Understanding implies an intimate knowledge, for "intelligere" [to understand] is the same as "intus legere" [to read inwardly]. This is clear to anyone who considers the difference between intellect and sense, because sensitive knowledge is concerned with external sensible qualities, whereas intellective knowledge penetrates into the very essence of a thing, because the object of the intellect is "what a thing is," as stated in De Anima iii, 6.
Now there are many kinds of things that are hidden within, to find which human knowledge has to penetrate within so to speak. Thus, under the accidents lies hidden the nature of the substantial reality, under words lies hidden their meaning; under likenesses and figures the truth they denote lies hidden (because the intelligible world is enclosed within as compared with the sensible world, which is perceived externally), and effects lie hidden in their causes, and vice versa. Hence we may speak of understanding with regard to all these things.
Since, however, human knowledge begins with the outside of things as it were, it is evident that the stronger the light of the understanding, the further can it penetrate into the heart of things. Now the natural light of our understanding is of finite power; wherefore it can reach to a certain fixed point. Consequently man needs a supernatural light in order to penetrate further still so as to know what it cannot know by its natural light: and this supernatural light which is bestowed on man is called the gift of understanding.
St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II.II.8.1
Reflection – As I read this little treatise on the gift of the Spirit of understanding, I realize that for myself, who had the privilege of studying Thomistic thought for two years in Washington DC, this particular passage is of clear lucidity. It may not be so for everyone reading the blog.
We are so accustomed in the modern world, whether we realize it or not, to a certain epistemological despair – a certainty that all we know in fact is the outer appearance of things, and the inner heart of the matter is in fact hidden from us. We do not believe, really, in the capacity of the intellect to ‘read inwardly’ the essential truth of things. Kant, Hume, and Descartes, among others, have sown a radical skepticism about the ability of human beings to understand reality, and their ideas have trickled down from the lofty heights of the academy to become the very post-modern air we all breathe.
It is worth noting that these thinkers never disproved the medieval account of human knowledge—they simply declared it medieval and outdated and hence ignored it, a technique in argument that has been utilized to great effect and with great frequency since. It is worth noting that it is a completely bogus argument, without a leg to stand on—if a thing is true, it is as true in 1213 as it is in 1813 and in 2013.
Anyhow, back to the gifts of the Spirit. Aquinas’ point is well taken: allowing for the natural power of our understanding, our intelligence, to penetrate the outward surface of finite realities to apprehend their inner being, nonetheless this outward power does not suffice to penetrate the supernatural realities which are from God and surpass us.
So, the gift of understanding is given us so that we can know the truth of Scripture, of the doctrines of the faith, of the Sacraments, of the mysteries of the spiritual life. Again, this is not some kind of mystical mumbo-jumbo, or some quasi-mechanistic dynamic, like getting a power-up in a video game or being bitten by a radioactive spiritual spider.
It is always and forever and deeply a personal affair, an encounter, a relationship of the human person and the Divine Person of the Holy Spirit.
Here in this gift of understanding it is the Spirit who aids our human intelligence to understand the faith and its contents. So much of the confusion and errors and heresy of our times come, I suggest, from reducing the faith from a wholly supernatural affair to just one more finite reality, one more created artifact which our human intelligence can then pick apart and analyze in a test tube like anything else we find in the world.
Von Balthasar said that theology has to be done on one’s knees. In this he echoes many of the greatest of our intellectual tradition. In the Christian East the title ‘theologian’ is not given to academics who master a course of study, but to those who allow the Holy Spirit to penetrate, purify, and illuminate their minds and hearts with the knowledge of God. Such a person might be illiterate—one of the greatest ‘theologians’ I have ever known was in fact illiterate, a man in the first parish I served in after my ordination.
Those of us who are smarty-pants (I use the technical term) need to take note here: human intellect and its natural capacities are of no use in the knowledge of God, unless and until the Holy Spirit comes to us and imparts to us His knowledge. I can climb Mount Everest, but I cannot climb to the moon by my own unaided power. God is the one who takes us where we cannot go and tells us what we cannot know, and that is the gift of understanding.