Poetic Explanations of Divine Things: Delving Into the Gifts of the Holy Spirit

BOOK PICK: ‘The Seven Steps to Sanctification’

Cropped book cover for ‘The Seven Steps to Sanctification’
Cropped book cover for ‘The Seven Steps to Sanctification’ (photo: Courtesy photo / Sophia Institute Press)

The Seven Steps to Sanctification

How to Awaken the Gifts of the Holy Spirit Within You

By Walter Farrell, O.P., and Dominic Hughes, O.P.

 Sophia Institute Press, 2022

 200 pages, $18.95

 To order: sophiainstitute.com


There are seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: Understanding, Knowledge, Wisdom, Counsel, Piety, Fear and Fortitude. Many of us learned this list in our school days; some of us can still recite it from memory. But considering their essential vitality to Catholic life, the gifts of the Holy Spirit are not examined, discussed or understood enough. Back in 1955, two Dominican priests, Walter Farrell and Dominic Hughes, set out to change all that. In doing so, they produced a work of breathtaking beauty and insight. Originally entitled Swift Victory, Sophia Institute Press has reissued the book under the title The Seven Steps to Sanctification.


Timeless Observations

Upon discovering the book is a reissue from nearly 70 years ago, some readers might balk, desiring something more recent and relevant to today. There should be no hesitation, however. It would be a disservice to say the book is merely timely; rather, it was prescient, as though the authors envisioned a coming age of confusion and doubt, which is now ours. Drawing a contrast between fortitude and cowardice, the authors write:

“Perhaps the contemptuous heights of this sort of cowardice are reached when we try to hide the truth of things even from our own mind: when, for example, we give murder a longer, more melodious name, the better to countenance it; or, by the same trick, find approval for polygamy, polyandry, and license in marriage; or let selfish contempt parade under the trappings of love, cheating become good business, lying become diplomacy, and compromise of principles the triumph of statesmanship.”

Bold words in 1955; accurate descriptions of 2022. 


Graces and Gifts

Whatever the age, whatever the culture, whatever may change, the Catholic life requires and retains a comforting sameness. It requires graces and gifts. 

The authors explain that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are not exclusively given to the great saints, but, rather, are gifts to all of us in the state of sanctifying grace. “All the Gifts are infused at once, either at Baptism or at the restoration of the state of grace through Penance, and all remain through eternity, so long as the soul’s love of God continues.” This is a crucial message. Very often, catechetical programs present sanctifying grace as little more than the absence of mortal sin in the soul. But sanctifying grace means the indwelling of the Trinity and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Thus, we must familiarize ourselves with those gifts.

Along with an introductory and concluding chapter, the book devotes one full chapter to each of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Each chapter of the book provides a short definitional summary by St. Thomas Aquinas of each gift. In reference to Understanding, for example, Aquinas explains: “The Holy Spirit, by the Gift of Understanding ... enlightens the human mind, so that it knows some supernatural truth, to which the right will must tend.” That is a pithy and important definition that many theology students already know, but the value of this book is that the authors explain what Understanding and the other gifts mean in our lives. And these explanations are brilliantly insightful and inspiring.

It is said that the world today denies reality; yet very often the world is conducting not a denial, but a heated argument with reality. It protests both cause and effect, potency and act, being and non-being. These things — topics of metaphysics — are ultimately about God; therein lies the heat behind the argument. To help us overcome this nonsensical anti-metaphysics, the Holy Spirit gives us the gift of Knowledge. The authors write, “By the personal possession of Knowledge, the soul is able to separate, as its sanctification demands, true opinions from false, the certain from the uncertain, what is to be believed from what is not, with regard to created causes in both the supernatural and natural orders.” They further explain, “As a mother fondles baby shoes, Knowledge finds in finite things remembrances of Infinity, in lowly things reminders of their Lord. The world, in fact, becomes a sacramental.”

Knowledge also informs us of God’s mercy: “In the Cinderella saga of all things created, and especially in its own sinful story, the soul with Knowledge becomes aware of mingled joy and sorrow. If lovely things pass away, the soul is not disconsolate; by the grace of God, so do sins.”

Regarding the gift of Fortitude in an age of confusion and cowardice, the authors write, “The triumphs of cowardice make a sorry picture, especially in an age that so patently makes demands for a courage worthy of martyrs, or even a courage beyond that of martyrs: a courage that will not only face death confidently but will dare to walk confidently through the days, months, and years of life.” 

The Holy Spirit has gifted the graceful with fortitude to walk confidently in this world.

 The Dominican authors have given readers a tour of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and assure them that we have all the graces and gifts needed to live virtuous lives and attain eternal happiness. 


Holy Hours

This is a profound and profoundly beautiful book. It is a text of breathtaking poetic explanations of divine things, and of theological precision, in our time, which is sadly lacking both. 

This is not a book to sit down and read cover to cover. As I read the text, I often looked away to simply contemplate the words and ideas contained in these pages — sometimes with a tear in the eye. Register readers may consider this an excellent book for Holy Hours, perhaps reading one chapter over the course of nine weeks in the Real Presence of God. All in all, this book serves as a hopeful and powerful reminder of who we are and who God calls us to be.