By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Earnestly Desire the Spiritual Gifts

Here is divine revelation:

1 Corinthians 14:1 RSV (emphasis added): "Make love your aim, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy."

Yet, one of the most common hesitations of some Catholics toward the Catholic Charismatic Renewal--in spite of outrageously strong endorsements by Popes Paul VI, John Paul the Great, and now Benedict XVI (Benedict is breaking new ground in this area as shown by his recent letter to all priests unequivocally emphasizing the charismatic dimension)--is that to seek the gifts or charisms is to somehow act out of pride. Yet, how can that be a proper reaction given the divinely revealed injunction quoted above?

Vatican II teaches in Lumen Gentium 12 that we should not "rashly" seek extraordinary gifts (beware of bad translations that leave out the word "rashly" which is in the official Latin text; unfortunately, there is a bad English translation on the Vatican website, which some of us have sought to correct). So, of course, do not seek anything, much less the charisms, rashly or blindly or recklessly. And certainly do not seek them out of a desire to become the center of attention or to gain power or control over others or to revel in sensationalism for the sake of sensationalism. The purpose of the charisms is to build up the Church, a task accomplished solely out of agape or love. Paul makes that abundantly clear in his famous hymn to love or agape in 1 Corinthians 13, whose purpose is to teach us the way to exercise the charisms. How ironic that many who run away from the charisms also love to make use of 1 Corinthians 13. Well, that chapter was written to teach us how to exercise the charisms and thus assumes that we will seek them in the first place. Otherwise, Paul's chapter 13 makes no sense in the epistle.

Yet, some still persist in a fear of seeking the charisms as if, somehow, "seeking" is something that is a bit tawdry or intrinsically bad. This vague hesitation seems to persist in spite of Jesus' commanding and teaching us to seek so that we shall find (see Matt. 7:7; Luke 11:19).

Maybe, an analogy will help get our bearings straight. Since St. Pius X, Catholics have been encouraged to seek frequent Holy Communion. There is no greater gift to us than Jesus in the Eucharist. Yet, we are encouraged to seek this greatest of gifts frequently. If we can seek the greatest gift frequently, perfectly consistent with the best piety and devotion, why can we not also seek, consistent with the best piety and devotion, the lesser gifts called charisms?

Some will rightly point out that some have abused the charisms. But, as Catholic speaker Matthew Kelly says (my paraphrase), the abuse of a good does not diminish the good of a good. Likewise, the Eucharist is frequently abused in sacrilegious communions--do we then discourage all with a blanket appeal to avoid the Eucharist? Certainly not, because such a blanket call to avoid the Eucharist would simply play into the hands of Screwtape. Similarly, a blanket call to not seek the charisms would play into the hands of Screwtape by denying to the Church precisely the gifts that build her up. Instead, we should encourage proper and discerning preparation for the Eucharist and for the charisms. Ironically, the charism of discernment of spirits will aid us in such preparation of ourselves and of others for receiving these Catholic gifts.

In Catholic spiritual writings, we see the warning not to seek out the extraordinary, such as visions. But charisms are not visions per se, although the exercise of charisms may be accompanied by visions. As Catholic moralists do, let us define specifically the object of our intentional seeking before rendering a premature judgment on a specific activity. The object is to seek, in obedience to Scripture, the gifts that build up the Church, with or without the accompaniment of visions. It is up to the Lord to choose if such visions will be part of the exercise of a charism. Frankly, I can very well identify with the desire not to pursue or seek visions per se--I think I would find them a bit frightening, to say the least.

It makes no sense to refuse to seek the gifts that build up the Church out of a misplaced fear that we would thereby be acting pridefully. The very definition of a charism as a service to the Church objectively dispels the element of pride. If any pride is involved, then we have inserted it; such pride is not at all a necessary part of the seeking of the gifts commanded by Scripture. Recently, I heard Catholic evangelist Damian Stayne from England note that we should earnestly desire the spiritual gifts because the Lord earnestly desires to bestow them. That earnest desire to bestow them is abundantly clear in the Scriptures and in the history of the Church. The modern Catholic Charismatic Renewal since Vatican II confirms that desire to bestow them.