The Beatitudes: A programme for action
by Sr Tamsin Mary Geach o.p.
For audio version click here. Quite a lot of extra material!
So far we have seen the Beatitudes as a description of how Christ Himself lived on earth, and we have used them as an examination of conscience. But both of these entail something further, the invitation to the imitatio Christi. The Beatitudes ‘express the vocation of the faithful associated with the glory of his Passion and Resurrection; they shed light on the actions and attitudes characteristic of the Christian life; they are the paradoxical promises that sustain hope in the midst of tribulations’ CCC 1717 ‘
‘The beatitude we are promised confronts us with decisive moral choices. It invites us to purify our hearts of bad instincts and to seek the love of God above all else. It teaches us that true happiness is not found in riches or well-being, in human fame or power, or in any human achievement - however beneficial it may be - such as science, technology, and art, or indeed in any creature, but in God alone, the source of every good and of all love’ (CCC1723)
And here I am going to move slightly outside the framework of the Beatitudes, although the commentary of St Thomas upon them does point to the theme I shall pursue:
St Thomas sees in the Beatitudes the invitation to the threefold life of grace, dividing them in perhaps too rigid a framework into those that relate to the purgative state, those that relate to the active, and those that relate to the illuminative state. He is however pointing to a three-fold growth in ones spiritual life that does ring true: We can do nothing until we turn from sin; then we seek to serve God through action, and finally we are invited into a deeper and deeper relationship with Him.
This ‘threeness’ is part of a pattern set for our lives in many and various ways throughout the scripture: At the beginning of Lent we are presented with Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, in which Our Lord re-capitulated and overcame both the primaeval temptations of Adam and Eve, and the temptations faced by the people of Israel in the wilderness. As St Gregory says. ‘The old enemy tempted the first man through his belly, when he persuaded him to eat of the forbidden fruit; through ambition when he said, You shall be as gods; through covetousness when he said, Knowing good and evil; for there is a covetousness not only of money, but of greatness, when a high estate above our measure is sought.’ In the desert the whole nation of Israel is tempted and overcome in the same manner – they crave the fleshpots of Egypt, they turn to false gods, and they mistrust the God Who has saved them. However ‘By the same method in which he had overcome the first Adam, in that same was he overcome when he tempted the second Adam. He tempted through the belly when he said, Command that these stones become loaves; through ambition when he said, If you are the Son of God, cast yourself down from here; through covetousness of lofty condition in the words, All these things will I give you’
This three-fold temptation of the Lord continues throughout His earthly life, and has been resisted by Him even as a tiny infant – He Who could have had every luxury, been born in a palace, been worshipped as the True Messiah instead is born in absolute poverty, in a stable, as one soon to be driven into exile in a foreign land. In His public ministry the temptations come again and again – He hungers and thirsts, though He is able to make food out of nothing; the people wish to make Him King, and He evades them; the demons proclaim Him as the Holy One of God, and He silences them.
Again in the Garden of Gethsemane the theme is revisited: Christ is in an agony, such that He sweats blood and, and prays that the Cup of suffering pass Him by. He is abandoned and betrayed by His friends who should be with Him to strengthen and defend Him, and He is arrested by soldiers when He could summon legions of Angels to destroy them. Theophyllus comments that the devil ‘having tempted Him in the desert with pleasure… retires from Him until the crucifixion, when he was about to tempt Him with sorrow.’
Augustine comments on the three-fold prayer in Gethsemane that there is a relationship with the temptation of Adam and Eve and the trials Our Lord is about to face: ‘To the temptation of curiosity is opposed the fear of death; for as the one is a yearning for the knowledge of things, so the other is the fear of losing such knowledge. To the desire of honour or applause is opposed the dread of disgrace and insult. To the desire of pleasure is opposed the fear of pain.’
Jesus goes through three trials – The Jewish authorities condemn Him for blasphemy and Pilate on the ground of expediency and political advantage, Herod as a rival king. Each legal entity inflicts their particular form of torture and humiliation upon Him – The roughing up by the Jewish soldiers, the mockery of His Kingship, and the judicial beating. As Augustine has it: ‘That they did spit in his face, signifies those who reject His proffered grace. They likewise buffet Him who prefer their own honour to Him; and they smite Him on the face, who, blinded with unbelief, affirm that He is not yet come, disowning and rejecting His person.’
There is a three-fold denial by Peter, which corresponds to these levels of temptation – the seeking of the fire leading to the first denial; the second denial when confronted; the third with an oath are brought to a swift end by the crowing of the cock – upon which Pseudo-Jerome comments ‘Who is the cock, the harbinger of day, but the Holy Ghost? by whose voice in prophecy, and in the Apostles, we are roused from our threefold denial, to most bitter tears after our fall, for we have thought evil of God, spoken evil of our neighbours, and done evil to ourselves.’
This three-fold patterning continues in the Passion: Our Lord on the Way is forced to carry the means of His own death, driven to such weakness that the soldiers get Him the unwilling assistance of a passer-by, and stripped of His garments.
On the Cross again the pattern repeats – He is offered wine mixed with myrrh, which modern commentators think was a kind of pain-killer, so He was rejecting any kind of physical comfort; the passers-by promise belief if He will only come down from the Cross, and He reaches the point of desolation which wrings from Him the cry ‘My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?’
In death he is given the sketchiest sort of preparation for the tomb; The tomb itself is a favour granted by the political leader who condemned Him and the religious leaders who refused to acknowledge Him publicly; and yet His power is still feared, and the tomb is under guard, in the wise foolishness and courageous cowardice of those who set a lock on a tomb and a guard over a man dead.
What does this mean for us? It means that the temptations that assail us on a daily basis, to pleasure at the expense of our own dignity or that of others, to controlling others, and to pride in all its many-facetted manifestations, are part of the process that nailed Our Lord to the Cross – but they are also thereby healed and forgiven, things which need no longer tie us down. If we fear the pain of denying our desires, of humiliation, of loss of control, we should know He has been there before us, and is with us to hold and sustain us in our weakest and lowest moments. And if at the end of Lent we feel we have failed, that as vines we have produced only bitterness, we should remember that though He refused the wine and the myrrh, Our Lord accepted the vinegar. And He lay during three days in the tomb, and on the third day He rose again.
So let us pursue this three-fold patterning in our lives, taking the beatitudes as the model for our lives. It is a single thing, the turning form sin and seizing the life of grace, or rather being seized by it, aimed at the glory towards which our life of prayer points us.
The Beatitudes, as well as being a self-portrait of Our Lord are a programme for action. They are positive in tendency, though rather strikingly counter-intuitive. Sad, humble, justice-seeking, meek people do not generally head the world’s lists of ‘happy’, and Christian peacemaking and mercy sometimes baffles the onlookers. Nonetheless we are bidden to these things, a way of life that is strange and counter-cultural, but offering the most astonishing rewards both in this life and in the life to come, while in St Luke we have the health warning of a corresponding set of woes which will pursue the rich, the satisfied, those who laugh, those who are well-spoken of.
St Thomas sees the Beatitudes as a set of ‘habituses’ – fixed patterns of behaviour that emerge in action. There s a sort of circularity in acquiring any habit – you become more attuned to the action by acting. A nice analogy I saw was of a needle scratching a mark on wood. The first mark is insecure, but after a few strokes there is a fixed groove for the needle to continue to deepen. So it is with human behaviour. A single act of clothing a naked person does not make you merciful. It is when you no longer know how many poor people you have fed, or how many children you have instructed in their faith that you have a ‘habitus. ’Now the ‘habituses’ of the Beatitudes are graced actions, but what types of behaviour are as it were in tune with them? Well as Catholics we are given lists, based in scripture, of the types of action that might count:
The corporal works of mercy
• To feed the hungry;
• To give drink to the thirsty;
• To clothe the naked;
• To harbour the harbourless;
• To visit the sick;
• To ransom the captive;
• To bury the dead.
And the spiritual:
• To instruct the ignorant;
• To counsel the doubtful;
• To admonish sinners;
• To bear wrongs patiently;
• To forgive offences willingly;
• To comfort the afflicted;
• To pray for the living and the dead.
I like doing line-ups of such lists to see what corresponds with what, but there are too many possibilities here. But these are the outward actions that will show us as being the type of people who live the Beatitudes.
The corporal and spiritual works of mercy must form the back-drop of our striving to live the Christian life, the sine qua non, the activities that form us as practitioners, livers of the Beatitudes. In this way we will acquire the habituses, through grace, and merit the rewards Our Lord has promised. Not to acquire these habituses in some way is to court disaster, in this life and in the world to come
So let us be poor in spirit, and in our actions put the demands of God and the needs of our neighbours before our own, the two-fold movement turning us away from self-obsession and towards true charity towards our neighbour. Let us mourn for our own sins and for the injustice in the world, but in an effective way that emerges in action and prayer; let us be meek, and not pursue our personal rights to the detriment of others; yet let us hunger and thirst for justice, seeking always to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth. Let us show mercy as we would have it shown to ourselves, placing the need of the individual rather than his or her just deserts at the centre of our actions towards them. Let us be pure of heart, and in a culture that pursues power and money and bodily pleasure choosing rather to uphold the values of the kingdom, using well the good things of God, but not being ruled or dominated by them. Let us be peacemakers, seeking in our relations with our families or communities, with the people we work with and in the wider society to seek and promote peace, as well as within the political sphere so far as we are able. If we do all this, we must expect in some way to be persecuted for the sake of righteousness, and when this happens we must remember to ‘rejoice and be glad’ that we have some share in the sufferings of Christ.
This last is the universal experience of any attempt to follow Christ, either at a microscopic level that we ourselves alone see and experience – the wounding remark about our attempts at virtue, or simply the suffering of not retaliating in kind when people mistreat us, as they will, or at a macroscopic level, like the Christians whose blood stained the waters of the sea and formed a cross therein in Libya on 10th February 2015. Their faithful witness had been such that there was included among their number Matthew Ayairga, who though a non-Christian, when asked if he denied Jesus, said “Their God is my God,” and for this he died with them a martyrs death.