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Gifts of the Spirit: We need the gift of understanding more than ever

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Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay, Wis., uses sacred chrism oil to trace a cross on the forehead of Alma Karina Ruiz during the sacrament of confirmation at St. Joseph Church in Wautoma, Wis. To cooperate with the Holy Spirit, we pray to understand the meaning of God's message for us in the life we live. (CNS photo/Sam Lucero | The Compass)

“I just can’t understand …” How often do we utter those words in consternation, confusion and anger during these troubled times?

Often, what we don’t understand, or refuse to consider, is the behavior or attitude of another person, either a co-worker, a relative or a public person on the national stage. And often, our lack of understanding leads, not to a productive conversation but to a refusal to communicate.

Effie Caldarola
Effie Caldarola writes for the Catholic News Service column “For the Journey.” (CNS photo)

Turn the television off in anger, add a nasty note in the comments section, decide not to accept a dinner invitation, go to bed seething. Stop listening.

We Catholics love numbers. Twelve tribes of Israel, Twelve Apostles. Forty days in the desert, 40 days of Lent. And many of us have a vague memory from our days in confirmation class: the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. But if we gave a pop quiz at Mass this Sunday, how many could name all seven?

Here’s one gift of the Holy Spirit we could use more of today: the gift of understanding.

Of course, you might say, don’t the gifts of the Holy Spirit relate to things of God, not why my neighbor is committed to voting for the wrong person? But that’s where we fail to acknowledge the presence of God in all things.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, taught us that we “find God in all things.” God is not just sequestered away in a sanctuary somewhere. God permeates our world, our lives, our very existence. God is alive and present in each moment of our day.

God is also bigger than history and our small space in it. God invites us to a far bigger space.

The gifts of the Holy Spirit were given to us at confirmation, but we are taught that like any gift, they need to be opened and acknowledged. We cooperate with these gifts or we leave them unused like a discarded Christmas gift at the back of the closet.

To cooperate with this gift, we pray to understand the meaning of God’s message for us in the life we live. We pray for insight, for an understanding of truth. We pray to be enlightened, to see the light. That’s what the gift of understanding is about.

But how do we pray to understand old Uncle Al, who spouts racist invective at the family reunion? Or understand the person who won’t accept a legitimate source of fact-checking but is committed to accepting the lie she prefers?

How do we understand the immense suffering of refugees today, or the taking of life from the unborn or those on death row? How do we understand the looming climate catastrophe and the failure to act?

Understanding is not about turning away from or putting a Pollyanna gloss on the issues of the day. Understanding asks us to go deeper.

Ultimately, the gift of understanding takes us above the petty squabbling and helps us to reach the source of life within us — God’s life. We react by working for justice, truth, life, but without anger and retribution against those with whom we disagree.

A key to understanding is to listen. We pause in our aggressive defense of our own “truth” to be quiet and listen to the truth of another. We may not change our mind — or theirs — but we just might grow in love and respect for another person’s struggles and life story that has brought him to this point.

Understanding helps us to recognize why people believe the way they do. Understanding reaches out and narrows the chasm between people by committing to listening.

Prayer is central to realizing any of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Prayer is the beginning and the end of our quest. Prayer should be our habit when we arise and our refuge in the lonely night. Prayer continually invites the God who continually invites us.

When seeking that interior light that leads to truth, Scripture is a primary resource. But there may be other sources that help you reach an interior spot of peace and clarity.

Is there music that especially soothes and uplifts you? It may be a hymn, but it might be something from your personal playlist. Another source of insight and grace is poetry. Poetry can take you away from the day’s anger and invite you to the eternal.

Poets of nature have a particular ability to lift you above the fracas. Wendell Berry, Jesuit Father Gerard Manley Hopkins, Seamus Heaney, Mary Oliver — these are some poets who guide us to understanding. The beloved Irish poet Seamus Heaney said it well: “I can’t think of a case where poems changed the world, but what they do is they change people’s understanding of what’s going on in the world.”

The late Holy Cross Father Theodore Hesburgh, who served as president of the University of Notre Dame for 35 years, told audiences that there was one prayer that never failed him: “Come, Holy Spirit.”

May the Holy Spirit through the gift of understanding lead us to a search for justice that guides us in prayer, peace and love.

Caldarola is a freelance writer and a columnist for Catholic News Service.