Understanding: Gift of the Holy Spirit by Julie Paavola

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Have you ever been on the road, and somebody cuts you off, or won’t let you merge? (Of course you have!) When this happens to me, the word that pops into my mind is, “Fool!” because safety on the highway is for everyone’s good, and a “fool” is someone who doesn’t even know how to take care of his own well-being. A fool (or the more modern, “idiot”) is one who lacks understanding. Jesus tells us in Mathew 5:22 not to call anyone a fool, as if to say, it is the greatest insult to be without understanding.

Understanding, like the other gifts of the Holy Spirit, is a supernatural gift. Thomas Aquinas distinguishes between natural and supernatural understanding. We all have natural powers of understanding through our senses and reason, but in order to penetrate further, we need light from above. For example, we may know the grass is green, wet with dew and quite lovely. The gift of understanding, rooted in the cardinal virtue of faith, allows us to see further: the beauty of nature is God’s handiwork. St. John of the Cross was so possessed by the gift of understanding that he scolded the wildflowers that bloomed in the Andalusian countryside, “Stop clamoring to me of the One my heart loves!” God’s gift of understanding enables us to comprehend the many aspects of faith, and to grow in that understanding over time. We gain greater light, clarity and therefore joy, as we experience the meaning and consequences of what we believe.

Parents are the first teachers of the faith, says the pastor, and hopefully many of us take this seriously. What tools do we have to teach them? How do we pass on, not a dry list of doctrines, but true understanding, since they already possess the Spirit through baptism and are fully capable of receiving and growing in this gift. What are some ways we can foster this gift in our children?

First, we must give our children the core truths of Christian life and not water it down. Would any of us continue to talk baby talk to a six year old, or read a board book to our fourth grader? No. So, why do we give infantile explanations of faith and God to our (obviously) sophisticated, thinking children? Children are smart, and when we dumb down the faith, aren’t we encouraging them to assume God is a fairy tale or a quaint story to make them feel secure at night?

Second, know that God is already at work in our children’s lives. The Spirit is living in them, hovering near and inspiring them to good. Once I was absent-mindedly going through some things in my little boys’ bedroom. I came across one of their many journals which they are encouraged to work on in school and a page flipped open to a drawing he had made. It was of a child kneeling by a bed, head bowed. Underneath was the caption: “Deep in prayer.” What silent communications was God giving my child while I was watching TV in the living room? God’s work in him went beyond my feeble efforts to teach the faith. Hosea 2:14 promises, ‘I will draw him to the desert and speak tenderly to his heart.’

Finally, we must be people of faith. Understanding causes us to live in this world with our hearts set on the next. Understanding helps us grasp something of the greatness to which we are called. This does not mean we disengage from the world, but that we live with different priorities. It is not an easy or natural thing to do. It is counter-cultural and goes against our ego. With the gift of understanding, however, this counter-cultural stance makes sense. Passing on understanding to our children requires our own growth in the Spirit and willingness to live according to God’s way of service and love, not the world’s constant striving after wealth and prestige.

May the Spirit teach us to live in the light of understanding.

Copyright 2010 Julie Paavola

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