Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

Understanding the Gifts of the Holy Spirit

When you are struggling with what God would have you do in a certain situation, what gift has He given you to assist you?  When you are struggling with resisting a sin or even an unhealthy situation, how has God equipped you to be victorious.  Most of us would answer these two questions by saying, “I ask for more grace.”  The funny thing is though, you already received it – just not using it.

During this Easter season, many of our youth are being sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit through the Sacrament of Confirmation. Additionally, Pentecost is this weekend and thus, it is entirely appropriate to consider the value of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. We need to know how to use the gifts and graces He has given us.

The gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in Isaiah 11 are were given to us  to perfect us and form us into the image and likeness of God. Imparted at Baptism and perfected in Confirmation, these “gifts of holiness” cooperate and aid the theological virtues (Faith, hope and charity) and moral virtues (Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance) for the strengthening and divine vivification of the soul. The great Dominican theologian, Fr. Jordan Aumann, sets the stage to understand these gifts of holiness by first defining the theological virtues:

The theological virtues are so called because they enable the individual to relate directly to God, whereas the moral virtues have as their objects the proper use and control of our faculties in relation to those things that can serve as a means to personal holiness and eternal life. Thus, by faith we believe in God and accept all that he has revealed; by hope we trust God to be faithful to his promises if we correspond to his grace; by charity we love God as our perfect good and ultimate end.

The three theological virtues are the Christian virtues par excellence, and yet they are not understood or appreciated by those who live according to purely human standards, though these same persons may admire the moral virtues of justice, prudence, fortitude, and temperance. The reason is that the theological virtues draw us away from the natural order to the divine and the supernatural. Faith looks beyond the horizons of human knowledge and clings to the truths and mysteries revealed by God in Jesus Christ; hope causes us to regard the things of this world of little worth when compared to the life of glory to which we are called; charity impels us to love God above all else and to love all else in God, rejecting anything that is an obstacle to that love.[1]

The gifts of holiness should not be thought of in the same vein as charismatic gifts.  All seven of the traditional Confirmation gifts are necessary and constituent parts that with sanctifying grace form the spiritual organism. They are:

Understanding: Deeper insight into divine truths

Knowledge: Proper judgment concerning truths of faith

Wisdom: Judgment according to divine norms

Counsel: Decisions regarding human actions

Piety: Ordered relations to God and others

Fortitude: Proper use of irascible emotions

Fear of the Lord: Proper use of pleasure emotions

St. Thomas also teaches us that they are necessary for the perfection of the infused theological virtues.  Fr. Aumann in Chapter 4 explains why they are necessary with the following five reasons:

  1. When a habit does not attain its complete material object. Such is the case of students of theology who have not yet studied certain tracts. They know something of theology, and they have the habit of theology, but incompletely and imperfectly.
  2. When the habit lacks the intensity by which it should attain its object. For example, the student who has gone over an entire assignment, but superficially and carelessly.
  3. When the habit is weakly rooted in the subject (e.g., through lack of sufficient use). These three imperfections can be found in the infused virtues but can be corrected by the virtues themselves. They do not need the influence of the gifts to be extended to the total object of the virtue, to increase in intensity, or to multiply their acts.
  4. When there is an intrinsic imperfection that pertains to the nature of the habit itself. This occurs, for example, in the habit of faith (of things not seen) and hope (of things not yet possessed). Neither the virtues themselves nor the gifts can correct these imperfections without destroying the virtues in question.
  5. Because of the disproportion between the habit and the subject in which it resides. This is precisely the case with the infused virtues. They are supernatural habits, but the subject in which they are received is the human faculties. Consequently, on being received into the soul, the infused virtues operate in a human mode. They accommodate themselves to the psychological operations of man. This is why the infused virtues do not give facility in operation; that is provided by the acquired virtues.

I am humbled that our Lord pours out a multitude of graces to ensure our holiness.  He knows us so well that he, like a skillful surgeon, has created these gifts to heal and strengthen precisely where we need them the most.

The gifts of the Holy Spirit therefore, can be separated in accordance to the faculties they heal, support and perfect. Fr. Aumann states that “The human faculties are classified in general as either cognitive, relating to knowledge, or appetitive, relating to orexis [passions]. Now, human knowledge may be either speculative or practical, while human orexis may involve the operations of the will or the emotions.” The “pin-point’ accuracy of these seven gifts aiding the entire human person (at its core) can be seen  as follows:

Cognitive (Knowledge) faculties:
speculative intellect:
deeper insight into divine truths: Understanding
proper judgment concerning truths of faith: Knowledge
judgment according to divine norms: Wisdom
practical intellect:
decisions regarding human actions: Counsel

Appetitive (Passions) powers:
volitional appetite (the will):
in relation to others: Piety
sensitive appetites (the emotions):
proper use of the irascible emotions: Fortitude
proper use of pleasure emotions: Fear of the Lord

Before continuing, notice that the person is organized (only be appropriation in order for us to understand him/her better) by first immaterial and then material – recognizing that they are inseparable but with a primacy of organization.  This primacy is not a Manichean in nature but expresses the mysterious truth that the soul expresses itself through the body.  Similarly, the body informs or educates the soul.  The two true are one thus the great abomination of death during which they are unnaturally ripped apart.

So often Confimandi (including ourselves) are told that these gifts are given to aid them in holiness but are never told to what end.  The gifts are tools meant to be used in the life of grace. Like every gift and tool provided to us by the Father, they are for specific purposes.  We would never use Waterford crystal to hammer in a nail. For this reason, it behooves us to reflect upon and understand what the seven gifts are and what to ask for when we struggle. Let us use this information to inform ourselves and begin to effectively root out our sins and bad habits with these precious jewels of salvation.

Tomorrow we will look closer at each of the gifts individual and how we can practically use them in our daily life.


[1] Aumann O.P., Jordon, Spiritual Theology (Chapter 10) Captured from http://www.domcentral.org/study/aumann/st/st10.htm May 21, 2010

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