In the Beatitudes, and indeed in the whole Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-8), the Lord is painting a picture of the transformed human person. The Sermon on the Mount is the Lord’s great moral treatise. But it is not to be understood so much as a list of things to do (out of our own fleshly power) but as gifts to receive from God’s grace. This is what happens to the human person in whom the Lord lives this life through the Holy Spirit.
I have written on aspects of the Sermon on the Mount before, but for Lent this year it may be good to review its essential points little by little throughout the season.
Today, let’s consider the Beatitudes. I want to use here the insights of Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange in his treatise The Three Ages of the Interior Life (Vol 1, pp 165-173). I include many thoughts of my own as well, rooted in other studies and in my experiences as a spiritual director and directee.
Following St. Augustine and St. Thomas, Lagrange sees the Beatitudes as following the petitions of the Our Father in reverse order and to be divided into the classic categories of the spiritual life: the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways. Consider, then, some brief reflections on each of the Beatitudes with this schema in mind. Seen in this way, the Beatitudes build on one another and lead us deeper into the spiritual life.
I. The Beatitudes of the Purgative Way – wherein we see sin put to death as the Lord forgives us our sins and delivers us from temptation and evil.
A. Blessed are the poor in Spirit for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. The Lord delivers us from the lie of the world that happiness consists in an abundance of possessions and instead roots our joy in the spiritual riches of His Kingdom, which lasts forever. The poor in spirit are those who are poor, but without murmuring, impatience, or jealousy. Blessed too are those who, though more materially fortunate, have not the spirit of riches with pomp and pride, but are detached from the riches of the world, which so easily enslave.
For indeed, the desire for riches divides us; it fosters quarrels, lawsuits, and even violence and war among nations. Such things must be purged from our hearts if we are to find the joy of God’s Kingdom. The transformed human person is increasingly purged of the desire for things that do not ultimately satisfy, and grows in a desire for God and the things of God that await in Heaven (and are available to some extent even now).
B. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land. Having been purged of the aggressive desire for riches and fearful grasping for what is “mine, not yours,” the faithful are purged of wrathful anger by the Lord.
Meekness is the virtue that moderates anger and preserves the middle ground between too much anger and not enough (for there are things (e.g., injustice) that should incite anger). The meek are given the gift of authority over their anger. They are purged of anger rooted in obsession with improper objects. They possess the land but are not possessed by it.
Purged of excessive and inappropriate anger, they do not seek vengeance nor do they wish to dominate others. They do not judge rashly and do not see in their neighbor a rival to be overcome, but rather a brother to be helped and to be a source of support. The meek are not stubbornly attached to their own judgment. Because they are not dominated by egocentric anger, they are able to express themselves simply and straightforwardly. They do not need to call Heaven to witness in trivial matters. There is little need for a person purged of this sort of anger to feel he must return anger to the angry, or crush a vulnerable oppressor.
To say that the meek are purged of unrighteous anger is also to say that they are purged of the most common root of anger: fear. The first Beatitude removes a good bit of this by purging from us our obsession with worldly and passing matters. No longer obsessed with having more, we are purged of many of our fears as well. And thus the way for meekness is paved. As fear is purged, meekness grows.
C. Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted. Here the Lord delivers us from the lie of the world that pleasures are the source of happiness.
Who are those who weep? First, they are those who weep for love at the recognition of the mercy, love, and goodness of God, who has saved them. They are those who weep for their own sin and ingratitude.
Those who mourn are also those who see the awful state of God’s people. They see that many do not know God, for whom they were made. They see that many, blinded by their sin, are locked in fruitless and sinful patterns and neither glorify God nor experience the true glory of God.
Yes, having come to know the beauty of God and His Kingdom, and having been purged of being enamored with the passing world, the blessed mourn for their own sins and attachments as well as for others who often seem lost and perversely attached to the mere trinkets of this world.
But they are comforted (strengthened) because their purgation helps them to see even more poignantly the beauty of God and His Kingdom. If they weep, they weep over what really matters, not lesser things. Their mourning is a motivating mourning, one that makes them dedicated to making a difference. Their tears come from being purged and lead to deeper purging so that greater blessings can take the place of what has been purged away.
II. The Beatitudes of the Illuminative Way – whereby we learn to see God and His wisdom more deeply and brightly, whereby we receive our daily bread, whereby God’s will is understood more deeply and appreciated more richly.
A. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Having been purged of the obsessions and slaveries of the world, our heart is freed. No longer sick on the candy of the world, no longer filled with fattening appetizers, the heart hungers for the true food of God’s Word, Wisdom, and Sacraments.
Through purgation, the Lord creates in us a desire for the better things. He also dilates (enlarges) our heart.
Hunger is very motivating. Seeking the illumination of God’s truth and righteousness is the usual result of a hunger that will not be satisfied by the snacks and empty calories of this world. Once one has read great literature, dime-store novels and formulaic sitcoms no longer satisfy. Higher forms are sought. Milk will no longer satisfy; the true meat of God’s truth is now necessary.
Now that God has purged us and we have reached this stage, He gives us a deepening desire for the very things He wants to give us: the righteousness and holiness of His Holy Spirit. Increasingly, we are satisfied, filled with God, because in our hunger we seek earnestly the things of God. We long for prayer and do not have to be dragged to it. We long for Scripture and the gifts of the Spirit.
Thus, we seek. And having sought, we find and are filled.
B. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Having found God and come to know and love Him, we love also the things and people He loves. As it pertains to God to have endless mercy for us who seek it, so too for us: as we are further illumined by God and grow in union with Him, we also grow in abundant mercy for others.
We are able to love, show mercy, and bless others, not because we have to but because we want to. It is increasingly in our reformed, purged, and now illumined nature to do so. We love with the love of God in us; we are merciful with the mercy of God in us.
The merciful obtain mercy because as God sees how His graces abound in us, He is prone and happy to share more and greater graces and mercy. Scripture says, Give and it shall be given unto you in good measure. Why? Because when God can trust us with His gifts, He gives us more, knowing that we will share them.
Since we are all going to need mercy on the day of judgment, here then is a gift of God to particularly benefit us in what we need most: the grace of mercy, in abundance.
III. The Beatitudes of the Unitive Way – wherein, having been purged and illumined, we now enter into deeper union with God, who is our Father, whose name is holy, and whose kingdom has come for us in abundance.
A. Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God. The Greek word καθαροὶ (katharoi) more literally means to be without admixture. Hence the Beatitude can be phrased, “Blessed are the single-hearted.” To be single-hearted is to be focused on one thing. 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 (Phil 3:13-14).
The pure (single-hearted), having been purged of obsession with the things of this world and having been illumined more fully in the things of God, hungering for them and being filled with them, now see their hearts become more pure, less admixed with the things of this world. Their hearts are singularly focused. Here are the clear waters of a mountain lake; contradictions and hypocrisy are less and less present; the many divisions of heart, the feeling of being pulled in many directions and of having divided loyalties, are largely removed.
Such a blessing to have a “single heart,” a heart set on one thing! Jesus says, If your eye be single, the whole body will be lightsome (Matt 6:22).
And thus, that they “shall see God” means that they will be filled with His light. It is not understood as a mere intellectual seeing. Rather, one who is deeply immersed in the experience of God “sees” Him, experiences Him deeply, and increasingly sees Him everywhere. Cor ad cor loquitur: heart speaks to heart! God is seen by the heart everywhere and in everyone, even amidst trials.
Blessed, happy is such a one!
B. Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God. Souls in this purged, illumined, and increasingly unitive state are at peace and bestow peace on those around them. Since they are docile to the providence of God and the wisdom of the Cross, they are not easily unsettled or fearful. They are serene even in the face of unexpected and troubling events. In their serenity, they are able to confer a calm on troubled souls, to radiate peace. They are not easily troubled by their enemies because, being more united to God and trusting in His providence, they do not fear whatever God allows. Thus they fear their enemies less, and without fear there can be no unrighteous anger. Hence they seek no vengeance, but only peace with their neighbor.
Ah, the blessed peace of those who know they are the children of God! And knowing this, they do not need to have their dignity affirmed by others. Neither can others harm it. If God is for us, who can be against us? If I am God’s child, what harm can anyone do to my dignity?
Ah, the blessed assurance of those who are the sons and daughters of God! Being at peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, we radiate that peace to others.
C. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. We become most configured to Christ on the Cross. We are able, by the gift of God, to remain humble and meek in the midst of persecution, even toward the persecutors themselves. In this way, our love of neighbor is perfected. We conquer our pride and the pride of the world by humility and by not being unsettled by the worst it can dispense: loss, torture, and death.
How does the Lord accomplish this? By the grace of having us know and experience that the kingdom of Heaven is ours. Souls that reach this stage have become deeply immersed in the things of God and in God Himself. There is little effect the world can have at this point; God is all.
St John Chrysostom, exhibiting this Beatitude, says,
The waters have risen and severe storms are upon us, but we do not fear drowning, for we stand firmly upon a rock. Let the sea rage, it cannot break the rock. Let the waves rise, they cannot sink the boat of Jesus. What are we to fear? Death? Life to me means Christ, and death is gain. Exile? The earth and its fullness belong to the Lord. The confiscation of goods? We brought nothing into this world, and we shall surely take nothing from it. I have only contempt for the world’s threats, I find its blessings laughable. I have no fear of poverty, no desire for wealth. I am not afraid of death nor do I long to live, except for your good. I concentrate therefore on the present situation, and I urge you, my friends, to have confidence … (Ante exsilim 1)
Here, then, are the supreme gifts of the Beatitudes. They build as God first purges us, then illumines us, then unites us more and more fully to Him, so that finally nothing can shake us. Please see the Beatitudes not as works of your flesh, but as gifts of God’s Spirit, gifts to be supremely desired. During Lent, we realize our poverty and run to God’s wealth. The Beatitudes paint a picture of what God’s grace can accomplish if we but run to Him in repentance and ask Him to accomplish what He died to give us.