Sacrum Septenarium

by George H. Cobb

Descriptive Title

Sacrum Septenarium


Using St. Thomas Aquinas as a guide, George H. Cobb explains the gifts of the Holy Spirit and clarifies the difference between the gifts and the virtues.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, May 1928

The great and inspiring hymn to the Holy Ghost from which the title of this article is taken was written by St. Stephen Harding, who played so prominent a part in the foundation of the Cistercian Order in the twelfth century. It is all-important to understand the part played by the Gifts of the Holy Ghost in the building up of the soul's perfection. St. Thomas Aquinas is here our sure guide, and it is astonishing with what clearness and simplicity he writes upon a subject that is so little understood by the faithful at large.

The Gifts are certain high perfections which God freely communicates to the soul with the purpose of rendering it supple and docile to the inspirations of the Holy Ghost.1 They are not acts but principles of action — not fleeting helps of grace to set our faculties in motion, but qualities residing in the soul for the purpose of certain supernatural operations; in other words, they are habits. St. Gregory the Great points out that "by the Gifts without which life cannot be attained, the Holy Spirit resides in a stable manner in the elect, whilst by prophecy, the gift of miracles and other gratuitous graces, He does not establish His abode in those to whom He communicates them."2 "They are by no means purely passive: they are at the same time suppleness and energy, docility and strength, rendering the soul more passive under the hand of God, at the same time more active to serve Him and perform His works."3 Like the moral virtues that tend to subject our appetitive faculties to the sway of reason, whilst being real sources of activity, the Gifts are also supernatural energies and principles of operation. What better proof of this than the Beatitudes that spring from the Gifts even as an act arises from a habit.4

How do the Gifts differ from the virtues? Most theologians hold with St. Thomas that there is a real distinction between the two, founded on the diversity of motives that man obeys in doing good. The Gifts are inspirations; wherefore the Scripture calls them spirits: "the spirit of wisdom, etc."5 An inspiration comes from without, as opposed to the reason that acts from within. Man possesses two principles of movement under whose impulses are accomplished those acts that lead to salvation: the one interior, which is the reason, and the other exterior, which is God. To be fitted to receive aright this double impulse, two kinds of perfections are necessary: that which disposes man to follow without resistance in all interior and exterior actions the movement and direction of the reason, and this is the role of the virtues; something of a much higher nature having for object to render man docile to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit, and this is the work of the Gifts.6 Man possesses in himself, in his reason — whether left to its own proper lights, or enlightened by faith — a principle of activity by which he determines himself to do this or that. As a free and intelligent being, and master of his own actions, he can in his own sphere as secondary and proximate agent — in suo ordine, scilicet sicut agens proximum7 — undertake at choice such or such an action. Still, that the human faculties capable of performing a moral act may be habitually disposed to do good with ease, promptness and perseverance, they need to be perfected by certain qualities or habits that have for their purpose to render the faculties docile to the direction and rule of reason. In the natural order, this part is played by the natural or acquired virtues; in the supernatural order, this role belongs to the Christian virtues infused. Thus endowed, man is in a position to act, to do good, to perform salutary works. But reason is not the sole agent nor the only determining principle "of our actions; it is merely a subordinate and secondary agent. The primary and principal mover is outside ourselves and none other than God. Now, it is a truth proved by daily experience that, the higher the agent, the more perfect ought to be the dispositions preparing the one acted upon to receive that action.8 Take a simple example. Whilst a child can follow with little difficulty a lesson in elementary grammar, a long preparation is requisite to prepare even a cultured youth to follow profitably the lectures of a specialist in literature. A whole series of habits — acquired or infused — are needed to dispose our appetitive powers to obey swiftly the injunctions of reason — enlightened by its own light or by the light of faith, according as the action is natural or supernatural. What when the professor, so to speak, is not the reason but the Holy Spirit Himself! Then other perfections and superior habits are needed for the fruitful reception and docile following of His inspirations. Such are the Gifts, preparing man to obey the inspirations of the Holy Spirit, even as the moral virtues prepare him promptly to obey his reason.9 Hence, St. Thomas defines the Gifts as "certain permanent habits or qualities essentially supernatural which perfect a man and dispose him to obey with alacrity the movements of the Holy Ghost."10

What constitutes the difference between the virtues and the Gifts? Diversity (1) in mode of action, (2) in the rule employed to measure the acts. The virtues dispose a man to an act, which is rational or human; on the contrary, the Gifts place it in his power to act in a superhuman fashion, in a manner that is some way divine. To explain further this difference, St. Thomas says that the natural way of knowing spiritual and divine truths is to raise ourselves from the material and visible world to the world invisible — through creatures that act as a mirror and then by way of analogy, a necessarily imperfect road to knowledge. Even the virtue of faith has recourse to these same notions to initiate us into supernatural truths. It enlarges the circle of our knowledge that we may penetrate even into the sanctuary of the divinity, revealing truths that the mere contemplation of nature would never make known to us; but it does not change our natural means of knowledge, and is moreover essentially obscure. The Gift of Understanding comes along; in place of simple assent to revealed dogma, it communicates to man a certain perception of the truth, it unveils in a manner things divine.11 Contrast our behavior before the Blessed Sacrament with that of a Saint, for sanctity enjoys in a marvellous degree those gifts which we allow to lie fallow. We find ignorant men with a profound grasp of the truths of revelation, because they are ever docile to the inspirations of the Holy Ghost; they instinctively scent out error, not that they can refute by logic the argument of sophists, but because their whole being is impregnated with Catholic truth in their possession of the Gift of Understanding. Contrast the virtue of prudence with the Gift of Counsel. In matters that can pass through the portals of reason, acquired or infused prudence guides a man in the choice and use of means. To neglect to find out what it is wise to do or say, under pretence of leaving things to Providence, is to tempt God. Seeing, however, that human reason is incapable of grasping all the particular and contingent cases that may present themselves "for the thoughts of mortal men are fearful, and our counsels uncertain" (Wis., ix. 14) — not to be deprived of a counsellor where prudence fails, man needs to be guided by Him Who knows all, even as in worldly affairs one has recourse to others when in doubt.12 This superior direction in the affairs of salvation is the role of the Gift of Counsel: "The Lord ruleth me, and I shall want nothing" (Ps. xxii. I). Here man has not to judge for himself what to do: the Holy Ghost takes this duty on Himself, and man has but to obey His inspirations, since it is for the agent to judge and command, not the instrument.13 In the Gifts the Spirit of God is the agent, whilst man is rather passive than active, an instrument but not inert, for he is free and active, and freely cooperates with the divine movement.

This difference in mode of action, as illustrated between prudence and counsel, can be found in the other virtues and parallel Gifts, for there corresponds to every virtue a special Gift that comes to its aid and causes it occasionally to act in superhuman fashion. The virtue of fortitude strengthens the soul to surmount obstacles in the face of every danger where salvation is concerned. This natural method of action leads a man to confront difficulties in proportion to his human powers14 — to go beyond that point would be rashness, to fall short would be cowardice. However, when in a great difficulty, in a matter beyond his own native power, in dangers that of himself he is powerless to surmount, he has recourse to the divine power, he discovers a way superior to the human mode of action in the working of the Gift of Fortitude.15

In the acts that emanate from the virtues, acquired or infused, man acts in conformity to his state, by his own proper movement, on his own personal initiative. After reflection, deliberation, and possibly consultation, he carries out his scheme for good by his own free choice, always remembering that God is the primary cause even in a free agent. Under the influence of the Gifts, it is no longer himself who acts, but an all-powerful interior impulse drives him to do such a thing, when his mind is inspired with the thought. Man must consent and cooperate, though he remains rather passive than active. In commenting on the words of the Apostle: "For whoever are moved by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God" (Rom., viii. 14),16 St. Augustine remarks as follows: "To be moved or acted upon is something more than to be simply guided or led, for he who is guided does something; he is guided that he may act aright. But he who is moved or acted upon, hardly seems to do anything of himself; now the grace of the Saviour acts so efficaciously on the will that the Apostle fears not to say 'Quicumque enim Spiritu aguntur, ii sunt filii Dei' (Rom., viii. 14). And our will can make no better use of its liberty than abandonment to the impulsion of Him Who can do no evil…"17 The Lives of the Saints copiously illustrate this divine impulse. Was not Jesus "lead by the Spirit into the desert"? Was not the aged Simeon thus moved to come to the Temple at the very moment when Mary brought her Son: "And he came by the Spirit into the temple"?

We now come to the second distinction between the virtues and the Gifts — the different rule employed to measure their acts. In acquired virtues this standard is the reason perfectioned by natural prudence; in the infused virtues, the reason illuminated by faith and guided by supernatural prudence. Wherefore, a virtue is defined as "a habit that inclines us to live aright following the rule of reason."18 The higher perfection of the Gifts are given by God that we may be moved by Him to produce acts that have no other rule than divine inspiration and the wisdom of Him Who is the Spirit of Truth.19 Not uncommonly divine inspiration urges a man to deeds that overstep the ordinary bounds of reason, even when illumined by faith. Such works are not rash, since they have God Himself for counsellor and ally; they are justified for this reason, that, when God acts thus, He is not forced to confine Himself to the ordinary limits that man's natural imperfection obliges God to respect. It is in such works that the Gifts come into play. When the Fathers of the Desert embraced a mode of life that seemed to be a perpetual defiance of nature, they did not behave according to the rules of Christian prudence, though the miracles performed in confirmation of their sanctity prove that they obeyed a divine impulse. All the heroisms of faith and charity that fill the pages of hagiography, all the astounding works undertaken for God's glory and the good of others, all the superb manifestations of the spiritual life, are the effects of the Gifts of the Holy Ghost.

No wonder certain theologians maintain, with the approbation of St. Thomas, that the Gifts are perfections that dispose man to more excellent deeds than the virtues.20 Does that mean that these Gifts can be exercised only when there is question of heroic works — that they are useless for the average Catholic who makes no stir in the spiritual world? By no means. These Gifts are the common lot of all the just without exception, and St. Thomas declares them to be essential for salvation.21 Whilst Christian heroism forms the chief domain of the Gifts, their sphere of influence does not cease here. Nor is there a fixed line of separation between the virtues and the Gifts; they do not rule entirely different kingdoms. There is no matter of the virtues on which one or other of the Gifts may not be called at a moment's notice to exercise its superior method of action, even as there is no human faculty that cannot be acted upon by the Spirit and bettered by His Gifts.22 Both virtues and Gifts have the same field of action, though their methods differ.

It is now time to examine more closely into the respective offices of the virtues and the Gifts. The former are meant to prepare the soul to follow without resistance the movement and direction of the reason, and by way of consequence to move it to follow the divine impulse — at least that common impulse which God refuses to no creature desirous of utilizing the principles of activity that reside within. The function of the Gifts is to prepare the possessor to receive, not every kind of divine movement, but certain special impulses called inspirations or instincts of the Holy Ghost, which help man to accomplish acts out of the ordinary, if not in their material object, at least in their method of action.23 For greater clearness we must distinguish a triple divine movement: (1) one proportioned to nature, given for natural acts, is the motion whereby God operates on every free agent as primary cause; (2) the second, of the supernatural order and proportioned to grace, is given by God for the performance of salutary works, for no soul in grace can pass from potentiality to act without a divine movement which is an actual grace; (3) the third is a very special movement, where man is rather passive than active, and here St. Thomas's commentary on the passage from the Romans already cited may be quoted: "To be moved or actioned is to be put in movement by a sort of superior instinct."24 Thus, it is said of animals, not that they act as though carried into action by their own proper movement, but that they are impelled by the instinct of nature. By way of analogy it may be said that the spiritual man is impelled to certain acts, not principally by the movement of his free choice, but by the Holy Ghost. This does not do away with human freedom, but indicates that the movement of the will and free choice is caused by the Holy Spirit: "For it is God who worketh in you both to you and to accomplish" (Phillip., ii. 13).

The first kind of divine motion acts upon our natural powers, and becomes, along with the acquired virtues, which perfect these same powers, the principle of morally good acts. The second puts in motion the infused virtues, which preserve their natural mode of action, for the performance of supernatural deeds. The third — which is proper to the Gifts — is a special impulsion to supernatural works, where the soul operates as the instrument of the Holy Ghost, and is rather passive than active. In the two first, the Divine Mover is, as it were, hidden behind the powers when starting the machinery. The last, anticipating our deliberation and judgment, carries us instinctively to works undreamed of and superhuman — either being beyond human powers or produced outside the ordinary methods of nature and grace. By the virtues God moves us in a way conformable to our nature; by the Gifts, in quite a superior fashion. When the soul operates in a human manner, then the Gifts are not requisite; when called on to act in quite a superior way — to practise a virtue to a heroic degree, etc. — then the Gifts must come into play.25

Can it be proved that the lives of ordinary Catholics, moving in the orbit of ordinary virtue, truly need these Gifts for eternal life? Yes. No one can possess the heavenly heritage who is not moved and guided by the Spirit.26 Had man no other end than that which responds to the requirements of his nature, the answer would be different; but, because it has pleased God to call us to an end which absolutely surpasses the powers and needs of our nature, we must have a far more distinguished guide than the virtues provide — these very Gifts that render us docile to the inspirations from on high.27 Whence arises this powerlessness of the reason? From the defective possession of the theological virtues whilst we are in via, and from the insufficiency of the moral virtues to resist in every case the sudden and fierce attacks of the devil, the world and the flesh. He who has only imperfectly or insufficiently a source of activity for certain actions, has need of outside help, of a special mover. A medical student in a hospital would not dare to perform a delicate operation without assistance, whilst a specialist could operate alone. A ship's captain, when he comes to the intricacies of the mouth of a river, calls in a pilot to guide the vessel to port. We possess imperfectly the principles of supernatural operation — the theological virtues being notably weak, since we know and love God imperfectly — so that it is outside our powers to reach port without the help, the inspiration and the particular assistance of the Holy Ghost.28 Seeing that such impulsion is necessary, equally necessary are the Gifts. The reason is unable to know all that is of importance, or to do all that is even necessary, for it has in the virtues an insufficient remedy against ignorance, lassitude, hardness of heart, and the other miseries of our nature; wherefore, the Gifts bring that extra help needed. How many times a soul is faced with certain grave eventualities, special grave resolutions to be made, a choice of life, without knowing just what is necessary for salvation! The All-Knowing and All-Powerful takes upon Himself our direction and protection. At times salvation calls for difficult works. The convert is called upon to risk penury for himself and his family. Special help is necessary, incessant prayer, and the Gifts.

Whilst they come to the aid of the virtues, the Gifts are inferior in excellence to the theological virtues, which unite us directly to God. Yet, their help is invaluable, since they revive our faith, animate our hope, inflame our charity, and give us a taste for God and things divine.29 Prudence receives from the Gift of Counsel the lights that are lacking; justice — the rendering to each his due — is perfected by the Gift of Piety that fills us with filial tenderness for God and the widest mercy for our neighbor. The Gift of Fortitude makes us fearlessly surmount all obstacles that stand in the way, brush aside difficulties, and be ready for any enterprise. The Gift of Fear buttresses the virtue of temperance against the fierce assaults of the flesh. More energetic action, more heroic efforts, a perfect conversion of heart, come from the Gifts, which can raise the ordinary life of a Christian to dizzy heights of perfection, and may be compared to the wings of a bird or the sails of a ship. We all need this special divine inspiration of the Gifts from time to time in the acute difficulties of life:

Da Tuis fidelibus,

In Te confitentibus,

Sacrum septenarium.


1 I-II, Q. lxviii. art. 1.

2 Moral., cap. xxviii.

3 Msgr. Gay, "Des Virtues chretiennes."

4 III Sent., D. XXXIV, Q. i, art. 4, ad 1.

5 Is., ii. 2-3.

6 I-II, Q. lxviii. art. 1.

7 Ibid., Q. ix, art. 4, ad 3.

8 I-II, Q. lxviii, art. 1 and 3.

9 Ibid., art. 8.

10 Ibid., art. 3.

11 II-II, Q. viii, art. 2.

12 II-II, Q. liii, art. 4, ad 1, and art. 2.

13 Ibid.

14 III Sent., Dist. XXXIV, Q. i, art. 2.

15 Ibid.

16 It so happens that the English Version translates the Vulgate "aguntur" as "led" and not "moved."

17 De Gestis Pelag., cap. iii, n. 5.

18 I-II, Q. lxviii, art. 1, ad 3.

19 Ibid; In Corr. art.

20 I-II, Q. lxviii, art. 1.

21 III Sent., Dist. XXXIV, Q. i, art. 1.

22 I-II, Q. lxviii, art. 2.

23 I-II, Q. XXXIV, art. 8, ad 2; also Q. lxviii, art. 3.

24 In Rom., viii. 14, Lect. 3

25 I-II, Q. lxviii, art. 2, ad I.

26 Ibid., art. 2.

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid.. art. 2

29 In Is., xi. 2.

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