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The gifts of understanding and wisdom

Having pondered the gifts of fear of the Lord, piety, and knowledge, we proceed to the gifts of understanding and wisdom. Please remember that the quoted definitions are from Father Jordan Aumann's Spiritual Theology.

Understanding is a gift "to give a deeper insight and penetration of divine truths held by faith, not as a transitory enlightenment but as a permanent intuition." Illuminating the mind to truth, the Holy Spirit aids a person to grasp the truths of faith easily and to penetrate the depths of those truths. Such illumination, grasping, and penetration allows one to enter a divine intimacy with the Lord.

Of course, this gift does not entail a complete understanding of the mysteries of faith, like fully comprehending the mystery of the Holy Trinity or the Real Presence; rather, a person understands that these mysteries are credible; that they are compatible with and related to each other; and that they are not unreasonable although they may surpass reason.

The essential quality of this gift is a "penetrating intuition" - in a sense, the moving beyond the surface. This gift operates in several ways: first, disclosing the hidden meaning of sacred Scripture, as Our Lord did with the disciples on the way to Emmaus (Lk 24:13ff); second, revealing the significance of symbols and figures, like St. Paul seeing Christ as the Passover Lamb (Hebrews) or the image of the rock of the Exodus account that poured forth water to quench the thirst of the Israelites (I Cor 10:4); third, showing the hand of God at work in a person's life, even in the most mysterious or troublesome events, like suffering; and fourth, revealing the spiritual realities that underlie sensible appearances, like penetrating the mystery of the Lord's sacrifice in the offering of the Mass or recognizing the presence of Christ in the holy Eucharist, as did the peasant who said to St. John Vianney when asked about what he was doing while sitting in Church gazing at the tabernacle: "I look at Him, and He looks at me." This gift brings the virtue of faith to perfection. Accordingly, St. Thomas said, "In this very life, when the eye of the spirit is purified by the gift of understanding, one can in a certain way see God" (Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 69).

This gift also assists in understanding natural truths and the use of created things but through a lens of faith. While enjoying created things, a person understands that they not only attest to His majesty as the Creator but also are gifts from God to be used wisely. As such, a person understands that all of creation is passing and has a sense of detachment. Therefore, creation does not become an end in itself, or created things idols, but one understands they are gifts from Almighty God. Understanding, then, moves a person always to be mindful to place God first in life, to be generous in helping others in need, and to reject what is useless. For example, some individuals may spend much time, even hours, on Facebook or texting, but neglect daily prayer; do they understand the fleeting satisfaction they crave will not gain for them the sustaining friendship with Our Lord and ultimately eternal life?

Given the gifts of knowledge and understanding which perfect faith, the gift of wisdom perfects the virtue of charity. Wisdom empowers a person "to judge and order all things in accordance with divine norms and with a connaturality that flows from a loving union with God." So while knowledge and understanding enable a person to know and to penetrate the divine truths, wisdom moves us to "fall in love" with them. The Holy Spirit aids the contemplation of divine things, enabling the person to grow in union with God.

This gift unites us to the heart of Jesus. Father Adolphe Tanquerey taught, "This, then, is the difference between the gift of wisdom and that of understanding, the latter is a view taken by the mind, while the former is an experience undergone by the heart; one is light, the other love, and so they united and complete one another. Wisdom, withal, remains the more perfect gift; for the heart outranges the intellect, it sounds greater depths, and grasps or divines what reason fails to reach. This is particularly the case with the saints, in whom love often surpasses knowledge" (The Spiritual Life, p. 630). For example, St. Therese of Lisieux (declared a doctor of the church), had no formal education in theology, and yet was wise to the ways of the Lord, a wisdom gained through prayer and simple acts of love offered to God.

While this gift contemplates the divine, it also is a practical wisdom. It applies God's ideas to judge both created and divine matter, thereby directing human acts according to divine wisdom. Therefore, a person will see and evaluate all things - both joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, success and failure - from God's point of view, and accept them with equanimity. With wisdom, all things, even the worst, are seen as having a supernatural value - for example, giving value to martyrdom. Here a person arises above the wisdom of this world, and lives in the love of God.

St. Paul captured well this gift of wisdom: "What we utter is God's wisdom: a mysterious, a hidden wisdom. God planned it before all ages for our glory. …Yet God has revealed this wisdom to us through the Spirit. …The Spirit we have received is not the world's spirit but God's Spirit, helping us to recognize the gifts He has given us. We speak of these, not in words of human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, thus interpreting spiritual things in spiritual terms. The natural man does not accept what is taught by the spirit of God. For him, that is absurdity. He cannot come to know such teaching because it must be appraised in a spiritual way. The spiritual man, on the other hand, can appraise everything. We have the mind of Christ" (I Cor 2:6ff).

Or consider St. John's first epistle: "God is love. Everyone who loves is begotten of God and has knowledge of God. …He who abides in love, abides in God, and God in him. Our love is brought to perfection in this, that we should have confidence on the day of judgment; for our relation to this world is just like His. Love has no room for fear; rather, perfect love casts out all fear" (I Jn 4:7, 17-18).

Questions may be sent to Fr. Saunders, pastor of Our Lady of Hope Church in Potomac Falls, at straightanswers@ourladyofhope.net or Our Lady of Hope Church, 46639 Algonkian Pkwy., Potomac Falls, VA 20165.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014