For those of us celebrating Ascension today rather than on Thursday, there is a special appropriateness in our praying for the gift of counsel. This third gift of the Holy Spirit can be said to complete the gifts of wisdom and understanding, just as the Ascension can be said to complete the paschal mystery.
The opening sentences of chapter 11 of Isaiah remind us
And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root. And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: the spirit of wisdom, and of understanding, the spirit of counsel, and of fortitude, the spirit of knowledge, and of godliness. And he shall be filled with the spirit of the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge according to the sight of the eyes, nor reprove according to the hearing of the ears. But he shall judge the poor with justice, and shall reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. And justice shall be the girdle of his loins: and faith the girdle of his reins.
Counsel is thus an attribute of Christ himself but not one we often think about. It is sometimes described as the perfection of prudence (which Benedict calls the mother of all the virtues), an interior working of mind and heart that leads to right conduct. I have sometimes wondered whether, when Jesus urged the rich young man to sell all he had and follow him, we are right to assume that the story ended with his going away sad because he had many possessions. He was obviously a thoughtful and prayerful man. Did he make a once-for-all rejection of the invitation given him? Isn’t it just as likely that he went away and wrestled with his conflicting thoughts and emotions, and perhaps did do as Jesus asked? That would have been counsel at work in him.
Today we tend to talk rather glibly about counselling of one kind or another. Usually we mean the kind of listening/guidance given by someone trained to help those with specific problems or difficulties. Counsel, as the Church understands it, is sheer gift: it can be developed, but not taught. It must operate within the individual before he or she can share its fruits with others. To be attentive, to be receptive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, that is our role; and it requires steadfast prayer and reflection on the scriptures. As we pray for the gift of counsel, let us pray also for perseverance in those things that make us open to the Holy Spirit.