Sunday, May 23, 2010

In just a few minutes, Lord, I'm going to get out of bed...

Homily, Pentecost C
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr.

A parishioner once gave me a prayer that had a ring of truth to it that I thought would be very appropriate for Pentecost.

It goes like this: "Dear Lord, So far today, I've done alright. I haven't gossiped, haven't lost my temper, haven't been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish, or over-indulgent. I'm very thanful for that. But in just a few minutes, Lord, I'm going to get out of bed. And from then on, I'm going to need a lot more help."

That's very true, isn't it? Well, of course, the help we need, the help the Lord promises, is given to us by the Holy Spirit.

St. Augustine said, "What the soul is to the body, the Holy Spirit is to the Body of Christ, which is the Church." (CCC797) So, the Holy Spirit helps us in many ways. He dwells in us through Baptism, he works in all the sacraments which give growth and healing to the Body of Christ. He gives each person a gift or ministry to perform to help build up the Body of Christ, as St. Paul says.

But what I want to talk about today are what have been traditionally called the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. I'm sure we all learned the names of the seven gifts when we were young, most likely when we prepared for Confirmation. They are: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, Fear of the Lord.

But, do we know what each of these gifts mean? Each gift has a specific purpose to help us on this earthly journey to our heavenly destination.

The spiritual writers have always used the image comparing the Gifts of the Holy Spirit to sails on a ship. Just as sails prepare a ship to respond to the wind, so the seven gifts prepare us to be open, docile and obedient to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. In this way, the saints are like great sailing vessels under full sail, properly responding to the different movements of the wind. Our Lord used this image himself when he said, (John 3:8), "The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."

But the gifts come in different degrees, with Fear of the Lord at the beginning, and Wisdom as the crown. (see Garrigou-Lagrange, bk2p226ff, and bk1p66ff)

So the first gift is that of Fear of the Lord. Now this is not a worldly fear, or a servile fear related to fear of being punished. But instead, it is a filial fear, that of a child to a parent. It is a fear of sin, not because of sin's punishments, but a fear of offending the Lord, who is so deserving of our love, like we say in the act of contrition. This is why the psalm (110:10) says, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. It turns us from evil and points us towards good.

The second gift is the gift of Piety, which inspires in us love for God, for our Savior Jesus Christ, and for our Blessed Mother and the saints. It makes us fervent in our religious practices, helps us to seek spiritual things, and frees us from undue attachment to worldly things. As St. Paul says, "The Spirit too helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought; but the Spirit himself makes intercession for us with groanings which can not be expressed in speech."

The next gift is the gift of Knowledge. On the one hand, human knowledge is good, and is a gift from the Lord. All areas of knowledge can be good: the arts, humanities, sciences, and medicine. But they can also be misused. So, the gift of knowledge from the Holy Spirit helps us to rightly judge human things, so that we use them for the love of God and neighbor and not misuse them from selfish or prideful behavior. It also gives us true knowledge of good and evil, that we love what is right, and detest what is wrong.

Above knowledge comes the gift of Fortitude. And this is a higher gift simply because knowing what is good and evil is not good enough, we have to have the strength of will to choose what is good and avoid what is evil. We need the gift of fortitude to help us in our battle with the three-fold source of sin: the world, the flesh, and the devil.

After knowledge comes the gift of Counsel. Our Lord said that we needed to be as simple as doves and wise as serpents. In serving the Lord, sometimes we are called to be meek, humble, and patient, but other times we need to be firm, bold, and strong. How do we know which? Well, the gift of counsel strengthens our prudence, so that we can know harmonize these different virtues.

Next comes the gift of Understanding, which helps us to penetrate the mysteries of our faith, of our salvation. It's one thing to believe what we have been told by a trustworthy authority, it's quite another to understand it and want to live it. It's one thing to memorize formulas and repeat them, it's quite another to savour and taste them. And that's what this gift does: it gives us not an intellectual understanding of our faith, but it helps us to understand the truths of our faith with our hearts. So even the simplest of souls can have this gift. I think the best example is St. Therese of Lisieux, who lived a simple life as a nun, and wrote only one book, "The Story of a Soul", yet she is a doctor of the faith because of her deep insights into the reality of our faith and how to live it out with a profound love.

The final gift, the crown of all the gifts, is Wisdom, which helps us to view all things in relation to God, who is our source and destination, our beginning and our last end, the Alpha and the Omega. It especially helps us to understand the central mystery of our faith: the Lord's death and resurrection, and how the Cross fits into our everyday life. It helps us to see the Lord present in all things, so that we know the truth of what Jesus said, (Matthew 25:40), "Amen, I say to you, what you did for the least of my brethren, you did for me."

How do we prepare ourselves to receive these gifts? Very simple: first, follow the will of God as it is known in the commandments and in the teaching of the Church; second, actively seek to do good, performing acts of charity; and finally, like I said at the beginning, ask for his help, and pray frequently and fervently. And a good place to start is from the sequence today, "Come Holy Spirit, come! And from your celestial home shed a ray of light divine!"

How do we judge our progress, how do we know we have these gifts? Again, simply look for the fruits. And the Fruits of the Holy Spirit, as we learned in our catechism (CCC1832), are twelvefold: Charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, fidelity, modesty, self-control, and chastity. These are, what the new catechism calls, the "first fruits of glory."

So, as one of the spiritual writers says, "Let us be like ships with our sails, not furled, but fully spread, so that we might be reponsive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, so that he might lead us through the storms and troubled waters of this world into that everlasting port, our heavenly home, which the Lord has prepared for those who love him."