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Blessed are the pure in heart

 

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

μακάριοι οἱ καθαροὶ τῇ καρδίᾳ, ὅτι αὐτοὶ τὸν θεὸν ὄψονται.

With this beatitude we are at the absolute summit. This is the holy of holies of the holy of holies!

I looked at close to 50 translations. The majority say “pure in heart.” Jesus did not say “pure in thoughts” as some modern translations do. The Phillips translation says, “Happy are the utterly sincere, for they will see God!” Terrible!

But καθαροὶ also means clean. So, Young’s Translation: “Happy the clean in heart — because they shall see God.” The Worldwide English New Testament says: “God makes happy those who have clean hearts. They will see God.” Not bad.

And then there is The Message, a unique paraphrase, not a translation, put out by Eugene Peterson: “You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.”

Obviously Peterson puts in a lot of extra words there that are not in the original Greek – but he comes close to how St. Gregory of Nyssa interpreted this verse! Gregory got dizzy thinking about this verse and could not see how any human could actually see God! So Gregory resorts to the idea that we can not see God in his essence – in his inner, unapproachable being – but we can see/experience God through his energies. But he doesn’t stop there.

Have you ever wondered about all these cooking shows that are so popular among TV viewers today? How many of these millions of viewers actually end up cooking? You’d never know from all the crowds at fast-food places! Gregory says something similar: It is not blessed to know something about God, but to have God present within you. That is why Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” And then Gregory hits the jackpot: If a person’s heart has been purified of every unruly movement, that person will see the Image of the Divine Nature in his/her own beauty. Tremendous insight!

Do you understand what Gregory of Nyssa is saying? If your heart is pure/clean, you will see God’s presence in your own beauty. Gregory is saying that you are beautiful. God has printed his own likeness, his own glory in you. God carved you and he is the model for what he carved in you! Is your heart not clean? Has the divine image been covered by all sorts of clutter? You can be clean, just like you can burnish a precious piece of silver so it shines again in all its brilliance. How do you become pure in heart? Gregory gives the only answer a Christian can give: through the whole teaching of the Gospel. The Gospel of Jesus Christ has everything you need to become pure in heart and thus to see God.

St. Augustine wrote something magnificent which has nothing to do with the Beatitudes but which I find particularly relevant. In the 11th book of his Confessions he writes (in the Henry Chadwick scholarly translation):

81rRdfu8C1LMy life is a distension (a Latin word meaning distraction and implying being scattered) in several directions. ‘Your right hand upheld me’ (Ps. 17:36; 62:9) in my Lord, the Son of man who is mediator between you the One and us the many, who live in a multiplicity of distractions by many things; so ‘I might apprehend him in whom also I am apprehended’ (Phil. 3:12– 14), and leaving behind the old days I might be gathered to follow the One, ‘forgetting the past’ and moving not towards those future things which are transitory but to ‘the things which are before’ me, not stretched out in distraction but extended in reach, not by being pulled apart but by concentration. So I ‘pursue the prize of the high calling’ where I ‘may hear the voice of praise’ and ‘contemplate your delight’ (Ps. 25:7; 26:4) which neither comes nor goes. But now ‘my years pass in groans’ (Ps. 30:11) and you, Lord, are my consolation. You are my eternal Father, but I am scattered in times whose order I do not understand. The storms of incoherent events tear to pieces my thoughts, the inmost entrails of my soul, until that day when, purified and molten by the fire of your love, I flow together to merge into you.

I have highlighted the most pertinent parts: These are the words of a man whose life is scattered all over the place like your life and mine are also scattered all over the place. Perhaps nothing stands against purity of heart more than the clutter and distractions of our everyday lives. Augustine does not lose hope. Though his soul is torn in so many directions until the day he dies, he looks to that day when all the clutter and dirt will be purified and melted by the fire of God’s love and he, Augustine, will become one with God. That’s the promise of the Sixth Beatitude. The promise is for you and for me. Never lose hope if you don’t see the beauty of God’s image in you. It will come. somehow, somewhen.


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“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”

 

sgp05In his commentary, Gregory of Nysa – whose feast is today, January 10th –  skipped the second beatitude in order to ask a question about the third beatitude: Is it a step down from the first beatitude? From kingdom of heaven down to earth?

But didn’t the Word come down to this earth, to meet our lowliness? Didn’t he call himself “meek”? And what is this earth that the meek inherit? Is it the polluted earth that we are destroying in our lack of meekness? No, Gregory says, it is “the land which is not cut open with the plough of evil, which does not produce thistles and thorns, but is the land of the water of refreshment and the green places, where springs up the fourfold fountain and the vine that is tended by the God of all creation… the land that is fruitful in good things, where the tree of life waves its leaves, which is watered by the fountains of spiritual graces. It is the land where sprouts the true vine”…in other words, Christ himself, who is the true vine. It sounds rather like the kingdom of heaven, doesn’t it?

So the earth that Gregory envisions is the redeemed earth, the transfigured earth, the earth of the new creation where Christ himself will rule and we with him in perfect stewardship of the land. Does it sound like mythology? Perhaps, but Gregory goes one step further, and this is not mythology! He says, quite correctly, that every human being is able to move his/her free will in two directions. Our human nature is quick to turn toward evil and destructive behavior. The opposite is to act slowly and calmly, and steadied by reason. Unlike other Fathers of the Church, he does not say we should strive to kill our desires and inclinations (what they called the “passions”) – but rather that we exercise moderation, and that we take things slowly and think through our choices. This is meekness, in Gregory’s thought.

The elimination of desires and passions is against nature, Gregory asserted! But moderation and meekness are not against nature – they are very definitely within the powers of human nature. Gregory was remarkably optimistic about what is within our reach.

We also need to be optimistic. If we are to be poor in spirit and meek, we need to be positive/optimistic about our lives and the life of the world. Only the meed will inherit the earth. I prefer to say: MEEKNESS WILL INHERIT THE EARTH!! Only meekness will make the earth something that we can inherit with Christ. Only gentleness will save us from destruction. When we meet anger with anger, violence and hatred with violence and hatred, we are not meek and there will be no earth to inherit. When we don’t walk softly and meekly on the planet, we are on the fast track to environmental collapse – and there will be no earth to inherit.

While Gregory sees the earth that the meek will inherit as essentially the same as the kingdom of heaven, I prefer to see this beatitude as a challenge to us to live and act in a manner that will make the earth something worth inheriting. The Liturgy is our Eucharist – our thanksgiving for the gift of life, the gift of the earth, the gift of fellowship with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. The Liturgy teaches us to be thankful. Only an attitude of thankfulness can lead to meekness. Only when the earth itself becomes our Eucharist, that we receive from God and offer back to God, can the third beatitude become reality.

The meek WILL inherit the earth, if there is an earth to inherit. That’s why I prefer to say, MEEKNESS WILL INHERIT THE EARTH!! Indeed, meekness and gentleness will SAVE the earth. Let’s walk gently on this our precious planet. And it will be ours to inherit in glory and transfiguration.


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“Blessed are the poor in spirit”

 

There is no other way to be raised up to God but by constantly looking upwards and having an unceasing desire for sublime things, so as not to be content to stay with what has already been achieved, but to regard it as loss if one fails to attain what lies above.

ουκ έστιν άλλως προς τον θεόν υψωθήναι μή αεί προς τα άνω βλέποντα και την των υψηλών επιθυμίαν άληκτον έχοντα, ως μή αγαπάν επί των ήδη κατορθωθέντων μένειν αλλά ζημίαν ποιείσθαι ει του υπερκειμένου μή άψαιτο. St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Beatitudes.

Ascent to God is the teaching of this great Father of the Church. So he takes his cue from the fact that Jesus spoke the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1), and he invites us also to ascend and receive from the Word messages of goodness and hope.

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Beatitudes – μακαρισμοί: μακάριοι… οι πτωχοί τω πνεύματι… (Matthew 5:3, etc.) Beatitude is possession of all things that are good. The person who is called μακάριος is one who totally enjoys what he has and what is set before him/her. This is a happy person.

God exists in beatitude/bliss. Human beings are in image and likeness of God, so beatitude, blessedness, happiness, are also what God intends for us when we join ourselves to God’s will. Some of the Beatitudes sound difficult: poor in spirit; pure in heart. Some don’t sound too happy: those who mourn. And yet, every single Beatitude says something about the human condition that goes counter to common perceptions and society’s values.

The Beatitudes are the core of Jesus’ teaching, and that is why the Orthodox Liturgy uses the Beatitudes as the third antiphon in the Liturgy, before the priest enters with the Gospel book. The Beatitudes announce the Gospel, they prepare us for the entry of the Gospel into our hearts and minds. If we can immerse ourselves into the mind of Christ that we see in the Beatitudes, everything else falls into place. The Word of God speaks to us – the incarnate Word of God.

Happy are the poor in spirit. Luke has: Blessed/Happy are you poor. Matthew’s version is more meaningful. A poor person has a hard time feeling happy or blessed, because material poverty is not something people choose for themselves. But poverty of spirit is something that is voluntary, something that is chosen. And when you choose something, you are happy about it.

So Jesus can say, Happy are the poor in spirit – those who have chosen to be poor in spirit. Humility is one way to understand poverty of spirit. But humility is so limited. And Christians talk about humility too much and never practice it. Poverty of spirit goes deeper.

Poor in spirit means you shake off pretenses of self-sufficiency. To the church in Laodicea, Jesus wrote: “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17). But to the church in Smyrna he wrote: “I know your tribulation and your poverty – but you are rich” (Revelation 2:9). God’s measure of wealth and poverty is different from human measure.

The goal of Christian life is to become like God. The apostle Paul summarizes the purpose of Christ’s coming in terms of poverty: For us he became poor that we through his poverty might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).

The Son of God laid aside the weight of divine glory in order to teach us to lay aside all those things that drag us down and keep us from ascending. The Lord became poor so we will not be afraid of spiritual poverty. He became poor though he reigns over all creation. So if we become poor with him, we will also reign with him: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven!