The Rosary Light & Life – Vol 66, No 2, March-April 2013
The Gifts of the Holy Spirit: VII
By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.
When we considered the moral virtues, we reflected that what separates the wise person from the foolish is the wise person’s care, the caution with which he judges his options and chooses actions that avoid extremes. Our faith calls this practical ability Prudence, which the Catechism defines as “the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it” (#1806).
“Practical” reason is the human capacity by which we choose the paths that will lead us to a particular goal. It is less concerned with theoretical knowledge than with the here-and-now realities we must deal with in our everyday lives. To be sure, this requires some knowledge of general principles of right and wrong, but the goal of Prudence is action – specifically, making proper choices. St. Thomas Aquinas quotes Aristotle, saying Prudence is “right reason applied to action” (II-II, 47:2). St. Augustine defines Prudence simply as “the knowledge of what to seek and what to avoid.”
St. Thomas Aquinas taught (ST, II-II.52.3) that lower principles of movement (such as bodies) are helped and perfected by higher principles (such as spirits). Because Divine Reason provides the standard by which we judge any human act to be good or evil – Divine Reason is the standard of righteousness our human actions should aspire to – no one will be surprised to learn that the Holy Spirit has given us a gift to correspond to the virtue of Prudence. This is the gift of Counsel, which perfects the virtue of Prudence. The Benedictine writer who has been our companion through these reflections observes,
The gift of counsel, Donum consilii, might truly be called the most interesting of the gifts; through it the Church in her administration, individual Christians in their decisions, follow instincts which are beyond all that human prudence can do. Through it, according to St. Thomas, man is like one who is counseled by God Himself… Through the gift of counsel the Christian enters into the secret ways of God; unknowingly yet unerringly he will choose, in the practical contingencies of the spiritual life, ways that will lead to eternal salvation. Who does not see what a role this gift must play in the great life of the Catholic Church where decisions are being taken constantly in matters that affect the spiritual welfare of millions?
(Anscar Vonier, The Spirit and The Bride, p. 192)
Before we continue this discussion we ought to note Fr. Vonier’s repeated use of the word “spiritual” in his remarks. We are dealing with practical realities here, and while Prudence may, indeed, provide invaluable guidance as we consider underlying moral issues when we weigh the individual choices we make in stock market investments, Prudence and the Spirit’s gift of Counsel are intended to increase our spiritual – not necessarily our material – fortunes. One writer states,
…we could say that Counsel is a Gift of the Holy Ghost, which makes us discern with certitude the best means of arriving at our last end…it is a quality given by the Holy Ghost to the soul in the state of grace, which quality so perfects the intelligence that it understands perfectly well all that must be done or avoided in the interest of eternal salvation.
(James F. Carroll, C.S.Sp., God the Holy Ghost, pp. 59-60)
Echoing these thoughts, a 20th Century Dominican noted
Prudence…can seize upon the intentions of charity and transform them into practical realizations, putting the will under the control of justice, ruling the passions by temperance and strength…It is the virtue of governing, the hub of the supernatural moral life: it changes the aims of love into detailed acts, and love proves itself in deeds.
(H.D. Gardeil, The Holy Spirit in Christian Life, p. 70)
As we have stated above, and as we have seen in each of our other reflections on the Gifts of the Spirit, the Spirit’s gifts perfect the virtues. They do so by making a virtue easier to practice, or by enabling us to practice the virtue more intensely, quickly, and with greater fervor. Cardinal Manning put this very eloquently when he described a Gift as
…a certain quality or perfection infused into the reason of man by the Grace of the Holy Ghost, whereby the reason is made able to discern not only right and wrong, not only the way of obedience, but also the way of perfection; that is to know that which between two things, both good and right, is better, higher and more pleasing to God. It gives also…a ready will to carry out into practice, that which we see to be the higher and better part.
When he relates this principle to the Gift of Counsel, our Dominican writer says,
Since the gift of counsel perfects the faculty of practical governing, it is found at the centre of the Holy Spirit’s working in us. Higher, there is contemplation; lower, the practical everyday life; in between, counsel throws the light of contemplation on to practical dictates, like prudence, but in its own way which is a superior one. (p. 70)
But how, exactly, we may reasonably ask, does the Gift of Counsel manifest its superior potential for governing? First, by enabling us to adapt to the changing circumstances of our life. We possess the moral virtue necessary to make proper decisions, but
conditions of life change, plans are altered, our own personal life does not remain the same, we vary with age, we change, we advance, we fall back. We have to adapt these powers of strength, justice, temperance, to a material essentially malleable, difficult to mould…By ourselves we shall not know how to succeed. (p. 71)
Secondly, because we are short-sighted, the gift of Counsel enables us to overcome some of our natural flaws and weaknesses. Cardinal Manning wrote wisely, quoting St. Paul, “The…great antagonist of this spirit of counsel is the wisdom of the world…the prudence of the flesh.”
We do not have to look very far to identify either of these challenges. The objective, moral universe changes about us every day. A landscape of shifting political values, questionable business ethics, and everemerging scientific discoveries make the question of public trust, and moral decision-making in the public realm, a greater and greater dilemma for even the most cautious and well-informed Christian.
Decision-making in our personal lives is hardly easier. In our reflections on the other gifts of the Spirit, we have seen that self-interest, the lure of comfort, the natural love of our family, and any number of other, lesser, distractions can easily stand in the way of progress in the life of virtue. The threats to Prudence are no less and no different.
If we consider the result of these combined influences in our lives, we see that they often lead to an unguarded word, a rash, unheeded act, or – by contrast – either a state of spiritual paralysis, or at least a feeling that our capacity to “know what to seek and what to avoid” has been seriously compromised.
St. Thomas gives formal titles to these realities, naming them Imprudence, Precipitation, Thoughtlessness, Inconstancy, and Negligence. They can be sinful, he says, if they are embraced from contempt for God’s law (ST, II-II, 53. 4-5) but our human experience generally proves them more apt to be the result of stress or confusion in the face of competing claims upon our attention. Our Dominican author tells no more than the sad truth when he remarks,
Such…is often our psychology in the ruling of ourselves. The virtue of prudence, though supernatural, places itself within this poor psychology: becoming ours, it belongs to us to employ it, keeping to ourselves the initiative. It is indeed a supernatural perfection, but we still have passions, secret aims, we do not act with frankness, with perseverance… It is in order to help out this weakness that the Holy Spirit intervenes…We are tempted to go too fast; something restrains us, makes us think twice, makes us pray before acting: counsel keeps us from rushing headlong. If we are, on the contrary, given to negligence, [the Spirit] rouses us…. (pp. 72-3)
If this guidance of the gift of Counsel begins to sound a great deal like our conscience, we must remember that God is the source of both the voice of conscience and the Spirit’s gifts. “This voice of conscience,” writes Fr. Gardeil,
…strongly resembles the inspirations of the Holy Spirit. Our reason is right when it is under the influence of God’s reason…But in a person made divine through grace…who is under the constant influence of the Holy Spirit…there is more: there is inspiration properly so-called. All that, however, conscience and inspiration, are part of the same whole. In the concrete it is the same God who illumines our conscience and who gives us inspirations…. (p. 73)
When we surrender to the God’s Spirit, the Gift of Counsel can express itself through the movement of our conscience.
The Holy Spirit makes the light of our conscience twice as bright by his inspirations. Now in a soft manner: a whisper, but persuasive and insistent. At other times, a hard reproof, when we do not listen and are obstinate. (pp. 76-7)
Let us listen once again to St. Thomas Aquinas, who taught that the virtue of Prudence is perfected by the Gift of Counsel. Although we may mark similarities between the Gift of Counsel and the instruction parents give children, or the directions any of us receive from a superior, this gift is a great deal more than good advice we receive when we listen to others at a meeting. It is, St. Thomas, says, God’s gift, by which Prudence is “helped through being ruled and moved by the Holy Spirit” (II-II, 52.2).
Prudence directs us to make proper choices that will yield good results. The Spirit’s Gift of Counsel elevates this natural capacity to make it a sign of God’s goodness for the world. In this way, the Gift of Counsel closely allies Prudence with the Beatitude in which Christ promises, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Mt. 5:7). The reason for this is that Prudence directs us to make the right choices, and Counsel directs Prudence to choose the best among a multitude of good options.
Obviously, the best choices we can make are those that will benefit God’s creatures. Mercy (which is compassion for another’s distress, coupled with a practical will to relieve it) is the supremely good act, in which we come closest to imitating Our Savior, who – mercifully – offered His life for our salvation. He bade us take up His yoke, promising to bear it with us.
Our Lord thus shines into us the light of his own cross. He gives understanding of the mystery of the cross. He says to us as he said to Peter fleeing from martyrdom: ‘I am going back to Rome to be crucified anew.’ Well, then, let us go back to Rome and let us take up our cross again. (p. 76)
Let us draw this reflection to a close by considering yet another individual in whom we may find the Spirit’s Gifts always at work – the Blessed Virgin, whom we address as “Mother of Good Counsel.” Our Dominican companion, Fr. Gardeil, encourages us to have recourse to her when we pray for the Gift of Counsel, urging that if we do, we shall have a double guarantee: that of the Spirit, and that of Mary, “who, over and above her own gifts, will know how to launch our good will by praying the Holy Spirit that he may give us his gifts when we need them.” (p. 77)