The revelation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is rooted in the prophecy of Isaiah about the coming Messiah: “But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord, and his delight shall be the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:1-3). While the prophecy of Isaiah pertains specifically to the Messiah, the Tradition of the Church is that these gifts are extended to all of the faithful through the sacraments of Baptism and especially Confirmation (Catechism, #1303). St. Paul taught, “For those whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son…” (Romans 8:29), indicating that through the grace of these sacraments a person takes on an identity with Christ and shares those gifts proper to His role as the Messiah (at least those which are communicable to us).
Confirming this belief, St. Ambrose in De mysteriis taught, “Recall then that you have received the spiritual seal, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of right judgment and courage, the spirit of knowledge and reverence, the spirit of holy fear in God’s presence. Guard what you have received. God the Father has marked you with His sign; Christ the Lord has confirmed you and has placed His pledge, the Spirit, in your hearts” (7, 42).
The faithful are reminded of the bestowal of these gifts in the liturgy. In the Mass of Pentecost, when the faithful remember the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, the faithful pray the Sequence, saying, “On the faithful, who adore and confess you evermore in your sevenfold gift descend.”
In the administration of the Sacrament of Confirmation, the Bishop prays, extending his hands over the confirmandi, “All powerful God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, by water and the Holy spirit you freed your sons and daughters from sin and gave them new life. Send your Holy Spirit upon them to be their helper and guide. Give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of right judgment and courage, the spirit of knowledge and reverence. Fill them with the spirit of wonder and awe in your presence. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.” Then, the Bishop confirms each candidate, making the sign of the cross with Holy Chrism on his forehead, and saying, “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
(Note that while the Hebrew text of Isaiah lists only six gifts with fear of the Lord being mentioned twice, the Greek Septuagint and Latin Vulgate translations list seven, adding “piety” and eliminating the repetition of “fear of the Lord.” Moreover, in the Old Testament, seven is the number of perfection, plentitude, and covenant.)
First, the term “gift” needs to be clarified. They are properly termed “gifts of the Holy Spirit” because the Holy Spirit bestows them. Therefore, they are supernatural gifts operating in a supernatural mode or manner. These are not gifts one simply invokes in times of emergency; rather, these gifts are present to the person as long as he remains in a state of sanctifying grace. As such, these gifts help a person attain sanctification and bring to perfection virtues, both the theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity) and the infused virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance). The idea here is that these gifts help a person to share in the very life and nature of God, now in this life and for eternal life. In this sense, as St. Thomas Aquinas asserted, they are in the fullest sense “habits,” from the Latin habitus, signifying their indwelling presence and operation. The Catechism underscores this point: “The moral life of Christians is sustained by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These are permanent dispositions which make man docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit…. They complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them. They make the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations” (#1830-31).
The basic definitions for each gift which follow are quoted from Father Aumann’s classic work, Spiritual Theology. Moreover, the order followed was composed by Pope St. Gregory the Great, who tried to capture the spiritual dynamic which the Holy Spirit imparts to the soul through these gifts: “Through the fear of the Lord, we rise to piety, from piety then to knowledge, from knowledge we derive strength, from strength counsel, with counsel we move towards understanding, and with intelligence towards wisdom and thus, by the sevenfold grace of the Spirit, there opens to us at the end of the ascent the entrance to the life of Heaven” (Homiliae in Hiezechihelem Prophetam, II 7,7).
The Gift of Fear of the Lord enables the person “to avoid sin and attachment to created things out of reverence and love of God.” Primarily, this gift entails a profound respect for the majesty of God who is the Supreme Being. Here, a person realizes his “creatureliness” and dependency upon God, and never would want to be separated from this loving God. This gift of fear arouses in the soul a vibrant sense of adoration and reverence for the majesty of God and a sense of horror and sorrow for sin.
This gift is sometimes misunderstood because of the word fear. The fear referred to here is not a servile fear whereby a person serves God simply because he fears punishment, whether some sort of temporal punishment in this life or the eternal punishment of Hell. A genuine relationship with God is based on love, not fear. Therefore, this “fear of the Lord” is a filial or reverential fear which moves a person to do God’s will and avoid sin because of love for God, who is all good and deserving of all of our love. In a similar way, a child should not be motivated to obey a parent’s moral guidance or commands simply because of fear of punishment, but because of love and respect. One should fear hurting a loved one and violating that person’s trust, more than one should fear punishment. (Nevertheless, one should have a healthy sense of fear for the punishment due to sin, even though this should not be the motivating factor for loving God.)
The Gift of Fear brings to perfection primarily the vitue of hope: a person respects God as God, trusting in His will and anchoring his life on Him. Moreover, he wants to be joined with God forever in Heaven. This gift is also the launchpad for the other gifts: As Sacred Scripture attests, “Happy the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in His commands” (Psalm 112:1) and “The beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord” (Sirach 1:12).
Secondly, this gift also perfects the virtue of temperance, which seeks to use all things wisely, and in moderation, not to the excess, especially those sensible pleasures. With reason enlightened by faith, temperance controls the passions. Temperance is related to the Gift of Fear because one’s awareness and respect for the sanctity of God motivates a person as a creature to give glory to God by being temperate in actions and desires. For example, chastity is a virtue of temperance which respects the goodness of one’s own sexuality, the sanctity of marriage, and the sanctity of marital love; a person moved by the Gift of Fear strives to live a chaste life because God is the creator of those goods and such a life gives glory and praise to Him.
With the Gift of Fear, the person rises to the Gift of Piety: “to give filial worship to God precisely as our Father and to relate with all people as children of the same Father.” Here a person shows reverence for God as a loving Father, and respects others as children of God precisely because that is what they are. As such, the Gift of Piety perfects the virtue of justice, enabling the individual to fulfill his obligations to God and neighbor; the person is not only motivated by the requirements of strict justice but also by the loving relationship he shares with his neighbor. For example, we fulfill the commandments not simply because they are commandments but because of our love for the heavenly Father and for our brothers and sisters in the Lord.
Knowledge is the gift which enables a person “to judge rightly concerning the truths of faith in accordance with their proper causes and the principles of revealed truth.” Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the human intellect makes correct judgments regarding earthly things and how they are related to eternal life and Christian perfection. As such, this gift is a special illumination, which enables the person to realize the emptiness of created things in themselves so that they do not become roadblocks to union with God. At the same time, it enables the person to see through created things to the God who created them. Therefore, instead of seeing created things as obstacles to union with God, the soul views them as instruments for union with God. As such, a person sees how to use created things rightly and even in a holy way. Moreover, the gift gives to the person a sense of faith, sensus fidei, meaning that the person has a divine instinct about whether or not something, like a devotion, is in accord with the faith even though he may never have had a formal theological education. This gift produces several effects which have great value for sanctification of the soul: introspection, enabling the person to see the state of his soul; detachment from material things; and repentance for the misuse of material things or when they have been allowed to become obstacles to God. St. Thomas taught that the Gift of Knowledge brings to perfection the virtue of faith, but is linked also to the perfection of prudence, justice, and temperance.
With the Gift of Fortitude, a person is able “to overcome difficulties or to endure pain and suffering with the strength and power infused by God.” As with the other gifts, fortitude operates under the impulse of the Holy Spirit, and gives strength to the person to resist evil and persevere to everlasting life. This gift brings the virtue of fortitude to perfection, charging it with energy, perseverance, and promptness. Moreover, it brings a confidence of success to the virtue. For example, St. Maximilian Kolbe not only had great fortitude to offer promptly his life in exchange for another and to endure a horrible death, but also had the confidence of success that he would overcome the powers of evil and gain everlasting life. Lastly, the Gift of Fortitude enables the individual to live the other virtues heroically, to suffer with patience and joy, to overcome all lukewarmness in the service of God.
The Gift of Counsel is “to render the individual docile and receptive to the counsel of God regarding one’s actions in view of sanctification and salvation.” Primarily, this gift enables a person to judge individual acts as good and ought to be done, or as evil and ought to be avoided. The counsel is made in view of one’s own personal sanctification and one’s ultimate supernatural end. Therefore, this gift prompts the person to ask himself, “Will this act lead to holiness? Will this act lead to Heaven?”
Clearly, this gift is linked with the virtue of prudence; however, while the virtue of prudence operates in accord with reason as enlightened by faith, the Gift of Counsel operates under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, the counsel given may be that which reason would not be able to give an explanation. For example, using the example of St. Maximilian Kolbe, such an act of self-sacrifice for another is the right thing to do but does not necessarily follow the normal, reasonable course of self-preservation.
Also, counsel can deal with the immediacy of the situation. For example, through the Gift of Counsel, the Holy Spirit helps a person in a dilemma reconcile the necessity of guarding a secret with the obligation of speaking the truth. Counsel aids the virtue of prudence, and brings it to perfection. This gift also has great effects: preserving a good conscience, providing solution to difficult and unexpected situations, and helping to give counsel to others, especially in matters of personal sanctification and salvation.
Understanding is a gift “to give a deeper insight and penetration of divine truths held by faith, not as a transitory enlightenment but as a permanent intuition.” Illuminating the mind to truth, The Holy Spirit aids a person to grasp truths of faith easily and intimately, and to penetrate the depths of those truths. This gift not only assists in penetrating revealed truths, but also natural truths in so far as they are related to the supernatural end. The essential quality of this gift is a “penetrating intuition”– in a sense, the moving beyond the surface. This gift, penetrating the truths of faith, operates in several ways: disclosing the hidden meaning of Sacred Scripture; revealing the significance of symbols and figures (like St. Paul seeing Christ as fulfillment of the rock of the Exodus account that poured forth water to quench the thirst of the Israelites (I Corinthians 10:4); showing the hand of God at work in a person’s life, even in the most mysterious or troublesome events (like suffering); and revealing the spiritual realities that underlie sensible appearances (like penetrating the mystery of the Lord’s sacrifice in the ritual of the Mass). This gift brings the virtue of faith to perfection. Accordingly, St. Thomas said, “In this very life, when the eye of the spirit is purified by the gift of understanding, one can in a certain way see God” (Summa theologiae II-II, q. 69, a. 2, ad. 3).
The last of the seven gifts is that of Wisdom: “to judge and order all things in accordance with divine norms and with a connaturality that flows from loving union with God.” The Holy Spirit aids the contemplation of divine things, enabling the person to grow in union with God. With this gift, even an “uneducated soul” can possess the most profound knowledge of the divine. For example, St. Therese of Lisieux had no formal education in theology, and yet was wise to the ways of the Lord; for this reason, she has been declared a Doctor of the Church.
While this gift contemplates the divine, it is also a practical wisdom. It applies God’s ideas to judge both created an divine matter. Consequently, it also directs human acts according to the divine.
This gift has great effects: With this gift a person will see and evaluate all things– both joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, success or failure– from God’s point of view, and accept them with equanimity. With Wisdom, all things, even the worst, are seen as having a supernatural value. For example, the Gift of Wisdom gives value to martyrdom. Here a person arises above the wisdom of this world, and lives in the love of God. For this reason, the Gift of Wisdom brings to perfection charity.
The Gifts of the Holy Spirit are without question great gifts essential for our sanctification and salvation. Each baptized and confirmed Christian should implore the Holy Spirit to inflame in his soul these gifts. Our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II said, “With gifts and qualities such as these, we are equal to any task and capable of overcoming any difficulties.