Back in seminary days, an older priest, and well known scripture scholar, who was leading us in a retreat, stopped his train of thought, perhaps perceiving we were having difficulty, and said, “Do you know what is the biggest obstacle for us in understanding the Word of God?” I was expecting a geeky answer like, “We don’t know enough Greek,” or “We haven’t studied the Historical Critical Method carefully enough.” But the priest pleasantly surprised me we he paused, looked around the room and then said, “The biggest obstacle we have to understanding the Word of God, is our sin.” (Fr. Francis Martin, who has a video ministry here: Fr. Francis Martin YouTube Page). Scholars, academicians, even unbelievers, to some extent, can tell you what a biblical text is talking about, about its historical context etc. But only the holy, the Saints, can tell you what the text really means. He went on to encourage us in the discipline of study, but warned us that all the study in the world could not be of great help, if we did not have a clean heart. Indeed, a theologian who does not pray is a dangerous man.
And Old Gospel song says, “None can walk up there, but the pure in heart.” In the plainest sense, “up there” means heaven. But “up there” also refers to the higher things of God and the spiritual life. To walk “up there” means to be able to see and grasp the things of God, and, increasingly, God himself.
Fulton Sheen was famous for saying toward the end of his life something to the effect, that we have tried, in modern times, every possible way to build up the Church: committees, study groups, task forces, seminars, advanced degrees in every sort of theology and religious study. But there is only one thing that we have not tried, and that is holiness. He went on to recommend that every priest commit to make a daily Holy Hour.
This week in the Office of Readings from the Breviary the following reading recalls of all these things:
God is seen by those who have the capacity to see him…. All have eyes, but some have eyes that are shrouded in darkness, unable to see the light of the sun. Because the blind cannot see it, it does not follow that the sun does not shine. The blind must trace the cause back to themselves and their eyes.
In the same way, you have eyes in your mind that are shrouded in darkness because of your sins and evil deeds. A person’s soul should be clean, like a mirror reflecting light. If there is rust on the mirror his face cannot be seen in it.
In the same way, no one who has sin within him can see God. But if you will you can be healed. Hand yourself over to the doctor, and he will open the eyes of your mind and heart. Who is to be the doctor? It is God, who heals and gives life through his Word and wisdom…. If you understand this, and live in purity and holiness and justice, you may see God. But, before all, faith and the fear of God must take the first place in your heart.
From the book addressed to Autolycus by Saint Theophilus of Antioch, bishop
So there it is, None can walk up there, but the pure in heart. Blessed are the Pure of Heart, for they shall see God (Matt 5:8).
Biblical Portrait – This coming Sunday we will read the Gospel of the man born blind. In a pivotal moment, Jesus smeared this man’s eyelids with clay and sent him to the Pool of Siloam to wash. He comes back able to see. When asked how he came to see he says, in effect, “I went, I washed and now I see.” This is baptismal theology even if in seminal form. We cannot see until we are washed. In the end it is Baptism, Confession and a holy life by God’s grace that give the greatest light, that lay the foundation to enable us to “walk up there.”
Testimony of St Cyprian – One of the great theologians and Fathers of the Church, St. Cyprian, experienced the vision that Baptism and holiness brings:
And I myself was bound fast, held by so many errors of my past life, from which I did not believe I could extricate myself. I was disposed therefore to yield to my clinging vices; and, despairing of better ways, I indulged my sins…But afterwards, when the stain of my past life had been washed away by means of the waters of rebirth, a light from above poured itself upon my chastened and now pure heart; afterwards, through the Spirit which is breathed from heaven, a second birth made of me a new man. And then in marvelous manner, doubts immediately clarified themselves, the closed opened…and what had been thought impossible was able to be done (“Letter to Donatus,” 4).
St. Cyprian was a learned man. He knew his theology, had studied law and rhetoric. But only after baptism did some things make sense, seem possible and enable Cyprian to “walk up there.”
I too am a witness of this. I have come to understand some things only after many years of prayer and growth: daily holy hours, daily mass and the liturgy of the hours, weekly confession, only then do some things clarify and does that which had been in darkness come to light. Studies have had their place in my life to be sure, But only the path to holiness (combined with study) can ever really bring light.
We’ve tried everything else, how about holiness? Study is great, don’t neglect to study the faith, but holiness is even greater. I have some people in spiritual direction who have not spent years studying theology, but they grasp well, almost as if by infused knowledge, the things of God. This is wisdom. A great intellect is a wonderful gift, but a pure heart is the greatest gift of all.
Photo Credit: Jeff Geerling via Creative Commons
Here’s a video on the beauty of prayer especially before the Blessed Sacrament. It is set to the words of a beautiful Eucharistic Hymn “Jesus My Lord, My God, My All” directed by the late Richard Proulx (RIP).