The Gift of Understanding: Loving our Enemies

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The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit originate from the Latin Vulgate of Isaiah 11:2-3, where the prophet lists the qualities of the “Spirit of the Lord.” The most insightful treatment I have ever read of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit is by St. Augustine in On Christian Doctrine. Connecting Isaiah 11:2-3 with Proverbs 9:11—“the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”—St. Augustine presents the seven gifts as steps up a ladder, ascending from the foundation of Fear of the Lord and culminating in Wisdom. In short, (1) Fear of the Lord is the foundation of humility that gets us back to the confessional and into the state of sanctifying grace. (2) Piety is that enthralling first glance of divine Love in Scripture that blossoms into a desire to gain as much (3) Knowledge about that Love as possible, and which forms a foundation bolstered by (4) Fortitude to endure tribulation, supported by the (5) Counsel of loving others. This leads to (6) Understanding the particular situation and the ability to act in the (7) Wisdom of the Truth.

In my opinion, the most surprising step on this ladder is the sixth—Understanding—which St. Augustine describes as “when a person has reached the point of loving his enemy” and “when he purifies the eye itself, which is able to see God.” With the gift of understanding, the “holy man will be so simple and pure in heart that he will not step aside from the truth for the sake of pleasing men.” Thus, the gift of understanding, which perfects the theological gift of faith, is to be found in truly loving our enemies and in purity of heart so that we can see God.

The practical applications of seeing the gift of understanding in this light are manifold, but I believe they can be summed up in a single point: St. Augustine’s image of the gift of understanding makes it clear that the primary gift of the Holy Spirit is love. With the gift of understanding we are led to give that first gift—love—even to our enemies. For we understand that reason is a tool that can be bent to the will of the person. Without an experience of love, without that first of all gifts, then reason itself is untethered from any possibility of finding the Truth. With the gift of understanding, however, we can see that it is only by loving our enemies—only by offering them the first, most necessary of all gifts—that their reason can rest on a sure foundation and they can begin climbing the ladder to our heavenly homeland.

Br. John Winkowitsch, O.P. | Meet the Student Brothers in Formation HERE