The American poet, Robert Frost, once wrote that there is a congenital something in us that hates a wall. Well, there is also something, just as non-eradicable, that loves a list, especially in us who are cradle Catholics.

Our classical catechisms had lists for everything – sacraments, commandments, deadly sins, cardinal virtues, minor virtues and even types of angels. There are two such lists for the Holy Spirit, one listing the fruits and the other listing the gifts. These gifts are not simply a catechetical invention arbitrarily created for pedagogical purposes; both have a solid biblical foundation.

Thus, the fruits of the Spirit are based on a list of virtues that Paul (Galatians 5:22-23) describes as coming from the Spirit. Our Catechism lists 12 of these: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, and chastity.

The gifts ascribed to the Spirit are based upon two biblical lists; the first given by the prophet Isaiah (11:2) and the second revealed by Paul in 1 Corinthians (12:4-11). Our catechisms, both old and new, summarize these gifts in a list of seven: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord.

Since, in preparation for the millennium, this year has been designated as the year of the Holy Spirit, my next six columns will be devoted to speaking about the Holy Spirit, specifically about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. However, in order to understand what these gifts are and what precisely they bring to us, it is necessary to first situate them within their ultimate source, their generation within the life of the Trinity.

How is the Holy Spirit generated within the Trinity and how do the gifts of the Spirit flow out of that? It might seem daunting to try to describe, but we are not without help from divine revelation and human analogues in doing so.

The Holy Spirit has classically been defined in theology as “the love between the Father and the Son.” This is not simply an abstract formula but a phrase that tries to express, however inadequately, what results anywhere, here or in heaven, whenever there is a genuine reciprocal flow of love. 

  • Thus, simply within the normal flow of human love, we can see the following dynamic: Someone, out of love and gratitude, gives a gift to another.
  • That gift helps fire love and gratitude in that other who then, in gratitude, reciprocates.
  • This reciprocation fires a deeper love and gratitude within the initial giver who can now give in an even deeper way to the other.
  • This in turn fires a still deeper love and gratitude in that other who can then respond even more deeply in love and gratitude to the giver.
  • As this dynamic works, an energy, a fire, a certain palpable force, a spirit, begins to build which affects and infects for the good everything it comes into contact with, drawing it into its own joyous energy.

That is, by way of analogy, how the Trinity works and how the Holy Spirit is generated. Thus the Godhead can be described:

  • God, the Father, the source of everything, is always creating life and is giving it in love to the Son.
  • The Son is lovingly receiving that life and is, in gratitude, giving it back to the Father.
  • This enables the Father to give that life back in an even deeper way.
  • The Son then is able to respond even more deeply to the Father.
  • As this reciprocal flow of love and gratitude deepens and intensifies, an energy, a fire, a palpable force, a person, the Holy Spirit, is born and that force infects everything around it, drawing it into a palpable charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, gentleness, fidelity and chastity.
  • That very ambience, in turn, affects perception. (“Love is the eye,” as Hugo of St. Victor puts it.) The gifts of the Spirit flow from its fruits: When one’s heart and mind are colored by love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, gentleness, fidelity and chastity (as opposed to anger, bitterness, fear and lust) one will also understand things and react to them from a different wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord.

The Holy Spirit is now working.