Discerning the Gifts of the Holy Spirit

Charisms are real

When teaching about the discernment of charisms, it should be emphasized how "real" the gifts of the Holy Spirit are. Charisms are not the product of an over-active religious imagination. Through the charisms, God's love and provision passes through the church to the world in ways that are specific and beyond our human abilities. In the presence of the charism of healing people get well in ways that defy all expectations. In the presence of a charism of administration, logistical chaos is transformed into grace-filled order. In the presence of a charism of mercy, the rejected and the suffering experience real comfort and God's love in a remarkable way.

All baptized Christians have been given the Holy Spirit and can manifest charisms

The Church clearly teaches that all Christians receive the Holy Spirit through Baptism and Confirmation and so Christians who have never been involved in the charismatic renewal also receive charisms. It is this reality that pope John Paul II affirmed in his address to the Meeting of Ecclesial Movements and New Communities

Charisms need to be discerned

The discernment of a charism is important. It is the teaching of both the New Testament (I Corinthians 12:14) and the Church that no one Christian receives all the charisms and that therefore we need to actively discern the specific charisms we have been given (Catechism of the Catholic Church 800-801)

We can certainly ask our Lord for a specific charism but as Venerable John Henry Newman observed, "God calls me by my name. He knows what I can do, what I can best be, what is my greatest happiness and he means to give it to me". (Meditations and Devotions, March 8, 1818). The Holy Spirit will give us those charisms that will contribute to our own happiness and fit us for his wonderful purposes. Many people long to "get" a particular gift. But charisms are "gratuitous graces" that the Holy Spirit gives as he wills and that all we can do is to discern what God is already doing in our lives.

In order to discern which charisms the Lord had given us, we may prayerfully try a specific activity and see what God does as a result. There are several basic signs of a charism that should be consistently present over time.

The first sign is effectiveness

What does God do when I engage in a particular activity? Through a charism, the Holy Spirit accomplishes things only God could do. Something far greater than anything I have to give mysteriously passes through me and with grateful astonishment, I see its effects in the world around about me. If I have been given a charism of teaching, those I teach will learn and find learning deeply compelling and life-giving. If I have a charism of hospitality the hidden wounds of many will be mysteriously healed through my seemingly simple act of welcoming and befriending the stranger and the lonely.

But what if I do not seem to be effective? There is one truth that should be stressed: Recognizing where the Holy Spirit has not gifted you is success, because it frees you from the burden of false expectations and liberates you to wholeheartedly embrace God's unique call in your life. The process of recognizing the absence of a charism can be very painful, especially for those who have been involved in leadership or active ministry for years. We can be so personally invested in a particular view of ourselves that we can miss or even willfully ignore the obvious.

I remember one woman who drove hundreds of miles to furiously insist that she had no charisms. It turned out that she did have charisms, she just hadn't received the one that she wanted. She had been dramatically healed herself and desperately wanted to be used by God in a healing ministry. But after years of training and participation in a healing ministry, she was beside herself with frustration because no one was getting well!

The amazing thing was that she did have a well-developed charism of intercessory prayer. Extraordinary things happened all the time when she prayed, but she didn't care. Her heart was set on one particular gift and nothing else would do! Slowly, over the eight weeks of the extended discernment program, she was able to let go of her long cherished dream and joyfully accept the very real charism that God had given her. But it wasn't easy.

The second sign is our own experience

God does not give us charisms as a form of penance. If you are exercising a spiritual gift, you will generally feel energized, satisfied, and joyful, as though this is where you belong. You will not necessarily feel that way every time you try to use this gift, but that will be the overall experience. One caution: Some people can have very negative "first time" experiences. The key is observing your feelings over an extended period of time - weeks or months, not hours!

The third sign is the response and affirmation of others

This can come in direct or indirect forms. It's wonderful when people give you direct feedback such as "I learned so much from your class" or "I feel so much better about my situation after talking it over with you". Lots of specific, positive feedback over time is a real affirmation.

But affirmation can also come indirectly, as we observe what people ask of us. Do people you don't know well seem to just "open up" to you and share their intimate feelings and concerns with you? (You might have a charism of encouragement). Does your home always seem to be full of people who just "drop in"? (Do you have a gift of hospitality?). The fascinating thing is that others will often recognize our gifts and ask us for that which God has given us to give - even if we ourselves don't know what it is!

The fourth sign: the activity in question is an intimate expression of my relationship with God

I once asked an administratively gifted friend of mine if organizing things was like prayer for her. -Yes! was her enthusiastic reply. All charisms, not just obviously supernatural ones like prophecy or intercessory prayer, are intimately connected to our relationship with God. Good discernment questions to ask ourselves might be: When I am engaged in this activity, is it like prayer or contemplation? Have I noticed any increase in or deepening of my fruitfulness in this area as my relationship with God has grown? When I most desire to live my love of God, does exercising this particular activity seem one of the most natural and obvious ways to express my faith?

Charisms seldom manifest all at once

Charisms usually begin to manifest after a conversion experience or a spiritual awakening but rarely do so all at once. Gifts of the Holy Spirit often emerge in response to circumstances that cry out for a specific work of God. For instance, St. Francis Xavier was famous for his healing ministry India, which greatly added to his evangelistic effectiveness, but there is no evidence that God used him in that way before he got to India.

A wonderful opportunity lies before the leaders of the renewal. We can help all Catholics to recognize, name, develop, and exercise their charisms for the good of the church and the world. As one young man put it, "I once thought there was a part of myself that was never going to get to live because I wasn't called to be a priest. But now I know that it is a charism of the Holy Spirit and a call that I can live as a layman".