Grace is any gift from God to us. There are two great categories or groups of graces: sanctifying and charismatic.
Sanctifying graces are those that are aimed at making the recipient holy. They include: actual grace, a grace He sends me at this moment, to lead me and to enable me to do a particular good thing here and now, and habitual grace (also called sanctifying) which actually does make the recipient holy. It gives the soul the radical ability to take in the face to face vision of God in the next life. Increase in sanctifying grace means an increase in that capacity — for since the vision is infinite, our capacity can never reach the limit of growth.
The other category is called charismatic. These graces are not aimed directly an making the recipient holy. They are for some other sort of benefit to the individual or the community. There are two kinds of charismatic graces: ordinary and extraordinary.
Where do the Gifts of the Holy Spirit fit in? There are two groups of them, one in the sanctifying, one in the charismatic category.
In the “sanctifying” category, we find the seven gifts, which are given along with sanctifying (habitual) grace.
In the “charismatic” category, we find both the ordinary gifts — e.g, the gift to be a good parent or a good teacher — and the extraordinary gifts, those which are or seem miraculous, such as the gifts of healing, tongues or miracles.
Charismatic Gifts of the Holy Spirit
The ordinary charismatic gifts, the invisible gifts that help us fulfill our state in life, are widely given. The extraordinary are given when and to whom the Spirit wills, as St. Paul tells us in 1 Cor 12.11. They are not routine today, though they were in the first generation Church, as we see from 1 Cor 12-14.
Some have claimed that these extraordinary graces are ordinary and were ordinary for the first centuries. But the Patristic texts cited for this view are few. Fairly clear are those of Tertullian (an early pentecostalist who eventually left the Church), St. Hilary, and St. Cyril of Jerusalem. Already by the fourth century, however, St. Augustine had to argue that the accounts of miracles in the early Church were not mere fables. In the East, St. John Chrysostom also noted that the age of the charismatic gifts as a regular occurence had long since ended. It is clear from the history of the early Church that as soon as Christians could point to the rapid spread of the Faith and the witness of martyrs in order to make converts, God began to give the charismatic gifts less frequently‹they were always by their nature extraordinary, and long before the time of Augustine and Chrysostom, they were no longer necessary on a large scale.
Thus, it is not true that extraordinary charismatic gifts are simply actualizations–putting to work–of the gifts of the Holy Spirit that all Catholics have. Remember, the special charismatic things belong to one category, the seven Gifts to another. One cannot suppose graces from one side of this divide will actualize those from the other side.
Still further, the possession of extraordinary charismatic favors does not even prove those who have them are in the state of grace. We think of the frightening words of Our Lord Himself in Mt 7. 22-23: “Many will say to me on that day: Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name, and in your name cast out devils, and have done many marvels in your name? And then I will admit to them: I never knew you: depart from me you workers of iniquity.”
Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 12 said of the extraordinary gifts: “. . . they are not to be rashly sought, nor should one presumptuously expect of them the fruits of the apostolic works; but the judgment as to whether or not they are genuine, and as to their ordered use pertains to those who are in charge in the Church . . . .” When these gifts are used with careful discernment of spirits and obedience, they are “fitting and useful for the needs of the Church”
The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit
We turn now to the Seven Gifts of the sanctifying category. They are: wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, piety and fear of the Lord.
They each perfect certain basic virtues. Four of them perfect the intellectual virtues. Understanding gives an intuitive penetration into truth. Wisdom perfects charity, in order to judge divine things. Knowledge perfects the virtue of hope. The gift of counsel perfects prudence.
The other three gifts perfect virtues of the will and appetites. The gift of piety perfects justice in giving to others that which is their due. This is especially true of giving God what is His due. Fortitude perfects the virtue of fortitude, in facing dangers. Fear of the Lord perfects temperance in controlling disordered appetites.
To illustrate the difference between things done with the Gifts and those done with the ordinary virtues, we will take up the gift of counsel.
There are three kinds of guides a person may follow in making his decisions:
1) The whim of the moment. Aristotle in his Ethics 1. 5 says that to act that way is a life fit for cattle, who do just what they happen to feel like doing.
2) Reason, which in practice is always aided by actual graces, which God gives so generously. For example, suppose I see three options open to me, all of which are moral. Ideally I would make at least mentally a list of the good points and of the bad points of each. The I would look over the whole board, and pick what gives the best effect for me. Or if I come to think I need penance for my sins, I would ask: How much have I sinned, so I can know how much penance? What kind of penance will fit with my health? With the obligations of my state in life? And after several steps, a decision is reached. This method is called discursive, since it moves from one step to another.
3) In the third and highest way, a soul does not go from one step to another, in a discursive process, but the answer is, as it were, dropped fully made and complete into his mind by the Gifts. This was the case of Our Lady, for example, at the Annunciation. If she had been operating in the ordinary mode, she might well have reasoned: Now my people have been waiting for centuries for the Messiah (as soon as Gabriel said He would reign over the house of Jacob forever, even any ordinary Jew would have known that He was the Messiah). Now He is here. I should share this news with others, especially the authorities in Jerusalem. And what about my husband, Joseph? In a short time he will not be able to avoid dark thoughts. But the Gospel shows she did none of these things. God needed to send a special angel to tell Joseph. so the Gifts can lead souls to points not contrary to reason, but far more lofty than what reason would suggest.
Cf. the following from St. John of the Cross: (Ascent 3.2.10; cf. Living Flame 1.4; 1.9 and 2.34): “God alone moves the powers of these souls . . . to those deeds which are suitable, according to the will and plan of God, and they cannot be moved to others. . . . Such were the actions of the most glorious Virgin, our Lady, who, being elevated from the beginning [of her life] to this lofty state, had never the form of any creature impressed on her, nor was moved by such, but was always moved by the Holy Spirit.”
But there is a danger: a soul could mistake its own desires for action of the Gifts, since the reasons are not clear to it. Two points must be kept in mind: 1) The full and apparent action of these gifts does not appear until one is well advanced in the spiritual life (hidden assistance by them can come earlier). 2) Ordinarily an inspiration via the Gifts leaves the soul not fully certain–a signal to consult a director or superior. Uncommonly they will give certitude, but only when a decision must be made on the spot, and there is no time to consult.
When a soul acts with usual actual graces God is the most important actor, yet the faculties of the human do churn out the result–hence it is easy to suppose the work is done basically by that soul. But under the action of the Gifts, the soul is more passive, and its own faculties contribute even less.