No less a theologian than Saint Thomas Aquinas lamented that, when it comes to understanding the Holy Spirit, our problems begin with the name (Summa Theologiae I.36.1) . Think of all things that can be called holy, or how often one might speak of a spirit. Even with the two words conjoined, the mind still searches for an image. As Aquinas noted, to speak of a Father and a Son is to employ terms of relationship that we understand, even if we fail to comprehend fully this Father and this Son. But the words Holy Spirit conjoin a highly ambiguous noun with a terribly broad adjective without producing much of a picture.
Nine hundred years before Aquinas, Saint Hilary of Poitiers offered an apt term for this third person of the Godhead, or at least a helpful metaphor. He simply called the Holy Spirit, "the Gift." In his Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Hilary wrote that Christ commanded his disciples
to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: that is, in a confession of the Author, and of the Only-begotten, and of the Gift. There is one Author of all; for God the Father, from whom are all things is one. And the Only-begotten, our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, is one. And the Spirit, the Gift in all things, is one. (2,1).
It’s a beautiful, powerful insight into the Person of the Holy Spirit. In the Western Church, the Spirit is often spoken of as a Gift, one whom the Father and the Son bring forth and share, something like parents and a child.
Regardless of the mystery within the Godhead, certainly, speaking of the Holy Spirit as the Gift highlights a presence in our lives. Isn’t that what the Church teaches when she speaks of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit? They aren’t bestowed as external donations. They’re a gift of self, our sharing in the very life of the Holy Spirit.
Consider them again, and look within your life for the presence of this Divine Person.
A young woman chooses to become a teacher, not because it will make her rich, but because it will make her a better person.
An aide in a nursing home, holds a hand and listens patiently to an old person’s list of ailments, knowing that the medicine needed at this moment isn’t a pill. It’s a sympathetic ear.
Or "right judgement." A husband dallies in going home. He has a drink before he faces wife and kids. A woman at the bar seems oblivious to the ring on his finger, but he sees it and remembers that he has more at home than a barfly can offer.
Or "courage." Like all of these gifts, one can sometimes see its origin in our own, well formed human nature, as when a police officer or a fire fighter run towards, rather than away, from trouble.
Sometimes, the courage comes so suddenly, we can’t help but to discern the presence of the one Saint Hilary called "the Gift." A young woman in high school sees another student ridiculed for her clothes, her weight, her sexuality. (Does it matter?) Instead of adding to the taunts of the tormenters, she joins the young woman at table.
We understand the meaning of God, and the decision we make are calculated accordingly. Think of Army Chaplain Father Emil Kapaun, allowing himself to be captured in the Korean War, rather than abandon his soldiers. He dies after months of torture, made even more virulent by his captors, because he refuses to stop caring for, and praying with, those soldiers.
Or "reverence." An astute critic of the Church, one who can easily see the institution’s shortcomings, one who understands the prejudices and fears that keep the Church from being what it should, nevertheless shows up, Sunday after Sunday, because he knows that he himself is in desperate need of God’s holiness.
FEAR OF THE LORD
Or "wonder and awe." A young man chastely kisses his girl friend for the first time. Sitting on the hood of his car, as he and she look up at the stars, he can’t help but to marvel at the God who created both stars and love.
Some might contest my allocation of the sexes and their situations. Fine. Flip them at will. You will never exhaust the flow of the Gift, who surges as sap through the branches of Christ’s vine.
Saint Thomas was right. The words Holy Spirit don’t tell us much. And of course, in some ways, the words Father and Son might even limit our understanding. Rather than engage in abstract speculation, think of the gifts you’ve received: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. You weren’t simply receiving something from a stranger. You were coming to know, in your own story, a person, the Holy Spirit, the one whom Saint Hilary called, "the Gift."
Acts 2: 1-11 1 Corinthians 12: 3b-7, 12-13 John 20: 19-23