Counsel is the third of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit that we receive in confirmation. The gift of counsel has been called by St. Thomas Aquinas “the perfection of prudence,” because, in this gift, grace perfects the natural virtue of prudence that anybody can have and raises it to supernatural heights through sanctifying grace.
Grace perfecting nature is a constant theme of the Catholic faith. God, in revealing himself, doesn’t destroy the work he did in creation and start over, replacing it with something else. Instead, he heals and divinizes fallen human nature and raises it to participate in his divine life.
So God, in becoming man, remains fully human and reveals himself in a human way. He takes human things like water, bread, wine, oil, marital love and all the rest of the stuff of life and makes them participants in and communicators of his life to us. In the same way, he takes an ordinary human virtue like prudence — the clear-sighted, common-sense ability to know what is going on and act sensibly in light of that — and raises it so that we can make such judgments promptly and in light of supernatural realities.
In short, we are enabled to act, not merely in light of earthly realities, but heavenly ones.
Counsel is founded on both wisdom and understanding. Like the cardinal virtue of prudence, it is full of common sense, and it first deals with the simple questions that any person with the sense God gave a goose will ask: “What is going on? Is the thing I want to do righteous? Prudent? Possible?”
But, in addition to these basic questions of earthly prudence, counsel takes seriously Paul’s exhortation to “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2). So Paul likewise urges us to have the “mind of Christ,” and the New Testament frequently shows us moments where mere earthly wisdom fails and the wisdom of God must supply what we cannot grasp in our earthly wisdom.
The supreme example of this is, of course, when Peter’s earthly wisdom — which sought to prevent Jesus from going to the cross — is rebuked and enlightened by Jesus’ heavenly wisdom, which insisted that he must embrace the cross. And so, the Catholic Encyclopedia notes that counsel “enables us to see and choose correctly what will help most to the glory of God and our own salvation.”
That — and not making a buck, saving our skins, fitting in with our family or even preserving our country — is the ultimate goal. It is against this fact that all the wiles of the world, the flesh and the devil are brought to bear in order to tempt us with some earthly idol for us to prefer to the one Object — the love of God and neighbor — that is the real point of life.
There is a sense in which counsel is a sort of “holy intuition,” in that it enables us to know what to do in ways that (as Peter discovered when he rebuked Jesus) can amaze and baffle those around us whose minds are on earth. For this reason, some people assume it is just an inexplicable mystical “zap.” But while supernatural grace is certainly at the root of it and can result in believers making breathtaking intuitive leaps without help from mortal man, it is also important to remember that the gift of counsel is the supernatural grace that allows us to receive counsel from God through the holy Church.
In other words, one very easy way to cultivate the gift of counsel is simply to pay attention to what the Church teaches and then ask for the grace to apply that to our lives. Receiving the gift of counsel from the Holy Spirit means, first and foremost, being docile to the counsel God gives us through the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
Of which, more next time.
Mark Shea is a Register blogger and columnist.