Knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord

As we celebrate the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost this weekend, we conclude our meditations on the gifts of the Holy Spirit with three final ones: knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord.

The gift of knowledge requires some explanation, since it could be confused with merely having information in one’s mind. Jesus Himself said at the Last Supper, “Now this is eternal life, that they should know You, the only true God, and the One Whom You sent, Jesus Christ” (Jn 17:3).  It is the Spiritual gift of knowledge that Jesus says brings one into eternal life; not just “knowing” Who God is. Satan is aware of God’s existence, but Satan does not have the Spiritual gift of knowledge to truly appreciate Who God is.

St. John Paul II on April 23, 1989 spoke about knowledge. “It is this gift which helps [those who have received it] to value things correctly in their essential dependence on the Creator. Thanks to it, as St. Thomas [Aquinas] writes, ‘man does not esteem creatures more than they are worth and does not place in them the end of his life, but in God’” (ct. “Summa Theol.”. II-II, q. 9, a. 4). Satan rejects dependence upon the Creator and, thus, shows that he does not possess this gift.

The Polish pontiff further explained that this gift helps us to ponder the deeper meaning of things. Someone with this gift “discovers the theological meaning of Creation, seeing things as true and real, although limited, manifestations of the truth, beauty, and infinite love which is God, and consequently he feels impelled to translate this discovery into praise, song, prayer, and thanksgiving.”

Besides giving us this positive appreciation of Creation, this gift also helps us to turn away from sin. “Enlightened by the gift of knowledge, man discovers at the same time the infinite distance which separates things from the Creator, their intrinsic limitation, the danger that they can present, when, through sin, he makes improper use of them. It is a discovery which leads him to realize with remorse his misery and impels him to turn with greater drive and confidence to [God] Who alone can fully satisfy the need of the infinite which assails him.”

An increase in piety would flow from having this knowledge. Pope Francis explained this gift in a talk on June 4, 2014. “The gift of piety stirs in us above all gratitude and praise. When the Holy Spirit allows us to perceive the presence of the Lord and all His love for us, it warms the heart and moves us quite naturally to prayer and celebration. Piety, therefore, is synonymous with the genuine religious spirit, with filial trust in God, with that capacity to pray to Him with the love and simplicity that belongs to those who are humble of heart.”

The Argentine pope said that piety is not a stereotype of  “clos[ing] one’s eyes, pos[ing] like a picture and pretend[ing] to be a saint. This is not the gift of piety. The gift of piety means to be truly capable of rejoicing with those who rejoice, of weeping with those who weep, of being close to those who are lonely or in anguish, of correcting those in error, of consoling the afflicted, of welcoming and helping those in need. The gift of piety is closely tied to gentleness. The gift of piety which the Holy Spirit gives us makes us gentle, makes us calm, patient, at peace with God, at the service of others with gentleness.” In other words, this Spiritual gift moves us in our prayer to see how we can carry out Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy for others. 

The last of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is fear of the Lord. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; prudent are all who practice it” (Ps 111:10). This is not fright, such as seen in the characters Shaggy and Scooby (on “Scooby Doo”), since they were neither wise nor prudent.

Pope Benedict XVI, in a June 8, 2005 talk, said, “It is not fear and terror that are suggested by [fear of the Lord], but serious and sincere respect which is the fruit of love, a genuine and active attachment to God the Liberator.” If God is our liberator (and He fought the battle for our liberation up to His death), then this serious respect for God is a loving one, trying to appreciate how much God loves us, in spite of what we have done to Him.

Pope Benedict did explain that initially there is some fear involved — fear of punishment. He then showed how this fear is an initial push towards wisdom and towards loving God without fear (as we grow towards perfection and are no longer doing things which deserve punishment). He made reference to two Spiritual authors on this topic.

“The Christian writer Barsanuphius of Gaza (active in the first half of the sixth century) comments on [Ps. 111:10]: ‘What is the first stage of wisdom if not the avoidance of all that is hateful to God? And how can one avoid it, other than by first asking for advice before acting, or by saying nothing that should not be said, and in addition, by considering oneself foolish, stupid, contemptible and of no worth whatsoever?’” In other words, having fear of the Lord leads to changes in our actions.

The German pontiff then referred to a more positive assessment of this gift. “However, John Cassian (who lived between the fourth and fifth centuries) preferred to explain that ‘there is a great difference between love, which lacks nothing and is the treasure of wisdom and knowledge, and imperfect love, called the first stage of wisdom. The latter, which in itself contains the idea of punishment, is excluded from the hearts of the perfect because they have reached the fullness of love.” 

Pope Benedict then concluded on a positive note by using a more contemporary name for this gift (wonder and awe). “Thus, on the journey through life towards Christ, our initial servile fear is replaced by perfect awe which is love, a gift of the Holy Spirit.”

May our knowledge of God move us to grow in our piety (both in terms of our prayer lives and how we put into practice what we pray about), so that we can rejoice in awe over the love God has for us. 



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