Monday, May 24, 2010

Understanding the Seven Gifts of the Spirit

(From "The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit", by Frank X. Blisard)

"...Rather than perpetuating either a strictly Thomistic approach or an approach based on contemporary, culturally conditioned definitions, I propose a third way of understanding the seven gifts, one that goes back the biblical source material.

The first—and only—place in the entire Bible where these seven special qualities are listed together is Isaiah 11:1–3, in a famous Messianic prophecy:

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
Virtually every commentator on the seven gifts for the past two millennia has identified this passage as the source of the teaching, yet none have noted how integral these seven concepts were to the ancient Israelite "Wisdom" tradition, which is reflected in such Old Testament books as Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Psalms, Ecclesiasticus, and the Wisdom of Solomon, as well as certain strands of the prophetic books, including Isaiah. This material focuses on how to navigate the ethical demands of daily life (economics, love and marriage, rearing children, interpersonal relationships, the use and abuse of power) rather than the historical, prophetic, or mythical/metaphysical themes usually associated with the Old Testament. It does not contradict these other.aspects of revelation but complements them by providing a glimpse into how Israel’s covenant with Yahweh is lived out in all its nitty-gritty detail.

It is from this world of practical, down-to-earth, everyday concerns rather than the realm of ascetical or mystical experience that the seven gifts emerged, and the context of Isaiah 11 reinforces this frame of reference. The balance of Isaiah describes in loving detail the aggressiveness with which the "shoot of Jesse" will establish his "peaceable kingdom" upon the earth:

He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. . . . They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Is. 11:3–4, 9)
Establishing this kingdom entails thought, planning, work, struggle, courage, endurance, perseverance, humility—that is, getting one’s hands dirty. This earthbound perspective is a profitable one from which to view the role the seven gifts play in the life of mature (or maturing) Christians.

There is a strain within Catholicism, as within Christianity in general, that focuses on the afterlife to the exclusion—and detriment—of this world, as if detachment from temporal things were alone a guarantee of eternal life. One of the correctives to this kind of thinking issued by Vatican II was the recovery of the biblical emphasis on the kingdom of God as a concrete reality that not only transcends the created order but also transforms it (Dei Verbum 17; Lumen Gentium 5; Gaudium et Spes 39).

The seven gifts are indispensable resources in the struggle to establish the kingdom and are, in a sense, a byproduct of actively engaging in spiritual warfare. If a person does not bother to equip himself properly for battle, he should not be surprised to find himself defenseless when the battle is brought to his doorstep. If my classmates and I never "acquired" the "mysterious powers" we anticipated, perhaps it is because we never took up arms in the struggle to advance the kingdom of God!

The seven gifts are an endowment to which every baptized Christian can lay claim from his earliest childhood. They are our patrimony. These gifts, given in the sacraments for us to develop through experience, are indispensable to the successful conduct of the Christian way of life. They do not appear spontaneously and out of nowhere but emerge gradually as the fruit of virtuous living. Nor are they withdrawn by the Spirit once they are no longer needed, for they are perpetually needed as long as we are fighting the good fight.

The seven gifts are designed to be used in the world for the purpose of transforming that world for Christ. Isaiah 11 vividly portrays what these gifts are to be used for: to do what one is called to do in one’s own time and place to advance the kingdom of God. The specific, personal details of that call do not come into focus until one has realized his very limited, ungodlike place in the scheme of things (fear of the Lord), accepted one’s role as a member of God’s family (piety), and acquired the habit of following the Father’s specific directions for living a godly life (knowledge). This familiarity with God breeds the strength and courage needed to confront the evil that one inevitably encounters in one’s life (fortitude) and the cunning to nimbly shift one’s strategies to match—even anticipate—the many machinations of the Enemy (counsel)...

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