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

One 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 above), 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.

Sobering Spiritual Truths According to St. John of the Cross

In today’s post I would like to ponder some hard and sobering spiritual truths, but ones that will set us free.

In calling them “hard truths”, I mean that they are not the usual cozy bromides that many seek. They speak bluntly about the more irksome and difficult realities we face. If we come to accept them, though, they have a strange way of bringing serenity by getting us to focus us on the right things rather than spending our time chasing after false dreams.

A person can spend his whole life being resentful that life isn’t perfect, forgetting all the while that we are all in exile. We are making a difficult journey to a life in which, one day, every sorrow and difficultly will be removed and death and sorrow will be no more—but not now.

There is a kind of unexpected serenity in living in the world as it is rather than resenting it for not being the way we want it to be. For now, the journey is hard and we have to be sober about our obtuse desires and destructive tendencies. That is why there is value in calling these insights “hard truths that will set us free.”

In the very opening section of his Spiritual Canticle, St. John of the Cross lays out a presumed worldview that the spiritually mature ought to have attained (because he presumes it of his reader, he states it only briefly).

We who live in times not known for spiritual maturity ought to slow down for a moment and ponder these truths, which are not only poorly understood but even actively resisted by many, including some who call themselves wise and spiritually mature.

Remember, now, these are hard truths. Many wish to bypass the harder teachings of God. Thus we do well to pay special attention to St. John, a spiritual master deeply immersed in Scripture, as a remedy for the soft excesses of our times.

Let’s first look at the quote from St. John and then examine his points. With the following preamble of sorts, St. John begins his Spiritual Canticle:

The soul … has grown aware of her obligations and observed that life is short (Job 14:5), the path leading to eternal life constricted (Mt. 7:14), the just one scarcely saved (1 Pet. 4:18), the things of the world vain and deceitful (Eccles. 1:2), that all comes to an end and fails like falling water (2 Sam. 14:14), and that the time is uncertain, the accounting strict, perdition very easy, and salvation very difficult. She knows on the other hand of her immense indebtedness to God for having created her solely for Himself, and that for this she owes Him the service of her whole life; and because He redeemed her solely for Himself she owes Him every response of love. She knows, too, of the thousand other benefits by which she has been obligated to God from before the time of her birth, and that a good part of her life has vanished, that she must render an account of everything—of the beginning of her life as well as the later part—unto the last penny (Mt. 5:25) when God will search Jerusalem with lighted candles (Zeph. 1:12), and that it is already late—and the day far spent (Lk. 24:29)—to remedy so much evil and harm. She feels on the other hand that God is angry and hidden because she desired to forget Him so in the midst of creatures. Touched with dread and interior sorrow of heart over so much loss and danger, renouncing all things, leaving aside all business, and not delaying a day or an hour, with desires and sighs pouring from her heart, wounded now with the love for God, she begins to call her Beloved …

Let’s examine these hard but freeing spiritual insights one by one. My commentary is in red.

The soul has grown aware of her obligations and observed  that life is short (Job 14:5)

More than in any other age, we today entertain the illusion that death can easily be postponed; it cannot. We are not guaranteed the next beat of our heart, let alone tomorrow! It is true that with advances in medical science sudden death is not as common today, but too easily this leads us to entertain the notion that we can cheat death; we cannot.

Life is short and we do not get to choose when we will die. Both my mother and sister died suddenly, swept away in an instant. They never got to say goodbye. You do not know if you will even finish reading this sentence before death summons you.

This is wisdom. It is a hard truth that gives us an important perspective. Life is short and we don’t have any way of knowing how short.

What are you doing to get ready to meet God? What do you get worked up about? What are you not concerned about? Are your priorities rooted in the truth that life is short? Or are you waging bets in a foolish game in which the house (death and this world) always wins on its terms and not yours?

There is a strange serenity and freedom in realizing that life is short. We do not get as worked up about passing things and we become more invested in lasting things and in the things to come.

[that] the path leading to eternal life [is] constricted ( 7:14)

Another illusion we entertain today is that salvation is a cinch, a done deal. The heresy of our time is a belief in almost-universal salvation, which denies the consistently repeated biblical teaching that declares, Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Matt 7:13-14 inter al).

In parable after parable, warning after warning, Jesus speaks with sober admonition about the reality of Hell and the finality of judgment. No one loves you more than Jesus does, and no one warned you more about Hell and Judgment than He did.

Salvation is not easy; it is hard. Jesus said this; I did not. He did not say this because God is mean but because we are stubborn, obtuse, and prefer darkness to light. We need to sober up about our stubbornness and our tendency to prefer “other arrangements” to what God offers and teaches. In the end, God will respect our choice. The day will come when our choice for or against the Kingdom and its values will be sealed forever.

This is a hard saying, but it sets us free from the awful sin of presumption, a sin against hope. It instills in us a proper focus on the work that is necessary to root us in God. Accepting this hard truth will make you more serious about your spiritual life and aware of the need for prayer, the Sacraments, Scripture, and the Church. It will help you to have more well-ordered priorities, ones that are less obsessed with the passing and more rooted in the eternal. It will make you more evangelical and urgent to save souls. It will turn you toward Jesus and away from Belial.

[that] the just one [is] scarcely saved (1 Pet. 4:18)

This is a further truth that sets aside modern errors about an almost-universal salvation. The fuller context of the quote is this: For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” (1 Peter 4:17-18)

Despite this and many other quotes and teachings like it, we go one presuming that almost everyone will go to Heaven. We set aside God’s Word in favor of human error and wishful thinking. We substitute human assurances for God’s warnings. We elevate ourselves over St. Paul, who said that we should work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12) and spoke of disciplining himself, lest after preaching to others he himself should be lost (1 Cor 9:27). Are we really better and more enlightened than Jesus? Than Paul? Than Peter?

Salvation is hard. This is not meant to panic us, but it is meant to sober us to the need for prayer, the sacraments, Scripture, and the Church. Without these medicines we don’t stand a chance; we must persevere to the end.

This hard truth sets us free from illusion and sends us running to the Lord, who alone can save us. Smug presumption roots us in the world. Godly fear and sober awareness of our stubborn and unrepentant hearts send us to Jesus, freeing us.

[that] the things of the world [are] vain and deceitful ( 1:2)

Such a freeing truth! First, that the things of this world are vain. That is to say, they are empty, passing, and vapid. We so highly value power, popularity, and worldly glories, but those are gone in a moment. Who was Miss America in 1974? Who won the Heisman Trophy in that same year? If you by chance you do know, do you really care? Does it really matter? It’s empty show, glitter, fool’s gold; yet we spend billions on it and watch this stuff forever.

Although we should fight for justice, for the sake of the kingdom, even here the Scriptures counsel some perspective: I have seen a wicked, ruthless man, spreading himself like a green laurel tree. But he passed away, and behold, he was no more; though I sought him, he could not be found. (Ps 37:35-36).

And how deceitful is this passing world! The main deceit of this world is to say, “I am what you exist for. I am what matters. I am what satisfies.” These are lies and deceptions on all fronts. The form of this world is passing away; it cannot fulfill our infinite desires. Our hearts were made for God and only being with Him one day will satisfy us.

Yet so easily do we listen to the world’s seduction and lies! Too often we want to be lied to. We prefer to chase illusions and indulge vanity and deceit.

How freeing this truth is! We learn to make use of what we need and begin to lose our obsession with vain and passing things and with our insatiable desire for more. Yes, perhaps you can survive without that granite countertop.

This is a very freeing truth if we can accept its hard reality. Becoming more free, a deeper serenity finds us.

that all comes to an end and fails like falling water (2 Sam. 14:14)

The world is passing away. It can’t secure your future. The world’s cruel lie that it can fulfill you is on display in every graveyard. So much for the world’s empty promise: “You can have it all!” Yes, and then you die.

Meditate on death frequently. Indeed, the Church bids us to rehearse our death every night in prayer by reciting the Nunc Dimittis.

Scripture says, For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come (Heb 13:14). Do you have your sights fixed where true joys are? Or are you like Lot’s wife?

Let this truth free you to have the proper perspective. Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God (Col 3:1).

that the time is uncertain

You have plans for tomorrow? Great, so do I. The only problem is that tomorrow is not promised or certain. Neither is the next beat of your heart. This is another hard but freeing truth.

[that] the accounting [is] strict

Jesus warns, But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken (Matt 12:36). St. Paul says, He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart (1 Cor 4:5). He adds, So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:9-10). James says, So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy (James 2:12-13). What James says is particularly chilling because so many today are without mercy.

If God judges us with the same strict justice we often dish out to others, we don’t stand a chance. The accounting will be strict anyway, so don’t pile on unnecessary severity and wrath toward others. This is another freeing truth that helps us take heed of the coming judgment.

[that] perdition [is] very easy

I wonder why he might have repeated this; I just wonder!

[that] salvation [is] very difficult

And look, he repeated this, too! I wonder why. Maybe repetition is the mother of studies.

[that we are often and strangely ungrateful and unmoved] She knows on the other hand of her immense indebtedness to God for having created her solely for Himself, and that for this she owes Him the service of her whole life; and because He redeemed her solely for Himself she owes Him every response of love. She knows, too, of the thousand other benefits by which she has been obligated to God from before the time of her birth, and that a good part of her life has vanished

This is a sober truth that calls us to remember. What does it mean to remember? It means to have present in your mind and heart what the Lord has done for you so that you are grateful and different.

We live so many years and so many hours of each day in ingratitude. We get all worked up and resentful about the smallest setbacks while almost completely ignoring the incredible number of blessings we receive each day.

Our ingratitude is obnoxiously massive because of the easy manner in which we mindlessly receive and discount our numerous blessings while magnifying every suffering, setback, and trial. We spend so much of our life in the “Complaint Department.” We are often stingy, never even thinking to say, “Thank you, Lord, for all your obvious and hidden blessings. Thank you, Lord, for creating, sustaining, and loving me to the end, and for inviting me to know, love, and serve you.”

that she must render an account of everythingof the beginning of her life as well as the later partunto the last penny ( 5:25) when God will search Jerusalem with lighted candles (Zeph. 1:12)

Did he repeat himself again? Now why do you suppose he does that? You don’t think he considers us stubborn, do you?

[that] it is already lateand the day far spent ( 24:29)to remedy so much evil and harm [and that the unrepentant will experience the wrath to come] She feels on the other hand that God is angry and hidden because she desired to forget Him so in the midst of creatures

The wrath of God is really in us, not in Him. His wrath is really our experience of discomfort before the holiness of God. It is like being accustomed to a dark room and suddenly being brought into the bright afternoon sunlight. We protest and claim that the light is harsh, but the light is not harsh. We are incapable of tolerating the light due to our preference for and acclimation to the darkness. In the same way, God is not “angry.” He is not moody or harsh. He is God and God does not change.

St. John teaches here the hard but freeing truth that God is holy; no one is going to walk into His presence unprepared. If we prefer the world and its creatures to the Creator, we thereby prefer the darkness and cannot tolerate the light. Heaven is simply not possible for those who prefer the darkness. Thus Jesus says, And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil (John 3:19). That’s right; this occurs just three verses after the famous and oft-quoted John 3:16.

While the sinful soul may “feel” that God is angry and is hiding Himself, the problem is in the sinful soul, not God.

The freedom of this hard saying comes in reminding us and urging us to get ready to meet God. God is not going to change; He can’t change. So we must change, and by His grace, become the light of His holiness.

[that we need to call on the Savior] Touched with dread and interior sorrow of heart over so much loss and danger, renouncing all things, leaving aside all business, and not delaying a day or an hour, with desires and sighs pouring from her heart, wounded now with the love for God, she begins to call her Beloved.

Here is the real point of all of these hard truths: to make us love our Savior more, to learn to depend on Him and run to Him as fast as we can. Only when we know the hard truths are we really going to get serious.

After all, who is it that goes to the doctor? Is it the one who thinks he doesn’t have cancer (even though he does)? Or is it the one who knows he’s got it bad and that ain’t good?

Sadly, the answer is not clear enough to us in modern times, times in which—even within the Church—there are so many who don’t want to discuss any of the hard truths we need to lay hold of before we can really get serious.

A steady diet of “God loves you and all is well no matter what” has emptied our pews. Why? Well, who goes to the spiritual hospital if all he hears is that nothing is wrong and that his salvation is secure, almost no matter what?

The good news of the Gospel has little impact when the bad news is no longer understood. What does salvation mean if there is no sin and nothing to be saved from? Now of course the bad news should not be preached without pointing to the good news. The point is that both are needed.

St. John’s hard truths are not meant to discourage. They are meant to sober us and send us running to the doctor.

Now look, you’ve got it bad and that ain’t good. But the good news is, there’s a doctor in the house. Run to Him now; He’s calling you!

The Role of Trials in Bringing Us to Spiritual Maturity

We live in a world of unprecedented comfort: electricity, indoor plumbing, heating and air-conditioning, medicine, healthcare, abundant food, myriad consumer products, and entertainment available with the click of a button. Despite this we do not seem more grateful or at ease than our forebears. If anything, we aremoreanxious. For example, though people have never lived so long nor been so healthy, we have never been more worried about our health.

One would think that such abundance and comfort would lead us to be exceedingly grateful and to overlook small setbacks, remembering how much more difficult life was for our ancestors—but the opposite seems more often to be the case. We seem to be easily frustrated and to have little tolerance for enduring even the most minor suffering. Our comfortable couches have made us soft and our countless options have made us overly particular and easily annoyed. There is an old saying that “Expectations are premeditated resentments.” We certainly have a lot of expectations these days, many of them unrealistic in the long run. The insistence on everything being perfect seems to rob us of the happiness we should enjoy. Everyone wants the ideal, and if there is any ordeal, they want a newdeal.

We seem to have lost the idea the idea that life is a time of testing for us. We live in paradise lost, and there are going to be difficulties. St. Augustine reminds us that trials have their purpose:

Our pilgrimage on earth cannot be exempt from trial. We progress by means of trial. No one knows himself except through trial, or receives a crown except after victory, or strives except against an enemy or temptations. [From a commentary on the psalms by Saint Augustine, bishop (Ps. 60, 2-3: CCL 39, 766)].

Yes, trials and tests help us to gain self-knowledge and self-mastery. Trials also have purifying and humbling effects. So good is God to us that He allows His graces to become our merits. For, having engaged the battle of life and undergone its trials, the crown of victory will be granted to us. St. Augustine surely has in mind St. Paul’s confident hope:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness is laid up for me, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but to all who crave His appearing(2 Tim 4:7-8).

Where would you and I be today without the trials of the past? We do not seek out suffering, but the suffering that inevitably comes in both small and large doses helps to form our character, make us stronger, and give us wisdom.

We who live in the developed world today have, for the most part, “First World problems,” and we do well to remember the inevitability of trials in this life. We don’t have to like them, but when they come, we should accept and endure them graciously. Resentment and anger at such trials do not bespeak spiritual maturity. Enjoy the good things and comforts of this life but beware the tendency to become soft and overly fussy. Remember, too, that this world is passing away.

The song “We’ll Understand It Better By and By” has these appropriate lyrics:

Trials dark on every hand
And we cannot understand,
All the ways that God will lead us
To that blessed Promised Land.
But He guides us with His eye,
And we follow till we die,
And we’ll understand it better by and by
.

A Test for Pridefulness

None of us likes to think we are prideful. It’s always someone else; that guy over there is the arrogant one. One way of gauging is to ponder how well we accept being corrected. Consider the following verses from Proverbs:

He who corrects an arrogant man earns insult; and he who reproves a wicked man incurs opprobrium. Reprove not an arrogant man, lest he hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Instruct a wise man, and he becomes still wiser; teach a just man, and he advances in learning (Proverbs 9:7-12).

Which one are you?Do you bristle when someone corrects you or do you grow wiser from the input you receive?

It’s not easy to accept criticism or correction without feeling some degree of humiliation, particularly when it is public in some manner.

Of course, there are different kinds of correction.There is the sort that involves facts about which we are mistaken. At other times need to be set straight on the proper procedures to be followed in some situation. Finally, there are times when we have failed in a moral sense and need to be summoned back to what is right. Whatever the case, being corrected can be difficult, and how we handle it is a good indicator of pride or humility in our soul.

There are, to be sure, times when people do not correct us in the best way possible.Perhaps they are smug or seek to embarrass us. Even in those cases, though, if we are wrong, we should view correction as beneficial, regardless of how poorly it is delivered.

Note also that the passage from Proverbs above links humility to wisdom and learning.Thus, something we call docility is related to humility. The word docility comes from the Latin word for being teachable. Too often, we can be stubbornly opinionated and resist being taught. It is important to ask the Lord for greater docility.

In preparation for Lent, take this short self-test for pridefulness: How do you take correction? How teachable are you?

Twelve Steps to Humility

In yesterday’s post, we considered the twelve steps of pride set forth by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. In escalating ways, the twelve steps draw us to an increasingly mountainous and enslaving pride.

St. Bernard also enumerates the twelve steps to deeper humility and it is these that we consider today. As with yesterday’s post, the list by St. Bernard is shown in red, while my meager commentary is shown in plain, black text. To read St. Bernard’s reflections, consider purchasing the book Steps of Humility and Pride.

(1) Fear of God – To fear the Lord is to hold Him in awe. It is to be filled with wonder at all God has done, and at who He is. Cringing, servile fear is not recommended. Rather, the fear rooted in love and deep reverence for God is what begins to bring us down the mountain of pride. It is looking to God and away from ourselves and our egocentric tendencies that begins to break our pride.

Scripture says, The fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 9:10). To fear the Lord is to turn to the Lord seeking answers, seeking meaning, realizing that in God is all wisdom and knowledge. To fear the Lord is to hunger and thirst for His truth and righteousness. To fear the Lord is to look outside oneself and upward to God.

Here begins our journey down the mountain of pride, a simple and loving look to God, who alone can set us free from the slavery that pride and sinfulness created for us.

(2) Abnegation of self-will – In the garden, Jesus said to His father, Father, not as I will, but as you will (Lk 22:42). This is what abnegation of the will means: to surrender one’s will to God’s will, to allow His decisions to override one’s own.

Pride demands to do what it pleases, to determine what is right or wrong. In this stage of humility, I am willing to look to God.

The saints say, “If God wants it, I want it. If God doesn’t want it, I don’t want it.” The prideful person says “Why can’t I have it? It’s not so bad. Everybody else is doing it.”

On the journey away from pride, having come to a fear of the Lord, we are now more joyfully ready to listen to Him and to submit to His vision for us.

(3) Obedience – Having attained a humbler disposition of heart, we are now more willing to obey. Obedience moves from hearing God’s word to heeding it, to obeying His holy will, to surrendering our stubborn will to His. We are made ready, by God’s grace, to execute that will, to put it into action.

(4) Patient endurance – Embarking on this journey down the mountain of pride, and striving to hear and understand God’s will and obey, we can surely expect to fact both external and internal obstacles.

Our flesh—that is, our sinful nature—does not simply and wholeheartedly surrender, but rather continues to battle. It resists prayer, resists being subject to anything other than its own wishes and desires. Thus, we suffer internal resistance from our sinful nature.

Little by little, we gain greater self-discipline and authority over our unruly passions. This is truly a struggle, requiring patience and an enduring spirit and will.

We also often encounter external resistance as we try to come down from the mountain of pride. Perhaps friends seek to draw us back into our former ways. Perhaps the structures of our pride remain: willfulness, self-reliance, powerful positions, etc. They continue to draw us away from our intention to come down the mountain of pride and further embrace humble submission to God. Perhaps the world continues to demand that we think and act out of old categories that are not of God, and still hold us bound to some extent.

Patient endurance is often required to see such things borne away. It often takes years—even decades—of patient and persistent action for the sinful world to lose its grip on us.

(5) Disclosure of the heart – As we come down the mountain of pride, perhaps the most humble journey is the one into our wounded hearts. Scripture says, More tortuous than all else is the human heart; beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, alone, the LORD, explore the mind and test the heart (Jer 17:10).

Recognizing our sinful drives, and misplaced priorities requires a lot of humility. We must often resurrect unpleasant memories and even traumas from the past, ones that we have experienced ourselves or have inflicted on others. In our heart, we are called to repent and show forgiveness and mercy or to accept that we must be forgiven and shown mercy.

We may be asked to remember and to realize that we have not always been 100% right, that we have sometimes acted unjustly and sinfully toward others, that we have at times been insensitive. This is a humbling but necessary part of the journey down the mountain of pride.

(6) Contentedness with what is – Contentedness is a form of acceptance; it is a great gift to seek and to receive. We can distinguish between external and internal contentedness:

External contentedness is rooted in the ability to live serenely in the world as it is and to realize that God allows many things that are not to our liking. Acceptance does not imply approval of everything. There are many things in the world that we ought not to approve of, but acceptance is the willingness to live and work humbly in a world that is neither perfect nor fully in accordance with our preferences. Some things we are called to change, other things to endure. Even with those things we are called to change, we may have to accept that we cannot change them as quickly as we would like. In the parable of the wheat and the tares, Jesus cautioned us not to act hastily to remove the tares lest the wheat be harmed as well. It is a mysterious fact that God leaves many things unresolved. Part of our journey in humility is to discern what we are empowered to change and what we must come to accept as beyond our ability to change.

Internal contentedness is gratitude for what we have and freedom from resentment about what we do not. Pride demands that our agenda be fully followed. In our journey toward humility, we come to be more content with accepting what God offers and saying, “It is enough, O Lord. I am most grateful!”

(7) Lucid self-awareness – In pride, we are often filled with many delusions about ourselves, thinking more highly of ourselves than we should. We are often unaware of just how difficult it can be to live or work with us.

Humility is reverence for the truth about ourselves. It is a lucid self-awareness that appreciates our gifts, but remembering that they are gifts. It is also an awareness of our struggles and our ongoing need for repentance and for the grace of God.

With lucid self-awareness, we increasingly learn to know ourselves the way God knows us (cf 1 Cor 13:12). As we come down from the mountain of pride into deeper humility, God discloses more to us about just who we really are. We become more and more the man or woman God has made us to be; our self-delusions and the unrealistic demands of the world begin to fade. The darkness of these illusions is replaced by the lucidity of self-awareness. We are able to see and understand ourselves in a less egocentric way. We are mindful of what we think and do and of how we interact with God and others, but we do this in a way that we are strongly aware of the presence and grace of God. We come to self-awareness in the context of living in conscious contact with God throughout the day.

(8) Submission to the common rule – The egocentric and prideful person resists being told what to do and is largely insensitive to the needs of others and the common good. The proud man thinks he knows better than the collective wisdom of the community.

As our journey down the mountain of pride into deeper humility continues, we become more aware of the effects we have on others. We must learn to interact and cooperate with others for goals larger than ourselves. Humility teaches us that the world does not revolve around us and what we want; sometimes the needs of others are more important than our own. Humility helps us to accept that although my individual rights are important, laws typically exist to protect the common good. Humility also makes us more willing to submit our personal needs and agenda to the needs of others and the wisdom of the wider community.

(9) Silence – Silence is a respectful admission that other people have wisdom to share and important things to say. The proud person interrupts frequently, thinking either that he already knows what the other person is going to say or that what he has to say is more important. As our humility grows, we become better listeners, appreciating that others may be able to offer us knowledge or wisdom that we currently lack.

(10) Emotional sobriety – Many of our emotional excesses are rooted in pride and egocentricity. When we are proud we are easily offended, easily threatened, for fear begets anger.

As we discussed yesterday, the initial stages of pride are often rooted in inordinate curiosity, mental levity, and giddiness. All of these things cause our emotional life to be excessive and disordered. As we grow deeper in humility, though, we are less egocentric and thus less fearful and less easily offended.

Having our mental life focused on more substantial and less frivolous things adds stability to our thought life. We are less carried off into gossip, intrigue, and rumor. We are less stirred up by the machinations of marketers, less disturbed by the 24/7 “breaking news” cycles of the media. We are more thoughtful and less likely to rush to judgments that often unsettle us. The humble person trusts God and is thus not easily unsettled by these things—and it is thoughts that generate feelings.

As our thought life becomes more measured, our conclusions are drawn more carefully and humbly, our emotions are less volatile, and we attain greater emotional serenity and sobriety.

(11) Restraint in speech – As we become more emotionally stable and less anxious and stirred up, that serenity is reflected in our speech and demeanor. We are less likely to interrupt, to speak in anger, or to be unnecessarily terse or harsh. We don’t need to “win” every debate. Rather, we are satisfied with staying in the conversation, with just sowing seeds to be harvested later, perhaps even by others. Our serenity tends to lower our volume and speed in talking; we are more content to speak the truth in love, with both clarity and charity.

(12) Congruity between one’s inside and one’s outside – We saw in yesterday’s post on pride the problem of hypocrisy. The Greek word hypocritas refers to acting. Hypocrites are actors playing a role rather than being who they are.

The proud and fearful are always posturing, trying to align themselves with what makes for popularity and profit. As humility reaches its goal, integrity, honesty, and sincerity come to full flower.

This is because the gift of humility opens us to be fully formed by God. Having turned our gaze to God and made the journey into our heart, we discover the man or woman God has made us to be. We begin to live out of that experience in an authentic and unpretentious way. In humility we are more focused on God and less nervously self-conscious.

By the gift of lucid self-awareness described above, we are comfortable in our own skin. We do not need to posture, dominate, compare, or compete. Rather, our inner spiritual life and focus on God now inform our whole self.

Humility has now reached its goal: reverence for the truth about our very self. We are sinners who are loved by God. As we make the journey to discover our true self before God, we become ever more grateful and serene. Living out of this inner life with Him, we are enabled to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

Thanks be to God for these insightful lists of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Benedict, which have so aided in this reflection! Pray God that we are all able to make the journey down from the mountain of pride and into deeper humility.

How Does Pride Grow in Our Life? Pondering a Teaching by St. Bernard of Clairvaux

022415So you think the idea of the “Twelve Steps” is new? Well, if you think you’ve got a new idea, go back and see how the Greeks put it, or in this case how the Medieval Latins put it. St. Bernard of Clairvaux identified twelve steps up the mountain of pride in his work Steps of Humility and Pride.

In today’s post, we focus on the Twelve Steps of Pride. Tomorrow, we’ll tackle the Twelve Steps of Humility (from St. Benedict’s rule).  Below, I list the Twelve Steps of Pride briefly and then provide some commentary (it’s my commentary, so don’t blame St. Bernard :-)). Again, the list is his; the inferior comments are mine.

Note how the twelve steps grow progressively more serious and lead ultimately to the slavery of sin. The steps tend to build on one another, beginning in the mind, moving to behavior, then to deepening attitudes of presumption, and ultimately bringing forth revolt and slavery. For if one does not serve God, he will serve Satan.

There are twelve steps up the mountain of pride. Think of these like escalating symptoms:

(1) Curiosity – Although there is such a thing as healthy curiosity, we often delve into things we ought not: other peoples affairs, private matters, sinful situations, and so forth. What makes such curiosity to be annexed to pride is that so often we think we have a right to know things we do not. And hence we pridefully and indiscreetly look into things that we ought not: things that are not for us to know, or that are inexpedient and distracting for us, or perhaps that are beyond our ability to handle well. But casting all caution aside, and with a certain prideful and privileged sense, we pry, meddle, and look into things we ought not, as if we had a right to do so. This is sinful curiosity.

(2) Levity of mind – Occupying our mind with inappropriate things grows, and we tend to become playful in wider matters. Here, too, a reasonable sense of humor and some recreational diversion have their place. A little light banter about sports or pop culture may provide momentary diversions that are relaxing. But too often, this is just about all we do, and we pridefully cast aside matters about which we should be serious, instead pursuing only light and passing things. In ignoring or making light of serious things pertaining to eternity and delving only into entertaining and passing things, we pridefully ignore things to which we ought to attend. Watching sitcoms and “reality” TV for hours with no time for prayer, study, instruction of children in the faith, caring for the poor, and so forth, shows a lack of seriousness that manifests pride. We lightly brush aside what is important to God and substitute our own foolish priorities. This is pride.

(3) Giddiness – Here, we move from levity of mind to the frivolous behaviors it produces, behaviors in which we overemphasize lightweight experiences or situations at the expense of more important things having to do with profundities. Silly, vapid, foolish, and capricious behaviors indicate a pride wherein one is not rich in what matters to God. We pridefully maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum. We find plenty of time for frivolity but no time for prayer or study of Holy Truth.

(4) Boasting – Increasingly locked into our own little world of darkened intellect and foolish behavior, we begin to exult in baser, carnal activities and consider them a sign of greatness; we begin to boast of foolish things. To boast is to speak and think of oneself more highly than is true or reasonable. While we should learn to appreciate the gifts we have, we ought to recall that they ARE gifts given to us by God and often developed through the help of others. St. Paul says, What have you that you have not received? And if you have received it, why do you boast as though you had not? (1 Cor 4:7) But the boaster thinks too highly of himself, either asserting gifts he does not have, or forgetting that what he does have is a grace, a gift. This is pride. In addition, as we have seen, our boasting tends to be about foolish and passing things.

(5) Singularity – Our world gets ever smaller and yet we think ourselves even greater. We are king, all right, king of an ant hill, rulers of a tiny speck of dust sweeping through the immensity of space. But as our pride grows, we too easily forget our dependence on God and others for who and what we are. There is no such thing as a “self-made man.” We are all contingent beings, dependent on God and others. Further, we also too easily withdraw into our own little mind and world, tending to think that something is so just because we think it to be so. Withdrawing only to our own counsel, we discount the evidence of reality and stop seeking information and advice from others. The man who seeks only his own counsel has a fool for an adviser, and a prideful one at that! Singularity is pride. Yet this pride swells in us as our world gets ever smaller and more singular, focused increasingly only on our own self.

(6) Self-conceit – Here is described an unjustly favorable and unduly high opinion of one’s own abilities or worth. As our world gets ever smaller and our pride ever greater, our self-focus and delusion grows ever stronger and we become increasingly self-referential. Now, something is so merely because I say so. I am fine because I say so. Never mind that all of us are a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, sanctity and sinfulness. Too easily we grow blind to just how difficult we can be to live with. Too easily we find faults in others but fail to see them in ourselves. Further, we too easily seek to compare ourselves to others favorably, thinking, “Well, at least I am not like that prostitute or drug dealer over there.” But being better than a prostitute or a drug dealer is not the standard we must meet. Jesus is the standard we must meet. Rather than comparing ourselves to Jesus and seeking mercy, we compare ourselves to others on whom we look down, and give way to pride.

(7) Presumption – At this stage, even God’s judgements must cede to ours. I am fine and will be saved because I say so. This is a sin against hope, wherein we simply take salvation as granted and due to us no matter what we do. In effect, we already claim to possess what we do not. It is right for us to confidently hope for God’s help in attaining eternal life; this is the theological virtue of hope. But it is pride that makes us think we have already accomplished and possess what we in fact do not already have. It is further pride for us to set aside God’s Word, which over and over teaches us to walk in hope and seek God’s help as beggars rather than as possessors or as ones legally entitled to glory in Heaven. Presumption is pride.

(8) Self-justification – Jesus must now vacate the judgment seat because I demand His place. Not only that, He must also vacate the Cross because I don’t really need His sacrifice. I can save myself, and, frankly, I don’t need a lot of saving. Self-justification is the attitude that says I am able, by my own power, to justify (that is, save) myself. It is also an attitude that says, in effect, “I will do what I want to do and I will decide if it is right or wrong.” St. Paul says, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me (1 Cor 4:3-4). But the prideful person cares only for his own view of himself and refuses to be accountable, even to God. The prideful person forgets that no one is a judge in his own case.

(9) Hypocritical confession – In Greek, the word hypocrite means “actor.” In certain settings, some degree of humility and acknowledgement of one’s faults is “profitable.” One can get “credit” for acknowledging certain faults humbly and calling oneself a “sinner.” But the prideful man is just acting. He’s merely playing a role and doing his part, more for social credit than out of real contrition or repentance. After all, he’s really not that bad off. But if posturing and playing the role of the humble and contrite sinner will get him somewhere, he’ll say his lines, play the part, and look holy. But only if the applause from the audience is forthcoming …

(10) Revolt – Pride really begins to get out of control when one revolts outright against God and His lawful representatives. To revolt means to renounce allegiance to or any sense of accountability or obedience to God, his Word, or His Church. To revolt is to attempt to overthrow the authority of others, in this case God and His Church. It is prideful to refuse to be under any authority and to act in ways that are directly contrary to what lawful authority rightly asserts.

(11) Freedom to sin – Here, pride reaches its near conclusion, as it arrogantly asserts and celebrates that it is utterly free to do what it pleases. The prideful man increasingly rejects any restraints or limits. But the freedom of the proud man is not really freedom at all. Jesus says, Whoever sins is a slave to sin (John 8:34). The Catechism echoes, The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to the slavery of sin (Catechism 1733). But the proud man will have none of this, arrogantly asserting his freedom to do as he pleases, even while descending deeper and deeper into addiction and slavery.

(12) The habit of sinning – Here we see pride’s full and ugly flower: habitual sin and slavery to it. As St. Augustine says, For of a forward will, was a lust made; and a lust served, became custom; and custom not resisted, became necessity (Conf 8.5.10).

And thus we have climbed the twelve steps of the mountain of pride. It begins in the mind with a lack of sobriety, rooted in sinful curiosity and frivolous preoccupation. Next come frivolous behavior and excusing, presumptive, dismissive attitudes. Last come outright revolt and slavery to sin. The slavery results because if one refuses to serve God out of pride, he will serve Satan. Pride is now in full flower.

We have seen an escalation in these steps that is not far from an old admonition: sow a thought, reap a deed; sow a deed, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.

 

Our Deepest Fear

At Mass on Sunday for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord,  we read a text from Hebrews that describes our most basic and primal fear. Our inordinate fear of what people think of us is rooted in an even deeper fear, one that is at the very core of our being. The Hebrews text both names it and describes it as being the source of our bondage. In order to unlock the secret of the text, I want to suggest to you an interpretation that will allow its powerful diagnosis to have a wider and deeper effect.

Consider, then, this text from Hebrews:

Since the children have flesh and blood, [Jesus] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb 2:14-15).

This passage is clear in saying that the devil is the origin of our bondage to sin, but also that hold on us is through the fear of death. This is what he exploits in order to keep us in bondage.

When I have explored this teaching with people, I have found that many have difficulty understanding it at first. Especially for the young, death is almost a theoretical concept; it is not something they consciously fear. This is particularly true in the modern age, when medical advances have so successfully pushed back the boundary between life and death. Every now and then something may shake us out of our complacency (perhaps a brush with death), but in general death does not dominate our thoughts. So, then, what is meant by the fear of death and how does it hold us in bondage?

Well, what if we were to replace the word “death” with “diminishment”? To be sure, this is an adaption of the text (the Greek text (φόβῳ θανάτου – phobo thanatou) is accurately translated as “fear of death”), but doing so can help us to see what the text is getting at in a wider sense. It doesn’t take long to realize that each diminishment we experience is a kind of “little death.” Diminishments make us feel smaller, less powerful, less glorious.

What are some examples of diminishments we might experience? On one level, a diminishment is anything that makes us feel less adequate than others. Maybe we think others are smarter or more popular. Perhaps we do not feel attractive enough; we’re too tall, too short, too fat, or too thin. Maybe we resent the fact that others are richer or more powerful. Perhaps we wish we were younger, stronger, and more energetic. Maybe we wish we were older, wiser, and more settled. Perhaps we feel diminished because we think others have a better marriage, a nicer home, or more accomplished children. Maybe we compare ourselves unfavorably to a sibling who has done better financially or socially than we have.

Can you see how this fear of diminishment sets up many sins? It plugs right into envy and jealousy. Pride comes along for the ride, too, because we try to compensate for our fear of inadequacy by finding people to whom we feel superior. We thus indulge our pride or seek to build up our ego in unhealthy ways. Perhaps we run to the cosmetic surgeon or torture ourselves with unhealthy diets. Maybe we ignore our own gifts and try to be someone we really aren’t. Perhaps we spend money we don’t have trying to impress others so that we feel less inadequate.

Think of the countless sins we commit trying to be popular and to fit in. We give in to peer pressure and sometimes do terrible things. Young people will join gangs, use drugs, skip school, have sex before marriage, pierce and tattoo their bodies, use foul language, etc. Adults also have many of these things on their list. All of these things are done in a quest to be popular and to fit in. This desire to fit in is all about not wanting to feel diminished, and diminishment is about the fear of death, because every experience of diminishment is like a small death.

Advertisers know how to exploit the fear of diminishment in marketing their products. I remember studying this topic in business school at George Mason University. The logic goes something like this: You’re not pretty enough, happy enough, adequate enough, or comfortable enough; you don’t look young enough; you have some chronic illness (e.g., depression, asthma, diabetes)—but just buy our product and you will be “enough”; you won’t be so pathetic, incomplete, and, basically, diminished. If you drink this beer, you’ll be happy, have good times, and be surrounded by friends. If you use this toothpaste, soap, or cosmetic product, you’ll be surrounded by beautiful people and sex will be more available to you. If you drive this car, people will turn their heads and be impressed with you. The message is that you don’t measure up now (you’re diminished) but our product will get you there. Just buy it and you’ll be happier, healthier, and more alive!

Perhaps you can see how such advertising appeals to greed, pride, materialism, and worldliness; it puts forth the lie that these material things will solve our problems. In fact, appeals like this actually increase our fear of diminishment (and death) because they feed the notion that we have to measure up to these false and/or unrealistic standards.

It is my hope that you can see how very deep this drive is and how it enslaves us in countless ways.

This demon (fear of death, of diminishment) must be named. Once named and brought to light, we must learn its moves and begin to rebuke it in the name of Jesus. As we start to recognize the thought patterns emerging from this most primal of fears, we can gradually, by God’s grace, replace this distorted thinking with proper, sober, and humble thinking—thinking rooted in God’s love for us and the availability of His grace and mercy.

The text from Hebrews above is clear in saying that this deep and highly negative drive is an essential way in which Satan keeps us in bondage. It also says that Jesus Christ died to save us and free us from this bondage. Allow the Lord to give you a penetrating and sober vision of this deep drive, this deep fear of diminishment and death. Allow the light of God’s grace and His Word to both expose and heal this deepest of wounds.

This song pokes fun at our fad-centered culture, which is always trying to make us feel inadequate.

 

Why Is It that We Can Endure Great Pain But Only A Little Pleasure?

"The Garden of Eden" by Thomas Cole
“The Garden of Eden” by Thomas Cole

One of the great mysteries of our life in this world is that we can endure more pain than pleasure. Indeed, we can endure only a little pleasure at a time. In fact, too much pleasure actually brings pain: sickness, hangovers, obesity, addiction, laziness, and even boredom. Yet we seem to be able to endure a lot of pain. Some of our pain, whether physical or emotional, can be very intense and go on for years.

Why is it that we can endure more pain than pleasure?

Physiologists and anthropologists might focus their answer on the fact that we are wired for survival and being able to endure pain helps us more than being able to enjoy pleasure. Fair enough. But I would like to offer an additional answer from a spiritual point of view.

The spiritual answer is that pain is for now while pleasure is for the hereafter. In this world, this exile, this valley of tears, we are being tested; we are meant to fill up our quotient of pain. And while we do enjoy some pleasures here, they are only a foretaste of what will be fully ours only in Heaven. In this world the foretaste seems limited to bite-sized morsels. Otherwise (as noted) we are overwhelmed by pleasure, distracted by it, and even sickened and enslaved by it. Until pain has had its proper effect within us, we are not disciplined or pure enough to properly enjoy large amounts of pleasure.

Pain is thus our first assignment here in this world, this paradise lost. Pain both purifies and teaches.

We should recall that God offered us the paradise of Eden with the proviso that we trust Him to teach us what is best. But we insisted on the knowledge of good and evil for ourselves and the right to decide what was right and wrong. We wanted a better deal than Eden. Here we are now in that “better deal.” Adam and Eve chose to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, even knowing that God had said it would usher in suffering and death. And we have all ratified their choice on countless occasions.

God, respecting our freedom, did not undo our choice. Rather, He said, in effect, “Fine, I will meet you at the cross of suffering and death, and allow that very suffering and death to be the way back to me.” And thus the way back to paradise, and to an even higher and heavenly glory, is through the cross.

This is why our tolerance for pain is greater now than is our capacity for pleasure. God has equipped us in this way because pain is for now; pleasure is for later.

Frankly, we need a high tolerance for pain, because it is a needed remedy for a very serious malady. Our condition is grave and requires strong medicine. The cross and its pain is the strong medicine needed. And thus our tolerance for pain must be certainly be greater than our capacity for pleasure.

Pain, despite its unpleasant qualities, has many salutary effects. It teaches us limits and helps conquer our pride. It purifies us. It reminds us that this world is passing and cannot ultimately be our answer. It intensifies our longing for Heaven and the shalom of God. If we endure pain with faith, it draws us to seek help and to trust God more. Pain endured with faith is like being under the surgeon’s scalpel. The scalpel inflicts pain but only to cut away what is harmful. It is a strong but healing medicine.

For now, our assignment is clear. Pain has the upper hand and is the strong medicine we need. When in pain, seek relief from God. But if he says no, remember that God promises that His grace will be sufficient for us (see 2 Cor 12:9), and that pain has a healing place for now. It is indeed a gift in a strange package.

Yes, it is a mysterious truth that we have a higher tolerance for pain than for pleasure. But given our current location in paradise lost, it makes sense. One day when suffering, pain, and death have had their full effect, we will enter into the Heaven of God, where pain will be no more and where our capacity for pleasure will blossom like a rose. Having been purified by our pain, our capacity for pleasure will now be full and there will be joys unspeakable and glories untold.

Here is pathos set to music. It is William Byrd’s treatment of a text from Isaiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC