One of the beatitudes taught by Jesus is often misunderstood today, largely due to the most popular translations of it from the Greek text. The Beatitude is, “Blessed are the pure of heart.” Or sometimes rendered, “clean” of heart.”
While the word “pure” or “clean,” is not an inauthentic translation of the Greek word καθαρός (katharos). A more literal translation of the word is to be without admixture, to be simply one thing, and hence, on that account to be purely and simply that thing, with nothing else mixed in. Hence, another helpful way of translating the Greek μακάριοι οἱ καθαροὶ τῇ καρδίᾳ (makarioi hoi katharoi te kardia) is “Blessed are the single-hearted.”
The reason to suggest, as more descriptive, the phrase “single-hearted” is that, in modern English, the words “pure” and “clean” tend to evoke a merely moral sense of being free of sin, of being morally upright. And this is good, and is surely a significant part of being single-hearted. But being single-hearted is it a deeper and richer concept than simply being well behaved, since to be well behaved is the result of the deeper truth of being one thing, not duplicitous, or with a divided heart.
To be single-hearted, means to have my life focused on what Jesus calls “the one thing necessary” (Luke 10:42). It is to have my life focused on the Lord, and my one goal of reaching heaven and being with him forever.
The image of the Rose window that the upper right, which I have used before on this blog, is a good illustration of what it means to be single-hearted. It does not mean that there are not different facets to my life, but rather, that every facet of my life is ordered around, and points to Christ, is subsumed to Jesus, and his heavenly kingdom along with the Father and the Spirit as the ordering principle of every other thing. And thus, career, family, marriage, finances, spending priorities, use of time, where I live, and any other imaginable aspect of life, is subsumed in Christ; it points to him, and leads to the Lord and his kingdom on high.
The single-hearted life, is a well ordered life. Each step, and each decision leads me in the right direction. St. Paul says, This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:13-14). And hence, while Paul made many journeys to many places, he was really on one journey and heading to one place. This simplified and ordered his life. He was single-hearted.
We can see why the beatitude often gets translated as pure or clean of heart. As noted, to be pure or clean means to be the one thing, not admixed with lots of other impurities, or things which cause me not to be what I really meant to be. And perhaps this is how we get the connection in the phrase, “pure and simple.”
Consider for example that the impurities of a copper wire, will reduce its effectiveness in carrying electrical current. When the copper is not pure, it is not its very self, the electrical energy which is meant to be directed through it becomes more scattered or hindered from its goal.
And this image of scattering or being hindered, unfortunately describes the lives of many Christians whose lives are not ordered on the one thing necessary, whose hearts are not single, whose hearts are not focused on the one thing they should be. Such a one has a life which is often scattered, confused, disordered, and a jumble of many conflicting and contrary drives which hinder one from the goal of life. And thus the Lord Jesus says, He who does not gather with me, scatters (Luke 11:23). And the Book of James says, The double minded man is unstable in all his ways (James 1:8).
Finally, being single-hearted, being pure of heart not only orders our life, but it also grants freedom. In modern, Western thinking, we often equate freedom with doing more, not less. So freedom is equated with being able to “do anything I please.” And this attitude has led to the kind of jumble that much of modern life has become, the kind of tangled web of many contrary wishes and desires, but with little unifying direction or purpose. We think of freedom in very abstract terms. And hence we tend to get very abstract and disconnected results
But biblically and spiritually, freedom is the capacity or ability to do what is right, best and proper. And thus, paradoxically, freedom often means doing less, not more.
Being single-hearted, helps to focus us and to pare away a lot of the excess growth and unnecessary baggage of modern life. And life gets simpler, and simplicity is a form of freedom, such that we focus on what is important more than what is urgent. And we discover that what often claims to be urgent, is not really necessary or urgent after all.
Life, especially modern life, has many options. And not all these options are simply distinguished by being good or bad, moral or immoral. Many of them are altogether good options. But how to sort through, to choose, and to focus my life on the one thing necessary?
Being single-hearted is the beatitude which helps us to do this. As St. Paul says, regarding the good options in life: All things are lawful to me, but not all things are expedient (1 Cor 6:12).
To be single-hearted is to become more free, not (paradoxically) by doing more, but by doing less, by becoming more focused on the Lord, hearing his voice, and basing my life simply on what he says and teaches me,
Pray for the gift to become more single-hearted. More than ever, in our modern age, with its distractions and endless possibilities, we need to learn the lesson of the Rose window, and center our lives increasingly on Christ, the one thing necessary.
I have used this clip in other posts before. Pardon a brief profane word, but it does help emphasize the point being made: