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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Veni Creator: the seven gifts of the Spirit

At the end of this service, we shall sing one of the best known of all Whitsunday hymns, our own Bishop Cosin’s Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire. It has the distinction of being the only hymn, in the modern sense, to be included in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer where it invokes the Spirit at the start of the ordination prayer for priests and bishops.

            Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire
            And lighten with celestial fire;
            Thou the anointing Spirit art,
            Who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart
Cosin drew on a 9th century Latin hymn of Pentecost when he wrote it in 1625. But the event he composed it for was not an ordination but a coronation, that of King Charles I. And in this his instinct was faithful to the biblical origins of this opening stanza. Its reference to the ‘sevenfold gifts’ takes us back to the lesson from Isaiah that we heard earlier. There, the prophet is looking forward to a new and glorious reign of the coming king who will emerge from the root of Jesse, the line of David. What kind of ruler will he be? Isaiah tells us. ‘The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord’. That makes six gifts. What about the seventh? That was added by the Greek translators of the Septuagint who included the spirit of piety or reverence.
In catholic moral theology, these seven gifts came to be seen as among the God-given lists that offer compass-bearings for the faithful as they navigate the spiritual life: seven deadly sins to avoid, seven virtues to embrace and live by, the four cardinal and three theological virtues, and the seven petitions that make up the Lord’s Prayer. So on this Whit Sunday, let’s reflect briefly on these beautiful qualities as gifts of the anointing Spirit to the Messiah, to the church and to us. And although they have moved some way from their original setting in the prophecies of Isaiah, John Cosin, an accomplished moral theologian who had read St Thomas Aquinas, would have understood this way of speaking about them.
Wisdom, sapientia, embraces all the other gifts; it means having the insight and capacity to place the spiritual above the material and transient and to see into the life of things. Understanding, intellectus, suggests the disciplined training of a Christian mind to think as God thinks, pursue truth as it is taught us by the Spirit of Truth, see through falsehood and illusion. Counsel, consilium, is right judgment or discernment to know right from wrong and make and follow the choice to live by what is good and true. Courage, fortitudo, is the overcoming of fear and evil and embracing risk to follow the way of Jesus Christ and publicly stand up for it. It is the virtue that emanates from a mind that is single-focused, set only on doing the will of the Father as Jesus obeyed him in his life and death. Knowledge, scientia, is one outcome of the second gift of understanding as the believer begins to grasp the meaning of God, not as the accumulation of information or doctrinal grasp, but as an aspect of Christian formation whereby we make the good choices of loving God and our neighbour.
Piety, pietas, is not simply ‘spirituality’, but rather the respecting and honouring the sources of our life and health: our parents, teachers and the church who together have shaped us, the public institutions to which we owe gratitude and loyalty, above all God himself whom we reverence as the author and giver of all good things. Finally, the fear of the Lord, timor Domini, stands for the gift of wonderment and adoration as we become ever more aware of the glory and majesty of God. The fear of the Lord teaches us that God is the perfection of all we long for: perfect knowledge, goodness, power, and love. Thomas Aquinas says this is not being afraid of punishment but rather a child’s fear of displeasing the parent they love. The Hebrew Bible says that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’, so it brings us full circle to that first and all-embracing gift of wisdom.
All this, says Isaiah, is true of the promised anointed king, the messianic ruler who will judge the poor with righteousness and decide with equity for the meek of the earth, in whose days the lion will lie down with the lamb, and children will play safely over an adder’s den, when nothing will hurt or destroy on all God’s holy mountain for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. We cherish these promises and live by the hope they set before us, and are right to think of the reign of Jesus our risen and glorious Lord whose kingship we have celebrated in the days of Ascension and whose just and gentle rule we long for when we pray ‘thy kingdom come!’ And come it will, be it soon, be it late. We wait for it, we long for it, and because of it, we are always ready to give an answer for the hope that is within us.
Whitsunday invites us, not indeed to lose that long view but also to set our sights on the tasks and obligations of Christian living in the present. This, says Jesus to his disciples in the upper room, must be our daily concern when he is gone. It is for this that the Spirit of Truth comes, to lead us into truth, to give us a right judgment in all things, to impart the sevenfold gifts of the Spirit the hymn teaches us about. For in Christ, these are not the prerogatives of anointed messiah alone, but are for all who are anointed in baptism and sealed by the Spirit, for all of us whom Christian faith has made into the royal companions of the King of Glory. In St John, Paraclete is a word that glitters with expectation and is bright with promise: the Comforter, the Strengthener, the Encourager, the Advocate who both teaches and puts into our hearts the blazing fire and rushing wind and living water of God’s eternal love. Thy blessed unction from above is comfort, life, and fire of love. What would life be without the Spirit among us, between us and within us? What use would we be without the Spirit’s sevenfold gifts to make us fully human and perfect in us the image of Jesus? How can the church be a transforming influence in the world unless the Spirit’s gifts animate and inspire every breath we breathe?
Which is why I want to urge on the church the need to meditate on these sevenfold gifts. I see a church today that is at risk of panicking as it watches itself diminish in numbers and influence, as it wonders whether even Christian faith itself could be at risk of eclipse and a lingering, painful, sclerotic death. It’s understandable that our church is tempted to become busy and excitable, embark on great outreach projects with relentless energy, invest vast sums of money to try to turn this stately galleon Christianity round before it is too late. It is understandable. Like climate change, we can either pretend it isn’t happening, or engage seriously in mitigating its inevitable effects.
But the texts of Pentecost tell us that all the best-intentioned endeavour in the world will count for nothing without the Spirit of God and the seven gifts of an anointed people: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and the fear of the Lord. They give us a ‘values statement’ for the imitation of Christ. But they call for a deep and spiritual intelligence – ‘mindfulness’ - if we are to become life-changing agents of mission. These are gifts to make us into reflective practitioners, as they say, to foster wisdom before they are impulses to activity. The question at Pentecost must be: how do we cultivate the vocation of the church to practise mission with this kind of contemplative wise biblical insight? How do we make sure that in what we do and the way we do it, we are truly emulating our anointed King, and listening to what the Spirit is saying to the churches?

Durham Cathedral, Whitsunday 2015. Isaiah 11.1-9, John 16.1-15

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