Friends, we continue our series on the gifts of the Holy Spirit as we approach the great feast of Pentecost. This time, we turn our attention to the Spirit’s gift of understanding.
Understanding prevents wars. Think about it – many of the conflicts of our world, fights and arguments among ourselves, among neighbours or families - come about through a lack of understanding. We think that the other party should be like us, think like us and behave as we would expect them to. When they don’t, we question why and in short order, begin to view the other with suspicion, anger and resentment. This lack of understanding can and does lead to alienation, tension, the end of relationships and sometimes to violence and war.
A key element of the Spirit’s gift of understanding is the ability to listen carefully, respectfully and well. It is about being open to something that God might want to teach us through the other person or party. Being a good listener does not mean waiting for the other person to stop speaking but trying to understand the truth in what the other person is saying in a way that leads to friendship and good relations but also a common appreciation of the truth.
When we are angry with another person, it is harder to listen. We talk past each other and don’t really hear what the other is saying. That is why our faith is one that listens before it responds. Before we speak, we are called to listen. In the Old Testament, the Jewish people are asked: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul’ (Deut. 6:4); ‘Listen, all of you who have ears to hear (Matt. 13:9)
Consider now the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The Spirit was poured on a group of believers who were diverse culturally, socially and linguistically. Yet, they formed a community who understood each other and were united. This could only happen by the Spirit’s gift of understanding. Otherwise there would be chaos.
The Spirit’s gift of understanding is also really important today as the glue that unites our parishes and faith communities. These communities are now very diverse and are made up of people from different nationalities, age, race, gender and culture – not unlike the first community of the Church at Pentecost. In this diverse Church, there is the opportunity to grow in understanding of the other in a way that is truly open to listen and learn. Not being open to understanding is like wondering why everyone does not think or act like me! Such an attitude leads to stunted growth, resentment and bitterness which destroy our joy.
St Therese of Lisieux, in her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, tells how she used to be annoyed by a habit one of the other sisters in her convent. The saint recognised immediately the danger that this was - to love the sister less and to condemn her. After much prayer, she concluded that this sister was given to her by God to highlight her own impatience and lack of understanding. So instead of being bitter or angry, Therese thanked God for her sister and her annoying habit which was an opportunity for her to grow in understanding and holiness. Here is the saint, turning the tables on herself and allowing the Spirit’s gift to bear fruit.
When we consider the life of Jesus, his friendship with his disciples led to a wonderful expansion of their understanding of God, themselves and their place in the world. They began to see things with new eyes, hear things with new ears and to be renewed with fresh understanding. At the Last Supper, Jesus said to them that this process of growing in understanding would continue beyond his death, beyond their own lifetime and would extend to the end of time: ‘I still have many things to say to you but they would be too much for you now. However, when the Spirit of truth comes he will lead you to the complete truth’ (John 16:12). These words are powerful for they remind us that no one has all the answers but all of us are growing towards understanding the truth more fully.
To help us do this, our Catholic family has some of the finest minds ever created. They help us to understand who we are, who God is and our own mission. People like St Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Catherine of Siena, John Paul II, Therese of Lisieux – all of these brothers and sisters of ours in faith help us grow in understanding of how things really are and the truth we seek in God.
And so we pray for the Spirit’s gift of understanding this week. May the Holy Spirit enable us to see what there is to see and understand what exists. May understanding be like the cartilage that enables different bones to move freely and painlessly together for the overall good of the body that is the community of the Church.
Come Holy Spirit and pour on us your gift of understanding. Amen.