Having a visual image for each of the gifts helps remember what they are and how they work.
The readings for Pentecost Sunday, tell the story of the dramatic way the Holy Spirit came to the Apostles and Mary.
But the Holy Spirit comes to each of us in less dramatic ways: The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, bestowed on us in Baptism, are crucial to the Christian life.
The gifts can be hard to understand and difficult to tell apart. Here is how I remember them.
1: Think of Wisdom like the anointing.
Wisdom is the gift of “relishing what is right” — to be wise is to know God not just with our minds, but with our hearts.
In other words, Wisdom comes from knowing God not like a student — but like family. We can know him that way because that’s what we are.
When we are anointed at Baptism and Confirmation — sealed with the Holy Spirit — we are incorporated into a new family with God as our Father, Jesus Christ as our brother, and the Holy Spirit as our bond of love with all the saints.
As we enter this family, priests anoint both our hearts (the chest of an infant being baptized) and minds (our foreheads at Confirmation) — a beautiful sign of true Wisdom.
2: Think of Understanding like the tongues of fire.
Many have had the experience of reading Scripture and seeing a word suddenly leap off the page. You had never noticed it there in that Gospel story before, but suddenly it makes a new sense of the whole thing.
You can illustrate that with a lightbulb above someone’s head — or you can do it the way the First Reading does: “there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them.”
These are the insights that the Holy Spirit’s gift of Understanding gives — not just in Scripture but throughout our lives.
3: Think of Counsel by thinking of Peter on Pentecost morning.
Counsel is the gift that allows us to see the will of God clearly.
In the first reading for Pentecost, we hear how speakers of several languages were all able to understand the Galilean apostles.
On Easter Sunday we heard the message they were listening to: St. Peter speaking with boldness, decisiveness, but also attractiveness, about Jesus.
He doesn’t condemn, insult or talk down to the people because of their weakness; he challenges them and calls them to greatness, each in their own language.
The Holy Spirit’s gift of Counsel gives each of us the clarity to see what God’s will is, and breaks down the barriers to articulating it.
4: Think of Fortitude like the strong driving wind.
Fortitude means courage, but the Holy Spirit does not simply make us brave; he gives us the courage that comes from trusting in God’s strength.
In today’s first reading, the coming of the Holy Spirit is described this way: “Suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house.”
Fortitude is a strong driving wind for your soul; a wind at your back that gives you confidence to face the end of your race, knowing that your efforts are being pushed along by an unseen power.
5: Think of Knowledge like the dove.
The Holy Spirit is often depicted as a dove, and that has a very specific meaning in Scripture. In Noah’s Ark, the dove was the bird that went out over the waters and found dry land, bringing hope.
The Holy Spirit’s gift of Knowledge works the same way for us — he brings us a God’s-eye view of the information we take in.
Jesus says “When he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming.”
6: Think of Piety like living water.
Discouragement is a major threat against leading a holy life. We can easily look at the call of Christ, then look at our lives, and give up.
The Gospel for the vigil of Pentecost tells the story of Jesus standing up and exclaiming, “Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink. As Scripture says: Rivers of living water will flow from within him who believes in me.”
“He said this in reference to the Spirit,” adds John — the Spirit’s gift of Piety, like water, refreshes and revivifies our spiritual life.
7: Think of Fear of the Lord like the pillar of cloud.
At various key points in the Old Testament — the Red Sea, Mount Sinai, and elsewhere — God’s presence among his people is indicated by a pillar of cloud.
But it isn’t a dark cloud: It’s a cloud of light. It is a sign of the awesome mystery of almighty God.
We should think of God with the same reverence and awe that the pillar of cloud must have given as the Israelites looked on. Fear of the Lord makes that possible.
Pray for these gifts. “The Spirit,” says Paul, “comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.”