Detachment and Discernment

In order to discern, we have to be detached. Why? First of all, having a pure heart, or a heart detached from temporal and limited goods, enables us to have the spiritual vision by which we can see God's will. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." While this primarily pertains to future happiness with God–"they shall see God"–it begins also now, in the living knowledge that springs from divine love. A heart attached to temporal goods hinders this perception of divine light. St. Alphonsus says that if we want to know what state of life God wants us in, we have to pray for God to show us. But he goes on to say:

To have this light [from God], you must pray to him with indifference. He who prays to God to enlighten him in regard to a state of life, but without indifference, and who, instead of conforming to the divine will, would sooner have God conform to his will, is like a pilot that pretends to wish his ship to advance, but in reality does not want it to: he throws his anchor into the sea, and then unfurls his sails. God neither gives light nor speaks his word to such persons.

If we are set upon what we want to do, even before we begin the process of discernment, then (in most cases) we will be inclined to judge accordingly, and see our own attachment to what we want to do as an indication of God's will. (A few persons may from the outset understand vocation as something essentially contrary to what one wants, and so be inclined to take their desire or attachment as a sign that it is not God's will. This happens for the lesser part, and it is also unhelpful.)

Moreover, if we are attached to some way of living, we may fail to carry out what we perceive to be the will of God, and then discernment is in vain. "Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize?" (1 Cor 9:24) It is not enough to find God's will, but we have to do it, and that means denying our own will, in the sense of taking God's will over our own. "Any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mat 16:24).

What do we discern

What is the object of discernment? Does discernment mean only finding what is best among options that are all good? Or does it refer also to distinguishing morally good choices from morally bad choices? As noted previously, Fr. Peter in his article on discerning personal vocation, attributes to discernment only the apprehension or determination of the best out of several good choices.

The meaning of discernment

First we should consider the meaning of the word "discern" and "discernment". The fundamental meaning of "discern" is to mentally or sensibly distinguish something from others. And of course we should not only distinguish the best choice from other good choices, but should, indeed must distinguish good choices from bad choices. So discernment does include also, as most fundamental, perceiving the difference between what is truly good and what only seems so, between what truly comes from God or leads to him, and that which comes from our selfishness or leads away from God.

Discernment in Scripture

St. Paul also uses the term this way: "solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties are trained by practice to discern good and evil" (Heb 5:14). In another traditional text linked with discernment, St. John says, "do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God" (1 John 4:1). Here the main distinction to be made is not between a spirit that moves one to something good, but not all that good, and a spirit moving one to the best ways of thinking and acting, but the fundamental distinction or discernment to be made is between the good Spirit, the Spirit of God, and an evil or false spirit, which is not from God.

Discernment and Prudence

It is important to bear in mind this general notion of discernment, in order to avoid making it excessively obscure and mystical. Of course, when the question is discerning God's will, there will always be some mystery, because God himself is a mystery to us, who walk by faith. Nevertheless the connection between discernment and ordinary Christian prudence is important for the practice of discernment. The ordinary means of discernment is prudence enlightened by faith and motivated by charity, the "faith that works through love" (Gal 5:6). The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "When a prudent man listens to his conscience, he can hear God speaking" (n. 1777). And Vatican II says about priestly vocation: "The voice of the Lord who is calling should not in the least be expected to come to the ears of a future priest in some extraordinary manner. Rather, it is to be understood and discerned by those signs by which the will of God is made known daily to prudent Christians" (Presbyterorum Ordinis, n. 11).

Commandments and Counsels

Are we obliged not only to do good, but to do what is best?

As I remarked in a previous post on Fr. Peter's article on discerning one's personal vocation, he gives as the first (and least) reason for discernment, that we are obliged to discern what is best.

If God has a preference, am I not obliged to try to discover what it is? After all, his preference is for whatever is best for me… Even though I am only considering morally good options, I should try to find out which one of them is best. Why is this reason the least helpful as a motivation? Since we are considering only morally good options, any failure to discover and choose the best one would not be the matter of a mortal sin [but only a venial sin].

Is it really true, though, that we are obliged to do what is most perfect, so that it is a venial sin to fail to do so? Isn't the difference between a commandment and a counsel, precisely that the commandment obliges us to do some good (or to refrain from some evil), while a counsel invites us to do something good. "A commandment makes the transgressors of it culpable; counsel only makes such as do not follow it less worthy of praise; those who violate commandments deserve damnation, those who neglect counsels deserve only to be less glorified." (St. Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God VIII, ch. 6) Of course in a particular situation it may not be appropriate to follow a particular counsel. "God does not want each person to observe all the counsels, but only those that are appropriate to the diversity of persons, times, occasions, and abilities, as charity requires; for it is charity, as queen of all virtues, all commandments, all counsels, and in short, of all laws and all Christian actions, that gives to all of them their rank, order, time, and value." But supposing that in a particular situation a counsel is more in keeping with love, it seems that then it is still necessary to keep it. If love is commanded without limit, it seems that once we recognize that something is truly the better thing to do, more in keeping with love in a concrete situation, we are obliged to do it.

St. Thomas takes up this difficulty in his commentary on Matthew 19:10, "He who can take it, let him take it" (referring to the counsel of continence). He says, "Isn't every one bound to keep virginity? It seems so, since man is bound to what is better. In response it should be said that it is not a precept, but a counsel, as the Apostle says in 1 Cor. 7:25, 'Concerning virgins I do not have a precept from the Lord, but I give counsel.' But what is this? Isn't man bound to what is better? I say that one must distinguish that which is better in regard to act, and in regard to affection. Man is not bound to what is better in regard to act, but in regard to affection, since every rule and ever act is determined to something definite and certain; but if a man were bound to what is better, he would be bound to something uncertain. Hence with regard to external acts, since he is not bound to something uncertain, he is not bound to what is better. But as regards affection, he is bound to what is better. Hence one cannot not wish to be always better, without falling into contempt."

But if someone knowingly fails to do what is better, doesn't that show a lack of will to become better, to grow in love? St. Thomas says in Quodlibetal I, q. 7, a. 2, "those who are perfect in the sense of having perfect charity are bound by an interior law to do that which is better, a law that binds by way of inclination." To this we must admit that it does show a weakness of the will to grow in love, but weakness of that will does not mean a simple absence of it. As St. Francis de Sales says, "we may indeed without sin not follow the counsels, on account of the affection we may have to other things… it is lawful for a man not to sell what he possesses to give to the poor, because he has not hte courage to make so complete a renunciation."

Mortal sin, venial sin, and imperfection

There is a difference, then, between mortal sin, venial sin, and imperfection. A mortal sin means turning away from God, loving something else in a manner incompatible with the love of God above all things, so that one's life becomes totally directed to something other than God (e.g., pleasure, power, fame) or at least dispersed and no longer centered on God; a venial sin means loving something in a manner that doesn't quite fit with the love of God, yet is compatible with it–one's final end remains God, but one is too much attached to something which is a means to God. An imperfection means only choosing something that is not as well directed towards God as something else would have been, choosing something that is a longer and slower way, as it were, towards God–but still a good choice, act, and way towards God.

Universal Call to Holiness

"There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call" (Eph. 4:4).

St. Francis de Sales, whose feast we celebrate today, is known for his teaching that all Christians are called to holiness. The teaching of the universal call to holiness did not originate with the Second Vatican Council, but was also taught before. "Universal call," means, quite simply, that all men and women and called to holiness. And in Casti Connubii, for example, Pope Pius XI says precisely that: "All men of every condition," in whatever state of life they are, "can and ought to imitate that most perfect example of holiness," Christ himself, "and by God's grace to arrive at the summit of perfection." (n. 23) Nevertheless the universal call to holiness is a particularly special emphasis of the Second Vatican Council; it is taken up expressly in Chapter 5 of Lumen Gentium, which we look at today. The following is an attempt to draw out briefly some of the basic important points made in this chapter on this universal vocation of all Christians.

The Fathers of Vatican II see the call to holiness as deriving from two sources: the mystery of the Church, and more fundamentally, the mystery of Christ himself.

The Church and Holiness
"The Church is believed to be indefectibly holy" (n. 39), for Christ gave himself up for her "that he might sanctify her," uniting her to himself as his body and perfecting her by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Because the Church is holy, all members of the Church are called to be holy, "to become what they are," and to manifest this holiness in their lives, by faithfulness to the movement of the Spirit, by the practice of charity.

Christ and Holiness
Christ himself preached holiness of life to all. "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." He provided the means for holiness, sending the Spirit, who pours love into men's hearts, that they might love God above all, and love each other as Christ loves them. Moreover, in baptism the faithful put on Christ, becoming sons of God and sharers in the divine nature. Thus they are made holy by the grace of God. They must then hold on to this holiness and live it out in their concrete lives, they must live in a manner that is fitting to those who are holy.

The Council concludes then, that all members of the Church, all Christ's faithful, whatever their rank or status, are called to the fullness of Christian life and the perfection of charity.

Attainment of Holiness
The concrete way of attaining holiness and the perfection of charity depends on one's situation and duties, yet some things can be said in general:
(1) we should use our strengths and talents as a gift from Christ.
(2) We should follow Christ and become like him, seeking the Father's will in all things, the glory of God and the good of our neighbor.
(3) We should use our personal gifts and fulfill our duties in the spirit of faith working through love.
(4) We should receive all things with faith from the hand of the heavenly Father.

These four means of attaining holiness can be grouped into two basic attitudes: the spirit to accept all things as coming from the loving hand of God, and the aim to do all things in accordance with God's will out of love for him.

The Council in the following paragraphs makes a number of particular remarks on the paths to holiness of bishops, priests, clerics, married persons, and those who suffer. It then returns to the theme of holiness as the common pursuit of all. Holiness is first of all a gift of grace, the gift of love by which we love God above all things and our neighbor for God's sake. But in order for love to grow, we must cooperate with this grace, completing what God has begun in us. (n. 42)

Some actions flowing from grace are common to all Christians: the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, participation in the liturgy, prayer, self-denial, service of our brothers and sisters, and the practice of all the virtues. All such actions are to be ruled by charity, enlivened by charity, and expressions of charity.

Some exceptional expressions of love, which are not actually common to all Christians, are given particular mention by the Council.

Martyrdom
The greatest proof of love is martyrdom. There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for Christ and one's brethren. Not all will be faced with martyrdom, but all must be prepared to confess Christ, whatever may come, whether it means losing one's job, one's reputation, or even one's life.

Virginity, Poverty, and Obedience
The evangelical counsels of virginity/celibacy, poverty, and obedience are special means for fostering the holiness of the Church, each being in its own way a particular imitation of Christ.

The chapter closes with the summary statement: "all the faithful of Christ are invited to strive for the holiness and perfection of their own proper state. Indeed they have an obligation to so strive."

Call to Holiness in Marriage
See also the article on the call to holiness in Christian marriage.

Universal Call to Poverty?
The spirit of poverty, and even a degree of actual poverty, is a invitation and call not only to religious, but to all Christians. A very worth-while book on the gospel call to poverty is Happy Are You Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual Freedom by Thomas Dubay. This book is written for all Catholics (not just for those considering or discerning a religious vocation!) and seeks to present the Gospel challenge simply and directly, and thus help them to live their Christian vocation.

Discerning Your Personal Vocation

I came across an interesting article by Fr. Peter Ryan, How to Discern Elements of Your Personal Vocation. [No longer accessible at the original address].

The article is a bit disorganized, jumping back and forth between points, but it is thought provoking, and raises some interesting questions, which I'll address in upcoming blogposts.

He gives several points to bear in mind when preparing to discern your vocation (or anything else for that matter), which I'll summarize here:

(1) Discernment pertains to morally acceptable options, so we should eliminate options that are simply wrong, before making discernment. (this is not strictly true; the most important discernment we do is to discern or distinguish good options from bad options, in order to choose the good. See the post on the object of discernment: what do we discern – JB.)
(2) It is possible to discern one's personal vocation. God has a preference regarding what he wants us to do: he wants us to do the very best thing. God would not have a plan for us, yet keep us from discovering it, so it must be possible to discern this plan.
(3) One must be motivated to discern one's personal vocation. He gives three reasons for discerning one's vocation: (1) the first and least helpful reason, is that we are morally obliged to do so (I comment on this statement in a later post: Commandments and Counsels – JB); (2) it is in our own interest to discern; (3) discerning our vocation is pleasing to God.
(4) The proper disposition for discerning one's vocation presupposes that one is detached from any agenda of one's own. Having such an agenda hinders the discernment of God's plan, and also the acceptance of that plan. (See the post Detachment and Discernment – JB)
(5) As regards the future, we cannot discern whether we should do something, but only whether we should try to do it.
(6) Nothing is wasted in God's providence. Even when what we judged God was calling us to seek does not work out, this attempt has a place in God's plan.
(7) Discerning one's personal vocation is not accomplished once and for all, but is ongoing. Even a major commitment such as that of marriage or religious life does not settle or eliminate all future questions and discernment.

The process of discernment of vocation Fr. Peter gives is based on the third time for discernment given by St. Ignatius Loyola.

(1) We should seek only what God wants, and ask him to make us see what he wants us to do.
(2) We should look at our gifts and experience, and relate them to the world around us, considering all our options, and the pros and cons of each option. If one option remains as clearly the best, the discernment may end there.
(3) If several options remain, and are not settled by the consideration of pros and cons, then we should look at our affective response to them, our how heart moves in regard to them. We must distinguish those movements that are in us, but are not really integrated into our "converted selves", from those which arise from our converted hearts, and be moved in our discernment only by the latter kind of desires.

Questions for those discerning a religious vocation

Fr. Philip Powell gives some good practical points, and questions that those discerning a religious vocation should ask themselves. These questions to ask when discerning a vocation may be found, together with comments on the Anti-Christ, and the difference between magic and prayer, at his blog Domine, da mihi hanc aquam!

Christmas poem

Waiting and watching, in my inner heart's room–
Vigils and silence, let troubled thoughts cease.
For soon he shall come, as the heavenly groom.
And I must decrease, that he may increase.

At this great mystery, my heart fails within me;
What all-surpassing, wondrous love is this:
Greater than the mountains, deeper than the sea,
When by God's own word, heaven the earth does kiss.

Mightiest of angels, bearing a great sword
To clear the darkness, darkness of our sin,
Your grace and mercy, upon the world you poured;
From a fallen race, lovers you did win.

Still with the Father, in your Divinity,
Here on this earth, with human feet you trod.
We praise and worship Incarnate Majesty,
Wholly man like us, and yet wholly God!

A child is born to us

nativity of jesus

"Puer natus est nobis, et filius datus est nobis!"

Today a child is born to us, a son is given us!

These words upon the joyful Mass of Christmas day, in which we recall the birth of our Lord into the world, and into our hearts. The God who is above all stoops down in humility and love, manifesting his glory in the little child of Bethlehem. Born from the Father from all Eternity, he was born in time in Bethlehem, so that he might be born in our hearts.

Pope Benedict XVI's homily for the Midnight Mass and the Urbi and Orbi address.

Predestination and hope in St. Paul

I've recently had the occasion, in working with a student on predestination, to consider once again the role of predestination in St. Paul's letter to the Romans. It seems to some that the doctrine of predestination is at best useless, and at worst a dangerous doctrine, which tends to produce either presumption or despair. There are perhaps some grounds for that. When predestination is interpreted to mean that what one does is irrelevant to whether or not one is saved, or that God chooses out men for damnation, and makes them sin so that they will be damned. I give here an example of such an interpretation by a man named Darwin Fish. I don't give a link to the website because as a whole it's not particularly worth reading.

Although it is true that God loves both the wicked and the righteous (Matthew 5:43-45; John 3:16), it is also true that before the world was created, God chose to love only a few people and destine them to eternal life in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 7:13-14; Romans 9:6-23; Ephesians 1:4). He chose to hate the rest of mankind and destine them to hell for eternity (Matthew 7:13-14; Romans 9:6-23). This choice was not based on any action on the part of those whom God chose (Romans 9:11, 16, 18), but rather it was based on God's own good pleasure and purpose (Ephesians 1:4-5). It was not based on works (Romans 9:11, 20-23; Ephesians 1:5; Philippians 2:13; Psalm 115:3).

It is not surprising that this way of interpreting and describing predestination can lead to spiritual apathy or despair!

Predestination in St. Paul

But how does St. Paul see predestination? As the eternal plan of the loving God, the fundamental initiative in our salvation by God, who "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth," Paul sees predestination as a cause for humility before the God who grants us all the good we have, even whatever good is in our own wills–"Do not become proud, but stand in awe" (Romans 11:20)–but also as a reason for confidence, gratitude, and spiritual activity.

God's gift does not remove human freedom, but calls for human cooperation

To emphasize that God's good will and grace precedes everything good we do, St. Paul says "by grace you have been saved through faith; this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast" (Ephesians 2:8), but to show the connection between God's initiative and man's cooperation, he says: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil 2:13) The fact that God is at work even in our very wills is no reason for apathy, but rather a reason to earnestly cooperate with him. Since God "wills all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim 2:4), his chief work in the human spirit is "faith working through love" (Gal 5:6); one who would refuse or neglect to "work out his salvation" would thus be closing himself to God's movement. The more God works in us, the more (not less) necessary is our own willing and working.

Predestination brings confidence and trust

St. Paul does not only see the priority of God's work over ours as an incentive to cooperate with God, he also sees it as a cause of confidence. Because God loves us far more than we love ourselves (Cf. Rom 5:6-10), and his wisdom infinitely surpasses ours (Cf. Rom 11:33-34), St. Paul's teaching that it is always God who has the initiative in salvation is intended to, and ought to inspire a great confidence in God. Having recalled the working out of God's foreknowledge and predestination in calling, justifying, and glorifying, Paul goes on to say: "If God is for us, who is against us?… Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us" (Rom 8:31, 35, 37). If we had to rely upon ourselves, we would surely be in a sorry state. But we have an infinitely more sure foundation on which to rely, God himself. From God's side, his love and grace will never fail; he will never fail nor forsake us (Cf. Heb 13:5), and will never permit us to be tempted beyond our strength (1 Cor 10:13). The only thing that can separate us from Christ is our own refusal to accept and bring his love into our lives; only "if we deny him, he also will deny us" (2 Tim 2:12)

It is true, as St. Peter says, that in the writings of St. Paul "There are some things hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures" (2 Peter 3:16). But when we rightly understand the doctrine of predestination, it is a source of humility, simplicity, trust, and gratitude towards God.

Naturally this post is not intended to explain all aspects of predestination, but only to point out some of the spiritual benefits the doctrine is meant to bring.

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).