As you may recall, there are seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge, Counsel, Piety, Fortitude and Fear of the Lord. Most Catholics cannot define them well in any sort of articulate way. This is due to poor catechesis but also to the fact that modern English has tended to use several of these terms interchangeably, almost as synonyms, though they are distinct theologically.
There are also secular usages of these terms that have no correspondence to how we mean them theologically. To indicate intellectual understanding of something, a person in modern English may say, “I know” or they may say “I understand.” To most modern Anglophones this is a distinction without a difference. To speak of someone as being of great intelligence, a contemporary English speaker might say, “He has great understanding” or “He is a wise man” or yet again, “He is possessed of great knowledge.” Here too most would not think of these as dramatically different sentences. There are shades of meaning in calling a man wise versus smart or knowledgeable but most modern speakers are losing what those shades of difference actually are.
For all these reasons (poor catechesis, secular misuse and evolving language) Catholics have a hard time distinguishing between Knowledge, Wisdom and Understanding.
Let’s try to repair some of the damage.
First, some distinctions:
- We are discussing here the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. As such they are given to the baptized and strengthened in confirmed. They exist only in the Christian per se. A man may be said to be knowledgeable in the repair of a car or in the stock market, but we are not referring to the Gift of Knowledge given by the Holy Spirit in this case, only to worldly knowledge. A woman may be said to be wise in the ways of the world. But again, we are not referring to the Gift of Wisdom given by the Holy Spirit when we speak in this way. A man may be said to understand Spanish, but we are not speaking of the Gift of Understanding given by the Holy Spirit when we speak in this way. Hence, there are worldly counterparts to these words which do not conform to the theological meaning of these realities.
- The Gifts of the Holy Spirit are supernatural and thus they transcend the ordinary powers of the soul or the human person in general. They are infused by God and no soul could ever acquire them on its own. In these senses they are different from the virtues which can be acquired naturally and can be moved or actuated by man himself. In the case of the Gifts, God is the unique mover and cause. Man is only the instrumental cause. Thus the acts which proceed from the gifts are materially human but formally divine just as the melody an artist plays on the harp is materially from the harp but formally from the musician who plays it. That the soul reacts or responds preserves freedom and merit but the soul merely seconds the divine action and can not take the initiative.
- Wisdom and knowledge are distinguished according to their objects. Wisdom pertains to God and the things of God. Knowledge pertains to created things and how they relate to our final end.
- Understanding too, meant here as the Gift of Understanding has a rather specific focus: It penetrates revealed truth to grasp its fullest meaning. Hence one may understand Spanish, but we are not referring to the Gift of Understanding in speaking this way. To grasp the purpose, meaning and implications of the redemption wrought by Jesus Christ would be a more proper usage of this word in terms of the Gift of Understanding.
- I will also add that there is not a little controversy even among theologians and different schools of thought in Catholic tradition as to some of the specifics listed here. Some modern theologians for example do not fully concur with the Thomistic synthesis presented here and argue that certain insights are lost by a 12th Century context. All well and good, and readers are free to add what they might like, even multiply and subtract but PLEASE don’t divide. I find the Thomistic synthesis most careful and helpful, but that does not mean that other insights are of no benefit.
OK, How about some Definitions. Incidentally, these definitions are gleaned from the Summa and also substantially from Fr. Antonio Royo Marin O.P. in his Book, The Great Unknown, The Holy Ghost and His Gifts
1. The Gift of Knowledge is a supernatural habit infused by God through which the human intellect, under the illuminating action of the Holy Spirit, judges rightly concerning created things as ordained to the supernatural end.
Notice that it is a habit. That is, it does not come and go. But like all habits, it can and does grow in depth and breadth. Grace builds on nature, and as one matures and gains experience, the Gift can and does make use of these human qualities. Because the gift is supernatural it is not a matter of human or philosophical knowledge deduced by natural reason. In other words you can’t simply go to school to get this gift. However, it is not unrelated to human development which school can provide. But this is not its origin. There are plenty of learned and humanly smart people who do not manifest the Gift of Knowledge. This can be due to a lack of faith or to resistance caused by weak faith and sin.
By the Gift of Knowledge the human intellect apprehends and judges created things by a certain divine instinct. The individual does not proceed by laborious reasoning but judges rightly concerning all created things by a kind of superior gift that gives an intuitive impulse. I have underlined “created things” because this essentially distinguishes knowledge from wisdom (which pertains to Divine, rather than created things).
Notice that the Gift is especially oriented to created things insofar as they pertain to our ultimate end. Now created things tend either toward our supernatural end or away from it, and the Gift of Knowledge helps us to judge rightly in this respect.
Looked at another way, the Gift of Knowledge helps us to apply the teachings of our faith to the living of daily life, the proper usage of material creation, knowing the proper utility and value of things as well as their dangers and misuses. By it we are able to determine well what conforms to faith and what does not. We are able to make use of creation in a proper way with necessary detachment and proper appreciation for what is truly good.
2. The Gift of Wisdom is a supernatural habit, inseparable from charity, by which we judge rightly concerning God and divine things under the special instinct of the Holy Spirit who makes us taste these things by a certain intuition and sympathy. In other words The truths of God begin to resonate with us and we begin to instinctively love what God loves, will what God wills. What he is and wills makes great sense to us. His teachings clarify and make sense.
We see things increasingly from God’s point of view through this supernatural gift. The thinking of the world increasingly seems as folly and appreciation of God’s Wisdom magnifies. More and more thorough this gift the human person desires to be in union only with God and His ways. By this gift the world is defeated and its folly clearly perceived.
Our love of neighbor is also perfected by it since the Gift of Wisdom helps us to see and thus love others more and more as God sees and loves them.
Since this is a gift, it cannot be learned or acquired. But, as with the Gift of Knowledge, one’s study of Scripture and Tradition can help dispose one for the growth of the Gift which can and does make use of what is humanly supplied. Grace builds on nature and perfects it.
3. The Gift of Understanding is a supernatural habit, infused by God with sanctifying Grace, by which the human intellect, under the illuminating action of the Holy Spirit, is made apt for a penetrating intuition of revealed truths, and even of natural truths so far as they are related to the supernatural end. It enables the believer to penetrate into the depths of revealed truth and deduce later by discursive thinking the conclusions implicit conclusions contained in these truths.
It discloses the hidden meaning of Sacred Scripture. It reveals to us the spiritual realities that are under sensible realities and so that the smallest religious ceremonies carry tremendous significance.
It makes us see causes through their effects simply and intuitively. This gives a profound appreciation for God’s providence.
This song says, “Take My Life and Let it Be Consecrated Lord to Thee.” It goes on to consecrate the whole person to Christ, including the intellect and will. As such it is an invitation for the Seven Gifts to come fully alive.