Of all the gifts of the Holy Spirit, understanding seems to be the most multi-leveled. It brings to mind a Russian nesting doll in which each one opens into another and another until we reach the smallest and yet most central place. The outermost shell is wrapped around the level of comprehension – those wonderful ah-ha moments in which the light dawns and the problem at hand suddenly becomes clear. As a teacher, I remember the delight in a student’s face when she finally tackled a mathematical concept or deciphered the words on the page. It was an enlightened moment for me as well.
Gifts of the Holy Spirit – Understanding
At another level is the understanding between one person and another. This is what the late John O’Donohue likened to coming home. “Understanding nourishes belonging. When you really feel understood, you feel free to release yourself into the trust and shelter of the other person's soul.” By listening below the words spoken aloud and the feelings, needs, and concerns lying beneath them, we reach a level of understanding that brings us heart to heart.
Going even deeper is the understanding of what Thomas Merton called “the true self.” As a spiritual director, I listen to the way in which my directees mine this territory with great care and a lot of inner work. It’s not easy to face painful realities about ourselves. Sometimes we reach an impasse where we can find no explanation for repeated patterns and habitual back-stepping. Paul described this aptly when he wrote, “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.” (Romans 7:15) When a break-through is reached, it opens up some of the most precious fruits of the Spirit: gentleness, kindness, and patience.
At the center of understanding is the unfolding relationship with God. It may be something we experience over the long haul or in a burst of glorious insight. The latter was the case with the medieval mystic, Mechtild of Magdeberg, who wrote, “The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw and knew I saw all things in God and God in all things.” This is a level of understanding nested deep in the heart and accessible by and through the gift and grace of the Holy Spirit.
Initiate a discussion with your class or family about importance of understanding. How can you deepen your understanding of each other, of yourselves, and of your relationship with God.