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Spirituality

The following article originally appeared in Salt of the Earth. It is posted here for private use only. It may not be reprinted in whole or in part without the permission of Claretian Publications.

 

Climb the ladder of the Beatitudes

Jim Forest  

The Beatitudes are like rungs on a ladder. Each one leads to the next. Remove any one of them, and you fall off the ladder.

If you start noticing the image of God in the poor, if you begin to oppose those activities that cause suffering and bloodshed, no matter how meek and merciful you are, you may find that getting into hot water can happen here and now.

The Sermon on the Mount, the most famous sermon of all time, begins with a set of blessings we call the Beatitudes—just ten verses, with the word blessed repeated nine times. But what does blessed mean? In some Bibles you find it translated as "happy," but this makes no sense when you look at the conditions Christ is describing, from poverty to persecution.

"How would you translate blessing?" I once asked the biblical scholar Rabbi Steven Schwarzchild. "There is no one word that will do," he replied. "It is something like `on the right path,' `on the way the Creator wants us to go.' It is the opposite of the word for sin, which means `losing your way.'"

The Beatitudes weren't the first words of the public ministry of Jesus, but Matthew uses them to introduce us to the teaching of his master. This short text provides a summary of the whole gospel.

If we recognize the last two blessings as one, because both describe the suffering often imposed upon those who try to live the gospel, we find there are eight Beatitudes, each of which we need to think about again and again as we make progress in our lifelong conversion. The eight Beatitudes are all aspects of being in communion with God. They are like rungs on a ladder. Each one leads to the next. Remove any one of them, and you fall off the ladder. It is a carefully built ladder. The rungs aren't in a random order. To reach the second step, we need to make the first step.



1. "Blessed are the poor in spirit."
Poverty of spirit is the essential beginning. Without it we haven't begun to follow Christ.

What does poverty of spirit mean? It is my awareness that I cannot save myself, that I am basically defenseless, that neither money nor power will spare me from suffering and death. It is my awareness that I desperately need God's help and mercy. It is stepping away from the rule of fear in one's life, fear being the great force that restrains us from acts of love.

The eight Beatitudes are all aspects of being in communion with God. They are like rungs on a ladder. Each one leads to the next. Remove any one of them, and you fall off the ladder.

Being poor in spirit means becoming free of the myth that possessing many things will make me a happier person. It is an attitude summed up in a French proverb: "When you die, you carry in your clutched hands only that which you have given away."

Look at the life of any saintly person and you see this Beatitude in practice. For Saint Francis, in his habit of rags, it was the way of the person who makes himself least rather than greatest; Francis addressed poverty as his sister. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux spoke of "the Little Way." And Dorothy Day came up with the phrase "voluntary poverty."

2. "Blessed are they who mourn."
This next rung is the sacrament of tears, the Beatitude of feeling and expressing grief not only for my own sorrows and losses but the sorrows and losses of others. I can hardly feel someone else's pain without poverty of spirit—otherwise I am always on guard to keep what I have for myself and to keep me for myself.

Think about that two-word verse in the Gospel of John: "Jesus wept." The 17th-century poet and priest John Donne comments, "There is no shorter verse in the Bible, nor is there a larger text." The gospel authors tell us of three times when Christ wept: as he stood before the tomb of his friend Lazarus before summoning him back to life; as he looked on the city of Jerusalem and foresaw its destruction; and as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane the day before his crucifixion.

"The presence of Christ is revealed in those who mourn," says my therapist friend Glinda Johnson-Medland. "In mourning there is transparency—the body shows who you truly are. Christ is a very transparent person, able to communicate with his whole body, not just words. A child is transparent in the same way. Mourning makes us transparent to each other.

"When you see tears in the face of another person, you feel it—you are changed." She adds, "Mourning is a ritualistic way to integrate grief in your life. Mourning creates a path. But in America we lack rituals of grief. The result is that we aren't operating in reality.

"One of the things to mourn is the loss of the nuclear family—now one more minority group. Religious ritual provides a way to `sing away' the soul and body of a person we love. Tears are very powerful. No prayer of absolution equals tears. We are mourning with the heart of Christ—mourning our sins and losses."


3. "Blessed are the meek."
We see meekness in Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, something that embarrassed them, something they resisted. But in what better way could he teach them the nature of love and what it means to be a pastor? We see meekness in Christ carrying the cross and enduring all the other events that led to his crucifixion.

Meekness is a tough virtue for everyone, but perhaps most of all for men because we have been made to think of meekness as a feminine quality. But meekness is not simply doing what you are told. The person who obeys evil orders is not being meek but being cowardly. He has cut himself off from his own conscience, thrown away his God-given freedom, all because he is afraid of the price he may have to pay for following Christ. We must first of all be meek toward God, and that meekness will give us the strength not to lord it over others or to commit evil deeds against our neighbors.

For an image of meekness in the modern world, think about Rosa Parks, a church-centered seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, who in 1955 quietly refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. In so doing she violated a city ordinance—and also changed the course of American history, though she had no idea of anything important coming from her small gesture on behalf of human dignity.

That night 40 black pastors serving local parishes met together and decided the time was at hand to try to end segregation on Montgomery's public-transportation system. They decided to begin a boycott of the buses. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was elected to head the boycott, partly because, being the youngest pastor in town, he had the least to lose should the campaign fail. The black population of Montgomery began walking and carpooling to work.

A year later, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that racial segregation in public transportation violated the Constitution. It was a major blow to the legal foundations of segregation. And it all began with the firm but gentle refusal to go along with something Rosa Parks knew was wrong. Faith-based meekness can move mountains.


4. "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for what is right."
When we begin to share in the sufferings of others, we cannot help but notice that suffering is often either the consequence of injustice or is made worse by injustice.

Notice that Jesus doesn't say "Blessed are those who hope for righteousness" or "Blessed are those who campaign for righteousness" but "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness"—that is, people who want what is right as urgently as a person dying in a desert wants a glass of water. There is a saying, "Some people are so hungry that the only way God can appear to them is as a piece of bread."

Think of Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, who not only devoted her life to hospitality but kept asking what it is about our society that produces so many people in need of hospitality. "Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy rotten system," she said in her usual plain-spoken way.

A society whose main story is summed up in the good-guy-kills-bad-guy Western seemed to her a far cry from the kingdom of God. The core of the spiritual life, she explained, is to see the image of God in everyone, especially in those we fear or regard as enemies. "Those who cannot see Christ in the poor," she wrote, "are atheists indeed."


5. "Blessed are the merciful."
This rung prevents us from thinking that the longing for righteousness allows us to be ruthless. It is natural to feel anger toward those who make themselves richer, more comfortable, or more powerful by causing others to suffer. We immediately become aware of our attraction to violence and vengeance when we start imagining how to punish people and groups who have hurt those we care about or by whom we feel threatened.

But we see in Christ the constant example of someone ready to be merciful to anyone, no matter what that person has done—not only the woman condemned to death for adultery but even a Roman centurion, an officer belonging to a much-resented army of occupation. His final miracle before his crucifixion was to heal the man Peter had wounded in trying to defend him.

Thomas Merton described God as "Mercy within Mercy within Mercy." For a child, it's hard to know what to make of that way of thinking about God, but sooner or later in life, knowing what we have done and what we have failed to do, we have good reason to be amazed at God's mercy toward us. Whoever tries to center his or her life in God is drawn more and more deeply into a life of mercy.


6. "Blessed are the pure of heart."
What is a pure heart? A heart free of possessiveness, a heart able to mourn, a heart that thirsts for what is right, a heart that is merciful, a heart that doesn't look at people merely as bodies or labels or objects to be used.

We see a pure heart in any saintly person. Think of Seraphim of Sarov. Thousands of Russian pilgrims walked great distances for confession, advice, and a blessing from this old man with a bent back who addressed his visitors as "my joys" and wore white because it was the color associated with Easter. Seraphim was so free of fear that he was on good terms with a bear who lived nearby and on occasion even shared his bread with him, seeing the beast as a neighbor.

In fact, bears were less dangerous to him than people—Seraphim was nearly beaten to death by robbers who had heard there was a treasure hidden in his log cabin. Even so he refused to condemn them. The only "treasures" in his cabin were his icon of Mary, his Bible, and prayer books. He labored long and hard to free himself of all obstacles to God and finally had a heart so pure that it seems no one could come near him without becoming more pure in the joy of his welcome.


7. "Blessed are the peacemakers."
Only after ascending the first six rungs of the ladder of the Beatitudes can we talk about the Beatitude of the peacemaker—for only a person with a pure heart can help rebuild broken bridges and pull down walls to help us recover our lost unity. The maker of peace seeks nothing personally, not even attention or recognition.

Such a person is not serving peace because it is a good deed, but because he or she has been drawn deeply into God's love and as a consequence sees each person, even the most unpleasant or dangerous, as someone beloved of God, someone made in the image of God, even if the likeness is at present damaged or completely lost. Think of the teaching of Sergius of Radonezh, another Russian saint who got on well with bears: "Contemplation of the Holy Trinity destroys all discord."

How desperately we need peacemakers! We need them not only in places where wars are being fought or might be fought, but we need them in every home and within each parish. Even the best and most vital parishes often suffer from deep divisions. And who is the peacemaker who is needed? It is each of us.

Often it is harder to forgive and understand someone in our own parish than an abstract enemy we see mainly in propaganda images on television. Within the church we don't simply disagree with each other on many topics, but very often we despise those who hold opposing views. In the name of Christ, who commanded us to love one another, we engage in wars in which we don't even respect our opponents, let alone love them. But without mercy and forgiveness, without love, we are no longer in communion either with our neighbors or with Christ.

At the deepest level, the peacemaker is a person being used by God to help heal our relationship with God—for we get no closer to God than we get to our neighbor, and, as we know from the parable of the Good Samaritan, our neighbor doesn't just refer to the person next door of the same nationality but even more to the person we regard as "different" and a "threat."

One of the saints of the 20th century, Silouan of Mount Athos, who had nearly beaten a neighbor to death in his youth, taught that love of enemies is not simply an aspect of Christian life but is "the central criterion of true faith and of real communion with God, the lover of souls, the lover of humankind."


8. "Blessed are they who suffer persecution."
At last we approach the top of the ladder. This is the Beatitude we are most reluctant to know about, the blessing of the persecuted. Far from expecting the Nobel Peace Prize for faithful living, we are advised to expect the worst.

Sometimes we think persecution is safely in the distant past, way back in Roman times; or perhaps we remember the millions of Russians who died in Soviet times simply for their refusal to deny Christ. We may think persecution isn't a threat in a democratic country in which we can do and say what we like and build a church at every intersection.

But if you start noticing the image of God in the poor, if you begin to oppose those activities that cause suffering and bloodshed, no matter how meek and merciful you are, you may find that getting into hot water can happen here and now.

The odd thing is that Jesus assures us that getting into trouble for following him is something we should receive as a major blessing. "Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

Worse things could happen than to be in the good company of the prophets and, still more important, with Jesus the Savior. Jesus never harmed anyone but finally had to carry a cross—we know it to be the holy and life-giving cross, but it didn't look holy or life-giving at the time—to a place of execution and have nails hammered through his hands and feet for our sake. Yet it is on the cross that the Resurrection begins.—END


Jim Forest is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. He lives in Alkmaar, Holland. He is the author, most recently, of Praying with Icons (Orbis, 1997)

© 1997 by Claretian Publications

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