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Pentecost: The Happiness of Possession of the Truth
Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
We know that our Divine Savior placed special emphasis on the fact that what He had begun during His visible stay on earth would be continued and confirmed by the Spirit that He and the Father would send on those who believe. We call them "Promises of our Lord", or simply "The Promise of the Holy Spirit", by which we are assured that after Christ's Ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit, the Church that He founded would continue being guided by His Spirit.
As we look at the promises that Christ made, particularly at the Last Supper, and then during the forty days before His Ascension, we see that they can be divided into two classes. In general, there is one set in which Christ foretells that He will send the Spirit as the teacher who would enlighten, and then another where He foretells that He will send the Spirit as the one who would strengthen and give power. In general, Saint John in his Gospel concentrates on the promise of the Holy Spirit as teacher. This is quite understandable because not only in his Gospel but in all his writings, Saint John's focus is on the Son of God as Logos, the Word of God and Wisdom of God; as the Truth, where Christ speaks of Himself as the Light of the world. On the other hand, Saint Luke, both in the Gospel and in his Acts of the Apostles, concentrates on Christ's promise to send the Spirit as strength and power, which will be the subject of another conference.
Before we go into a further reflection on the first of these promisesnamely, the Spirit as teacherwe might remind ourselves that this dual purpose is understandable inasmuch as there are two spiritual faculties with which we serve God. There is the mind, which needs light to possess the truth. And there is the will, that needs inspiration and strength to carry out the good.
In John's Gospel Christ promises the Holy Spirit as teacher and guide. At the Last Supper Christ says:
I shall ask the Father, and he will give you
And finally Christ says, "It is for your own good that I am going because unless I go, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I do go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will show the world how wrong it was." These are not all, but are the principal promises of Christ in which He foretells the coming of the Holy Spirit as the one who will teach and guide.
Let us remind ourselves that Christ did indeed reveal the fullness of truth not only as necessary for salvation, but
more than enough for the sanctification of a thousand worlds. He who called Himself the Truth revealed all the truth we need. Nevertheless, it is one thing to have the truth revealed in the Person and the words of Jesus; it is another thing to be able to see the truth, to grasp and recognize it, and to put it into that effective practice without which, quite frankly, Christ might have spared Himself the effort of teaching anything. So the difference between Christ as the Truth and the Holy Spirit, who is His Spirit who teaches the Truth, is all the difference between having been told something and grasping what we have been told, or all the difference between teaching and learning. A teacher can communicate, which Christ indeed did; but unless that which is taught has also been learned, it hasn't even been really taught.
With that as a background, let us look at those gifts of the Holy Spirit which are the fulfillment of what Christ promised to send not only to His disciples, but which He confers on us, especially those gifts which deal specifically with the Holy Spirit as teacher and guide.
Besides the virtues which we call theological (of faith, hope, and charity which are infused into our souls) there are also what we call the gifts of the Holy Spirit. If we ask ourselves what the gifts of the Spirit mean as distinct from the virtues, the distinction theologically lies in the need that we have for a supernatural counterpart for the natural instincts of mind and will.
We have the infused virtues of faith, hope, and love. But of themselves, they are not enough because we further need the promptings, the instincts, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, so that we are not only infused with the virtues, but we are also prompted and inspired by the Spirit to put these virtues into practice. Now the one virtue which needs to be further inspired and for which we need the constant prompting of the Spirit of Truth dwelling within us, is the virtue of faith. It has as its counterpart no less than four gifts of the Holy Spirit which urge us to carry it into effect when we need to practice our faith the way God wants us to.
The first of these gifts, the gift of wisdom, is also the highest in dignity of these promptings of the Spirit of God, bringing to perfection, putting into effect, carrying into practice our virtue of faith when we need to have it done. Its function is to make our soul responsive to the Holy Spirit in the contemplation of divine things and in the use, so to speak, of God's ideas so that we don't think with our own minds but as far as we can use the term, that we "think with the mind of God" to evaluate everything in the world; and not only the things of time but even the things of eternity.
Very often the word "wisdom" is used to describe the fullness of knowledge possessed by a person who through study and sharpness of intellect mastered a given field. We talk about such people being wise, but that is not the gift. The gift of wisdom implies a fullness of knowledge derived from such familiarity with God and therefore of divine things, as when a person learns to know the Passion of Christ not from books or human learning, but through sufferings experienced in union with Christ. Wisdom is the kind of fullness of knowledge which corresponds in our human experience to that which is gained from living out that which God Himself knows because He is divine.
Where faith is a simple knowledge of the articles of belief that the Church proposes, wisdom goes on to a certain divine contemplation of the truths that the articles contain. We say, for example, "We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty". Very well, we believe. But with wisdom we not only believe in that, but we see it in a way in which a person contemplates that with which he is ravished, which he relishes on beholding; that which on being seen completely envelops his being.
Built into wisdom is the element of love, which inspires contemplative reflection on these truths of our faith. It is all the difference between knowing a person and casually accepting him even though we may be with that person a great deal; and being willing, indeed, taking pleasure in studying that person, in looking at himin a word, rejoicing in that person's presence. We can, comparatively speaking, talk about rejoicing in the truths of our faith by just looking at them, realizing that beyond those mysteries is the God who reveals Himself. This is what wisdom does: it gives us the capacity to enjoy what we believe and to find deep satisfaction in reflecting on the truth that we possess.
The second is the gift of understanding. This is a supernatural enlightenment given to the mind for grasping revealed truths easily and yet profoundly. As you know, it is one thing to have learned; it is another thing to have really grasped what has been learned and to do so easily and with great depth. Human acumen will not do it; this requires a gift. That is the function of understanding.
It again differs from faith (the gifts always perfect the virtue of faith) because understanding gives insight into the meaning of what a person believes. This is why with this gift of understanding that we possess, we can go over the selfsame truths, not a dozen but a thousand times, and because the Spirit is within us, we can always expect to grasp new meanings and new insights, to get different nuances and different implications from what verbally expressed is the same doctrine of our faith.
Spiritual writers since Saint Augustine have said that understanding characterizes the clean of heart, following the teaching of the Savior, "Happy the pure in heart: they shall see God". This Beatitude, they explain, contains two partsone part that we have to furnish, the other part that God confers. The part that we furnish is cleanness of heart. The other is the reward, seeing God. We need not merely the gift of understandingfor obviously no two people have this gift in the same measure, no two people understand with the same grasp and ease. But the single most important contributing factor to possessing this gift in depth is purity of heart.
The third of these is the gift of knowledge. It is sometimes called by the general term in ascetical literature "the science of the saints". This enables us, through some form of relish and warmth of charity to judge everything supernaturally. This is a favorite phrase of Saint Ignatius. He tells people, especially those who are making the Spiritual Exercises, to not be in a hurry; not to go on to the next point, if you follow that method of meditation, or to the next verse in Scripture on which you are meditating. Don't be in a hurry to go on, because if you do because of human curiosity or impatience, you deprive the Holy Spirit of the opportunity of effecting in your soul that which He wants to do, where He is exercising His gift of knowledge. As long as you find satisfaction in what you are reflecting on, stay there, don't go on.
What is the function of this extraordinarily useful gift of the Holy Spirit? It enables us to judge everything from a supernatural point of view. Using a favorite expression of not a few saints, it is to see everything, even the least trifle, from the vantage point of eternity. So if we have a trial, or a satisfying experience, this gift prompts us immediately to ask ourselves, "But what relationship does this have to eternity?" If it is a trial or a suffering, by relationship to eternity, we know it is passing; it will go away, but eternity is everlasting. Or if it is a temptation to some kind of sinful enjoyment, by this gift of knowledge we immediately, instinctively ask ourselves, "Why should I indulge in this pleasure or this sinful satisfaction when I realize that I jeopardize my heavenly happiness?" This gift gives us the realization.
It is closely tied in, and is almost like, the lesson that another person gains from perhaps years of experience, for which we say there is no substitute. There is. The supernatural substitute or the equivalent for natural experience is the gift of knowledge. That is why even young people can be very holy and psychologically speaking very mature. I have warned Superiors and directors of souls not to judge just because a person is young and so lacks experience that therefore they are necessarily immature. Not so. The Holy Spirit can and often does make up for natural experience; if you wish, the gift of knowledge is the supernatural gift of maturity. He is the master of His gifts. It is common knowledge that people after years in religious life can still lack the kind of maturity that a young novice can possess. The Catholic Church, just to make sure that we know it, went to the trouble of canonizing a novice, Saint Stanislaus. That is a warning to all Novice Masters until the end of time.
God is master. He can confer in an instant what those who don't have the gift or don't have as much of it as others do, may be struggling for after forty years. If there is one thing which these gifts of the Spirit should teach us, it is the great importance of begging Him, not to confer these gifts, for we already have them; but to fructify them because He can do in a moment what we might not be able to do after a lifetime of effort.
Finally, the gift of counsel. This is the fourth of the gifts which have to do with developing the mind through divine inspiration. It assists the mind and perfects the virtue of prudence by enlightening us on how to decide and put into practice supernatural activity which we know we have to practice to please God. This gift of counsel has two forms to it. The first refers primarily to that instinctively prudent conduct in our own case. In other words, the gift of counsel is not just for others. In fact, it is not primarily for others; it is primarily for ourselves and only secondarily in favor of other people. Its function is to prompt us to do the right thing at the right time in the right way supernaturally, without laborious study or reflection.
Enlightened by the Spirit with this gift, a person knows what to do immediately, and where it concerns others, what advice to give them when consulted; or if he or she is in authority to command when needed. Needless to say, this is a priceless gift. Implicit in this gift of the Holy Spirit is the fact that naturally speaking our reason, left to itself, cannot grasp all the facets of any situation which confronts us or on which we are either asked to give advice or, if we are in authority, to tell those under authority what to do. How could we possibly see all the implications, all the nuances and the details? It cannot be done; yet, we have to act if we are asked for advice or bidden to tell someone what to do.
Evidently our native reason, no matter how perspicacious it may be, needs the help of God who alone comprehends all things. He sees all the details, and not only sees all the facts now present in the situation on which we are either to act or advise someone else to act. But He also sees what is going to happen with all the thousand possible and perhaps more than thousand possible results that will follow if this course of action is taken or if another decision is made. What human mind could foresee all potential effects? Notice, it is not only knowing all the facts, but foreseeing all the consequences of a decision regarding these facts. Who else can but God?
Speaking of this interior guide, Saint Augustine says that, in the last analysis, the one who teaches us is not the one who immediately gives the counsel, even when we advise ourselves, "but Truth that presides within, over the mind itself, though it may have been words in the form of advice that prompted us to make such consultation." The One consulted, who dwells in the inner man, He it is who finally teaches us all things.
It follows that it is consummately important for those who are going to give counsel or advice, and more so still in those who command others, that they be personally very near to God. The interior counsel who is the Spirit of Christ will advise them on how to guide others, but only on condition that they themselves are very near to God.
Summarily, let us ask our Divine Savior who sent us the Holy Spirit not only in infusing the virtues that we possess (for our purpose, the virtue of faith), but who has given us these extraordinary gifts which correspond to instincts, that we might not only appreciate what He gave us but that we might, because we appreciate them, use them. What good is it, frankly, to have received the gifts of wisdom and understanding, of knowledge and counsel, which enable our faith to know what we are to do always to please God, unless being so gifted we put into practice what we have received?
It is not only that we have been so blessed by God in being enabled by these gifts to act readily, easily, promptly and with joy in response to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit within us. We must also have the generosity to put these inspirations into action. And this needs constant repetition: though we are so gifted, we must still ask and keep asking. Hence, the importance of constant prayer that we might use what God gave us, because rich as we are, without constant influx of the grace of God, which comes only in answer to prayer, we who are so gifted and so rich in the Spirit can die of starvation unless we feed our souls on what we possess. Let us ask the Savior to help us to appreciate and use the Spirit of Truth that Christ gave us as the great gift after His Ascension to the Father.
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