Understanding means to "read between the lines" of things so as to comprehend their inner essence.
We read between the lines of somebody’s words and understand what is meant by "My love is like a red, red rose," even though such a statement is, from a flat-footed, literal perspective, meaningless.
We also "read between the lines" of the world around us and make creative leaps of understanding.
For instance, Benjamin Franklin noticed that the spark that happens when you touch metal on a dry winter afternoon is doing what lightning does on a far more immense scale; thus, he arrived at the understanding that lightning and static electricity are the same thing. He "reads between the lines" of the Book of Nature.
We can even use natural reason to read between the lines of the Book of Nature and realize that the book has an Author. That’s what St. Paul is getting at when he says, "Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made."
But beyond this sort of natural revelation, reason cannot go, without help from God, any more than Hamlet can get out of the play to meet Shakespeare. So if we are to meet God, the initiative must all be on his side. And he must meet us on our terms, since we cannot meet him on his. That, in a nutshell, is what God did when he became human in Christ Jesus and showed us God through his human face.
In revealing himself, God must give us not only himself, but even the eyes with which to see him. That is the lesson of the Emmaus disciples. It is not until Jesus makes himself known "in the breaking of the bread" that they understand who he is and that what seemed to be the defeat of all their hopes was actually the fulfillment of every promise made to Israel in the Old Covenant.
Everything — from the waters of the deep to the waters of the Flood and the waters of the Red Sea — was a sign looking forward to the waters of baptism. Everything — from the oil of gladness in the Psalms to the oil that anointed prophets, priests and kings — was a sign of the Anointed One and of the gift of confirmation. Everything — from the manna to the bread of the presence in the Temple — was a sign of the Eucharist.
The early Church realized it had been given the gift to understand that, just as we write with words, so God wrote with creatures and stamped his revelation into the people, places, symbols and events of the Old Covenant.
The Church came to understand that, as St. Augustine said, the new covenant is hidden in the old, and the old covenant is only fully revealed in the new.
This is only understandable with the help of the Holy Spirit. His gift of understanding is given to help us penetrate to the very core of revealed truths we could not know otherwise. The gift of understanding in confirmation rises above natural reason, which knows only what we can see in the world around us.
With the supernatural gift of understanding, we order our actions not merely toward earthly things like money, sex and power, but toward our final end, who is God.
With the gift of understanding, we see the world and our life in light of God’s revelation.
Because such understanding is the gift of the Holy Spirit, it is necessarily tied to the teaching of the Church, the body of Christ in which the Spirit dwells.
This is why Paul calls the Church "the pillar and bulwark of the truth."
The gift of understanding means "learning to think with the Church."
Mark Shea is a Register columnist and blogger.