Spring 1986, Vol. 38, pp. 53-62.

John Sheila Galligan:
      The Augustinian Connection: Beatitudes and Gifts

The whole person, heart and mind, are drawn to happiness as fulness of life through the grace and gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Sister Galligan, IHM, a religious educator and author, is currently a doctoral student in Theology at the university of St. Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome.

SOME of us today may view the gifts of the spirit as merely a pious addition or an edifying ornament in Christian doctrine and tradition. Augustine's development, with its unique spiritual depth and inexhaustible richness, jolts us out of such a complacent attitude. For Augustine -- scholar, sinner, Saint -- has bequeathed to us insights and challenges that can guide and direct our own response to Christ's call to holiness.

Noted for his passion for the truth and intensity of spirit, St. Augustine dealt deftly with matters of immense importance: the Trinity, freedom of the will, the problem of sin and evil, and growth in authentic Christian holiness and wholeness. His great outburst of affectivity and praise in Book Ten of the Confessions: "Late have I loved Thee, Beauty ever ancient and ever new" sums up his spirituality, a personal spirituality full of feeling and fire. Even a surface reading of his numerous tracts, sermons, letters and homilies reveals his conviction that man's common purpose and sole good is the praise and enjoyment of God. A characteristic theme which pulses in the depths as well as on the surface of this thought is that of God, lovingly drawing us close to himself, attracting us by delight.

Augustine was balanced and realistic, well aware of all that is baffling and intractable in the mind and heart of the very one so drawn by God. From his own personal experience he came to appreciate the sheer difficulty of living out the Gospel call to conversion and discipleship. Reflecting upon his own struggle Augustine realized that the help of the Holy Spirit provided the impetus disposing one to become drawn close to the Lord. The Scriptural text "The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord and his delight shall be the fear of the Lord" (Is. 11:2) emerged as a clear synthesis of the dynamic influence of the Holy Spirit in leading a faithful soul to God. Augustine's pervasively personal and prayerful meditation then brought into relief a new significance from this text. With insightful originality he made a connection between the seven gifts of the Spirit and Christ's own blueprint for Christian spirituality, the eight beatitudes.(1)

Perhaps influenced by Augustine's scheme of relating the gifts of the spirit to the beatitudes, St. Dominic is said to have prayed especially for the gifts of the Holy Spirit to be given to the order he had founded "so that both he and his brethren might find it their joy and delight to live in the spirit of the beatitudes."(2)

Other church Fathers, such as Origen, Ambrose and Jerome, had recognized the import and scope of the Isaiah text but Augustine's new and interesting development has remained to enrich our spiritual growth. In On Christian Doctrine and his sermons on Our Lord's Sermon on the Mount, Augustine explores this creative connection directly and thoroughly. A glimpse into his approach proves to be both informational and inspirational.

Aware that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son as their gift, Augustine speaks frequently and warmly of the Spirit as "Gift." The gifts of this Spirit influence the whole sphere of Christian living. Working as both a power to be and an energy to do, the Spirit enlightens the mind and influences the will by guiding it, restraining its wanderings, regulating the rhythm of its movements and disciplining its activity. The seven gifts are distinct but not separate. There is a subtle overlapping of the different gifts in their work within the heart.

An appreciation of the significance of the number seven pervades Augustine's presentation. In his mind the number seven signified plenitude, perfection and completeness. It was a holy and sacred number.(3) Speaking in various places about the special import of seven, he explicitly links the number with the Holy Spirit (cf. Tractate CXXII, n. 8, On the Gospel of John).

He further clarifies and illumines his perspective with the observation that there are ten commandments which must be completed by the seven gifts of the Spirit: "For the law hath ten commandments, but the spirit of grace, through which alone the law is fulfilled, is called seven-fold" (En. in Ps. L).(4) It is one thing to know what to do; it is another to have the power to actually do it. Augustine punctuates his sermons with this association of seven and the gifts.(5) A practical question surfaces: how can Augustine successfully link seven gifts with eight beatitudes? With penetrating insight he notes that the eighth beatitude promises the "kingdom of heaven" to those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake. The "kingdom" is also explicitly promised to those who would be poor in spirit. Augustine reminds us then that "The beatitudes begin with `humility . . . The eighth, as it were, returns, to the starting point, "because it shows and commands what is complete and perfect . . ." (Ser. on the Mt. III, n. 10). The eighth beatitude encapsulates and sums up the other seven:

Seven in number, therefore, are the things which bring perfection: for the eighth brings into light and shows what is perfect, so that starting, as it were, from the beginning again, the others also are perfected by means of these stages. Sermon on the Mount III, n. 10.

In the scheme devised by St. Augustine "fear of the Lord" is linked with the first beatitude: "Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Fear of the Lord is the springboard for all spiritual growth. Scripture abounds with references (Cf. Ps. 103, Prov. 1:7, 23, 17; Sir. 1:11) which remind us that fear of the Lord is foundational. For those who are truly grounded in reality (the truth), they are those most ready to receive and respond to the kingdom. Augustine was convinced, and his convictions were crystallized in the struggles and the growth of his own soul, that progress is made from fear to wisdom, from the depths of humility to the heights of peace. This journey, of course, is made in the recesses of the heart, for the heart is where one makes ultimate choices; where one takes up a fundamental stance toward God.

Augustine states that one who truly fears the Lord cannot help but be poor in spirit. For the "self" would recognize itself in the context of complete and utter dependency upon God (cf. On Christian Doctrine II, VII, 9). Renouncing all false illusions and an exaggerated estimate of one's own capacity, the person that fears the Lord is actively receptive to the work of the transforming spirit of God. Authentic conversion depends upon a humble, child-like spirit. It is the first beatitude which demands a radical break from pride and self-sufficiency: "And the 'poor in spirit' are rightly understood here, as meaning the humble and God-fearing, i.e. those who have not the spirit which puffeth up" (Ser. on the Mt. I, I. 3.). With forthrightness and vigor Augustine underscores the fact that those who are conscious of spiritual need, those who are Godfearing, are most ready to be filled with spiritual riches.

The gift of piety is related to the second Beatitude: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."(6) The docility of spirit which flows from humility strengthens the desire of the heart to embrace all the wishes and commands of God. Augustine asserts that in terms of the transcendent power of God impinging upon one's life, God's wisdom is beyond our comprehension. God's plan is "better and truer than anything we could devise by our own wisdom" (On Christian Doctrine, II, VII, 9.).

The mystery here is deep and challenging. The gift of piety is anchored in the acknowledgement that God is an infinitely loving Father who is infinitely worthy of loving trust and affection. One who is animated by a spirit of piety "spontaneously and in a filial way clings to everything which he knows to be dear to the heart of his heavenly Father. The attitude of such a pious person is truly that of a child towards its parents, who, it realizes loves their child."

Scripture plays a crucial role in Augustine's presentation, for it is there that one discovers the reality of God's love. Acceptance of God's authority as revealed in Scripture is an integrative power shedding light and warmth on the meek and pious soul. Fully assured that everything that happens is providential and in accord with God's will, Augustine insists that the Christian is not anxious about anything. His only concern is to love with all his heart, to meekly accept all with filial devotion and courage.

It is well to remember that the long process of conversion in Augustine's own life was ended when, in the context of reading God's word, he underwent a profound interior change. In meekness and piety Augustine responded full-heartedly to God's call. The early books of the Confessions describe well that without the proper mental disposition of piety the Scriptures can remain obscure.


The third beatitude "Blessed are those who mourn for they shall 'be comforted" is associated with the gift of knowledge. Augustine delineates the implications of this connection: "Knowledge corresponds to those that mourn, who already have found out in the Scriptures by what evils they are held chained which they ignorantly have coveted, as though they were good and useful" (Sermon on the Mount, IV, n. 11). The gift of knowledge provides practical, down-to-earth help in spiritual growth. It helps one to see things as God does. Because of the human condition, there is the perennial danger of myopia, of narrowing one's vision in order to avoid coming to know and respond to God's demands. The gift of knowledge opens up the eyes of the heart. Augustine is absolutely clear on priorities: God is central and all else is secondary. One must necessarily separate oneself from many activities and things in this world in order to come to special intimacy with God. Strong and determined desire lies at the root of one's choice to respond to God's invitation. Such active receptivity does not leave one's life crystal-clear nor devoid of problems. It is difficult to "lose those things which were held dear" (Ser. on the Mt. I, II, 5) and a feeling of grief is normal in the midst of a faithful response to God. The gift of knowledge also enables one to perceive the proper value of things and events in this world. This spirit of knowledge must become a motivating discipline and influence in daily life. The Christian must be conscious of the effort needed to mourn in truth and honesty, to maintain inner soul-stamina and yet also be aware that the Spirit, as Comforter, is ever-present in his all-embracing, comprehensive love. "To know the truth of our human predicament is to know it as something that can be met only with mourning."(8) Christian sorrow can move one to inwardness, to a more intimate and joy-filled union with the Lord.

Augustine, after grappling so seriously with his own heart, wisely admits that the journey to God bristles with problems. No attempt is made to trim or trivialize the difficulties that will confront a sincere soul. Carl Jung wrote much later of these challenges: "Whenever there is a reaching down into innermost experience, into the nucleus of personality, most people are overcome by fright, and many run away . . . ."(9) Therefore the soul must be graced with the gift of fortitude. Augustine links this gift with the fourth beatitude: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be filled." He states that when righteousness is hungered and thirsted after, fortitude is very necessary (cf. Ser. on the Mt. I, III, 10). No irrelevant rhetoric for Augustine! He insists that one must rechannel one's loves in order to love and be loved by Love. He would maintain that the "misfit between our appetites and our world serves to give us a chance to purify and disentangle our desires, to bring them in line with God's total rightness, so that we can discover that the most basic appetite of all is precisely the appetite for God and his order."(10) When Augustine charted his own inner journey he dwelt at length on the complexity of the human heart:

Who can map out the various forces at play in one soul, the different kinds of love . . . Man is a great depth, O Lord; You number his hairs . . . but the hairs of his head are easier by far to count than his feelings, the movements of his heart.         Confessions IV, xiv, 22

Two effects of the gift of fortitude are distinguished by Augustine. A negative and positive movement are clearly perceptible: "For in this frame of mind he [the soul] extricates himself from every form of fatal joy in transitory things, and turning away from these, fixes his affection on things eternal" (On Christian Doctrine, II, vii, n. 10). One frees oneself "from" people, places and things to be free "for" God. Under the influence of fortitude one is enabled to stand firm in the face of fear and failure, to struggle valiantly against temptation to give up, to deal honestly with the subtle arrogance of pride which seeks to remove God from the center of life.

Animated by the spirit of fortitude and truly hungering for holiness, one places total confidence in God, and that confidence is boundless. A certain quality and tonality characterizes the mind and heart of such a spirit-filled person. A spirit of courageous action undergirds the heart's desire to attend fully to the Lord.

Augustine deals briefly with the gift of counsel which he associates with the fifth beatitude: "Counsel corresponds to the merciful; for this is the one remedy for escaping from so great evils, that we forgive, as we wish to be ourselves forgiven" (Ser. on the Mt., I, IV, n. 11). The spiritual life demands balance. How one relates to God is intimately related to how one encounters other people. Gifted by the spirit of counsel, says Augustine, one is enabled to reach out to others in merciful love, in a concrete way one is enabled to mirror to the world the very mercy of God. Counsel provides practical and precise direction to concrete merciful action. The gift of counsel impels one to channel energy and time in diverse directions of action. Pope John Paul recently affirmed the positive action of mercy: "Love must be revealed above all as mercy and must also be actualized as mercy" (Dives in Misericordia, 8).

Providing further light for the pilgrimage toward holiness, Augustine observes that "At the sixth stage there is purity of heart, able from a good conscience of good works to contemplate that highest good, which can be discerned by the pure and tranquil intellect alone" (Sermon on the Mount, I, III, 10). Understanding is the gift of the Spirit which corresponds to the purity in heart spoken of in the sixth beatitude. Christ was primarily concerned with the insideness of our lives. Augustine likewise realized that the deeper recesses of life were what mattered most. Teresa of Avila, too, acknowledged the need for inwardness and recorded the many levels of interiority in her Interior Castle. Augustine accentuates the fact that it is only the pure of heart who can come to 'see" God present within.

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. How foolish, therefore, are those who seek God with these outward eyes, since He is seen with the heart . . . For that is a pure heart which is a single heart: and just as this light cannot be seen except with pure eyes, so neither is God seen, unless that is pure by which He can be seen. Sermon on the Mount, I, II, n. 8.
"If our life is rooted in God, so that the well-spring of life in us is God, then we shall see as God sees. And what God sees is God. This is why those who are pure of heart will be enabled to see God."(11) The gift of understanding gives sight to one's inner eyes; it gives an illumined awareness of the movement and work of God within the soul. Knowledge coalesces with purity of heart in that "to have a pure heart means that wherever you look, whatever you are looking at, what you see is God, revealing himself in myriads of different ways, but always God."(12) Purity of heart establishes the internal milieu required for union with God. The gift of knowledge constantly urges one to ever deeper levels of conversion as the soul strives to focus single-hearted attention on the mystery of the presence of God within.

The soul's journey concludes in the fullness of being which is our perfect happiness. So Augustine comes to reflection upon wisdom:

Lastly is the seventh, wisdom itself -- i.e. the contemplation of the truth, tranquillizing the whole man, and assuming the likeness of God, which is thus summed up: Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God. Sermon on the Mount, I, III, n. 10.
There is a subtle unity between understanding (and the beatitude concerning the pure of heart) and wisdom (and the beatitude concerning the peacemakers). For purity of heart ushers the soul into the depths of the heart-and wisdom is the perfection of all, the goal attained.

God is able to give of himself and be present in loving union because the soul has become more fully disposed to enjoy him. There is a harmony and integration within (cf. Ser. on the Mt. I, IV, N. 11). This wisdom is not a cold and sterile influence. Rather, it is a loving knowledge leading the intellect to true and full understanding. It is a wisdom that knows God's works and understands what is pleasing in God's eyes (cf. Wis. 9:1-6, 9-11). The gift of wisdom touches the mind with truth in an intimate and personal way. The soul responds in peaceful affectivity. Absent is that sense of restlessness and agitation resulting from a fragmented life.

Having reached this intimate union with God, the soul, lovingly created in the "image" of God, is now living in the "likeness" of God. The promise of the beatitude is that one would be called a child of God. One's vision, judgment and attitudes resemble those of God himself. As God's gracious spirit transforms the heart, there are external manifestations which indicate the new, powerful way of life. This is evidenced in love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22). Augustine concludes:

It is the perfection of peace where nothing offers opposition; and the children of God are peacemakers, because nothing resists God, and surely children ought to have the likeness of their father . . . this is the life of the fully developed and perfect wise man. Ser. on the Mt. I, II, n. 9.

Augustine's creative development reveals clearly that the possibility of Christian integration and growth in holiness is founded on the gifts of the Spirit. Four gifts aid the mind by the intellectual and faith growth of the person: wisdom, knowledge, counsel, understanding. Through the efficacious action of these gifts, one can contend with the forces of folly, ignorance and inner blindness. The heart, too, stands in need of special help. The three gifts of fortitude, piety and fear of the Lord enrich the soul's affectivity, and enable it to stand faithful and firm. Thus, the whole person, mind and heart, is drawn to beatitude and fullness of life with, in and for God.

  1. Charles Bernard, "Dons du Saint-Esprit," Dictionnaire du Spiritualité (Beauchesne, Paris, 1957), Vol. IV, c. 1586.
  2. Simon Tugwell, Reflections on the Beatitudes (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1980), p. 1.
  3. Van Lierde, C., Doctrina Sancti Augustini circa Dona Spiritus Spiritus Sancti ex Textu Is XI: 2-3 (Angelicum, Rome, 1935), pp. 49-50.
  4. All quotations will be taken from Philip Schaff, ed., A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.
  5. Cf. Sermon CCXLVIII, c. V; CCLXX, n. 5; XXXVIII, n. 3; CCXLIX, n. 3.
  6. Augustine follows the Septuagint which has "piety" instead of "fear of the Lord" in the last section of Isa. 11:2.
  7. Alexis Riaud, The Holy Spirit Acting in our Souls, Walter van de Putte, trans. (New York: Alba House, 1979), p. 54.
  8. Tugwell, op. cit., p. 63.
  9. C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, recorded and edited by Aniela Jaffe, translated from the German by Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Vintage Books, 1961), p. 140-41.
  10. Tugwell, p. 75.
  11. Ibid., p. 98.
  12. Ibid., p. 98.