Fr Billy Swan
This week we feature a reflection on the first three gifts of the Holy Spirit - Wisdom, Understanding and Counsel. We will complete the series next week with the other four gifts.
Because we don’t hear enough about the Holy Spirit, we don’t hear enough about the gifts of the Holy Spirit either. That’s why it is good to spend some time to consider what they are and what difference they make. I love the image of a prism to describe our human nature that is penetrated by God’s grace. As the light of the sun passes through a prism and is refracted into the seven colours of the rainbow, so when God’s Spirit penetrates our humanity, the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit emerge. You see, our Christian faith is not one of abstractions or vague beliefs that leave us unchanged. The gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit are tangible signs of ways that God’s life is making a difference to the person or community who receives them. With this in mind, we begin with the first gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of wisdom.
In the Bible we are told that Solomon, at the time of his coronation as King of Israel, had asked for the gift of wisdom (cf. 1 Kings 3:9). And wisdom is precisely this: it is the grace of being able to see everything with the eyes of God. It is simply this: it is to see the world, to see situations, circumstances, problems, everything through God’s eyes. This is wisdom. Sometimes we see things according to our liking, our limited vision or according to the condition of our hearts. We have a limited grasp of reality and a narrow interpretation of what is taking place. Consider the story of three builders building a house. All three are asked the question: ‘What are you doing?’. The first responded: ‘I am laying blocks’. The second said: ‘I am building a house’. The third said: ‘I am serving God as a builder’. Same facts, different interpretations and different wisdom. Wisdom is what the Holy Spirit works in us so as to enable us to see things with the eyes of God. This is the gift of wisdom.
Wisdom is a gift of the Holy Spirit which means that it is a pure gift from God. By divine wisdom we see with the same perspective as God himself who made and sustains all things. Wisdom is not the same as knowledge or intelligence. It does not mean that the wise person has an answer for everything, that he/she knows everything, but in the sense that he/she “knows” about God, knows how God acts, knows when something is of God and when it is not of God; they have this wisdom which God places in their hearts.
How do we receive this gift? We have already received it at our baptism and confirmation. However, it is like a gift that sometimes we forget we have and sometimes ignore. It is a gift that we need to pray for and ask for, making us available and docile to what wisdom the Spirit will bring to any given situation we find ourselves. And when we do, God grants us the grace to see with God’s eyes, hear with God’s ears, love with God’s heart. This is the wisdom the Holy Spirit endows us with, and we can all have it. We only have to ask it of the Holy Spirit.
It is often rightly said that we live in an age of information overload. TMI (Too much information). We have far less wisdom which is what we need more. Information provides answers. True wisdom provokes questions. The wisdom we need is a gift we pray for but it is also available from the great resources of our Tradition. These include of course, the Scriptures, the teachings of the Fathers, the lives of the saints, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and other great resources available. C.S. Lewis sums it up by saying how engaging with the thought and perspectives of previous generations on experiences like suffering, love, death and eternal life, means that we today do not have to start from scratch but can “see with other eyes, imagine with other imaginations and to feel with other hearts as well as our own” (C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992, p. 137). Similarly, G.K. Chesterton described Tradition as the ‘democracy of the dead’ – meaning that we owe it to our ancestors who lived before us to consult their wisdom and not fall into the pride that says ‘we know it all’ as if we were the first generation to struggle with the mystery of our existence and the same questions that millions have thought about and written about before us. This is the arrogance that Patrick Kavanagh described as the ‘clever villages that laughed at ancient holiness’.
And so we see how important is the gift of wisdom. In all our decisions and actions may we pray for the Spirit’s gift of wisdom to ‘change the things we can change, to accept the things we can’t and the wisdom to know the difference’. Our Lady, seat of wisdom, pray for us!
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.
The third gift of the Holy Spirit is the gift of Counsel. As the word suggests, the Holy Spirit is the one who doesn’t leave us on our own but advises us and directs us towards correct choices and decisions. Counsel helps us discern between good and evil, right and wrong and helps us distinguish between what is temporary and everlasting.
In the first reading at the vigil Mass at Christmas night, the prophet Isaiah refers to God as the ‘Wonder Counsellor, Mighty God and prince of peace’ (Is. 9:6). Then in the New Testament, Jesus’ life, words and actions are portrayed, especially by St Luke, as being under the direction of the Holy Spirit. He was ‘led by the Spirit’ into the desert after his baptism’ (Luke 4:1); ‘Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus exclaimed....’ (Luke 10:21). Jesus was not acting alone. He was deeply connected to the impulses of the Spirit and the will of his Father. In the early Church, the Christian community was also guided by the Spirit in the same way. On one occasion, Paul and Barnabas communicated a decision to one community in this way: ‘We and the Holy Spirit have decided’ (Acts 15:28). On another occasion, Luke tells the story that as Paul and his companions were making their way preaching the Gospel, ‘the Holy Spirit had prevented them from speaking the word in the province of Asia, they traveled through the region of Phrygia and Galatia’ (Acts 16:6). It was like the Spirit was in the driving seat of the Church, leading it here, steering it away from there.
So how can we as individual Christians and as communities, be docile in this same Spirit of God? The simple answer is through prayer and being attentive to the promptings of the Spirit. Pope Francis advises us in this regard. He encourages us to pray in our own words: ‘Lord, help me, give me counsel, what must I do now? And through prayer we make space so that the Spirit may come and help us at that moment, that he may counsel us on what we must all do’ (General Audience, 7th May 2014).
This prayer we humbly make is an admission to ourselves that we all have limited vision and understanding. We don’t have all the answers and can’t see too far ahead of us. What seemed like a wise decision today might seem foolish in a short time as circumstances change. We also have a remarkable capacity to see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear. The Spirit’s gift of Counsel detaches us in a healthy way to clinging too tightly to our own ideas and leaves us open to new ideas and new possibilities. In this way, the Spirit’s gift of Counsel directs us to the
advice of family and trusted friends. It directs us most of all to listen to the Scriptures, to God’s Word, to the teaching of the Church and the wisdom of the saints.
Eastern Christianity is familiar with the concept of synergia or synergy in the life of the Spirit. What it points to is a sense of partnership or synergy with the Holy Spirit in all we do and say. This idea counteracts any abstract or distant image of God we might have where we may act out of slavish obedience and fear on one hand or out of disregard for God’s will entirely on the other.
We pray that this feast of Pentecost will enliven the Spirit’s gift of Counsel within us again so that we might not be afraid to face the future with hope, knowing that the Holy Spirit is with us always to direct our path. To conclude with the words of Psalm 16: ‘I bless the Lord who gives me Counsel, who even at night directs my heart'.