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The Gifts of the Holy Spirit

Discovering the gifts of the Holy Spirit with the Rev Dr Alison Jack of New College, Edinburgh, and Fr Dermot Preston SJ of St Aloysius' RC Church, Glasgow

38 minutes

Last on

Sun 17 May 2020 08:10


Good morning and welcome to Scotland for this service of music and prayer.
With the contours of our lives-in-lockdown we can’t gather with a live choir or congregation.  But we have been able to draw on some wonderful music from earlier services around Scotland and from elsewhere for our worship, to allow us to pray together on this Sunday morning in the Easter Season.

Eastertide lasts for seven weeks, and as we move towards the end of this season, the emphasis of the Christian liturgy moves subtly from Jesus’ resurrection and his appearances to the disciples, looking more towards Pentecost Sunday - fifty days after Easter Sunday - when the Holy Spirit came down on those same disciples gathered in the upper-room in Jerusalem.

Today we will prepare for that event by reflecting on some of the gifts that are associated with that Spirit:  gifts that are still open to us today - gifts for us to transform the world.

Music: Hymn – Come Down, O Love Divine (Tune: Down Ampney)
Choir of St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh - BBC Archives


Loving God, bless us with the inspiration of your Holy Spirit as we seek to worship you in spirit and in truth.

Gather us into a community of faith which knows no boundaries but delights in your presence.
Whether we are faithful or resistant, hopeful or downcast, whisper to us your life-giving words, that we may know you better and love you more.
In the name of Jesus Christ.  Amen.


The apostle Paul wrote about gifts of the Spirit which are offered for the building up of the Church. A reflection on gifts of the Spirit for personal spiritual growth is also found in the Old Testament.  In the book of Isaiah (3.1-3) the prophet reflects on his experience of the Kings of Judah and recalls the spiritual gifts that they needed - wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, & fear of the Lord  - and this list has come down to Christians as the traditional ‘Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit’ given to help us grow in faith.

Today’s reading from Chapter 14 of John’s Gospel reveals Jesus’ assurance to his disciples that the gift of the Holy Spirit will always be with them, even when the world turns upside down.

Music: The Crossing - Ola Gjeilo
CD: Ola Gjeilo – Voices, Piano, Strings; Decca

READER:  John 14. 15-21
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.

Music: If ye love me - Tallis
Performers:  The Sixteen directed by Harry Christophers
CD: Renaissance: Music For Inner Peace, Decca




The first of Isaiah's gifts of the Spirit, assured by the Advocate Jesus promises, is knowledge.



‘Well, every day is a school day’- it’s what you say when you’ve been informed you’ve got something wrong, through your own ignorance. It might be accompanied with a wry smile, a raising of the eyes, maybe even a touch of annoyance.


In the past few weeks the education of our children has been entrusted more than usual to those who are family members rather than professional teachers, and for those parents, siblings and guardians, every day really has been a school day, for better or for worse. But education is always shared between home and school. The Latin roots of the word ‘education’ point to both leading or drawing out and bringing up: to be educated is to be nourished so you are enabled to move from one state to another. Education should empower and accompany all the stages of physical and mental development., so the child flourishes and grows.

Music: Peace Song - Phamie Gow
CD: Softly Spoken, Decca


In the moment between the last supper and the garden of Gethsemane, time stops in the story John the evangelist tells about Jesus. Here, for verse upon verse, Jesus seeks to educate his disciples and those who come after them so they might manage the transitions ahead. He tells them he will not leave them orphaned. He promises the presence of the Holy Spirit who will guide them and teach them as they negotiate all the future holds. That is the gift of the spirit of knowledge which will enable them to thrive in a world in which nothing endures but change, as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus had said hundreds of years before.


The disciples were not children and Jesus was not their parent but his role as ‘Rabbi’, or ‘teacher’, is enfolded here within the creator’s fatherly concern through the promise of the Spirit. Those who follow Jesus, then and now, are promised they will not be orphaned, they will not be left with no-one to turn to when situations demand solutions beyond all we have known and expected.



Loving God, we seek the gift of knowledge from the Spirit of Jesus. 


At home, teach us ways to be which are loving and caring, respectful of boundaries even when patience is sorely tested. Give us the gift of empathy towards others, and the gift of kindness towards ourselves.



In our communities, teach us ways to be which are generous and thoughtful, attentive to the needs of others. Give us the gift of a spirit of oneness, which cuts across prejudices born out of reticence or lack of understanding.



In our country and in our world, inspire and encourage those who take on the burden of leadership, in politics, business and church. Give insight to those who toil in laboratories and at computers, to find cures and vaccines and solutions for the problems which confront us. Ease the weariness of those who tend the sick and the dying, that they may have the touch and the words their patients need today. Hear our prayers, loving God. Amen.


Music: Veni creator spiritus (Gregorian Chant arranged by Carl Orff)
Performers:  Carl Orff Chor directed by Robert Blank
CD: OEHMS Classics OC 531


ALISON   Our next gift is the gift of Counsel.

I was terrified.

It was the evening; night had fallen over a small, isolated Christian mission- station far to the east of Pretoria.

I was giving a retreat to a group of people, they had all gone to their beds and I returned to my room to find a large bat hanging upside-down from my curtain.

Repeat: I was terrified.

Theoretically my head knew a lot about bats. They are shy creatures; the vast majority avoid human contact and the vampire might be a native of South America, but I was in South Africa.

I knew that if I went to bed, the bat would likely just hang there through the night while I slept. I was calm on the outside and my head told me this was almost certainly fine, but my heart was already in panic mode, uninterested in logic.

So I got a bucket and carefully covered the bat, and then I slipped  a piece of cardboard through dislodging the bat from the curtain, and then I carried the covered bucket quickly outside, removed the cardboard and threw the occupant out into the air… but instead of flying out into the night as I had idealised in my mind, it was catapulted out and,  wings drawn close in, dropped like a stone onto the grass. I went to look at it and it lay quiet. It was stunned, I told myself – it’s resting; in the morning it will have gone.

But in the morning it was not gone: it lay where it had fallen, now cold and dead.

Music: Home – Ola Gjeilo
CD: Winter Songs, Decca

My fear had killed it. I had acted hastily and had not listened to other parts of my being which were uneasy. My head knew that bats need to drop into flight, that is why they hang upside down, so they fall with gravity and glide into flight. It is almost impossible for them to fly from the ground.

It was a sobering example of a time when I blocked out reality. My heart was so fearful, that it choked-off patience, ignored facts, drowned-out warnings, and forgot the preciousness of another living creature, who meant me no harm.

I do that – I sometimes get so het up with my fears, or my jealousy, my pride, my greed, my hatred that I block-out a greater reality and it always goes badly. My ambition clouds out the warnings and damage is done. I might easily become the angry driver that overtakes dangerously and regrets it for a lifetime.

It is this closed-ness of heart that blocks the presence of the Holy Spirit – the spirit of truth – and as such I failed to heed the counsel of the Holy Spirit. This gift of counsel – so important, so necessary in human decision making – fell on deaf ears as my panic rose to deafening proportions and I began to march to the drum-beat of my terror.

In the Gospel passage for today, Jesus says that he will send another advocate. The word used in Greek is ‘Parakletos’ is a complex word – it literally means someone who comes and stands beside you. In solidarity or defence, hence the word ‘advocate’, like a lawyer who stands next to you before the judge – someone to plead your cause.

The Holy Spirit, as Jesus promised, is our advocate, standing beside us both consoling and offering us the gift of inspired counsel. Counsel is a precious gift in time of uncertainty when storms can arise in our otherwise calm hearts: it can warn us of our blinding fears, suggest something deeper than just our knee-jerk prejudices, and helps us discern beyond the obvious thing to the right thing.

Father, let your Good Spirit guide us in ways that are level and true. Amen.

Music: Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire (Veni creator)
Choir of St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh - BBC Archives




DERMOT:  The gifts of the Fear of the Lord, and of Wisdom. 

When the poet Norman MacCaig speaks about the ‘heart-stopping intrusion of steep-down, steep up mountains’, he is expressing something of the emotion provoked by the sublime. A mixture of awe and fright, here in the face of natural wonders. In religious terms, this emotion might be described as the appropriate response to an encounter with the divine.

It’s certainly how many characters in the Old Testament respond when they are granted a special revelation of the Almighty: Moses is afraid to look at the burning bush, full of the presence of God; the prophet Isaiah, having been granted a vision of God in his heaven, fearfully assumes there is no hope for him in his sinful state. In the New Testament, this same fear is related to the reverent amazement with which the centurion at the foot of the cross responds to seeing the death of Jesus. It leads this most unlikely of converts to the revelation: ‘Surely this man was the son of God’. Fear of the Lord maintains the appropriate distance between the worshipper and the worshipped and puts the worshipper in a position to receive new revelation.

‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ asserts the writer of the book of Proverbs. It’s an aphorism that will adorn many a Victorian girl’s needlework sampler and the pink lustre pottery dishes of the pious.

But elsewhere in the book of Proverbs, wisdom is given a much more dynamic role than this one saying suggests. Wisdom is personified as a female figure who addresses the reader directly, as she describes her role in the creation of the world. ‘I was there when God set the heavens in place’, she tells us; she was rejoicing in God’s presence and delighting in the world and its people. Much like the Word in the opening chapter of John’s Gospel, and the Spirit Jesus promises his followers, this figure of Wisdom participates in the worlds of both the divine and the human. Wisdom, Word and Spirit reveal something of God which is filled with creativity and mystery and delight. In the mutual indwelling Jesus speaks of in John 14, the love of the Father and the Son, revealed through the Spirit, makes its home within those who keep hold of the word. The Spirit, like the personification of Wisdom, brings the creative energy of the divine into the realm of the personal. Specifically here into the familiar world of the home and the family. In this world, the response expected is not one of fear but of loving wonder.

For most of us, the world is quieter than we will have known it. Less traffic. Less contact with others and their chatter and clatter. Perhaps this a time to be open to an encounter with God and to an experience of the sublime, even if Norman MacCaig’s mountains are nowhere to be seen. As another poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, wrote: 'I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell I have been looking at. I know the beauty of our Lord by it.'

Hopkins spent two months working as a parish priest in Glasgow in 1881, and his famous nature poem ‘Inversnaid’ was inspired by a fleeting visit to Loch Lomond while he was here. His earlier poem, ‘Spring’, might be read as a response to a similar experience of the sublime presence of a divine and creative energy in the natural world, from weeds to thrush eggs to the intense blueness of the sky. The poem closes, as is characteristic of Hopkins, with a plea to Christ to save and protect this Edenic innocence of experience from anything that may ‘cloud’ it or ‘sour’ it.

Music:  Eclogue for Piano and Strings Op 10 – Gerald Finzi
CD: The Best of Finzi, Naxos 8.556836

READER (David Jackson Young)

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –         

   When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;         

   Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush         

Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring         

The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;

   The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush         

   The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush         

With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.         


What is all this juice and all this joy?         

   A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning

In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy,         

   Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,         

Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,         

        Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.



ALISON:  We turn now to the gift of understanding.


Poets probe to understand the mystery of the human experience; and when they catch glimpses of meaning they try to assemble words, sometimes of exquisite texture, to sculpt the very reliefs and curves they encounter.

In her poem ‘The Garments of God”, the Carmelite nun, Jessica Powers, presents us with a vivid word-image of the passionate God she has come to know.

READER  The Garments of God  (Jessica Powers)

God sits on a chair of darkness in my soul …

Music: Sunrise 

Performers:  Craig Armstrong
CD:   Piano Works: Sanctuary Records Group



ALISON:  The gift of Fortitude.

As an example of fortitude we need to look no further than Richard Wurmbrand who died in 2001 at the age of 91. From a very secular background, he became a Christian in wartime Romania, and having resisted the Fascists, he became a Lutheran minister and preached the word of God under the Communist regime in the late 40s. He was imprisoned and tortured for 14 years.

In his book, “In God’s Underground” Wurmbrand tells the story of the time he was so ill he was placed in a primitive Romanian prison hospital. In his fever he heard some patients pleading with the doctor not to “put them in Room 4”….

READER (David Jackson Young)

I asked the man who brought me my watery gruel what happened in Room 4 …

 (From ‘In God’s Underground’ Hodder & Stoughton 1969)

Music:  Ubi caritas et amor (Ola Gjeilo)
Performers:  Voces 8 and Ola Gjeilo
CD: Ola Gjeilo – Voices, Piano, Strings; Decca 4788689



ALISON:   Our last gift is the gift of Piety.

There is a wonderful poster of the Scottish Blood Transfusion Service in 1944. In the background it has the Saltire, the blue-&-white cross of St Andrew, while in the foreground there is a striking image of a Pelican with her chicks sitting in an upturned wartime helmet, feeding on the red blood that flows from the Pelican’s breast. “Your blood can save a life,” the poster declares.

The poster picks up a religious tradition that goes back to the  iconography of the early centuries of the Christian Church – you can actually find a pelican on the tabernacle on the sanctuary of St Aloysius’ Church in Glasgow. When the ancients observed this curious bird, there were occasions when it seemed (it doesn’t actually, but it seemed to, to casual observers) that the mother would peck at her own chest and uses the self-inflicted wounds to feed its young with its own blood.

The Pelican thus became the symbol of the gift of piety. This might seem strange, but that it is because unfortunately in modern English the word pious is mostly now used as an insult – someone who is pious is thought to be too-religious, severe, sad, stand-off-ish or holier-than-thou and even hypocritical. 

However in Latin, and in the true meaning of this gift of the Holy Spirit, pietas is quite different and perhaps the key gift of the seven – pietas is the instinctive warmth, the desire to render service and praise to those whom we value and love. Hence the choice of the pelican by the ancients.

Music: Home – Ola Gjeilo
CD: Winter Songs, Decca

Pietas is the intimacy which leads us to be self-sacrificing to both God and human beings because we honour the realities of both. We respect God and creation and we understand that our own integrity is only complete when we respect them as their position requires. Genuine love, gentle modesty and generosity abound when pietas anchors the human heart and, in the case of the divinity, it leads the heart to worship.

Father let your Holy Spirit so enter into me that my heart might resonate with your presence, that my soul will adore you and my life might bring joy and consolation to those I meet. Amen.


Let us pray in the words that Jesus gave to his own disciples...


Music: Hymn – Spirit of God, unseen as the wind (Tune: Skye Boat Song)
Words: Ian Jamieson 
Bothwell Parish Church, BBC Archives


Gathering Reflection



Gifts are offered, but they don’t have to be accepted. They can be refused, ignored or (in some cases) destroyed. It is the nature of a genuine gift: it is gratuitous and thus vulnerable to the whims and the concerns of the recipient. But it is this vulnerability of the gifts of God that allows the human being to express their freedom of soul.


It comes down to the question as to whether we actually trust Jesus when he says, “I have come that you might have life and have it to the full.”

For there's a promise at the heart of Christianity: that whatever gifts of the Spirit we allow to grow in our hearts, it will make us the version of ourselves most fully alive.

Music: May the God of peace go with you (Tune: Ae Fond Kiss)
Choir of Fettes College at Canongate Kirk, Edinburgh, BBC Archives


  • Sun 17 May 2020 08:10

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