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Generosity and Happiness - The Eight Beatitudes
Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
There are two sides to the Gospel ethic. On the one hand, there are many obstacles to remove and temptations we must overcome. On the other hand, while constantly warring against our native impulses, the evil spirit and the machinations of the world, we are also bidden to give ourselves to God. Both elements of our spiritual lives are essential.
We have native tendencies in us that tyrannize us, which we so complacently call our "passions". What we talk about as the Seven Capital Sins, I like to call our "Seven Basic Tendencies" as fallen human beings. To ignore the fact that we have to war against ourselves and against the seductions of the evil all around us would be folly.
But we are also to practice virtue, what we sometimes call the positive side, as though the negative wasn't also important. This second side of our Christian responsibility is synthesized in the Beatitudes which our Savior gave us.
As you know, there are certain classic passages in Christ's teaching which have always remained and will be the cornerstones of our lives. Such, for example, is the Lord's Prayer; Christ's discourse in the sixth chapter of John's Gospel, when He promised the Eucharist; and His long homily at the Last Supper before He died; such are the Beatitudes.
There are two versions of the Beatitudes in the Gospels one of four, the other of eight. Over the centuries, Christian wisdom has speculated how the four are really the eight and how the eight can be synthesized into four. We shall concentrate on the eight Beatitudes by looking briefly at their significance just in and of themselves. In many ways, what we call "Beatitudes" are the Magna Carta of Christian perfection, so much so that the late Vatican Council, which spoke more extensively than all the other Councils put together about the meaning and practice and understanding of the religious life, described the religious life as a "lifetime commitment to practicing the Beatitudes".
Why are they significant? They are so important because they are uniquely Christian principles of human conduct. Winston Churchill on one occasion observed sagely that the British Empire could not survive for one week if it was based on the eight Beatitudes. Right he was. Secular society does not operate on them.
The norms set down in the Beatitudes go way beyond the Sinaitic Decalogue, which Christ confirmed but also said He was fulfilling; the Beatitudes are its fulfillment. In the Ten Commandments we have pretty much a summary and, in many ways, the highest principles of pre-Christian morality. The Beatitudes assume the Decalogue, and they go beyond it. The Beatitudes are able, humanly speaking, to make heavy demands on human nature because God, when He became man, gave the grace to go beyond the Decalogue.
The Beatitudes are a perfect synthesis of Christ's own life and are a summary of His own practice of virtue, which we are committed to imitate. So when we say that perfection consists in following Christ and ask, "What does that mean?", the answer is that it means practicing the Beatitudes which He first practiced and then preached.
But before going on to the Beatitudes themselves, consider how they exemplify the paradoxical character of Christianity. We speak of Christian mysteries. They are not fully comprehensible to the human mind. For example, we are told that whoever loses his life will find it; that those who are great, but become small, will inherit the kingdom; that God has chosen the little things, the foolish things, the things that "are not", to confound the strong and the wise all paradoxes. What is a paradox? It is an apparent contradiction. I like to synonymize mystery with paradox and say that our faith is full of paradoxes.
In the Beatitudes the paradox is happiness, which Christ promises if a person does certain things that humanly speaking are the very opposite of what we would expect to bring happiness. In a word, He is telling us to do things that we don't naturally enjoy and then tells us we are going to have joy! "Come, come", we say, "now Lord, what do you mean?" "Well", He tells us, "you have heard the word supernatural haven't you? That is what I mean. The super- part of the supernatural is that which I give unexpectedly by your giving up certain things. You sacrifice pleasure and I will give you joy".
This also, before we get on to our analysis, is really the Covenant, the New Covenant. Covenant, as you know, is a contract, an agreement. The Old Covenant, God made with Abraham, then with David; here in the Beatitudes is the New Covenant in eight stages; here is God's promise, provided we do what He asks.
There are many translations of the Beatitudes. I prefer the one which begins, "How happy" because it implies how unexpectedly happy we can be by overcoming all kinds of difficulties and trials. One of the problems in thinking about the foundations of our faith is that we have heard them so often; we have read so much about the faith; we have prayed about these things so many times that we are tempted to think it is like relearning the multiplication tables. Every time we direct our faith-inspired minds to these mysteries, we learn more about them.
I. The Poor in Spirit
We are told, "How happy are the poor in spirit: theirs is the kingdom of Heaven." This Beatitudes assumes, therefore, that the person either already has certain possessions and certain gifts, but that he is nevertheless poor in spirit; or that he does not have certain things and he is detached from what he doesn't have. Have you heard that before? You know we can be attached to things we don't have. In either case, this poverty of spirit is detachment of spirit.
Now I am not sure which class of people would find it harder to practice this Beatitude. I suppose, though, that it is those who have more, de facto, and are nevertheless bidden by Christ to be detached from what they have, otherwise they won't be happy or blessed. Like what?
Like a good mind. I have taught some very intelligent men over the years. I tell them, "Maybe you never thought of it this way. Do you know the heaviest cross you have? It is your very good mind. You have such a sharp intellect, it is causing you all kinds of pain. You see problems where other people don't even notice there is any reason for a problem." Intelligence. Skills of any kind. Some have extraordinary musical or artistic skills; others have social abilities, like affability or ability in speech. Some can write. Some can pray. All must pray, but some can obviously do it easier.
We are required to be detached in spirit so that we use the gifts we have as God wants us to use them and to enjoy them only insofar as the Lord wants us to enjoy them, and never to take complacency in any creature's talent. And of course we tend to take complacency in the creature whom we most enjoy. Guess who that is.
It almost becomes unintelligible as I describe it; it is so obvious. We are, then, not to dwell on what we have, not to think ourselves better than somebody else because whatever we have is a gift. It means not parading our gifts. It is often the last citadel that virtue will conquer.
II. The Gentle
Second, "Happy are the gentle: they shall have the earth for their heritage." Frankly, as we read this, we are tempted to say, "Lord, thanks....I am not particularly interested in the earth for my heritage!" What does this actually mean?
The word "gentleness" is not an easy word to define and the reason, of course, is because gentleness is not much respected in today's world. It is the aggressive, get-all-you-can-out-of-life-and-people personality that is the hero and heroine of our literature and cinema. But gentleness is strength restrained by love. Only strong people can be gentle. Others can seem to be; they are not.
One world-famous art critic wrote that if you want to depict strength or power or energy, always picture it poised. He compared two paintings. One portrayed a huge multi-ton boulder lying at the bottom of the canyon; the other, a canyon with a boulder just on the edge. And you are almost afraid that the boulder is going to fall even as you look at the picture! Strength is power held back.
Gentleness, therefore, is not weakness; it is just the opposite. It means someone has hurt you and you don't hurt back. Love keeps you from doing that which nature urges you to do.
Now the promise. As the Fathers of the Church comment, this "having the earth for our heritage" means the ability we receive through God's grace to prevail over others. Gentleness conquers. Gentleness wins. Gentleness overcomes. Gentleness prevails over the hardest hearts, over the most humanly impossible situations. To prevail over human wills: there is no more difficult conquest on earth. The secret is restraint, gentleness.
III. Those Who Mourn
Before going on, I might mention the trouble we have with our English language; we are rather unique this way. English is not a Catholic language and now it is getting to be very secularized. While the labels remain quite constant, the meaning of what is behind the label is determined by the persons who use it. If the culture that uses the language is a believing culture, the words or labels will have the corresponding meaning. As, however, the culture becomes less and less believing or believing more and more in things that are not Christian, the labels may remain the same; but you discover in conversation with intelligent secularists that you are not really saying the same things.
It is true here: "Happy those who mourn: they shall be comforted." Of all paradoxes this, humanly speaking, is the nearest thing to a contradiction we can conceive. It is like saying, "Happy those who are unhappy!" Clearly, we have to understand the words we are using.
This may help to distinguish between sorrow and sadness. Evidently Christ does not mean, "Happy those who are sad". Sadness is mourning, but it is either mourning over things that don't deserve to be mourned over or it is going beyond what we were supposed to mourn, not stopping when we should change the subject. Sadness refers to either mourning over the wrong object or excessive mourning. Sorrow, on the other hand, is grief over what deserves to be mourned and in the right way.
We have a fine description of what we should mourn over by the episodes in the Gospels in which our Lord wept. These have many subdivisions and nuances that need not preoccupy us here.
He wept over Jerusalem because Jerusalem was sinning. So a correct object for mourning is sin. And the Son of God Himself not only mourned, but in Gethsemane was in a positive agony, anticipating His own sufferings and particularly the cause of them, again, sin. And at Lazarus' tomb He wept, exhibiting sorrow over the loss of a loved one.
What are we promised? Not comfort in some cheap way, but comfort as strength, as fortitude to bear patiently with the sorrows that God puts into our lives. It is not, therefore, wrong to mourn. There are times when we should give in to our sorrow; but we must know when to turn away.
IV. Those Who Hunger and Thirst
"Happy those who hunger and thirst for what is right: they shall be satisfied." We know we have all sorts of desires; this "hunger and thirst" is simply symbolic language for "desires". Being honest with ourselves, we know that not all of these desires, these hungers and thirsts, are for what is right. Consequently, true freedom in the following of Christ consists in desiring and then choosing what is right. What is the beauty of it? Having all our desires satisfied!
We too often think that our trouble is with having desires. But that is what life this side of heaven is, desires, and heaven is their fulfillment. The trouble is rather in what we desire! We must desire what is right, although that is not easy. There are a lot of things that clamor for satisfaction and so seductively present themselves as appealing. The only question that should ever be on our minds is not how appealing a thing is, or how sweet or fragrant or melodious, to use symbolic terms, but how right it is, because having those desires we can relax; they will all be satisfied.
So, what is right? The word has many possible translations. That is "right" which leads me to my destiny and leads me there directly. It is "right because it is correct! We have the assurance of satiety, and a sense of achievement, not just in that eschatological future, but here and now.
V. The Merciful
"Happy the merciful: they shall have mercy shown them." Again, as with so many words, some drop out of common usage where people cease to believe in what they stand for. Mercy is not a popular word outside of Christianity.
Mercy is love which overcomes resistance. You love in spite of the fact that you are not loved; you love those things which cause you difficulty and trouble; you love even those who not only do not love you, but who may oppose you, may hate you.
The promise is from Christ that we will have mercy shown us, because this is what God's mercy is towards us: it is His love overcoming resistance. Yet in spite of us, He is loving us. That is mercy.
VI. The Pure of Heart
"How happy are the pure of heart: they shall see God." There are many meanings to the word "pure" or "pure of heart", but the one that we cannot omit is internal chastity of mind which is symbolized by the Biblical word "heart". Whenever the Scriptures want to interiorize a virtue, they speak of having it in one's heart.
We usually think of chastity in the external order, because quite obviously it deals with the senses, the control of the venereal pleasures which are natural to us. Purity of heart is especially chastity of the mind, of the imagination.
It means that no matter what our state of life, we must have custody over the internal movements of our spirits; this is sacrificed. It is not just priests and religious vowed to celibacy who are called upon to practice this virtue. Married people must also. God permits the very laudable and sacred satisfaction only to those who are married and only within the marital embrace. Youth must practice chastity of heart until they marry extremely difficult as the shambles of millions of young men and women have discovered after they have tasted, as they thought, the pleasures of sex and found themselves betrayed by a tyrant. And those who are vowed to chastity must cultivate the virtue which is deeply interior, in order to give the world what it so needs today, the witness of consecrated chastity.
The promise is, "They shall see God". Chastity confers clarity of vision. It enables a person to see God in a way that those who do not practice chastity or even those who have not vowed themselves to a life of chastity are not privileged to enjoy. And no one cheats here. That perspicacious capacity which partakes of mysticism, to be able to see God even in this life, His beauty and His goodness even in the most impossible situation, is reserved for those who have learned the secret of purity of heart.
VII. The Peacemakers
"How happy are the peacemakers: they shall be called the children of God." There is so much disorder in the world that God wants peacemakers. One of our principal apostolates should be reconciling people, first of all with God, the highest kind of peacemaking; then with themselves and within themselves. Intimacy, closeness with God, results the more we labor to reconcile mankind. But we need not go far to begin. Often the nearest of kin, people we love and for whom we want only the best, are estranged from God or among themselves. And in the apostolate, we are to labor to reconcile sinners with God.
What is the promise? A special affection from God which Christ, to exemplify, describes in the phrase, "They shall be called children of God". He is intimating a certain special fondness that God has, even as a mother or a father has, for a child.
VIII. Those Who Suffer Persecution
Finally, as a kind of capstone, the most unexpected kind of happiness is promised: "How happy are those who suffer persecution for justice sake: they shall possess the kingdom of God." It deserved a supplement. Even Christ knew He couldn't leave this Beatitude to stand alone; He had to explain it.
"Happy", He tells us, "are you when men reproach you, persecute you, and speaking falsely say all manner of evil against you for My sake". He means it. He says, "Rejoice!" And wanting to really put His point across, He added, "And be very glad. Your reward in heaven is very great. That is what they did to the prophets." And He intimated, "That is what they are doing to Me, and if you want to be like Me, rejoice."
What is it all about? It is about so many things that we used to read about and shake our heads, saying, "How terrible those times used to be. How hard it was in those early centuries of persecution. How difficult it must have been for the people at the time of the so-called Reformation...." We used to read history; we never dreamt this would happen in our day. It has. In this generation, we are being called upon to make history, and the only ones who will make history, whose names will be remembered not only in the book of God but in the annals of the Church, are those who have learned that in order to stand up for the truth you must expect to be opposed. If you are not persecuted, if you are not opposed, if you are not spoken falsely about, if people don't say all manner of evil against you for Christ's sake, hold your loyalty to the Master suspect.
This is one of those ages in history which is called an Age of Persecution. Statistically, there have been more martyrs who have died for the name of Christ since 1900 than in all the centuries of Christianity put together. Let us pray and sacrifice that God might give strength to our fellow members of the Mystical Body who are suffering for Jesus that they might be strengthened to persevere until death.
And for ourselves, we must pray that we too might have the strength individually and corporately (the Church; our Bishops, priests, religious and laity) to not only be called "faithful" but to be faithful. We are being persecuted, not so much in our country with fire and sword, but by what is even more often successful: by seduction, blandishment, and the sad example of those who still call themselves Christians but have betrayed the name of Christ.
Let us ask our Savior, who gave us the Beatitudes, to help us live them. They are the promise of joy on earth as an anticipation of joy in heaven for those who have lived out what Christ told them they must do to be like Him.
Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica
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