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 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.

12 Replies to “Blessed are the Pure of Heart – A Reflection on an Often Misunderstood Beatitude and Virtue”

  1. We cannot serve GOD and mammon. We have to choose one or the other. How is that for being single minded? Also, one thing is needed and Mary chose the better one. One thing I ask of The LORD, to dwell in the House of The LORD all the days of my life. One thing! Sh’ma Yisrael ADONAI ELOHEINU, ADONAI Echad! The LORD is One!
    Thank you, Monsignor.

  2. and if you walk before Him and be perfect, maybe one day you can be taken like Enoch. That’s the way to go I think! I wish. I wish the bible said more about Enoch besides he was 365 years old.

    Enoch walked with God and was seen no more because God took him.
    Genesis 5:24

  3. Father, a very long time ago I read that throughout most of church history, esp. in the Middle Ages, the traditional acceptation of the concept “purity of heart” or “cleanness of heart” is more akin to a single-minded, whole-hearted focus on God, and on the things of God.
    You are entirely correct: If God comes first, and if we keep coming back to that God-first, God-alone orientation, everything else which is not of God (including impurity, porn, etc.) kind of loses any attractiveness whatsoever.
    Thank you for reminding us of this very essential, basic truth–this is one of those things we frequently need to come back to.

  4. I am currently studying the beatitudes. This post makes me hope you will cover the rest of the beatitudes? Or have they been already?
    Fr. Spitzer’s book “The Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life” got me started on this study. One Pillar was the beatitudes. Now I’m reading “Living the Beatitudes” by J. Brian Bransfield. Monsignor, what you have posted agrees with these two excellent sources, but is a very succinct. I am simple minded, not single hearted, so this helps and I have bookmarked it. Thank you for aiding my current study.

  5. It seems to me that one angle of this teaching which might be appropriate to our times is whether “pure of heart” means the same thing as having purity of mind, that is being resistant to or free from the promptings of our weakness of flesh—concupiscence. We live in a culture which seems hell-bent on destroying purity. The most pure among us, innocent infants in the womb are eliminated before they take their first breath. Children are indoctrinated into impure thinking earlier and earlier through the filth being produced and broadcast in programming and advertisements on television networks, and being given unfettered access to the internet via mobile electronic devices. How do we seek and maintain purity in the world we live in where sin has become virtue, and virtue a sin?

    1. Getting rid of cable is a good first step. I see no reason for children to have smart phones until they are at least 16 and no computers where they are alone. There was a time when we didn’t feel the need for these things. Simplify!

  6. All is Christ and Christ is in all. He is our lodestone, our center. To live and run our races as Paul did, does simplify and create an oasis of peace within our souls.To finally be able to actualise, to internalise the reality that Christ is the Alpha and Omega in our lives. We, then, can truly “go placidly amid the noise and haste” of this world.

    Thank you and God bless you for shedding a very different light over this Beatitude. A very concrete and helpful one. i too, hope you will help us with the other Beatitudes. These clarifications Father really do make a difference.

  7. Thank you, Monsignor!

    I heard a long time ago that the word “sincere” comes from the Latin “sine”, meaning “without” and “cere”, meaning “wax”. In ancient times as buildings were being constructed, some builders did not use pure marble, but marble mixed with wax, which was kind of “cutting corners”. (Lots of builders today use “faux wood” or “faux brass”, etc!)

    So the most beautiful and sturdy pillars and other structural aspects of homes, temples, and later, churches, were made “sine cere”, “without wax”! And that’s where we get the word “sincere”. Reading about single-heartedness made me think of this word. To be totally sincere in our love and affection and service of God is to be single-hearted, “without wax”!

  8. Thank you Msgr., because I have at times pondered what exactly was meant by the “poor in spirit” or the “pure of heart” in the Beatitudes. (Have you wrote about the “poor in spirit”? If so, I have not read that reflection.)
    The Beatitudes were the very first thing I ever read in the Bible as a teenager, and I reflected on and pondered those words a great deal, because I thought they were Jesus’ instructions on how to get to heaven – the signs that you are holy. Now you have expanded my understanding of the “pure of heart.” I love that it amounts to simplicity and singularity – to have one goal in life – to be with God. To live the greatest commandment – to love God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength. Pure of heart. They shall see God.

  9. Well said. We must focus on God with single-mindedness. To encourage Catholics to do that requires teaching about God, His nature and attributes, about Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell, about angels, and demons. In short, for Catholics to achieve the proper single-mindedness, we need homilies on the Church’s dogmatic teachings along with insights from authentic mystics. Knowing doctrine is necessary for promoting good moral behavior because it gives compelling reasons to want to be good. The much maligned but reliable Baltimore Catechism had it right when it instructed Catholics to “know, love, and serve God” because we are not likely to serve what we do not love, and we cannot love God if we barely know Him. I also recommend a Tridentine rite High Mass—holy mysteries entangled with beauty does engender goodness.

  10. Msgr Pope
    Thank you for the teaching.
    The New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE) uses ‘single hearted’ in Psalm 86:11 as does the Jerusalem (1966) translation.

    Teach me, LORD, your way that I may walk in your truth, single-hearted and revering your name.

    Yahweh, teach me your way, how to walk beside you faithfully, make me singlehearted in fearing your name.

    New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (NRSVCE)
    Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name.

    Teach me thy way, O Lord; I will walk in thy truth: unite my heart to fear thy name.

Comments are closed.