Reimagining the Beatitudes

This week at daily Mass we touch briefly on the Beatitudes from Luke’s Gospel. This is one of the most famous texts of Scripture. Despite their familiarity, though, they are poorly understood by many people.

Let’s begin by exploring the word “beatitude.” Sometimes it is defined as happiness, but happiness is too transitory and dependent upon external factors to fully convey its meaning. In Latin, the word is beatus, and it signifies a long-lasting, abiding happiness. It refers to a deep, serene, stable, and confident joy that is not easily affected by external events or circumstances.

The Greek word translated as beatus in Latin and “happy” or “blessed” in English is makarios. It in turn is a translation of the Hebrew word ashere. The Hebrew word is really more of an expression or exclamation that could be translated in English in this way: “O, the blessedness of ….” In this sense ashere emphasizes that something is being described more than prescribed.

In ancient Greek times, makarios was most often used to refer to the happiness of the gods. They had achieved a state of happiness and contentment that was beyond all cares and labors—even beyond death. They lived in another world away from the problems and worries of ordinary people. Translating the Hebrew ashere to the Greek makarios in the New Testament emphasizes the stability of beatitude, which is from God.

Sometimes the concept of beatitude is translated as “flourishing.” For example, “How flourishing your life will be when you are merciful.”

Beatitude is not wealth, fame, honor, power, pleasure, or physical attractiveness. These are external and passing things that can easily be lost. They can also be arbitrary and rooted as much in luck as in virtue.

Happiness is “an inside job.” According to the Beatitudes, one is blessed even if poor, mourning, and persecuted. Even more, such a one is confirmed in his blessedness by such realities, because they are reminders that this world is not our home; its trinkets are passing and its “happiness” unstable.

Finally, beatitude is not something we simply learn, practice, or do; it is something we receive. The Beatitudes declare an objective reality as the result of a divine act. The indicative mood of the Beatitudes should be taken seriously: Our life is blessed and flourishing when we are poor in spirit, pure of heart, etc. The Beatitudes are not an imperative of exhortation, as though Jesus were saying, “Start out by being poor or meek, and then God will bless you.” Rather, He is saying that when the transformative power of the cross brings about in us a greater meekness, poverty of spirit, and so forth, we will experience that we are being blessed, that our life is flourishing, and that we are happier. Beatitude is a work of God and results when we yield to His saving work in us. The Beatitudes are not merely a prescription of what we must do, but more a description of what a human being is like who is being transformed by Jesus Christ.

The Lord teaches us these things:

  1. Our life will be flourishing and happier when we let go of our attachment to worldly wealth and by God’s grace are poor in spirit and content with what He has given us.
  2. Our life will be flourishing and happier when we are no longer addicted to pleasant emotions but by God’s grace can accept that there is a time for mourning, and it is important for our growth.
  3. Our life will be flourishing and happier when, by God’s grace, we are no longer consumed by the desire for revenge but rather have authority over our anger.
  4. Our life will be flourishing and happier when, by God’s grace, our desires are set on good things rather than sinful ones and eternal things rather than transitory ones.
  5. Our life will be flourishing and happier when, by God’s grace, we are able to be merciful with the very mercy we have received from Him.
  6. Our life will be flourishing and happier when, by God’s grace, we are single-hearted (pure of heart); our life will then be about one thing rather than hundreds of contradictory things.
  7. Our life will be flourishing and happier when, by God’s grace, we want the things that make for peace.
  8. Our life will be flourishing and happier even when we are persecuted, for by God’s grace this means that we are no longer addicted to the honors and love of this world and are free of its grasp.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Reimagining the Beatitudes

Blessing or Woe: You Decide. A Homily for the 6th Sunday of the Year

Fra Angelico, Convent of San Marco (1445)

The Gospel passage this Sunday is Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. Being paradoxical, they are difficult to understand. We do not usually refer to the poor as blessed, but rather the well off; we do not typically call those who mourn blessed, but rather the joyful.

The word “beatitude” itself means “supreme blessedness.” In ancient Greek, makarios (blessed) referred to a deep, serene, and stable happiness largely unaffected by external matters. It also corresponds to the Hebrew word asher, which is more of an exclamation.

Each beatitude could easily be translated to begin in this way: “O, the blessedness of ….” Such a translation emphasizes that something is being described and experienced rather than prescribed.

So, it is critical to understand that beatitude is not something we achieve; rather, it is something we receive. The Beatitudes declare an objective reality as the result of a divine act. The use of the indicative mood in the passage should be taken seriously; we should not turn it into an imperative. In other words, as noted, the Beatitudes are more descriptions than prescriptions. Jesus is not simply saying that we should be poor or meek and then God will bless us. Rather, He is saying that this is what the transformed human person is like; this is what happens to us when He lives His life in us and transforms us; this is what our life is like when His grace and the power of His cross bring about in us a greater meekness and poverty of spirit—we will experience being blessed.

This helps to explain the paradox of some of the Beatitudes. We are still blessed even when we are poor, or mourning, or persecuted. Further, we are confirmed in blessedness by such realities because they serve as reminders that we are not at home in this world; God and His kingdom are our preoccupation and the source of our true beatitude.

In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes there are also woes described for those who reject the Lord’s offer. Let’s pair them up and consider them together, seeing the choice the Lord presents in each case: blessing or woe.

Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.

Who are the poor? They are those who, by God’s grace, have their true treasure in Heaven rather than on earth. They are poor to this world but rich to God. They have learned to depend on Him and are not obsessed with the passing riches of this world.

All of us are dependent on God, but we may not realize it. The poor in spirit are those who have come to peace in the knowledge that they depend on God for every beat of their heart, for every good thing they have. Humans strongly resist any such sense of dependence or lack of control. Many people strive to acquire wealth, power, and possessions in order to create the illusion that they are in control—they are not. Ultimately this whole system will fail; it is a recipe for frustration and unhappiness.

Further, control is like an addictive drug. The more we get, the more we need in order to feel less anxious. Our modern age illustrates this. Consider, for example, modern medicine, through which we can control things we never could before. Are all our fears gone as a result? No. Humans have never lived so long nor been so healthy, yet we have never been so anxious about our health. Our medicine cabinets are filled with prescriptions and over-the-counter medications, but we still worry! Control is an illusion, an addiction all its own. In the end, it seems we can never have enough of it to feel sufficiently “safe.”

How blessed are those who delight in depending on God, who realize that every beat of their heart is His gift and that everything they have is from Him and belongs to Him! They are blessed because they are free from the countless fears that flow from an endless quest for illusory control.

But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

It’s nice to be rich, but if that’s all you live for, that’s all you’ll get. When it’s over it’s over, and then comes the judgment. Paradoxically, the only way to retain riches is to give them away or use them in serving others. Jesus instructs,

Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also will be (Matt 6:20).

St. Paul says,

Instruct those who are rich in the present age not to be conceited and not to put their hope in the uncertainty of wealth, but in God, who richly provides all things for us to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, and to be generous and ready to share, treasuring up for themselves a firm foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life (1 Tim 6:17-19).

If we hoard wealth when others are in need or use our wealth in unjust ways, we may enjoy comforts in this world, but a stern judgment awaits. Live with the final judgment in mind; share and be generous. Jesus warns of woe that will come to those who resist his grace to be generous.

Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied.

All of us hunger physically, but the important thing is to hunger for God and the things waiting for us in Heaven. Many people hunger for anything but God—wealth, power, popularity, the latest fad.

It is in our hunger that we make room for God. It is then that we seek Him.

How blessed are those who hunger and thirst for the righteousness and justice of God and the values of His Kingdom! God will satisfy them with the joy of living under His law and they will rejoice to see the wisdom of His ways. They hunger for God’s Word and devour it when they find it. They rejoice to see God put sin to death in them and bring about virtue. They are excited and satisfied at what God is doing in their life. They are blessed indeed.

But woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry.

If we are filled with the things of this world, there is no room for God. Worldly things can only satisfy temporarily; being finite they cannot fill the infinite longing we have. We were made to know and love God; He alone can satisfy our longing. If we refuse this true food and true drink (see John 6:55), which is Christ Himself in the Eucharist, there awaits only a longing that will one day be permanent if we reject the Lord to the end. The Lord warns of woe to those who resist His gift to feed them with His Body and Blood and fill their minds with His Word.

Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh.

Who are those who weep? First, they are those who are not obsessed with emotional happiness and who accept sorrow as a part of life. Their sorrow is not about merely worldly things. They weep because they delight in the Kingdom of Heaven yet see the awful state of most of God’s people. They see so many who do not know God nor why they were created. They see people willfully locked in sin and darkness. They see still others who are victims of the sins of injustice and oppression. Because of these things they weep, mourn, and pray. This beatitude is the basis of intercessory prayer and deepening love for sinners. Because we mourn, we pray for the world.

Again, the object of this beatitude is rooted in the Kingdom of God and its values, not the passing values of this world. If our car gets scratched or the stock market goes down and we may mourn, but that’s not the subject of this beatitude.

How blessed are those who mourn over what really matters and who pray! They will laugh in the sense that God will console, strengthen, and encourage them. He will cause their mourning to bear fruit in prayer and action for others. To mourn in this way is to be blessed. It is a grief that “hurts so good,” because we know that it brings abundant blessings for the world as it intensifies our prayer and our own commitment to God and His Kingdom.

Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep.

Rejoicing with the world is like celebrating on the Titanic before it hits the iceberg. The ride is wonderful for a while but then comes the cold and unforgiving depths. Too many in our world live frivolous lives. They “major in the minors.” They call good or no big deal what God calls sin; they even celebrate it and praise it. Jesus says, woe to them. While there are things to enjoy in this world, there is also much to lament. Sin and injustice, moral darkness, and confusion are nothing to celebrate. The Lord warns of woe to those who do not let Him transform their hearts so that they grieve over sin and darkness.

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven. For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way.

In life we are going to suffer, so it might as well be for something decent and noble. How blessed are those who, because they love God and His kingdom, are hated by this world! At least they share a common lot with Jesus. They know that only false prophets are loved by all. There is a paradoxical serenity that comes from this sort of persecution because it is a sign that we are no longer of this world, that the world has lost its hold on us and thus hates us (Jn 15:19). Forsaking this world and being hated by it, they are blessed, because the Kingdom of God is theirs in abundance.

Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way.

If the world is cheering for you, you’re playing on the wrong team, the losing team. The “world” is the set of philosophies, power structures, and inclinations at odds with the teachings and truths of God. A friend of the world becomes an enemy of God (James 4:4). Jesus says,

If the world hates you, understand that it hated Me first. If you were of the world, it would love you as its own. Instead, the world hates you, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. Remember the word that I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you as well (Jn 15:18-20).

Jesus warns of woe to those who pitch their tents in this world. It is passing away as are all those who seek its friendship. Jesus warns of the woe that comes from being too friendly with a lost and sinful world.

In all these ways, the Lord paints a kind of picture for us of the transformed human person. He shows us what happens to us as He lives His life in us.

Decisions have consequences. Depending on our choice to let God work in our life or not, there is either blessing or woe. Choose the blessings, dear brethren, choose the blessings.

One of my mentors over the years was the late Fr. Francis Martin, a teacher at the Dominican House of Studies (among many other places), a great scholar of Scripture, and the author of numerous books and articles; he also gave many a retreat for priests. Here are some of his reflections on the Gospel:

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Blessing or Woe: You Decide. A Homily for the 6th Sunday of the Year

Some Basics on the Beatitudes

J.J. Tissot, Sermon of the Beatitudes

We began reading the Sermon on the Mount during daily Mass this week. One of the flawed ways of reading it is to see the Lord’s teaching merely as a list of moral demands that we must fulfill out of our own flesh or human ability. To do so is to miss the point.

The better way to understand the Sermon on the Mount is to see that our Lord is painting a picture of the transformed human person. In effect, He is saying, “This is what your life will look like and be as I increasingly live my life in you.” The Sermon is description more so than prescription; it is a gift to be received more so than a set of demands to be met.

With this interpretive key in mind, let’s take a look at the Beatitudes, which begin the sermon. What I offer here is a brief pastoral look at each beatitude that states the meaning of each and then ponders an implication or two. My goal is to find the gift that each beatitude describes and see each one as a brushstroke in a beautiful painting the Lord makes of the transformed human person, one in whom He lives.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

The poor in spirit depend on God humbly and serenely. They are poor to this world because their treasure is in Heaven. As the Lord says, “Where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Matthew 6:21). With their treasure in Heaven and their hearts focused there, the poor in spirit are not obsessed with this world’s trinkets. Their desires are properly aligned with what matters, with what lasts: God Himself and the eternal joys of Heaven. There is a great blessedness and simplicity to be found when one is freed of obsessions with wealth, popularity, and conformity to this world’s constantly changing and distracting demands.

Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Those who mourn are those who see the awful state of God’s people. They see that many are lost, basing their lives on what can neither save nor satisfy, living lives that are misdirected and futile. The mournful weep for God’s people, but it is not a depressed mourning, rather, it is a motivational one. By it, they pray and work for the salvation of souls. Their mourning places an urgency in their hearts to reach the lost, fallen, and confused. The text speaks of them as being comforted, but both the Greek and Latin roots of the word “comfort” have more to do with being strengthened and assisted than with being consoled and relieved of burdens. The mournful are given the strength and courage they need in order to address what makes them mourn and be strengthened unto the salvation of souls.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.

The meek are those who have authority over their anger. Their anger is directed properly, towards things such as injustice and ignorance of God’s ways. They are increasingly freed from anger over insignificant, egocentric, and fear-based things. Their proper anger is like a creative energy directed toward working for justice and the proclamation of God’s truth. They inherit the land because those who work for justice and truth secure a better future for the land and people they love. Of the meek, Scripture says, And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in (Is 58:12). By using proper anger, they turn it into a creative and healing force; they and those they have healed inherit the land.

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.

A common human problem is desiring the wrong things. We often have excessive desire for things that we know are harmful for us while being rather disinterested in things that are demonstrably good for us. For example, things such as prayer and moderation seem burdensome and difficult to us while overindulging in liquor and spending our time viewing immoral or trivial material comes easily. What a gift it is to see our desires come into conformity with what is actually best for us, with what God really wants to give us! Those who attain to this gift of properly ordered desires are satisfied because righteousness and all it entails is are what actually satisfies. These are the things with which we are designed to thrive and thus they give a deep satisfaction.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

To be filled with mercy implies that the Lord has filled us with His mercy. The merciful are first and foremost happy and blessed because they have profoundly experienced how merciful, kind, and good God has been to them. Having been filled with mercy, they have a joyful gratitude that in turn makes them blessed and happy. Because they are filled with mercy they are equipped to show mercy to others. It will go well for them on judgment day because the measure we measure to others will be measured to us (see Luke 6:38).

Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.

The phrase “clean of heart” is probably better translated as “single-hearted.” The Greek word katharoi speaks to a kind of purity, being one thing without admixture of impurities or anything else. The pure of heart are focused on one thing: God. They want only one thing: God. This is a very great gift. So many are torn apart by hearts that are divided; they desperately want many things, often ones that are contradictory to one another. Oh, the gift to know what we want and to be free of competing demands, the gift to be clear and single-hearted in our pursuit! This beatitude is not only a gift in itself; it leads to the greatest gift of all: God, the very one for whom our hearts were made.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

The peacemakers are not merely those who keep us from killing one another. The word “shalom” (peace) as well as the Greek word eirene (used here to translate shalom) have the notion of wholeness, of having in our life and relationship everything that should be there. The peacemakers are those who work to ensure that the things that make for wholeness and integrity are available to others. They work for and teach truth, justice, respect, reciprocity, reverence, and virtue. In this they set forth the ingredients for peace. They are the children of God because this is the very thing that God does and children resemble their parents.

Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in Heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The persecuted are blessed and happy because they know that they suffer for the right things and are in good company. They also know that they are suffering for being the right thing, the contrasting thing in a world hostile and opposed to God. They are light in darkness, free men among those in bondage. Although they are persecuted, it matters less to them because their hearts are with God and set on the things of Heaven. Even death has no sting because death is the very thing that births them to the eternal glory for which they long. They know that their reward is great, far eclipsing any suffering they endure. They are blessed, happy, and free.

Such a gift it is that is being described here: the life of the transformed human person! Note how each of the beatitudes amounts to a matter of the heart: a heart that is pure, a heart that is set on one thing rather than torn by anger or other disordered passions, a heart that hungers and thirsts for righteousness and is increasingly free from the world (except to rescue others who are trapped in its false claims and futility). Having their treasure in Heaven, the blessed are poor to this world because they have little need to hoard its trinkets. They are rich, however, for theirs is the Kingdom of God and God Himself.

This song speaks to our longing for perfection:

Blessed are the Pure of Heart – A Reflection on an Often Misunderstood Beatitude and Virtue

blog.8.25One of the beatitudes taught by Jesus is often misunderstood, largely due to the popular translations of it from the Greek text: “Blessed are the pure of heart,” or “Blessed are the clean of heart.” Let’s look at three facets of the beatitude: its fundamental meaning, its focus, and the freedom it gives.

I. Fundamental Meaning – While the words “pure” and “clean,” are not inauthentic translations of the Greek word καθαρός (katharos), a more literal translation is “to be without admixture, to be simply one thing.” Hence it means to purely and simply be that one thing with nothing else mixed in. 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 I suggest that the  phrase “single-hearted” is more descriptive is that in modern English the words “pure” and “clean”  tend to evoke a moral sense of being free of sin, of being morally upright. And while this is surely a significant part, being single-hearted is 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, of not being duplicitous, of not having a divided heart.

II. Focus – Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange says, Simplicity is opposed not only to duplicity, but to every useless complexity, to all that is pretentious or tainted with affectation … Christ says to us “If thy eye be single thy whole body shall be lightsome” (Mat 6:22); that is, if our intention is upright and simple, our whole life be one, true and luminous, instead of being divided, like that of those who try to serve two masters … The perfect soul is thus a simplified soul … willing things only for God (Three Ages of the Interior Life, Tan Publishers, Vol 2, pp. 162-163).

The image of the rose window in my church (see 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 deny that life has different facets, but rather shows that every facet of life is ordered around and points to Christ, is subsumed in 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 one lives, and any other imaginable aspect of life is subsumed in Christ, points to Him, and leads to the Lord and His kingdom on high.

So the single-hearted life is a well-ordered life. Each step, each decision leads in the right direction. St. Paul said, 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). While Paul made many journeys to many places, he was really on one journey and headed to one place. This simplified and ordered his life. He was single-hearted.

A simple life is a well-ordered, singly focused life. But duplicity introduces many complexities and disorders. Jesus says, He who does not gather with me, scatters (Luke 11:23).  Unfortunately, this image of scattering or being hindered describes many Christians whose lives are not ordered on the one thing necessary, who are not single-hearted, whose hearts are not focused on the one thing they should be. Such people have lives that are often scattered, confused, disordered, and filled with a jumble of conflicting drives that hinder them from the true goal of life. The double minded man is unstable in all his ways (James 1:8).

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that simplicity is related to the virtue of veracity, since it opposes the duplicity that James denounced (Summa Theologica IIa IIae q. 109 art. 2, the 4th).

III. Freedom – Finally, being single-hearted, being pure of heart, not only orders our life but it also grants us freedom. In modern Western thinking, freedom is often equated with doing more rather than less. Freedom is interpreted as “being able to do anything I please.” This attitude has led to the kind of jumbled mess that much of modern life has become: a tangled web of contrary desires with little unifying direction or purpose. We tend to think of freedom in abstract terms and hence we tend to get 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 unnecessary baggage of modern life. Life gets simpler, and simplicity is a form of freedom that allows us to focus on what is important more so than on what is urgent. We discover that what often seems to be urgent is not really so necessary or urgent after all. Regarding the good options in life, St. Paul said, All things are lawful to me, but not all things are expedient (1 Cor 6:12).

Pray for the gift to become more single-hearted. More than ever in this modern age, with its myriad distractions and endless possibilities, we need to learn the lesson of the rose window and center our lives on Christ, the one thing necessary.

I have used the video below in other posts. Please pardon a brief profane word in the clip, but it does help emphasize the point being made.