Blessed are the Gifts
A couple of days ago on Facebook, my friend Rachel referred to the “seven gifts of the Spirit”. These are the gifts mentioned in the Prophet Isaiah:
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel [right judgement] and might [fortitude],
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord [piety]…
– Isaiah 11:2-3
I commented briefly on Rachel’s Facebook posting, saying that St. Augustine associated these seven gifts with Christ’s beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3-10). In today’s post I wanted to explain in a little more detail what St. Augustine taught about the relationship between these gifts and the beatitudes…
Why seven gifts?
Before we get to what St. Augustine said, I thought it would be good to make a couple of points concerning the number of gifts mentioned by Isaiah.
The number seven is always significant in the Bible because numbers in Hebrew culture mean something. In this case, the number seven represents completion, perfection and covenant family relationship. Therefore, when we come to the text with this understanding we see that Isaiah is speaking about a complete, perfect pouring out of the Spirit.
If you look at the Isaiah passage I quoted above, you’ll notice that “fear of the Lord” is mentioned twice. This is because the Hebrew text of Isaiah only contains six gifts, with “fear of the Lord” appearing twice. However, the Greek manuscript tradition found in the Septuagint (LXX) includes not six, but seven gifts, with “piety” replacing the repetition of “fear of the Lord”. The Latin (Vulgate) manuscript tradition follows the Greek rendering and likewise lists seven gifts.
Anyway, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at what St. Augustine had to say…
So what did Augustine say about the relationship between the beatitudes and the gifts? Here’s what he wrote in the introduction to his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount:
“The number of these sentences should be carefully attended to; to these seven degrees of blessedness agree the operation of that seven-form Holy Spirit which Isaiah described”
Let’s look at each of the gifts in turn, together with Augustine’s commentary:
1. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” – Fear of the Lord
“Here the first place is given to fear [of the Lord], which is suitable for the humble“
2. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” – Piety
“The second is piety, which belongs to the meek; for he who seeks piously, reverences, does not find fault, does not resist; and this is to become meek”
3. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” – Knowledge
“The third is knowledge, which belongs to those that mourn, who have learned to what evils they are enslaved which they once pursued as goods”
4. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” – Fortitude
“The fourth, which is fortitude, rightly belongs to those who hunger and thirst, who seeking joy in true goods, labour to turn away from earthly lusts”
5. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” – Counsel
“The fifth, counsel, is appropriate for the merciful, for there is one remedy to deliver from so great evils, to give and to distribute to others”
6. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” – Understanding
“The sixth is understanding, and belongs to the pure in heart, who with purged eye can see what eye seeth not”
7. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” – Wisdom
“The seventh is wisdom, and may be assigned to the peacemakers, in whom is no rebellious motion, but they obey the Spirit.”
The neat thing about understanding Augustine’s teaching here is that if you know, say, the list of beatitudes, you now have a ready means for memorizing the gifts of the Spirit 🙂
Hang on a minute…
If you know the beatitudes well, you’ll know that we left one out:
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”
However, we don’t have any of the gifts of the Spirit left to assign to it, as we’ve already used all seven! Now what?! Augustine resolves this by making a distinction between the first seven beatitudes and the eighth:
“The eighth beatitude, as it were, returns to the commencement, because it shows the perfect complete character. In the first then and the eighth, the kingdom of heaven is named, for the seven go to make the perfect man, the eighth manifests and proves his perfectness, that all may be conducted to perfection by these steps”
Our Saint is saying that the eighth beatitude is the consequence of the first seven, attained and perfected in us through the redemptive suffering of which Christ speaks. When speaking about this persecution, Augustine explains:
“The profitable thing is not suffering those evils, but bearing them with equanimity and cheerfulness for the sake of Christ.”
I’d like to close with the exhortation of St. Augustine’s mentor, baptiser and teacher, the great St. Ambrose of Milan:
“Recall then that you have received the spiritual seal, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of right judgment and courage, the spirit of knowledge and reverence, the spirit of holy fear in God’s presence.
Guard what you have received. God the Father has marked you with His sign; Christ the Lord has confirmed you and has placed His pledge, the Spirit, in your hearts
– St. Ambrose, De mysteriis 7, 42
We receive these gifts in Baptism and strengthen them in Confirmation/Chrismation. Guard them well.