The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit in the Active and Contemplative Life

Older literature, especially in the Dominican and Carmelite schools, emphasized the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit to a degree that is not so common nowadays. What was the reason for emphasizing these Gifts? And what benefits and distinctions and general understandings can we draw from retreading that path? These are the questions that will be (briefly) looked at in this blog post.

Why, in the first place, does anyone talk about the Gifts of the Holy Spirit? What is the notion of Gift? Saint Francis de Sales locates this notion of Gift immediately in the idea of God’s creation and redemption, which are themselves gifted, given, and nothing other than loving gratuitousness; he focuses on the relationship of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit to the theological virtue of charity, love-in-union of God and neighbour:

As being a gift, charity makes us docile and tractable to interior inspirations, which are, as it were, God’s secret commandments and counsels, in the execution of which the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit are employed, so that charity is the gift of gifts.

The notion of Gift, which is so often found in the tradition, is rooted simply in the fact that love itself is a gift. The Church, in the Catechism, finds seven such Gifts in Isaiah chapter 11:

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. (#1831)

Why seven? Well, in the first place, the Holy Scriptures give us seven. But seven is also the number of perfection. Additionally, we have four actively oriented Gifts (Counsel, Fortitude, Piety, Fear) and three contemplatively oriented ones (Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge). This gives us some idea of the fact that we are both active and contemplative creatures, that we human beings are not so lofty of nature as to be given a greater number of contemplative gifts than active… and so on. We could draw many lessons from the number and division of the seven Gifts. Perhaps the most obvious lesson is that God wants us to love. To love is to become or be perfect. To love perfectly is what Christian perfection consists in. God gave us this way. Francis de Sales says of the Gifts:

They are not only inseparable from charity, but, all things well considered, and speaking precisely, they are the principal “virtues” [good, stable, permanent characteristics within the soul], properties, and qualities of charity.

He then explains that the Gift of Wisdom is nothing other that love which relishes, tastes, and experiences how sweet God is; Understanding and Knowledge are “listening love”, the former focused on God and the truths of faith, the latter on ourselves and the created things; Counsel is love that is careful, attentive, and wise in choosing means of serving God; Fortitude is love setting the heart alive and making it strong; Piety is love which turns us towards our Father and makes toil easier to endure; Fear is love that makes us run from evil (and thus towards good). The Gifts serve to loving; the Gifts proceed from love; the Gifts are all mixed up with active and contemplative ways of loving.

Now, there has been some confusion in the past as to whether the Gifts are “virtues”. Francis uses the word “virtues”. He means that they are stable, permanent characteristics infused into the soul, and that these characteristics are good, not evil (if they were evil, they would be vices instead). In this sense, it’s permitted and reasonable to say the seven Gifts are virtues, even though, in contrast to the qualities we normally call “virtues”, they are not “direct-able”, “use-able” or “able to be activated” by us (after all, their entire purpose is to render us pliable, docile, and divinely inspired). The Gifts are stable, good qualities within us. Saint Thomas says they are stable:

Now the moral virtues are habitus [stable characteristics], whereby the powers of appetite are disposed to obey reason promptly. Therefore the Gifts of the Holy Spirit are habitus [stable characteristics] whereby man is perfected to obey readily the Holy Spirit. (Sum. theol., Ia-IIae, q. 68, a. 3)

The Catechism says they are permanent dispositions:

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. (#1830)

And all of this, as Father Garrigou-Lagrange OP points out time and again, is based on Scriptures, for what is said of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah 11 ought equally to be said of the seven Gifts as found in Isaiah 11: “He shall abide with you, and shall be in you” (Is 11:2).

The Gifts of the Holy Spirit are not some flitting inspirations. Their nature is not to come and go. Their nature is to stay and “abide” with us, as the Indwelling Spirit “abides” with us. They are stable dispositions relating us to God. But in what way do they relate us to him? What is their purpose? Why are they necessary in addition to faith, hope, and love?

They are necessary, not in any absolute way. Charity is “enough”. We don’t “need” the Gifts to be saved: not in an abstract way. They’re just necessary because, even with faith, hope, and love, we’re not very clever creatures. Our own promptings and inspirations are not that great. Even with charity, we’d have our own promptings to follow. And that’s not always going to end well. We’d find a way of damning ourselves; we’re a bit stupid that way (this is what Saint Thomas says). If God throws charity into our soul, he wants to give us a way to exercise that charity, in sevenfold dimensions, to do better, to be more, to have the right inspirations when we need them. To have the right inspirations or promptings, we need a stable disposition to receive them. And we need those stable inspirations to grow within us. God is, in a sense, surrounding us with love and means of loving.

What, then, is special about the seven Gifts? We’ve already seen the answer. As the Catechism puts it, the Gifts are “permanent dispositions which make man docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit.” We are docile to do what the Spirit wants. Of course, this is not an arbitrary docility and an arbitrary will of the Spirit. Saint Francis protected us from that error. The docility in question is docility of how to love in this given situation and in that given situation that we’re in, given our own human nature and personal quirks, given social factors, given psychological factors in ourselves and others, given spiritual factors which we cannot see ourselves but which the Spirit may foresee and may from time to time inspire us to avoid or jump into the fray. We need our hand to be held as we write our first letters. The Gifts are the dispositions placed in us which allow us to have the Teacher guide our hand. Likewise, we might say the Gifts are the sails of the boat of our soul, and the Holy Spirit is the wind; by ourselves in a state of grace we can row, but with the Gifts, we can be blown ahead and inspired.

If, then, the goal of Christian life is to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mt 22:37; Mk 12:30; Lk 10:27) and to love our neighbour as ourself (Mt 22:39; Mk 12:33; Lk 10:27), then all progress towards the goal must mean a deepening of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit also. This is the first lesson we learn from re-examining the place of the seven Gifts in our life. If we must love more, but if the multiplicity of situations in our life requires more and more reliance on inspirations of God in order to keep on loving as we go, then we must (logically) rely more on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit as we go on. We must lose our own judgment, to an extent, and have more grounding in inspirations – not, to be sure, in a way that destroys human autonomy and human will, but in a way that relativizes them in situations in which they are relative. Perhaps, at the outset of the spiritual journey, we do not have much consciousness of the seven Gifts’ importance. That’s normal. But as we carry on, we discovered that the growth of charity is correlative to the growth of the Gifts in us. If we know what the seven Gifts look like, we may see them more and more as we go on. We rely on God more; in our weakness, we find God’s strength.

What about another lesson? The second lesson, which is implicit in the treatment of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange and Jacques Maritain on this subject, comes from the fact that four of the Gifts are related to action or exterior relationships (Counsel, Fortitude, Piety, Fear – though the exteriorness of Piety is perhaps more clearly related to the interiorness of having a Father), and three are related to interior awareness and attentiveness (Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge). If this isn’t clear, one can go back to what Saint Francis de Sales said about each Gift. His explanation of their specificities is pretty average and typical, though said exceptionally well and clearly. If we have active and contemplative Gifts – which is to say, if love can and must be actualized both actively and contemplatively for all human beings – then we have a very simple, God-centric way of analyzing the active life and the contemplative life.

  • What is an active life? It is a life where the Gifts of the Holy Spirit which the Spirit most frequently uses, like well worn keys on a piano, are Counsel, Fortitude, Piety, Fear. All lives use all the keys to make a song, but the active life hits these notes the most frequently.
  • What is a contemplative life? It is a life where the Gifts of the Holy Spirit which the Spirit most frequently uses, like well worn keys on a piano, are Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge. All lives use all the keys to make a song, but the contemplative life hits these notes the most frequently.
  • What is an active-contemplative life? It is a life with a dominant mix of the Gifts which may be harder to classify as either active or contemplative; as a single example, one may think, here, of Francis of Assisi living the Gifts of Knowledge and Piety with exceptional emphasis. Two of the most dominant notes in Saint Francis’ story are Knowledge (contemplative) and Piety (active).

In this sense, active and contemplative vocations and lives find their specificity more closely in God than in exterior circumstances. We no longer specify active/contemplative by what human beings do (this is an odd way to talk about contemplation!). A contemplative need not live in a cloister. A contemplative need not be defined by certain hours of prayer. We can do another analysis. We specify active/contemplative by how the Spirit leads. And the concepts for such an analysis are already there in the tradition: Charleswe have seven Gifts; in this particular human life, which Gifts, by God’s own design and initiative, dominate? One understands how it’s possible to live a primarily contemplative vocation in the world, either as a religious or as a layperson. It may be less common; but it’s truly possible. One can understand that someone immersed in the world, like a Blessed Charles de Foucauld, may more often see Jesus in their neighbour – something impossible without the Gifts of Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge all in their way – more than counselling, being strong, fleeing evil, finding work light. Of course, all seven Gifts will be present. But one can easily see how, for some people, the contemplative Gifts might dominate, even immersed in the day-to-day life of the world.

These are just two lessons to draw from looking at the tradition of the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. Are there any other lessons which you think relate to being a “contemplative in the mud”?


3 thoughts on “The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit in the Active and Contemplative Life

  1. I don’t know how qualified I am to answer, but lessons I have been learning are a continual surrender of self and continual ‘checking’ of self and God. I don’t know how to describe it – but I have learned to ‘listen’ better, particularly when being prompted to do something or not do something. Does that make any sense? The outcome has been a change in thoughts, words and actions. I can’t take any of the credit for these changes, because it is not me, but God. It’s a work in progress… Sometimes I get discouraged and think I ‘ought’ to be ‘better’ than I am, but then I think we’re all works in progress, aren’t we? I’d like to think my autistic son, and my ill health, are tools used by God to teach me patience, gentleness, self-control and perseverance ;-)

    One thing I find remarkable is that in the surrendering of self, in letting God be in control, I don’t have more than vague ideas about the future – and I’m fine with that. Also, one of the real blessings is in starting each day afresh, and not worrying about what I have or have not ‘achieved’ (in whatever sense that may be – spiritual or practical). If I’m struggling I will speak the words ‘help me, Lord’ and more often than not this will gently give me a focus for what I need to do. Like I say, work in progress. Last week my husband and I were able to help someone and able to give what we knew God wanted us to give and that was wonderful.

  2. Pingback: “Contemplative in the Mud” | SOUL FOOD MINISTRIES

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