A habit is a “stable disposition,” a groove in your record, a part of your programming, a blazed trail in the wilderness of your soul, an inclination to act in a certain way. So, the gifts of the Holy Spirit are supernatural inclinations to think and act in a certain way.

We mentioned a moment ago what the seven gifts are: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. Why these seven? Were they chosen at random out of a hat, or by throwing darts? No! St. Thomas says that the gifts are given to aid the powers of our soul—the reason, will, and appetites, or our thoughts, decisions, and desires—to be amenable to God’s promptings. St. Thomas says the gifts perfect different parts of us.

Getting to know us

Let’s define some terms first; let’s learn a little about ourselves, the different parts of us.

The intellect is the part of us that knows things. The speculative intellect is that part of you that knows things abstractly; the practical intellect is what knows what’s in front of your face. The speculative is about theory, the practical about practice. Apprehension is the first kind of knowing that we do, when we have in our minds a basic concept like “tree.” Judgment is the next step of knowing, where we affirm or deny something about a thing. “This is a tree,” “That is not a tree,”  etc. And your appetites are the part of you that is drawn toward or repelled from things, whether that’s food or drink or smells or a beautiful sunset or a great idea.

So, St. Thomas tells us the gifts of the Holy Spirit perfect these different parts of our apprehension, judgment, and appetites (here I’ll summarize):

Speculative apprehension is perfected by understanding—knowing abstract truths of faith more readily, a sort of insight into those truths related to our salvation.

Practical apprehension is perfected by counsel—knowing practical truths more readily with divine assistance, i.e. being guided by God in what you ought to do.

Speculative judgment is perfected by wisdom—knowing the grand theory of things, how it all fits together; it is knowledge of the things concerning God, acting in a way that we have God’s truth foremost in our minds.

Practical judgment is perfected by knowledge—knowing here and now in this situation what to do.

Appetites concerning others are perfected by piety—how ought I to treat others? What sort of love and regard do I owe them? This relates to both God and man.

Appetites concerning ourselves are perfected by courage—having the strength and energy to do the right thing.

Appetites concerning inordinate pleasure are perfected by fear of the Lord—a healthy respect for God that reminds me that God has made me to do certain things and not others, and since He is God, and I am not, I ought to respect His commands and obey them.

To put it simply, then: The gifts of the Holy Spirit help us to live the Christian life, the life of Christ that is lived in us, won by his death and resurrection. The gifts of the Holy Spirit help us to know and love God, by transforming us and enabling us to more readily respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. They make us sensitive to movements of actual grace, those “nudges” from God that we get throughout our days. They help us to live our lives in such a way that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

The gifts of the Holy Spirit help us right here, right now, to know and love God and our neighbor, which is what we were made for. Christ died and rose to give us new life, His life. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are one aspect of that new life, one we should treasure.

Holy SpiritSpiritual LifeTheologyThomas Aquinas
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