The Gifts of the Holy Spirit according to Thomas Aquinas

All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. (Romans 8:14)
If you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. (Galatians 5:18)

What are the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and what do they do? This post proposes an interpretation of St. Thomas Aquinas's teaching on "being led by the Spirit", and of the way that the gifts of the Spirit are active in Christian life.

The Seven Gifts of the Spirit

In Isaiah 11:1-3, we read "There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord."

The last part, according to the Latin tradition, reads "the spirit of knowledge and of piety [pietas], and the Spirit of the fear of the Lord shall fill him."

From this text derives the tradition of the Church regarding the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not say much about the gifts. The main text is in numbers 1830 & 1831.

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.

This understanding of the gifts follows the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, as he is usually understood. I would like, however, to propose a more radical interpretation of Aquinas.

Thomas Aquinas on the Gifts of Holy Spirit

Selections from the text of Aquinas himself:

Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 68, a. 1

Human virtues perfect man insofar as man is naturally moved by reason in the things that he does within or without. Higher perfections must therefore be in man, by which he is disposed to be moved by God. And these perfections are called gifts, not only because they are infused by God, but also because by them, man is disposed and made more ready to be moved by the divine inspiration, as is said in Is 50:5: "The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I turned not backward."

Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 68, a. 2

Hence, in those things in which the impulse of reason is not sufficient, but the impulse of the Holy Spirit is necessary, then a gift is also necessary.
Now man's reason is in two ways perfected by God: first, with a natural perfection, namely the natural light of reason; secondly, with a supernatural perfection, by the theological virtues, as was said above. And although this second perfection is greater than the first, nevertheless man possesses the first perfection in a more perfect way than he possesses the second perfection. For man possesses the first perfection as his full possession, while he possesses the second as an imperfect possession; for we imperfectly love and know God. Now it is manifest that everything which perfectly possesses a nature or form or power, can of itself act according to it—though not apart from God's action, who acts interiorly in every nature and will. But that which has a nature or form or power imperfectly, cannot act of itself, if it is not moved by another. Thus the sun, which is perfectly bright, can give light of itself, while the moon, which has the nature of light only imperfectly, cannot give light unless it is illuminated [by the sun]. Again, a doctor, who perfectly knows the medical art, can act on his own; but his student, who is not yet fully instructed, cannot act on his own, but only with the guidance of his instructor.
Thus, with regard to the things that are subject to human reason, i.e., in relationship to man's natural end, man can act by the judgment of reason. If in this action, man is nevertheless helped by God by means of a special impulse, this will pertain to God's superabundant goodness. Hence according to the Philosophers, not everyone who has the acquired moral virtues, has heroic or divine virtues. But in relationship to the last supernatural end, to which reason moves us insofar as it is in in a certain manner, and imperfectly, formed by the theological virtues, the motion of reason itself is not sufficient, unless the impulse and movement of the Holy Spirit comes from above, according to Rom 8:14, 17, "They who are led by the Spirit of God, are sons of God," and "if you are sons, then also heirs." And in Ps 142:10 it is said, "Your good Spirit will lead me into the right land," i.e., because no one can arrive at the inheritance of the land of the blessed, unless he is moved and led by the Holy Spirit. And therefore in order to attain that end, a man must have the gift of the Holy Spirit.

In response to the objection that the theological virtues enable us to reach out to God, believing his word, trusting in him, and loving him, St. Thomas responds: "The theological and moral virtues do not perfect man in relationship to the last end, in such a way that he does not always need to be moved by a certain higher impulse of the Holy Spirit, for the reason just stated." [emphasis added]

Garrgiou-Lagrange interpreting the "always" says the following:

To say that the gifts of the Holy Ghost must intervene in every meritorious act, even though it be imperfect (remissus et quantumvis remissus), would be to confound ordinary actual grace with the special inspiration to which the gifts render us docile. In the text which we have just quoted, St. Thomas means that man is not perfected to such a degree by the theological virtues that he does not always need to be inspired by the interior Master (semper not pro-semper), as we say: "I always need this hat," not however from morning until night, or from night until morning. Similarly a medical student not so well instructed that he does not always need the assistance of his master for certain operations. The need we experience is not transitory but permanent; all of which goes to show that the gifts should be not transitory inspirations, like the grace of prophecy, but permanent infused dispositions. (The Three Ages of the Interior Life, "The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit", footnote n. 33)

A text that lends support to reading the "always" as referring to every moment, however, may be found in the Secunda Secundae. St. Thomas says: "The gifts of the Holy Spirit are the principles of the intellectual and moral virtues, as was said above" (II-II 19:9 ad 4). He seems to have in mind his treatment in I-II q. 68, although in that article he does not thus articulate it. But if the gifts of the Holy Spirit are principles of the infused intellectual and moral virtues, and not just perfective and supporting of them, then the movement of the Spirit through the gifts seems to be presupposed to all the acts of the virtues, to all acts of Christian life.

The role of the gifts of the Holy Spirit according to this reading of Thomas Aquinas

If we follow this reading, we can explain the need for and role played by the gifts of the Holy Spirit as follows: first, we need to be constantly moved and led by God; yet because we are not merely moved passively by God, like limp dolls, but are ourselves involved in our own actions, and thus can be either open or closed, ready for or resistant to God's movement, we need the gifts to make us open and ready to receive God's movement and guidance.

We need God's movement because the divine love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit is essentially a participation in God's own living love, just as grace is essentially a participation in God's own nature. Thus I cannot simply take my share of God's knowledge and God's love that I receive in the gifts of faith, hope, love, and run with them, as it were—i.e., simply make use on my own of these abilities by my empowered nature. If I were to do this, it would no longer be God's love present within me, but a mere parody of it; no longer a share in God's knowledge, but my own notions and whims.

This way of looking at the gifts of the Spirit would explain why St. Thomas calls them principles of the moral virtues. To have theological virtues and moral virtues without gifts would mean that I have no problem putting into practice the way I determine and choose to shape my life in accord with Christ. But I would still be living according to precisely my choice. Without an openness to "Christ who lives in me", without an openness to being guided by God in living out divine life, my determination and readiness to carry out what seems to me to be fitting to Christian love would not be truly virtue simply speaking, but only in a limited respect. Thus the gifts are principles of the moral virtues insofar as they are virtues.

This interpretation of the gifts, which would hold the gifts to be active all the time, in making us open to the constant leading of the Holy Spirit, does not necessarily exclude an understanding of the gifts as making us ready to receive special inspirations of the Spirit, given only in times of special need or difficulty. We could understand the gifts as opening us up to all movement of the Spirit, whether (1) the movement of the Spirit involved in all activity of the children of God; (2) the special help of the Spirit when we especially need it; (3) and even in a certain way charismatic graces (though the gifts of the Holy Spirit are not necessary in order to receive charismatic graces, which can be had without charity).

Francis on the Special Virtues of Particular Saints

This post continues the theme from the previous post, on the unique character of each saint, who is distinguished by particular virtues. St. Francis de Sales has the same understanding. "We say some were saved by faith, others by giving alms, others by temperance, prayer, humility, hope, chastity, because the acts of these virtues shown forth in these saints" (Treatise on the Love of God, Book 11, Ch. 4). Of course, each virtue is valued to the degree that the divine love shines in it: "After we have extolled these particular virtues we must refer all their honor to divine love, which gives to each of them all the sanctity they have."

St. Francis recommends the practice generally of choosing a virtue at which especially to aim, though naturally not to the exclusion of other: "It is well for everybody to select some special virtue at which to aim, not as neglecting any others, but as an object and pursuit to the mind" (Introduction to the Devout Life, Book III, ch. 1). He then gives various examples of saints who were devoted particularly to the practice of certain virtues: Saint John, bishop of Alexandria, who had a vision "in which he knew that it was pity for the poor which God commended to him, and from that time he gave himself so heartily to practice it"; Saint Louis, who visited hospitals; Saint Francis, who loved poverty above all; Saint Gregory, who received pilgrims, after the example of Abraham, and who, like Abraham, received the Lord himself under the guise of a pilgrim.

And so some of God's servants devote themselves to nursing the sick, helping the poor, teaching little children in the faith, reclaiming the fallen, building churches, and adorning the altar, making peace among men. In this they resemble embroidresses who work all manner of silks, gold and silver on various grounds, and thus produce beautiful flowers. In the same way the pious souls who undertake some special devout practice use it as the ground of their spiritual embroidery, and frame all kinds of other graces upon it, ordering their actions and affections better by means of this chief thread which runs through all of them.

Read the full text of these two works by St. Francis de Sales.

Every saint is unique

Virgin Mary and saints
St. Catherine of Sienna in her Treatise of Divine Providence keeps to the teaching that the virtues are connected, i.e., that whoever has one virtue, must have all of them. Nevertheless she teaches that God gives to each person one particular virtue as principal: to one he gives principally love, to another justice, to another humility, to another faith, to another prudence, to another patience, etc. It is then especially by the exercise of this virtue that the person grows in all the virtues, due to their being connected in love. (In another words, it is chiefly in the one principal virtue God gives the person that the divine love is expressed and actualized, and yet because it is truly divine love that shines forth and is exercised in this virtue, this love is deepened and increases, and thus gives greater strength and vitality to all the virtues, of which it is the heart.)

The love of God and neighbor, while it elevates and ennobles all human faculties, and while it does require a struggle against the baser inclinations of nature, does not destroy or level out different characters or personalities, but perfects them. Every saint thus has his own unique character, by which he grows in and lives out the holy love of God and neighbor. We will only fully appreciate this in heaven, where we will see the full beauty and harmony of how all the different saints show forth in their own special ways the glory of God's love.

Feast of all the Saints

Crucifixion with saints by Fra Angelico
On the feast of All Saints, we honor all the saints who lived in the divine love, both the known saints and those who are unknown or forgotten. There are too many saints for every one of them to have his or her own feast, and there are many saints who were not recognized as such here on earth, or if they were recognized, only by a few. May this "great cloud of witnesses" also spur us on in recalling that we too are called to be holy as our Lord is holy, we are called to take up our cross, to give our lives, to follow after him in love. Leon Bloy wrote, "There is but one tragedy: not to be a saint." Likewise there is only one real "success" in life: to be a saint.

In this image by Fra Angelico, the saints are depicted in adoration before Christ on the crucifix, who is the source of all holiness. The saints also in heaven worship the "Lamb who was slain."

Levels of love of neighbor

This is a summary of Aquinas's division of love of neighbor in his work On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life. His aim here is explaining the perfection of the religious state and the episcopal state.

Necessary love of neighbor
The basic commandments is "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." From these follows three points regarding the love of our neighbor we must have:

First, it must be true love, that is, we must love him or her not in the sense that we may love chocolate or wine. When we love these we refer them to ourselves, whom we properly love. We must love our neighbors so as to will them good for their own sake, and not only inasmuch as they are pleasant or helpful to use.

Secondly, we must love our neighbor with an ordered love. Everyone loves his spiritual nature more than his bodily nature. This is evident from the fact that no one would prefer being an idiot to being blind. So also we must love the spiritual good of our neighbor more than his bodily good, and again, we must love his bodily good more than his external goods.

Thirdly, we must love our neighbors with a holy love, inasmuch as we must love both ourselves and them as made in the likeness of God, as ordered to God, and as called to communion with him. Since what is ordered to God is called holy, loving our neighbor for God's sake is a holy love.

Fourthly, we must love our neighbor with an efficacious love, that is, a love that proves itself by deeds, as St. John says, "let us not love in word or in speech, but in deed and in truth."

Perfect love of neighbor that is counseled
Love of neighbor can be perfect in three ways which are not obligatory

1. Love can be perfect with respect to its extensiveness, when we show love to all men, even when we are not strictly required to do so. Aquinas distinguishes three degrees of love with respect to extension: (1) the lowest degree is when we love only those who are close to us; (2) the second degree is when we love not only those who are relatives or are close to us in some other way, but men and women everywhere; (3) the third degree is when we show love even to our enemies, to those who hurt us–even when we wouldn't be obliged to show a particular love for them. E.g., when we could with justice wait for them to make amends, to go out of our way to seek reconciliation.

2. Love of neighbor can be perfect with respect to its intensity. This perfection is shown by what a person is ready to give up for the sake of his neighbor. Thomas distinguishes three levels here, corresponding to the three evangelical counsels: (1) some give up possessions for the sake of their fellow men and women; (2) some expose their body labor and fatigue, or to persecution for the sake of others; (3) some lay down their life for others; the closest thing to this dying for others is giving up one's own will for the sake of others. For since to be alive means to act on one's own, to give up one's will is like a kind of death.

3. Love of neighbor can be perfect with respect to its works. (1) Some procure the bodily good of others, by feeding them, clothing them, or healing them; (2) some procure the spiritual good of others, as by teaching, but such spiritual good as is on man's own level; (3) some procure the spiritual good of others that is on a divine level–giving them the divine teaching, bestowing the sacraments, etc. This belongs above all to bishops.

Aquinas on Degrees of Love for God

Three levels of love of God
St. Thomas Aquinas, in his work On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life distinguishes three essential levels of love of God: (1) God's love for himself; (2) The love of the blessed saints and angels for God; (3) The love of those in grace and charity on earth.

(1) God is infinitely good and infinitely lovable, but no creature can love infinitely, and therefore only God himself can love himself as he deserves: the Father's infinite love, which he shows to and bestows upon the Son and Spirit, is supreme love.

(2) Creatures love God perfectly in heaven, inasmuch as all of their power and activity is turned to God: their attention is upon him, they see him as he is, their hearts embrace him, and they do all things for his sake.

(3) We here on earth can love God perfectly in the sense that we give ourselves to God, and thereby, since all our actions belong to us, we implicitly give all of them to God and do them for him, even if we don't and can't think of God at every single moment. Again, we love God perfectly inasmuch as we submit our minds entirely to him, believing his Word which he speaks to us, and give our hearts to him, loving things for the sake of God, and acting out of that love.

A basic form of this third level of love is required of all of us; it is wrong to disbelieve even a single word of God, to refuse to follow even a single one of God's precepts, to love anything other than God as though it were our ultimate happiness.

Yet within this third level there are various degrees. We may approach more or less closely to the second level of love, inasmuch as we strive to have our hearts and minds always turned actually towards God. St. Thomas explains that this is the purpose of the evangelical counsels: to take away everything that could distract us from giving this actual attention to God.

The more man's affection is withdrawn from temporal things, the more perfection will his mind be drawn towards the love of God. Therefore all the counsels, by which we are invited to perfection, aim at turning away man's affection from temporal things, so that his mind might more freely tend towards God, contemplating him, loving him, and fulfilling his will.

In summary:
1. God's love for himself is absolutely perfect and infinite.
2. The most perfect love possible to creatures is the love of created persons for God in heaven; the whole strength of their nature is directed towards God.
3a. Perfect love possible on earth (generically): we refer everything to God, but not necessarily consciously at every moment.
3b. Most perfect love possible on earth: to strive to imitate the perfection of love in heaven; to seek to act at every moment out of love.

Consequences of failing to follow a vocation

Is not following a vocation a sin? If someone does not follow his vocation, is it more or less impossible for him to live a holy life? Sometime ago I received such questions by e-mail, and now post them here (in edited form), with responses, with the hope that they will be helpful to others.

Are the harsh conclusions [drawn by St. Alphonsus de Liguori and Hans Urs Von Balthasar] that we risk even our salvation if we do not respond to a vocation (which seems to imply that it is a sin to say no to a vocation) is really a consequence of taking the personal approach to vocation? Don't these conclusions rather overlook a distinction that should be made within the personal approach? Don't they somehow present a unilateral idea of God's will or God's call? Even with God, there is a difference between His commanding something and offering something, between an invitation and a law. This is a rudimentary distinction and obviously these authors knew this: perhaps rejecting even an invitation from God, whose knowledge and will are perfect, must somehow come from a preference for something other than His will. But then what is the difference between a commandment and an invitation? There is clearly a difference in kind? One must be done and the other may be done. What does "may" really mean if rejecting it is saying no to God's will or loving something else in place of God's will? How can anything that comes from God really be an invitation?

Those conclusions don't really follow from the "personal approach" to vocation, but follow from misunderstandings that are often associated with the personal approach. But indeed, the mistake is not as simple as overlooking the distinction between a command and a invitation. (St. Ignatius is the only one I've seen who suggests that the words, "he who can take it, let him take it," may be a precept, rather than an invitation. This is possibly just an inexactness of language–something he said on the basis of a kind of intuition regarding the matter, but because he was not a learned theologian, articulated without the most precise terms.)

The severe conclusions seem to follow from a twofold narrow view of God: first, thinking of God as though his plan's for man were made independently of men's choices, and so are "ruined" by them; secondly, thinking of God as a human lover, who is really moved by disappointment or anger, and acts on this basis.

Both Alphonsus and Von Balthasar suggest strongly that it is often a mortal sin to knowingly reject a vocation. But even supposing this to be true, it would not follow that such a rejection would have the severe consequences they speak of–God could forgive this sin just as he forgives other sins, if one repents. Actually, for Alphonsus it seems to be rather the other way around: it is not so perilous because it is a sin, but it is a sin because it is so perilous for our salvation.

The difference between a commandment and an invitation is that a commandment is something imposed as necessary in order to be in loving union with the one commanding, an invitation is something presented as a way to be better united with the one inviting, but not necessary for such union. And therefore disobeying the commandment implies that one values something else more than one values union with God, and is a mortal sin, while rejecting the invitation implies only that one values something other than God without entirely referring its value to God. In itself, this is only a venial sin, or even only an imperfection.

The positions of Alphonsus de Liguori and Von Balthasar are presented in the book Paths of Love: The Discernment of Vocation According to Aquinas, Ignatius, and Pope John Paul II. You can also read more texts of Alphonsus on vocation and Von Balthasar on Vocation.

See also the post on Commandments and Counsels.

Mercy of God

While sin itself is always bad, for the sinner who sincerely repents, and turns to God who forgives the sin, it can be the occasion of joy over the mercy and love of God that are revealed in his forgiveness of it.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux apparently went so far as to say that the lovers of God "take delight" in their indeliberate faults, inasmuch as they show God's mercy.

"The rest of us don't belong among those saints who cry over our sins: we take delight in them because they serve to glorify the mercy of God." (Words of St. Thérèse recollected by Sr. Marie of the Trinity.)

And her sorrow for the sin itself, she offers to God as a sign of her love for him.

"When I have committed a fault that makes me sad, I know well that this sadness is the consequence of my infidelity. But do you think I stop there? Oh no, I'm not so silly! I hurry to say to God: My God, I know that I have merited this feeling of sadness, but let me offer you all of it as a test that you send me out of love. I regret my sin, but I am content to have this suffering to offer to you. (Words of St. Thérèse recollected by Sr. Agnes of Jesus.)

Sayings of St. Therese on love

Law, counsels, virtue, perfect virtue

An analogy occurred to me between the relationship between law and virtue, and the counsels and perfect virtue, which may be helpful in considering the role and necessity of the counsels in attaining spiritual perfection. A lawmaker intends to lead those who are subject to the law, to virtue, so that from within themselves, from inner principles, their own reason and will, they do right deeds. Thus virtue has a certain priority as the end of the law. Again, when it comes to particular actions, virtue also has a priority as regards leading someone to act well, since it is not possible to consider thoroughly all of the elements involved, and thus one must act from one's inclination… and it is virtue which makes this good.

Similarly, the counsels aim to lead those who follow them to a perfect state of virtue, so that from within themselves they act with a fully spiritual attitude… to do all for God, and rely entirely upon him. Thus this habitual spiritual attitude is the end of the counsels, and also in concrete life has the priority as regards actually turning one's attention to God.