Sunday, July 19, 2015

What Are the Gifts of the Holy Spirit?

The Gifts of the Holy Spirit are one of those things we might remember from catechism classes, but we usually don’t think about them very much. After making my retreat during Pentecost week, I realized I only had a vague idea of what they are exactly and how they relate to each other. Even the Catechism of the Catholic Church doesn’t say very much about them, except for this:

1830 The moral life of Christians is sustained by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These are permanent dispositions which make man docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
1831 The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. They belong in their fullness to Christ, Son of David. They complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them. They make the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations.

To learn more about them, I looked up what St Thomas says about them in his Summa. The first thing he asks is this: Are the virtues the same as the Gifts, or are they different? (I-II, q. 68, article 1.)

He answers that they are different, and goes on to explain why. We can be moved in two ways: in one way from within ourselves, and in another way from outside ourselves, that is, from God.

By nature we have the ability to reason, and a free will. The virtues are qualities that enable us to be moved from within, by our own reason and will. (We do need the help of God’s grace to act so as to do good, that is, a meritorious act by grace, but that is a separate issue. For now I’m just focusing on the difference between the virtues and the Gifts.)

A virtue is a good habit. For example, a person might have the good habit of being honest in dealing with others. An upright person recognizes that it is good to tell the truth, not to cheat, etc., and can choose to act that way toward others. That person is practicing the virtue of honesty and integrity. The fundamental virtue underlying that is justice, one of the four cardinal virtues. In terms of a natural virtue, the person is being moved by reason and will to act with integrity—being moved from within.

We can be moved in a second way, however, when we receive inspirations from God. To be moved by divine inspiration, we need to be receptive to the movement of grace. For that, we need something more than virtues—we need the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The purpose of the Gifts is to make us receptive to the inspirations God is sending us. In light of this, St Thomas concludes that the Gifts are not identical with the virtues, but are something over and above them. They make us fine-tuned to be able to pick up the inspirations God sends, and to act on them.

St Thomas goes on to explain more about exactly why we need to be moved by God this way, but I’ll put that in another post.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Scapular and Our Lady of Mt Carmel: A Biblical View

Today’s feast, commonly associated with the scapular, can help us reflect on the Biblical theme concerning garments of salvation. The German word for scapular, Gnadenkleid, literally means “grace-garment.” Many references to garments and clothes are scattered throughout the Bible, beginning in Genesis: “And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them” (Gen 3:21). In their original state of innocence, they had no need for clothes. They were naked but not ashamed—this is what Pope John Paul called “original nakedness.”
But after their sin, our first parents lost their innocence and needed to be clothed. God’s tender action of making clothes for them can perhaps be seen as symbolizing the garments of grace that God would bestow through Jesus Christ.

Pure and clean garments came to symbolize grace and salvation, as the prophet Isaiah sang:
“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” (Isaiah 61:10)

This imagery blends the spousal theme with that of garments of salvation. This text is used in the Liturgy of the Hours for the Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Garments signify the gifts of grace that God adorns us with inwardly.

The last book of the Bible, Revelation, picks up the theme of white garments to express the holiness of the saints, of those who have been through great trials and held fast to their faith: “Yet you still have still a few persons in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes; they will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels” (Rev 3:4–5).
Among the several “blessings” in the book of Revelation, we find this one: “Blessed are those who wash their robes [in the blood of the Lamb] so that they will have the right to the tree of life” (22:14).

Perhaps today the scapular devotion is not as popular as it once was. But Catholicism, as a sacramental religion, uses such material symbols as signs of the deeper underlying inner reality of grace. The scapular is not meant to be something superstitious, like a talisman or a good luck charm. Wearing it expresses in a silent yet eloquent way our love for Mary and our confidence in her intercession and help.


The following prayer, called Flower of Carmel, is attributed to St. Simon Stock:

O Beautiful Flower of Carmel, most fruitful vine, splendor of heaven, holy and singular, who brought forth the Son of God, still ever remaining a pure virgin, assist us in our necessity! O Star of the Sea, help and protect us! Show us that you are our Mother! Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, pray for us!