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Gifts of the Holy Spirit

The Gifts Of The Holy Spirit

There’s a story in the Bible, in a book called “Acts of the Apostles,” where Paul travels to Ephesus in Greece. There, Paul encounters a group of recently baptized Christians. Paul asks, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you were baptized?” *Crickets*. They had no idea what he was talking about! The Holy Spirit is surely one of the least understood concepts in Christianity and probably ranks pretty high up there on the list of least understood concepts across all religions. That’s because the Holy Spirit is not something to be understood. The Holy Spirit is something that is felt. So, we’re going to focus on the gifts of the Holy Spirit: the actual qualities by which it is felt and manifested in people’s lives.

In Christian theology, the gifts of the Holy Spirit are:

  • Wisdom
  • Understanding
  • Counsel
  • Fortitude
  • Knowledge
  • Piety
  • Fear of the Lord

If you’re flashing a bit of a side-eye at that last one, don’t worry. We’ll get there. Like the Holy Spirit itself, the fear of God is something that is easy to misinterpret. Don’t get too hung up on the specific words. For now, just know that when you connect with the Holy Spirit, these gifts will infuse your life with a greater sense of meaning, purpose, and—above all—Love.

People have been confused about the Holy Spirit for 2,000 years, so don’t feel bad if you’re one of them. By the end of this article, you’ll have a much better feel for what the Holy Spirit is, how it works, and how to invite it into your own life.

What Is The Holy Spirit?

Ask Catholics, “Who is the Holy Spirit?” and most will give you some version of this answer: “The Holy Spirit is the Third Person of The Trinity. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God is Three People, but also One Person.”

Trinitarian Theology

People feel comfortable enough wrapping their heads around the first two: The Father is the head honcho, and the Son is Jesus Christ. But the Holy Spirit is a bit of an afterthought. The first two are main characters in all the familiar Biblical stories. They’ve also been artistically rendered countless times in the history of Western civilization. It is easy to picture them. The Holy Spirit is only depicted symbolically, most commonly as a dove. A nice image, but not as easy to connect with as the other two.

Dove symbol
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Then there’s the bigger issue of what the heck it means for God to be Three People and One Person. This is where people really get tripped up. The most frustrating thing about the Trinitarian doctrine is this: you’re not supposed to understand it! Not with your mind, at least. This is the official position of the Catholic Church. Authoritative figures and documents like the Athanasian Creed refer to these Three People as “incomprehensible” or “immeasurable.”

You can spend years studying the various theological explanations of how the Trinity works and you might come to understand it better. But it will never make complete sense. The point is to abide in the mystery of the doctrine and accept that there are things the heart and soul can understand but the mind cannot. That being said, I’m going to demystify the concept a bit before diving into the Holy Spirit itself.

The Creative Force Of Triads

Triads aren’t unique to Christianity. For example, in Hinduism, we have Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. They are The Creator, The Preserver, and The Destroyer. In Celtic Shamanism, we have The Maiden, The Mother, and The Crone, representing the stages of birth, life, and death. Lastly, consider the succinct creation story in the Tao Te Ching, the founding book of Daoism:

“The Way [Dao] gave birth to the One
The One gave birth to the Two
The Two gave birth to the Three;
And the Three gave birth to the ten thousand things.”

Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching

The major theme here is creation. God is The Creative Life Force that makes every moment. It’s the Cause of everything in this physical world.

But what’s the point of the triad? Think about how life is created in our world. New life is born through the union of two existing living beings to create a third. I mean, unless you’re an amoeba or starfish or something like that. But generally, that is the story of life’s creation that we are used to. Well, the story of the Holy Spirit and its place within the Trinity is a cosmic metaphysical love story.

I know, I promised I’d steer clear of the intellectual exercises to focus on what the Holy Spirit feels like and how it works. But this story is important to tell because it is about the created uniting with the creator. And that’s exactly how we experience the Holy Spirit in our lives: as a Divine union. So bear with me!

The Metaphysical Christian Love Story

The Book of John opens, “In the beginning was The Word and The Word was with God and The Word was God”. God is the Father, and the Word is the Son—in the Bible, Jesus. But from a metaphysical perspective, this statement refers to two conditions of existence: Beingness (The Father) and Consciousness (The Son). When Beingness perceives itself, Consciousness is born.

Again, there are parallels to this in other religions, with the Buddha teaching that, “In dependence on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact.” From there unfolds all the other conditions of our existence. The tree of life in Jewish Mysticism depicts Kether as “Supreme Consciousness”, who gives birth to Chokmah (or, “Wisdom”), and the two gaze at one another to produce Binah, which means “Understanding.”

In the Christian love story, Beingness and Consciousness sigh a breath of love for one another at first sight. That first shared breath between them is the “Spiritus Sanctus,” The Holy Spirit. This story of The Trinity is a metaphysical explanation for how life perpetually creates itself, becomes aware of itself, and generates Love: Beingness, Awareness, Breath; Origin, Word, Love; Father, Son, Holy Spirit. You can replicate this in your own life. When you close your eyes and just notice your existence, that’s the Beingness in you becoming Conscious of Itself. When you do this, you’ll notice a naturally arising softness, a presence of love. That is the Holy Spirit.

Metaphysics of the Holy Spirit
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Gifts Of The Holy Spirit

It’s only when you consciously connect with the Holy Spirit who lives within you that you feel swept up in the love between The Origin and all of Creation. It’s almost impossible to feel a true sense of belonging in this world if you haven’t experienced some version of being aided by the Divine. There’s an awareness that something is loving you into being in this moment.

This is a necessary condition to live the life of a mystic. But it is not sufficient. Union with the Holy Spirit is not just about making us feel all warm and fuzzy inside. The gifts of the Holy Spirit change us so that we may act in the world in alignment with God’s will. As has been expressed in many forms by many different mystics and theologians, mysticism without action is dead and pointless.

That’s why we’ll be looking at the gifts of the Holy Spirit from the perspective of what they empower you to do. In Christian theology, the Holy Spirit bestows both gifts and fruits. The gifts are like the roots of a tree and the fruits are, well, the fruits! You need the roots to sustain the tree and help it grow, but ultimately what matters most are the fruits. ‘Abdu’l Bahá, the eldest son of the Baha’i prophet Baháʼu’lláh, expresses this concept beautifully:

“When a soul has in it the life of the spirit, then does it bring forth good fruit and become a Divine tree.”

‘Abdu’l Bahá, Baha’i spiritual leader

Because the Holy Spirit dwells within each of us, we all have the potential to become Divine trees.

Fruits of the Holy Spirit
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Divine Presence: The Gift Of Wisdom

Teilhard de Chardin says, “To understand the world, knowledge is not enough. You must see it, touch it, live in its presence and drink the vital heat of existence in the very heart of reality.”

This is what the gift of Wisdom is all about and how it differs from the gifts of Understanding and Knowledge. The Wisdom you receive from the Holy Spirit is a direct experience of the presence of the Divine. AND it is the instant comprehension of Love as the identity of the Divine. The gift of Wisdom gives you a taste of and longing for God. You’ve entered into the cosmic love story and are totally smitten. For this reason, the gift of Wisdom is the most important gift of the Holy Spirit.

That is where Mystical Prayer comes into play. St Bonaventure says,

“At the center of Mystical Prayer is the Holy Spirit, who is a raging fire of glowing Love.”

Saint Bonaventure, Franciscan Cardinal Bishop

The Holy Spirit is the essential nucleus of the spiritual path. If you don’t have a personal experience of the Holy Spirit, then you are merely going through the motions of religion. It means nothing. Because the Holy Spirit is LOVE, and religion without Love is empty. It’s like trying to grow fruit without planting roots first.

Mystical Prayer

If you’ve followed along with my blog or the Holy Rebels podcast, you already know a bit about Mystical Prayer and how strongly I feel about it.

Mystical Prayer is the strange sensation that, suddenly, God is present. It just IS. It might happen in meditation or even spontaneously, in a heightened moment like watching a beautiful sunset. Mystical Prayer erases all barriers between you and God.

We tend to think of prayer and meditation as something you take time out of your day to DO—closing your eyes, watching your breath, maybe folding your hands, and getting in touch with your heart. But Mystical Prayer is rather the effect (the byproduct) of a deep relationship with the fiery core of Ultimate Reality: The Holy Spirit. So really, when you receive the gift of Wisdom, you are entering into a state of mystical prayer. And it is a state that you can continue to enter, a state of being from which you can and should live your whole life.

In the yogic traditions, Divine Union its called Samadhi: a state of profound absorption in the Absolute that is undisturbed by ego-generated impulses—like cravings, anger, or fear. As the influential yogi Paramahansa Yogananda puts it, “The goal of yoga science is to calm the mind, that without distortion it may hear the infallible counsel of the Inner Voice.” Whatever tradition you ground yourself in, Mystical Prayer is a largely thought-free state in which you realize that Everything is One Thing.

Compassion: The Gifts Of Knowledge And Understanding

It’s impossible to be genuinely compassionate without the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

If you’re doing the “right thing,” but you’re lacking the heartfelt presence of the Holy Spirit, you’re missing substance. If you’re doing the right thing just because you think you “should,” then you’re doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. Authentic ethical conduct has to come from within you.

With the gift of Wisdom, you feel a fundamental, palpable connection and attraction to God. You feel the presence of God within you and all around you. Tapping into that connection through mystical prayer enables you to see the world from the perspective of God. That is the gift of Knowledge. You then understand all of the “right things” and “shoulds” a bit better. The gift of Understanding helps you glean a fuller sense of meaning from things like scripture and ritual.

With the gifts of Knowledge and Understanding, you can’t help but feel genuine Love and compassion for all of Creation. There’s this wise, gentle Loving Presence with you, piercing your soul from all directions and bubbling up like a spring, from the very center of your being, radiating its light outwards. You can no longer contain this Love and it needs to be shared with everyone and everything.

Loving presence
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Indwelling Spirit: The Gift Of Counsel

Filled with the Knowledge and Understanding that carries you into a state of unconditional compassion, you naturally want to do what’s right. The gift of Counsel takes you to that next level, enabling you to attune your inner compass to the Holy Spirit’s fiery Love. Suddenly, you have more clarity and conviction in your decision-making. Remember Paul? After the conversation with the Christians who are unaware of the Holy Spirit, Paul tries to articulate it. He says that the Holy Spirit is the “internal witness.” What he’s referring to is the gift of Counsel.

Paul speaks about the Holy Spirit as a permanent, strengthening force inside you. The gift of Counsel makes the Holy Spirit function as an internal homing device you can depend on as a source of wisdom. With it, you now have the spiritual maturity to remind yourself to pause, become aware, and choose Love. Always. This Counsel is the calm inner authority that inspires morality. It is the Love of God. The mystics call this the Indwelling Spirit and you can call upon it whenever you need help. This is what the mystics do when they pray.

If you can pause, sit still, and wait, you will notice Silence. If you listen carefully, you can hear with the ears of your heart that there’s something in the Silence—God is there. Or, in the poetic words of Maya Angelou, “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”

Groundedness: The Gifts Of Fortitude and Piety

You might be wondering, “How do you tell if your spiritual experiences are authentic? How do you know you’re not just on some weird emotional high?” This is a really important question that all mystics address in their own ways. But what it boils down to is this: groundedness.

Remember all that stuff about trees and roots and fruits? Your spiritual practices should make you feel more anchored and rooted to the ground—not like you’re floating off into space. Working yourself up into an ecstatic frenzy is NOT the point of mystical prayer. The goal is quite the opposite. Martin Buber—part mystic, part philosopher—explains it like this: “The encounter with God does not come to man in order that he may henceforth attend to God but in order that he may prove its meaning in action in the world. All revelation is a calling and a mission.”

This is why the gifts of Fortitude and Piety are so important. Fortitude allows you to always act according to the inner Counsel of the Holy Spirit. Piety ensures that your underlying sense of faith will not fluctuate along with the vicissitudes of day-to-day life, tragedies, or the highs and lows of your spiritual practices and experiences.

A Prayer For Groundedness

To see what these two gifts of the Holy Spirit really look like, consider this prayer from Thomas Merton:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. Amen.”

Thomas Merton, Catholic writer and mystic
Prayer for the gift of groundedness
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The Misunderstood Gift Of Fear

Okay, so what’s up with the fear stuff? People often struggle with the seeming contradiction between God as Love and as something to fear. Isn’t God supposed to dispel fear, as the end of Thomas Merton’s prayer implies? Why is the last gift of the Holy Spirit the gift of the Fear of the Lord? How can fear be a gift?

Fear Of God’s Presence

There are a couple of types of fear to consider here. The first is the fear that arises in one’s initial encounter with the Holy Spirit. The 20th-century theologian Rudolf Otto popularized the term “mysterium tremendum” to describe the ineffable feeling of fear that arises from being in the presence of the Divine. You are suddenly overwhelmed with the feeling of standing before something infinitely grander than yourself. It is an experience that leaves you speechless—or, in Paul’s case, sightless.

But this fear is intertwined with the feeling of awe that puts you in a state of childlike wonder. Like a child, you see everything with fresh eyes. Everything appears new because your world has been transformed into something beautiful. It has become infused with the Love of the Holy Spirit. This type of fear shocks you out of your normal ego-self. It opens you up so that you can receive all the other gifts of the Holy Spirit. That is why the Fear of the lord is a gift.

Fear Of God’s Absence

When you fell in love for the first time, wasn’t it kind of scary? Partly just because of how new the feeling was, partly because you lost the ability to focus on anything else. But also, it’s because you are afraid of losing the person who makes you feel that way.

This fear doesn’t need to be overwhelming. It needn’t dominate your life or your relationship. You may not even be aware of it most of the time. But it is still there in the background as the stamp of a very deep love.

This is just an example of how fear and love can coexist. The point is that the gift of Fear is not about fearing judgment or punishment. Rather, it is something that fills you with an even deeper sense of fervor to live through the Holy Spirit. You want to remain as close to God as possible. In that sense, it is a gift that heightens all the other gifts. Just as you would do anything for your loved one, you want to do everything you can to carry out God’s will. That’s why the Book of Isaiah says that those infused with the Holy Spirit “will delight in the fear of the Lord.”

But hey, if you’re still not buying it, you can choose another word that suits you better than “fear.” Remember, the gifts are there to produce fruits, not theological debates. And if you understand that, then you understand the true significance of the Holy Spirit.

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