The MOST Theological Collection: Our Father's Plan: God's Arrangements and Our Response
"Chapter 23: Spouse of the Holy Spirit"
Infused contemplation, of which we spoke in chapter 22, comes through the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, chiefly wisdom and understanding. But there are other functions of these Gifts, especially in letting us be guided by the the Holy Spirit Himself.
To make the matter clear, we notice that there are three guides, or levels of guides, that we may follow in making our decisions.
The first and lowest level is that in which the soul is led by the whim of the moment, by that which gives pleasure. The great pagan philosopher Aristotle said that to make pleasure our guide is to have a life "fit for cattle."1 A dog's life is a helpful comparison. Dogs are completely predictable. If a dog has something to eat, and happens to feel like eating, he will surely eat. If a dog has a chance to sleep, and happens to feel like sleeping, he will surely sleep. And so on for sex, and everything else. A dog always does whatever he happens to feel like at the moment; he follows the whim of the moment, in pursuit of pleasure.
Not a few humans have greatly misunderstood this: they have thought that to do what they want, when they want, as they want it, is the glorious "freedom of the sons of God" of which St. Paul speaks. Far from the truth!. They are living, literally, a dog's life, or a life fit for cattle.
Clearly, we ought to go higher than a dog's life. On the second level the guide a person follows is reason. This is a life more fit for humans. Of course, thanks to the goodness and generosity of our Father, when a person tries to follow reason sincerely, he or she will in practice also have the help of actual graces, the kind of which we spoke in explaining St. Paul's words in Philippians 2:13 (chapter 18).
But there is a much higher level: that of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.2 On this level, one has the higest kind of guide. Let us compare the second and third levels, to make the difference clear. On the second level, one follows reason, with, as we said, the help of actual graces. On this level one commonly has to think things out step by step. For example, suppose I come to see that since I have sinned, I ought to do penance, in reparation for the pain I have caused our Lord, and to help rebalance the damage my sins have done to the objective order, which the Holiness of our Father loves, and to help correct the pulls of creatures (cf. chapter 19) which make it less easy for my thoughts and heart to rise above creatures to the level of our Father Himself. After coming to realize that I need mortification or penance, I would next ask myself: How much do I need, considering my sins? What sort of mortification is prudent considering my whole life situation? I would go through several steps to finally reach the conclusion of what I should do. As we said, this is a process carried on basically by human reason, with the help of actual graces, which the generosity of our Father always offers, which we actually have if we do not reject them. After I have reached my conclusion, if someone should ask me: Why did you decide on this? I could give a rational explanation, precisely since I arrived at the conclusion by a step-by-step process of reasoning.
But when guidance comes to us through the gifts, there is no such step by step process. Rather, the answer is, as it were, dropped ready-made into the hopper of our brain. It is the Holy Spirit Himself who provides it. He does this, we might say, on the special wavelength of His gifts. They make it possible for me to receive such guidance. As a result, if someone should ask me why I propose to do what I have come to see in this way, I would probably reply: "I don't know how to explain. I just know it is good." This happens since I did not reach the conclusion by a step-by-step process.
Clearly, we can see both a great advantage and a danger here. The danger is that a person might just deceive himself, and mistake feelings for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. (Some writings on this subject speak of instincts or impulses from the Holy Spirit. There is a sense in which this is true, but we must not take it to mean one waits for a feeling to jab him, and then decides it is the Holy Spirit.)
How avoid the danger? Experience shows that when guidance comes through the gifts, it sometimes gives an interior certitude, sometimes does not. Usually it does not give a certitude, but leaves some doubt. This is because the Holy Spirit wants us to ask the advice of a superior or prudent spiritual director. St. Teresa of Avila received a commission from the Holy Spirit-by way of a special revelaton-to found a stricter branch of the Carmelites. Yet she did not dare to begin without consulting more than one spiritual director.3 In general, the more important or far-reaching the proposal that one seems to receive is, the more need of consultation. Further, one should not readily suppose he or she has received such an inspiration unless he or she is already far advanced in the spiritual life. These gifts do not make their influence felt much, if at all, in the earlier stages, though there may be a latent effect, as we will explain shortly.
It is only when something must be decided, and yet there is no chance to check with a superior or director, that the Holy Spirit gives real certitude. Even when He seems to do so, we must be careful, for the seeming certitude could come from self-deception. If one is humble, cultivates mortification and meditation, and asks the help of our Blessed Mother, there is great protection against such deception.
We mentioned that there is a latent operation of the gifts at times. In the full instances of the operation of the gifts, the soul is largely passive-its faculties do little more than assent to be moved by the Holy Spirit. In contrast, under ordinary actual graces, of which we spoke in chapter 18, the soul is more active: the movement of grace causes the person's faculties to turn out the results actively. In the latent mode there is an intermediate picture, more passive, yet not as fully passive as when the gifts work in the fullest way. For example, a soul that is in the gradual transition from the prayer of simplicity to the first experience of infused contemptation may have the light from the gifts intermingling with human activity aided by actual graces. The contribution of the gifts will probably not be noticed, at least not clearly. Or suppose one is deliberating using the infused virtue of prudence. An inspiration from the gifts might add a sudden light, or might put before him a thought from the Gospels. This sort of aid could blend in so well with the work of deliberation by reason as to pass unnoticed.
In any case, we said there is a great advantage in having this highest kind of guidance, since it comes from the Holy Spirit Himself. St. Thomas Aquinas holds that the help of the gifts is indispensable for eternal salvation, since the goal of salvation is the direct vision of God-a thing entirely beyond the natural capabilities of any conceivable creature. Hence the need of a "superhuman" mode of acting, provided by the gifts.4 The Holy Spirit will lead a soul to decide on things that are not contrary to reason, but are higher than the point to which reason would reach. Jesus Himself, even though divine, even though His human soul had the direct vision of God, yet was habitually led by the Holy Spirit, as we find many times in the Gospels, e.g., the Spirit led Him into the desert for His 40 day fast before he began His public mission: Lk 4:1. Again, on another occasion, Lk 10:21 tells us that He "rejoiced in the Holy Spirit."
Since our Father loves to observe good order in all things, He willed that the human faculties of Jesus be guided and moved through these Gifts, even though His divinity could have done all directly.
A specially clear instance of the fact that this guidance of the Holy Spirit can lead one not to points contrary to reason, but to things above reason, is to be seen in the conduct of our Blessed Mother right after the Archangel had asked and obtained her consent, her fiat, to be the Mother of the Redeemer. If she were acting in a merely natural way, following just reason-which St. Paul would call the mode of the "natural man" in contrast to the "spiritual man" (1 Cor 2:14-15)-she probably would have thought the following way: "My people have been waiting for centuries for this day; they have desired the coming of the Messiah. Now I know from the words of the Angel that He is already conceived within me.5 I should not just keep this joy to myself; I should tell our people; especially I ought to tell the authorities in Jerusalem. And what of Joseph my husband-it is only a question of time until he will have to see that I am with child. What would he suspect! I really ought to tell him right away."
But yet we know from the Scriptures what she really did: none of these things at all. The Holy Spirit led her higher, on the lofty path of humility. She told no one, not even Joseph who, quite reasonably, was worried. God had to send an angel to Joseph to keep him from divorcing her quietly.
St. John of the Cross speaks eloquently on her fidelity to the Holy Spirit:
Creatures do make their imprint on ordinary souls, and the attractions of creatures often lure them to act on the level of animals, or at least to fall short of the highest level. But as for our Blessed Mother, we recall the words of Pope Pius IX in his document defining the Immaculate Conception, in which he taught:
If such was her holiness even at the start, what must it have been after a long, most difficult life of absolute fidelity to the Holy Spirit!8 So it is quite fitting that many theologians today speak of her as the Spouse of the Holy Spirit. St. Maximilian Kolbe, a few hours before his final arrest on February 17, 1941, leading to his martyrdom, wrote down on paper these theologically splendid and beautiful comments:
No wonder then that Pope Pius XII could write of her in the cenacle before the first Pentecost: "She it was who, by her most mighty prayers, obtained that the Spirit of the Divine Redeemer, already given on the Cross, should be bestowed on the newborn Church on the day of Pentecost, in the company of miraculous gifts."11
It is obvious too how her prayers can gain the riches of the workings of these same gifts for those devoted to her. As St. Louis de Montfort said: "When the Holy Spirit, her Spouse, has found Mary in a soul, He flies there, He enters there in His fulness, He communicates Himself to that soul abundantly, and to the full extent to which it makes room for His Spouse."12
We all receive these gifts at baptism, or even earlier; if baptized in adult life, we receive when we first gain the state of grace. Why then, we must ask, is there not more effect from them in our lives? It is basically a lack of receptivity, of needed dispositons. Only when a soul is rather advanced will the effects of the gifts show clearly (as contrasted with the latent action described above). It follows that whatever promotes spiritual development favors also the activity of the gifts. The chief things of course are humility, mortification, meditation-all of which make room for love. To these we add deep devotion to the Mother of God.
A particularly important obstacle is what is sometimes called affection to venial sin, which we spoke of in chapter 15. As we have seen, this is a kind of gap in the person's resolve to please God, the attitude that given a certain degree of difficulty, one fully intends to offend Him by venial sin. Of course, little or no progress can be made in this context. Lesser but similar is the obstacle from attachments to any creatures. We recall the dramatic comparison given by St. John of the Cross of the bird on a string13 and our comparison of the mental meter (chapter 19).
St. Thérèse of Lisieux made it a practice to obey any Sister in the convent, even those without authority. The reason seems to have been mortification, and this was also a means to avoid acting on the low, first level which we spoke of earlier in this chapter, the level on which one follows the whim of the moment. In obeying another she would at least stay clear of that low way of deciding. Those who do not live in circumstances like hers cannot of course use such a means. But one can follow the spirit of the Beatitudes and related ideals presented in Matthew 5, which urge us not to press our own will.
Further, it is a great help to have what we might call a set of private policies (it used to be called a private rule). For this one works out, with the help of a good spiritual adviser, a set of policies: what devotions, specifically, one will follow each day, and perhaps even the times for each, so far as the life situation of each one permits; it will also include definite general principles on what kind of mortification and how much a person will cultivate. Such a policy on mortification is much needed, precisely because it is especially hard to be objective about mortification; people tend to do nothing, or to do too much. Obviously, the advice of a good director is priceless here. Once such a set of policies has been prudently determined, it should be held to without wavering until the time comes when it seems a general change is in order-again, to be worked out with a good director. What of exceptions to such policies? Of course, exceptions are possible, but if we recall the astute comment made by St. Teresa of Avila14 that our body tends to find it needs more and more, we will be inclined to be very tight, to reject reasons for exceptions unless they are very strong and very clear. Otherwise, the exception tends to become the rule.
One final note, on a phenomenon called natural inspiration, is in order. The very first thing the action of the gifts does is to cause the soul to see something as good which mere reason would not be likely to show. Then, as needed, the gifts provide the strength to carry out this good-which is most conspicuous in the case of martyrs, who hold up with cheer, even seeming joy, under the most atrocious physical tortures.
As we said, the gifts can lead one to strictly superhuman heights. Now in natural matters there is also a kind of action of God, not through these gifts, but in the natural order, which can and does lead some to see things in a superhuman way. This is what we mean: His action can cause a musician to see a vision of musical beauty, and to write it down for performance by an orchestra, or a single artist, or a group. It is in this way that great masterpieces seem to be created. Let us take an example. Suppose we would take a young child and give that child the maximum possible musical training from the earliest years on up. Could we in that way produce another Beethoven, or Mozart or other great composer? Hardly. Yes, there is work involved, often hard work, on the part of great composers. Yet the vision of beauty they see and capture for us is at least at times above and beyond what ordinary human powers could reach-it is, strictly, superhuman.15 Really, it is a touching act of special goodness on the part of our Father to provide such inspirations, to give us an elevated perception beyond ordinary human reach.16 We ought to thank Him when we hear great music-or see other great art forms.
There can be parallel superhuman virtue in the natural order shown also in courage, as Aristotle points out: