We continue to go through the gifts of the Holy Spirit this week, in preparation for the feast of Pentecost this Sunday.
The gift of counsel is that gift by which we discern what God wants us to in the concrete, the now, the specific situation that we are faced with at the moment. It corresponds to the natural virtue of prudence, whereby we use right reason to figure out the proper course of action in the here and now.
Counsel begins where prudence leaves off. Prudence is a vital virtue, one of the cardinal virtues, necessary for any kind of serious moral life. We need to be able to apply the precepts of the moral law and the practice of all the other virtues specifically and concretely to the actual choices we are making; prudence is the normal virtue by which we use our intellects to figure that out.
Prudence is not enough for our lives, though, not if we are going to live the divinized life that Jesus came to make ours. We are called to live a life transcending our human limitations, to live a life on a divine scale and scope. Clearly, human reason is not sufficient to tell us how to do that in practical terms.
And this divine life is one of total union of will with God the Father. Jesus in His sacred humanity practiced perfect obedience—to live a life in the Trinity, then, means to be utterly pliant and available to everything the Father wants us to do.
The Little Mandate of Madonna House contains the line “Listen to the Spirit – He will lead you.” I write about it here, and won’t repeat everything I said then. This is the gift of counsel.
It is so important, really. Sometimes we look around at the Church, at the world, at our own lives perhaps, and wonder why things aren’t turning around too well. People, especially young people, are leaving the Church in large numbers. The world is full of heartache and misery. The culture of death goes from triumph to triumph—yesterday abortion and same sex marriage, today euthanasia, and what will tomorrow bring? Radical extremism is on the rise, and it’s hard to see where all that is going.
Now I realize the causes of all these situations are very complex and involved. Yes, indeed. And that is why we are doing such a lousy job (frankly) responding to them. Far too many baptized Christians, including the leaders of the Church, are operating out of the level of human prudence, human calculation. Perhaps of good will, perhaps trying to make some difference in the world, but according to our own ideas, our own strategies, our own ‘pastoral planning’ and creativity.
Pastoral planning and human ingenuity are useless. Useless, that is, unless there is first the exercise of the gift of counsel. It is not a question of visions and mystical utterances, although these are not unknown and should be heeded. We are facing widescale apostasy and growing hostility to our beliefs in this country; the bishop at that link is facing the wholesale slaughter of his people, and says that Jesus has told him and his people what to do to avert it. That’s a perhaps extreme example (for an extreme situation) of the gift of counsel.
But we need that to happen all the way down the line. Faced with any kind of difficult situation, any kind of serious need to know the right course of action when it is murky—not ‘well, let’s put our thinking caps on and get this thing figured out!’. Rather, ‘Come, Holy Spirit – we beg you to show us God’s will for us here.’
The first step is actually wanting to do God’s will and not our own, being willing to be utterly detached from our own (brilliant!) ideas to make room for God’s somewhat more brilliant ideas. In practical terms, living our life in such a way that the Gospel and its constant guidance on how to live is our daily bread, the words and actions of Christ daily confronting our own words, actions, and thoughts to purify and heal them. (I know a book that might help you in that task!)
But always, at the heart of it, the prayer of our heart for God to come and show us, come and help us, come and teach us, come and guide us… come, Lord, come. Not just in exceptional and desperate situations (prayer—the last refuge of the scoundrel!), but as a way of life. This is the gift of counsel – the radical choice on our part to be, well, counselled by God, to be directed, guided. And in that, the assurance that if we are asking and wanting and longing for this, God who has given us His Spirit will not withhold from us the help and guidance we need, but will find His ways to show us what He wants of us. We need this so badly, and even more so, the world needs it so badly from us—our own human cleverness and human thinking has done nothing to make things better.
Come, Holy Spirit.