Dr. Aaron Henderson is a Faculty Tutor for the Alcuin Institute for Catholic Culture.← Return to Essays
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
There are key moments in our own lives, stages of development and achievements worth remembering and celebrating. We can think here of birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and so forth. Something like this is true of the Church’s life as well. We can think of the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Great Commission, and so on. But perhaps the most vital, the most defining, is an event we will soon celebrate: Pentecost. The first Pentecost is when the Church takes her first autonomous breath, as it were, when she takes her first steps in the world to continue the work of her divine Founder and Spouse.
What is so special about Pentecost? It is worth noting that it originated with the Jewish people. They would celebrate Pentecost (in Hebrew, Shavuot) in thanksgiving for the first fruits of the wheat harvest and, later, for the giving of the Mosaic Law at Mount Sinai. It was thus a time to celebrate God’s generosity both in the created order and in the order of salvation. The name “Pentecost” is of Greek origin and means “fiftieth.” In the context of the Jewish liturgical calendar, Pentecost was 50 days after Passover.
For Christians, Passover celebrates something even more profound. It is no longer reckoned according to Passover but according to Easter, the day on which the Lord our Pasch rose from the dead. And thus Passover for us is 50 days after Easter. It does not serve as the birthday of a nation, but rather as the birthday of the Church that calls out to all nations. The Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus’s followers, gathered together in one place, to empower them to preach the Gospel and administer the life-giving sacraments even to the ends of the earth. The invisible mission of the Holy Spirit, the graces and gifts He gives so as to enliven and encourage the Church, is sensibly signified by the tongues of fire that come to rest on each one present (see Acts 2).
In short, Pentecost is important for the Church, and consequently important for our lives as sons and daughters of the Church. At Pentecost we see the power of the Holy Spirit on full display. And that power does not cease in the Church but is on offer in every generation. Granted, the Apostles and first disciples had unique and irreplaceable roles to play in salvation history. Even still, the same Spirit lavishes His gifts upon us today. We think perhaps most readily of charismatic gifts such as prophecy and tongues. These are certainly “flashier,” one might say, even if they are not meant, contrary to popular opinion, for the sanctification of the recipient but for the edification of the Body of Christ. I would like instead to speak about what are traditionally called “the gifts of the Holy Spirit,” since these are more intimately bound up with Christian life and holiness. What are these gifts, and how can we acquire them? What role do they play in the Christian life?
We find the gifts of the Holy Spirit enumerated in Sacred Scripture. The primary place to go is Isaiah 11:1–3. The prophet is speaking of the Davidic Messiah-King upon whom the Spirit of God will rest. The gifts the Spirit imparts are Fear of the Lord, Fortitude, Piety, Counsel, Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom. My reflections will draw from a book I highly recommend by Archbishop Luis M. Martinez, The Sanctifier.
What are the gifts of the Holy Spirit? They are supernaturally infused habits or dispositions or instincts whereby we are apt to be moved directly by the Holy Spirit. At times they are compared to the sails of a ship. Sails exist to catch the wind so that the ship might arrive at its proper destination. Likewise, the gifts of the Spirit make the soul docile to the movement of the Holy Spirit as we journey to eternal life.
Fear of the Lord, to mention the first gift, means more than servile fear, the fear we have when we are afraid of just punishment. Fear of the Lord is born of reverence and love; it is like the filial fear a child has before the parent whom he hates to disappoint. “One who loves deeply,” Martinez writes, “has a fear that is above all other fears—fear of separation from the beloved. This is the gift of fear which is directed by the Holy Spirit.” This life is full of trials and difficulties. Without God’s help, these can be obstacles to holiness and eternal life. And thus God gives us the gift of Fortitude, which strengthens us in doing good and avoiding evil, especially when it is dangerous or difficult to do so. “It is a confidence, a security, that produces peace in our souls in the midst of dangers, in struggles, in all our tribulations.” As I mentioned before, we have a reverence and love for God because He is our loving Father. Piety, then, is the gift whereby the Holy Spirit moves us to revere God with filial affection, to worship and praise Him, and to act with limitless generosity to our brethren whom God likewise loves. “And when it is love, not duty, that inspires our actions, we pass all limits, we abandon all measures and generously pour out the love of our hearts. This is the gift of piety.”
The last four gifts pertain to the intellect. First, Counsel is the gift whereby God directs us in matters necessary for salvation. Human life, as I said before, and as we all know well, is full of trials and difficulties. Prudence, even supernatural prudence, would not be sufficient to guide our ship to port, given the complexity of human life. “But God, who never fails us in our needs, has given us a gift by which the Holy Spirit becomes our guide.” God Himself becomes our Helper and Counselor. Second, Knowledge is the gift whereby the Holy Spirit moves us to judge correctly about divine things and about how we ought to act. “It gives us an insight into the mysterious relationships between creatures, and particularly into the great, transcendental, relationship that creatures have with God.” With this gift of Knowledge, we lift ourselves from creatures to the Creator. Third, Understanding allows us a penetrating insight or gaze into the very heart of reality, especially of those things necessary for salvation. “By it the Holy Spirit moves us so that we can penetrate the depths of all supernatural truths and thus attain our eternal salvation.” Finally, Wisdom, which stems from charity and leads back to it, is the gift whereby the Holy Spirit moves us to taste the goodness of the Lord and to judge all other things accordingly. “The gift of wisdom gives to our souls this power to experience divine things, to taste them in the depths of our being and, by that pleasure and experience, to judge all things.” Wisdom is the greatest of the Spirit’s gifts; it directs all the others.
Perhaps you have celebrated Pentecost in the past without knowing about these wonderful gifts. The good news is that the Holy Spirit stands ready to lavish them upon all who ask in faith. This, then, is my advice to you all (and to myself): (1) Get to know these gifts more profoundly, and how the Holy Spirit can use them to sanctify your life. (2) Pray for these gifts daily. All those in a state of grace have them, but perhaps not all seek to receive them in greater abundance. (3) Teach your family members and friends about these invaluable gifts. Imagine a world in which men and women are profoundly open and docile to the movement of the Holy Spirit!