The Rosary Light & Life – Vol 66, No 3, May-June 2012
The Gifts of the Spirit: VIII
By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.
One of the difficulties we encounter when we begin to take theology seriously is the technical vocabulary of our subject. Every science has its own vocabulary, but we soon discover that our Church’s theology, rather than using unfamiliar words, employs familiar words, but in unfamiliar ways. In our reflection on the gifts of the Spirit we have seen this several times already; “fear” is, perhaps, the most obvious example. In our everyday life, fear is the reasonable aversion we feel in the face of danger.
In our theology, however, fear is something entirely different, and we have discovered it to be the source of strength that enables us to assign money, public honor, and even personal relations their proper place in our lives. Genuine, theological fear is the sign of love that characterizes our union with God when it is purified of mere dread that we will be punished for misbehavior.
In this final reflection on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit we will consider the Gift of Wisdom, which one spiritual writer calls “the greatest gift.” Here, too, our vocabulary betrays us. We shall discover, perhaps to our surprise, that spiritual wisdom is not the wisdom we commonly associate with intelligence, study, and the ability to apply the fruits of our hard work to concrete problems.
Rather, the Wisdom that will be the subject of our present investigation is faith made perfect, the intellect guided directly by the Holy Spirit to gain entry into the very life of God. This is the gift that allows us to penetrate what our author, Fr. Vonier, names “all the wonderful intimacies of God with [us], all the mystical nuptials of the saints, all the woundings of their hearts through the arrow of divine love….” (The Spirit and the Bride, P. 190) This is what St. Paul revels in when he cries out, in his Letter to the Romans, “O the depths of the riches of the wisdom and the knowledge of God!” (Rom. 11:33)
Wisdom bears the same relation to the Spirit’s intellectual gifts that the Fear of the Lord bears to the gifts of the will. In fact, the two are related, as the Book of Proverbs suggests, when it claims, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.” (Prov. 1.7) As our comments unfold, we shall see that as Fear grows to become the child’s pure love of a loving Father, this love grows until words and images are no longer necessary, and our soul stands, at last, in utter silence before God.
The difficulty, of course, is that while we long to see God as He is, our love is limited and bound by everything that holds us firmly here – as creatures – on earth. The gifts of knowledge and understanding purify our faith and lead us to a greater and greater certitude about God. To our immense delight, this increases our longing to love Him, and the more we love Him, the more we discover to know about Him. Knowledge increases our certitude, but – sadly – it can do nothing to satisfy our longing to embrace the object of our love.
The Dominican theologian, H.D. Gardeil, who has been our companion throughout these reflections of the Spirit’s gifts, paints a dramatic and poignant picture of the soul’s yearning to see the God it was created to love.
Even now, charity is already made for heaven, proportioned to heaven, proportioned to God seen face to face, in all his ravishing beauty, It has infinite sources of strength which it cannot put into action here on hearth, even with the aid of the gifts of knowledge and understanding. The terms in which we think of God are terms of creatures, limited, finite. Now the charity of earth would see the infinite God as he is infinite, and yet it knows him in such an imperfect way….
Our charity desires then, that God be shown to it face to face. Faith…however secure it may be, cannot thus show him. From this fact there is in charity a breadth of love which is not satisfied. Consequently, charity remains unsatiated, so long as it simply follows faith, even though enlightened by the gifts which give it strength, removing obstacles and placing its object in the full light. What then shall charity do, imprisoned by faith? (H.D. Gardeil, The Holy Spirit in Christian Life, pp. 132-3)
We can hardly imagine more vivid imagery, but Fr. Gardeil employs an even stronger metaphor when he speaks of the soul’s desire to be “free from this restraint, this strait-jacket of faith.” The soul’s liberator, he says, is the Holy Spirit. Encountering who and what the Spirit is, is what so ravished St. Paul. The same Spirit dwells within us, and He offers us, no less than St. Paul or any of the other saints, the same capacity to grasp who He is. The means by which we do so is the Gift of Wisdom. Thus, Fr. Gardeil concludes,
The inspiration of wisdom is nothing less than a movement of the Holy Spirit through which he communicates to us by way of the heart, as it were, an experience of the heavenly vision. (p. 133)
What the Gift of Wisdom enables us to see is God Himself, the object of our faith. But we do not see with our physical eyes, or with our intellect. The Spirit’s gift of sight is a gift that enlightens the heart. To be sure, this experience is limited by all the limitations of our humanity, so it can be no more than a foretaste or “preview” of what we look forward to enjoying fully in heaven, but it is an experience that soars above anything else we can know, understand or feel of or about God while we are still on earth.
We might imagine that such an encounter would invite us to bring forward all our expressions of love, all our concerns for ourselves and those we love, all our prayers for the salvation and well-being of the world. But, on the contrary, we are assured by the saints who have enjoyed this vision, that the only response is one of awed silence in which we are aware of nothing but God’s presence and our complete nothingness.
There is no more than adoration, an amen; a moment of losing oneself in God. For the time being, one puts aside all definite concepts, even those which have brought one to this state….
That is as far as the spirit of wisdom can lead us. It lasts for an instant. It is a fleeting stealing of our heart, a flight of the spirit, a swift soaring. We fall again very soon on to the earth of faith. Then we begin again. As St. Francis of Sales says, we land on the soil of faith, we revive ourselves with some good thought, we gain strength to take off once more. (p. 135)
This is not, our author reminds us, the ecstatic rapture of the mystics, which is altogether the result of God’s initiative. It is, however, as close to this state as we can come by our own effort. Faith, assisted by knowledge and understanding, reveals God to us and removes our doubts. But it does so through words and images, and these are a constant reminder of the distance between God and us. Wisdom, by contrast, enables us to leave the images behind, and to bow in loving silence before the God who calls to us in love.
St. Thomas Aquinas warns
Some, however, receive a higher degree of the gift of wisdom, both as to the contemplation of Divine things (by both knowing more exalted mysteries and being able to impart this knowledge to others) and as to the direction of human affairs according to Divine rules… (ST, II-II, 45.5)
But our modern Dominican guide stresses that the Gift of Wisdom is given to each of us at Baptism. Not equally, to be sure – what gifts, talents, or capabilities are given equally? But each of us enjoys the possibility, to the extent of our own capacities, to enjoy this experience. Fr. Gardeil explains that although the encounter with God that the Gift of Wisdom equips us to enjoy is not the extraordinary, ecstatic experience of the contemplative saints. It is within the grasp of every person in the state of grace, and he suggests that we may have approached it unaware.
At certain moments, have we not experienced this kind of annihilation of ourselves before God, present in our interior soul. Perhaps on the occasion of a Communion? Then the presence of our Lord is close…God was there, and not seeking to understand more, we prostrate ourselves in a close sense of his immediate presence, and by the attitude of our mind and the power of our charity, we have made contact with this God.
These things do happen, but it is with difficulty that we perceive their value, their dignity and their normal existence in our life; we do not attach much importance to them. We say truly, ‘This is a grace’… We add, ‘It must be God who puts me in this state.’ He will do so, but we must prepare ourselves for such a great favour.’ (p.139)
One of the maxims of our faith teaches us that gifts are never given just to enrich the individual to whom they are given; rather, they are given to enrich the entire Church. Such is the case with the Gift of Wisdom. Although it immeasurably increases our love for God, and our awareness of God’s love for us, the gift does not cease with the awareness. St. Thomas draws a connection between the Gift of Wisdom and the beatitude promising a blessing to those who are peacemakers,
…a peacemaker is one who make peace, either in himself, or in others; and in both cases this is the result of setting in due order those things in which peace is established, for peace is the tranquility of order, according to Augustine… Now it belongs to wisdom to set things in order… wherefore peaceableness is fittingly ascribed to wisdom. The reward is expressed in the words, they shall be called the children of God, Now men are called the children of God in so far as they participate in the likeness of the natural and only begotten Son of God…Who is Wisdom begotten. Hence, by participating in the gift of wisdom [we attain] to the sonship of God. (ST, II-II, 45.6)
Cardinal Manning, whom we have quoted throughout these reflections, gives a concrete example of the Gift of Wisdom in action. He writes that Wisdom purifies charity, ordering it so that we first love God, then ourselves, then our neighbor. He adds that the Gift of Wisdom is the source of our mental prayer.
If you find it hard to meditate, you may know the reason. The gift of wisdom is in some way hindered. But this gift is not to be obtained by eager poring over books, nor by the stretch and strain of the imagination or of the intellect. It is the gentle and calm contemplation of God and His truth…If you wish to learn the habit of meditation, unite your heart with God humbly and patiently, sitting, as it were, at the feet of God, and looking into His face. (Internal Mission of the Holy Ghost, p. 298)
And he comments that “There are some among us who have a greater facility in acquiring the gift of wisdom than others.” These are, he says, children and the poor. Children because they have not had the chance to sin; the poor because Wisdom casts out pride, and makes us realize our nothingness in comparison to God. The Gift of Fear gives us the opportunity to cultivate the hearts of children; the Spirit’s Gift of Wisdom opens our ears to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the poor,” He tells us, “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” These words are an invitation to cultivate a spirit of voluntary poverty in which we realize that we need to be nothing because God is “all in all.”