I am posting this late Thursday afternoon as I am heading into poustinia this evening for a day of silence, prayer, and fasting. But we’re on a schedule with the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit this week, so I can’t skip a day!
The sixth gift is that of understanding. The best way to understand it is by contrasting it to knowledge. That gift pertains to seeing creation from God’s perspective, to knowing what created things are, and are for, from His own perfect knowledge of them.
If knowledge is about understanding creation, then understanding is about knowing the Creator. Specifically, the gift of understanding is God’s own gift to us to enable us to penetrate the truths of Scripture, the doctrines of our faith, to ‘get’ the sacraments and what they are and do, to have a deep and beautiful knowledge about spiritual life, its verities and principles and practices.
This gift of understanding has not one thing to do with academic learning or even intellectual capacity. I always like to mention, when talking about this gift, of a man I knew in my first year as a priest who confided in me after some months of acquaintance that he was illiterate. He had left school early to work on his family’s farm, and somehow reading and writing just hadn’t taken with him.
This man had the most penetrating insights into God, the Bible (he had a greatly developed oral memory), the sacraments, the virtues and spiritual life. He was a deeply devout and (I would say) holy man, and the gift of understanding operated in him at a high level indeed.
St. Therese of Lisieux would be another example of someone with minimal formal education and yet a depth of insight into God and the things of God, and particularly the path to God of littleness and simplicity, that has made her a Doctor of the Church. So it is nothing whatsoever to do with being a theologian in the modern academic sense. I wouldn’t say that formal education is bad for the gift of understanding, exactly – just that it is unrelated to it.
With both knowledge and understanding, we can see something that eludes us often in our confused times. In our era of post-modern fragmentation and relativism, we can often conclude that truth is just something so fraught with difficulties, so unknowable perhaps, and if known so prone to make the one who knows the truth arrogant, intolerant, even violent that… well, it’s just best to leave the subject alone. Truth – what is that? Pontius Pilate said it, and we’re all living in a Pilate world now.
But that doesn’t make sense, does it? Why would God not want us to know the truth of things, and the truth of Himself? Truth is not a weapon to be wielded or a comforter to wrap oneself up in, or a pedestal to climb on so as to look down one’s nose at others more efficiently.
Truth is communion. Truth is when the ‘what’ of the other, or the Other, resides in my own intellect. When I say ‘I know you’, and I say this rightly, it means that, in a sense, you live in me. You and I are in communion. And we are meant to have this kind of communion with all creation, and with God above all.
It is the Holy Spirit then, both in knowledge and understanding, who gives us this gift of communion. Of course this communion exceeds our intellectual grasp and conceptual expression of things and of God—it is much deeper than what our poor little minds can say. But it does shape and illuminate and purify and heal and strengthen our poor little minds so that they are not quite so poor, not quite so little.
These gifts enrich us—knowledge by giving us a great and properly ordered understanding and hence love of all creatures and especially of that creature our neighbour, understanding by giving us a properly ordered knowledge of God, from which we cannot help but love Him as we should. ‘To know Him is to love Him.’
God does not want us to grapple blindly in the dark, not really knowing much of anything and prone to terrible errors that can cause such great injury to ourselves and others. He wants us to know the truth, not to make us proud and arrogant, but so we can love rightly. And that is what both of these ‘intellectual’ gifts of the Spirit are about.
Come, Holy Spirit.