As stated above (Article ), the gifts are perfections of man, whereby he becomes amenable to the promptings of the Holy Ghost. Now it is evident from what has been already said (Question , Article ; Question , Article ), that the moral virtues perfect the appetitive power according as it partakes somewhat of the reason, in so far, to wit, as it has a natural aptitude to be moved by the command of reason. Accordingly the gifts of the Holy Ghost, as compared with the Holy Ghost Himself, are related to man, even as the moral virtues, in comparison with the reason, are related to the appetitive power. Now the moral virtues are habits, whereby the powers of appetite are disposed to obey reason promptly. Therefore the gifts of the Holy Ghost are habits whereby man is perfected to obey readily the Holy Ghost.
St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.II.68.3
Reflection – Happy Ascension, all! As we move through this next week from Ascension to Pentecost, I thought it would be good to do a bit of reflecting on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, with a little help from our friend and teacher Thomas Aquinas.
Now, I do realize Aquinas is hard to read for the untrained reader. There is a whole system and vocabulary in his works that, if you are not taught it, is well-nigh incomprehensible. Also – and I’ve left the references in for the truly interested reader – Aquinas is difficult to excerpt, since everything he wrote refers to everything else he wrote and everything everyone else wrote. It’s all deeply interconnected, and taking one strand of it out is not perhaps helpful to a non-Thomistic type: i.e. all of you.
Anyhow, that’s what I’m here for – to translate the above into lay language and reflect on it spiritually. So this is a bit of an introduction. What are the gifts of the Spirit? We know the list, but what do we mean by them, and by calling them gifts? The best way to understand that is to distinguish them from the virtues.
Virtues are perfections of the human person which dispose us to choose the good, according to the discernment of our human reason. They are to be distinguished from good actions, which every human being performs at least some times. Virtues are habits – fixed dispositions to act justly or courageously or prudently or temperately or chastely or modestly, etc.
By practicing justice, say, we learn what just actions are, what the difficulties and challenges of justice consist of, grapple with the hard cases where it is unclear what the just course is, and by striving to choose justice, gradually attain the virtue of justice, a settled inclination to give each person what is due to them.
All of this is very good and necessary for becoming a good human being. But it is inadequate for our divine destiny. We are made, not to become good human beings, but to be sharers in the divine nature by God’s grace and the action of the Holy Spirit.
And so something else needs to be given us in this life, to move us towards our divine destiny. And this ‘something else’ is the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
As the virtues come from our own human reason choosing the good to perfect our human powers by ‘rationalizing’ them, the gifts come from the Holy Spirit infused in us at baptism and perfect our whole humanity by ‘divinizing’ it - making it amenable to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
So the gifts of the Holy Spirit are all about communion, all about making our relationship with God a habitual reality in our lives: not something that we merely ‘do’ once in a while, when we need it, but a fixed, steady choice of our inward being to live under God’s authority and to be pliable, docile, amenable to the action of God in our hearts and minds.
The gifts of the Spirit can seem a little mystical and elevated, but I am quite sure that for those of us who are baptized and living in a state of grace, they are at work in us much more than we realize. We truly do live by the power of the Holy Spirit, and his work in us is constant and ongoing. So, over the next seven days, we will be talking about them, constantly helped and informed by good ol’ Aquinas.
And just a reminder for those who may be a bit shaky on the details here, they are: fear of the Lord, fortitude, piety, counsel, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.