The Fruits of The Spirit

Abbot Thomas Keating teaching at St. Gregory Nyssen Church, San Francisco, Feb 15, 1997 for Contemplative Outreach of Northern California

Thomas Keating, OCSO


The Fruits of the Holy Spirit are indications of God's presence at work in us in varying degrees and forms. Through them the Holy Spirit is becoming a reality in our lives. By manifesting the fruits in daily life we bear witness to the resurrection of Christ in a most profound manner. It is not so much preaching or teaching, but our rootedness in the Spirit that communicates Christ's life to the people around us-to our family, friends and those with whom we work. If we are rooted in the Spirit, these fruits inevitably begin to appear. 

In the presentation of the spiral staircase as a symbol of the purification that gradually takes place through contemplative prayer, I suggested that every time we move to a new level of recognition of our weakness and dependence on God for everything, we experience a kind of inner resurrection. To put it in terms of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, the more we realize how 'unmanageable' our lives are--how helpless we are to practice the virtues and to imitate Jesus--the more life becomes an adventure in allowing the Spirit to move us and to accompany us in daily life. Our temperamental type, our number on the Enneagram, and all the other things we can find out about ourselves through self-help programs are useful. Still, the main thing we need to know about ourselves is that we are unable to do any spiritual work under our own power. We are totally dependent on the divine Spirit that is present to our inmost being all the time, inviting us to let go of our self-centered projects and to allow the Spirit to be the source of our actions at every level. With that kind of trustful dependence on the Spirit, each time we accept a new sense of our own weakness and lack of virtue there follows an inner resurrection. This is manifested by the experience of the Fruits of the Spirit as the first indication of our transformation in Christ. As we descend the spiral staircase into the depths of our own being and into the center of our nothingness, the Seven Gifts of the Spirit which are even more mature fruits, begin to manifest themselves.

Centering Prayer is a method to become more and more sensitive to the Spirit within us. The Spirit is present within us in virtue of our Baptism when we were anointed with the Spirit. Unfortunately, when we are not available to the Spirit, we think that the Spirit is absent. The power of the Spirit is intensified in the sacrament of Confirmation when the Seven Gifts of the Spirit are explicitly transmitted to us. Our unconscious contains all the emotional trauma of a lifetime that we have repressed as well as enormous levels of energy and creativity. Every significant event of our life history is recorded in our bodies and nervous system. The undigested emotional material of a lifetime must be moved out in order for the free flow of grace and the natural and spiritual energies in the unconscious to manifest.

The Fruits of the Spirit are nine aspects of the mind of Christ. They are listed by St. Paul in Galatians 5. They activate and bring to maturity the graces of Baptism and Confirmation. They are the direct opposite of the bitter fruits of the false self also listed in Galatians 5: promiscuity, licentiousness, enmity, contention, jealousy, quarrels, factions, envy. The Fruits of the Spirit grow together with the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. The Beatitudes are the ripe fruits of that transformation. "If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink. Out of his inmost being will flow rivers of living water. This he said of the Holy Spirit whom those who believe in him are destined to receive." (John 7:37-39)

The first fruit of the Spirit is Charity or in the Greek, Agape, which means self-giving love as opposed to self-seeking love. Most of us know love as desiring something or someone. This is the kind of love the Greeks called Eros, a powerful and necessary kind of love, but it is meant to grow into the self-giving love that the Gospel calls charity. Charity is not almsgiving. It is rather a participation in God's unconditional love. As a result we witness our former habitual attitudes unwind and begin to love people whom we normally despise or can't stand. Faith in God's presence in others enables us to overlook personality or character defects that cause us difficulty. We can begin to accept them and perhaps someday we may be able to welcome them. The growth of charity leads to total self-surrender to God and the compassionate love of others. The quality of Christ's love is the source of its vitality; the continual tender and loving awareness of the presence of God is its reward. 

The second commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves and is rooted in the recognition and acceptance by faith that the divine presence dwells in every human being. Perhaps there is someone in our families or at work that we would like to stay as far away from as possible. The first thing that attracts us to those with whom we have difficulties is the fact that God is present in them; we place our faith that God is there. Our efforts to accept people are based on a truth that we can't immediately see or feel, but that we believe. Accepting the movement of the Spirit enables the life of the Spirit to go on increasing in us.  Jesus has given us a new commandment and that is "to love one another as I have loved you." This is much more demanding. It is not simply a movement of faith in the abstract. It is accepting each other in our individualities, in our opinionatedness, in the things that drive us up the wall, in what seems physically or emotionally repulsive in other people. We accept people just as they are because Christ has accepted us just as we are with our grocery list of limitations, faults, sins and hang-ups. God's unconditional love poured forth in our hearts by the Holy Spirit goes on showing love no matter what happens, even in the face of opposition and persecution. 

Where does this charity come from? It is being infused into us in the silent seedbed of contemplative prayer. The whole of contemporary society is contrary to that movement. In daily life we meet with the endless projects of people with false selves similar to our own who are seeking symbols in the culture or in their particular environment of survival and security, power and control, affection and esteem and manifesting their over-identification with their ethnic, family, religious and nationalistic group. These attitudes are confining and limited while the movement of the Spirit leads to freedom. Joy is an abiding sense of well-being based on the experience of a conscious relationship with God. It is the sign of liberation from the false self and the growing awareness of the true self. 

Flowing from this joy, is the freedom to accept the present moment and its content without trying to change it. The welling up of joy is celebrated by the great Alleluia of Easter. Bliss might be described as the fullness of joy. It is the abiding sense of being loved by God and of being permanently established in his presence. It is the experience of the living water that flows from the divine Source in our inmost being that Jesus spoke about in John's Gospel as the dedication of the temple, "If anybody thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Out of that person's inmost being will flow rivers of living water." John the Evangelist adds, "This he spoke of the Holy Spirit who would be given to those who believe in him." (John 7:37-39).

Peace is the result of the pervasive sense of contentment that comes from being rooted in God and at the same time fully aware of one's own nothingness. It is a state that perdures beyond the ups and downs of life, beyond the emotions of joy and sorrow. At the deepest level one knows that all is well; that everything is just right despite all appearances to the contrary. At all times one can pray with Jesus, 'Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.'

Meekness (kindness) has no energy for hostility, hatred or outbursts of anger. The energy of anger is necessary for human health and growth, but needs to be transmuted into a growing capacity to persevere in the pursuit of the difficult good, especially the immense goods of the spiritual journey and of the imitation of Christ. The growth of meekness opens us to the continual awareness to God's presence and the acceptance of everyone along with their limitations. One does not approve of the harmful things that others may do, but one accepts them just as they are, ready to help whenever possible but without trying to change them. One is even content with one's inability to change oneself as one would like while continuing to do what one can to improve, relying more and more upon God
and less on one's own efforts.

Faithfulness (fidelity) is the dynamic expression of meekness. It is the daily oblation of ourselves and all our actions in sacrifice to God and out of compassion for others, especially in service of the concrete needs of others. It is to serve God without dwelling on what God or others are going to do for us; perseverance in giving without thinking of any return. Our normal need for affirmation is coming from a new place: the growing conviction of being loved by God which greatly reduces the desire for human approval.

Gentleness is a participation in God's way of doing things which is at once gentle and firm, sustaining all creation with its enormous diversity, yet without effort. We labor in the service of God more than ever, and yet have the sense of stepping back and watching God make things happen according to his will both in ourselves and in others. Our anxious efforts to serve God and our anguished search for God, cease. Like God we labor and are at rest at the same time. We work very hard, but we know by experience or even by bitter experience, that our efforts are not going to go anyplace except insofar as God makes them fruitful. Hence the elements of vanity, jealousy and contention that often accompany even our spiritual endeavors, are gradually evacuated leaving immense freedom just to be who we are and to serve the special needs of those around us.

Goodness is the affirmation of creation as good together with a sense of oneness with the universe and with everything created. It is the disposition that perceives everything, even the tragic things of life, as manifestations of God's love. It recognizes the beauty of all creation in spite of the damage that human selfishness has imposed upon it. As a result, gratitude to God abounds in our hearts and a happy emotionality characterizes our relationship with others and with the wear and tear of daily life.

Long-suffering (patience) is certitude in God's unwavering fidelity to his promises. Our security is no longer based on anything we might possess or accomplish, but rather on our conviction of God's unfailing protection and readiness to forgive. Hence we are not easily disturbed by the ebb and flow of human events and our emotional reactions to them. Feelings continue to be felt, at times more strongly than ever, but they no longer dominate our awareness or our activity. We are content to wait with confidence for God's deliverance in every situation, especially during prolonged periods of dryness and the dark nights. We have interiorized the words of the Gospel, "Ask and you shall receive. Seek and you shall find. Knock and it shall be opened to you." (Mt 7:7).

Self-control as a Fruit of the Spirit is not the domination of our will over our emotions. It is rather the result of the infusion of God's steadfast love, and our awareness of God's abiding presence. Hence our former compulsive reaching out for security, power or status symbols ceases; in particular, there is no energy for sexual activity apart from commitment and genuine love. When Moses asked God who he was, the answer came, "I AM THAT I AM." This text is still under scholarly investigation, but one likely meaning is, "I am for you." The inward assurance of God's unwavering love enhances our freedom of choice and action. Out of that interior liberty, self-control arises spontaneously. We know in spite of our weakness that God will give us the strength to get through every trial and temptation. "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you." (John 15:13).

The Fruits of the Spirit are the new wine of the Gospel filling us with the divine energy and with a certain spontaneity. Structures need to be adjusted to this freedom which, as Paul says, is not license, but an ever-increasing sensitivity to the initiatives of the Holy Spirit. The hallmark of the divine action is, to quote Thomas Merton- "mercy, within mercy, within mercy."

The Fruits of the Spirit prove that Christ is living in us and transforming us into witnesses of his continuing presence in the world. To manifest these dispositions of Jesus is the living proof of his resurrection.