The gift of understanding, described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, differs from wisdom (No. 1831). While wisdom desires to contemplate the things of God, understanding leads us from merely knowing what God has revealed to living like that revelation matters.
We really need this gift! The Baltimore Catechism Two explained that we receive the gift of understanding to enable us to know more clearly the mysteries of faith (No. 183).
Pope Francis has further clarified that the gift of the Holy Spirit known as understanding “is a grace” that “awakens in a Christian the ability to go beyond the outward appearance of reality and to probe the depths of the thoughts of God and his plan of salvation.”
Understanding moves us beyond merely agreeing with what God has revealed to taking seriously what his revelation means for our everyday decisions.
I have grown to realize that this gift helps us to see our everyday circumstances in light of God’s revelation. It challenges us to move beyond asking “what would Jesus do,” to decide to actually follow his example.
The gift of understanding works in multiple ways. First, it helps us to be convinced of the truths of our faith. Second, it also assists us in drawing conclusions based upon our relationship to God, his role in the world and our call to share in his mission.
As this gift grows in us, we order the actions of our lives toward our final end, which is God. We see the world and our life within it in the larger context of God’s plan. This impacts how we see God but also one another — beyond the surface as brothers and sisters in Christ.
As I write this, I recall a recent situation experienced while facilitating a Scripture study in a local jail. People often ask us, the prison ministry volunteers or chaplains, “Why do you bother?” But before going to visit, we pray to see the prisoners “with God’s eyes.”
(Watch a video on the gift of understanding:)
We try to remember that no matter what anyone of them has done, they remain a child of God and deserve to know that God loves them. Society can separate them for a time, but we cannot.
One of the participants was agitated and couldn’t sit down or pay attention. He alarmed us by sharing that he had recently hit another prisoner. Yet, as each inmate shared what was going on in their lives, he revealed that his mother recently died and that he was unable to go to her funeral.
He asked us to pray for his mother and for him. It became clear that he wasn’t ordinarily a violent man, but he had acted out because of his grief. All of us stopped and prayed with him and for him and for his mother.
Understanding led us to share his grief and hear what he really needed rather than fear or judge him. Understanding helped us to let him know that he was heard. Listening was what was most needed.
We need to pray for this gift especially when we are making life decisions. We ought to pray to know the perspective of God or, as the Bible phrases it, to understand “the ways of God.”
Pope Francis has said it well, “Let us ask the Holy Spirit for the grace to live daily according to the mind of Jesus and his Gospel.”
Like all the gifts of the Holy Spirit, understanding helps us know that we all belong to Christ. It calls us to complete, perfect and practice the virtues needed in our daily lives — ready to obey God’s inspirations to respond as he would.
Dudley, retired from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Catholic Education, consults on curriculum development, leadership and ministry formation through his company, Ambulans Vobiscum. He is a member of the leadership team for the Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition.
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