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Be Thou My Vision

by Sr Rose Rolling o.p.

These Beatitudes – of having and doing – are things related to the active life. In Christian spirituality, we walk on two feet: these are the active and contemplative dimensions of life. Both are ways in which we love God and love neighbour, and both exist in every Christian life. Learning how to balance on both feet is a matter for individual discernment: we may put one foot before the other in going in certain directions in life, and the possibility of one foot tripping up the other and leaving us more like one-legged flamingos than bipedal hominids is a risk which will always be present. 

So, we have seen some of the necessary ingredients of the active life – poverty of spirit, meekness, repentance, justice and mercy. These are part of the condition of acquiring happiness. But now we move into the second half of the Beatitudes, which is about happiness itself. The life of action – which we have heard from our last five Beatitudes – is what disposes us to the life of vision, the life of contemplation, which concerns the other half of the Beatitudes. The first Beatitude of the contemplative life uttered by Christ is: “blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God”, the topic of tonight’s discussion.

This has been dubbed the ‘beatitude about beatitude’ because it coincides with the Greatest Commandment given by Jesus, which says: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind (Matthew 22:37), and love your neighbour as yourself. Jesus tells us that this commandment summarises the whole of the Law and the Prophets. This Beatitude also summarises the whole aim of the spiritual life, which is to see God – what we variously call the Beatific Vision, or Heaven, or union with God.

I am going to break down the meaning of this Beatitude into three aspects so that we can explore it more deeply. These three aspects are:

·         Purity

·         The heart

·         The face of God.


First, I want to explore the meaning of the word purity, and I want to dispel what is often a common error amongst Christians about what purity is.

Personally, I think there has been an unhelpful reduction of the word purity in Christian circles to become almost exclusively attached to meaning sexual chastity. This is the result of a particular historical situation in America in the 1990s, when Evangelical Christians wanted to return to biblical-based sexual ethics. The understanding of purity in Christian circles became synonymous with sexual chastity and thus started the emergence of what became known as the ‘purity culture’.

The purity culture is no longer just an ‘Evangelical thing’ however. Since the Second Vatican Council’s openness to dialogue with other Christian churches, evangelical Christianity has had an influence on Catholicism. The Catholic Church has integrated Evangelical elements such as charismatic worship, evangelisation techniques and Bible study groups. The ‘purity culture’ has also been transported into the Church, accompanied and supported by Pope St John Paul II’s teaching on the Theology of the Body. There are now a plethora of young Catholic blogs and groups focused entirely on promoting Christian sexual ethics. There are a many good things that have come out of these movements, I am not undermining them. However, there are two important considerations to be aware of.

The first is that the purity culture can evoke feelings of shame, guilt or failure for those Christians who – for whatever reason – have or do struggle in area of sexuality. The lived experience of people in this situation deserves to be met with listening and empathy. The second is that while purity includes chastity – as we will see – it is not limited to it. The Christian understanding of purity has become bound up with sexual ethics, and the risk is that the purity culture keeps us focused on the body and on sex rather than on Christ.

The biblical meaning of purity is much more all-encompassing than the 1990s evangelical culture. In the Old Testament, the basic sense of the Hebrew word for purity is akin to emptying out or being clean. The verb appears about forty times in the Old Testament, most occurrences with an ethical, moral, or forensic sense. Purity stands against such conduct or attitudes as unfaithfulness to God's covenant ( Hosea 8:1 ), rebellion against God's law (v. 1), and idolatry (vv. 4-6, 11). Purity consists of "clean hands" ( Gen 20:5 ), innocence ( Psalm 26:6 ; 73:13 ), and an "empty stomach" ( Amos 4:6 )[1].

In the New Testament, there is little emphasis on ritual purity. Rather, the focus is on moral purity or purification, including chastity ( 2 Cor 11:2 ; Titus 2:5 ); innocence in one's attitude toward members of the church ( 2 Cor 7:11 ); and uprightness ( Php 4:8 ; 1 Tim 5:22 ; 1 Peter 3:2 ; 1 John 1:3 ). Purity is associated with understanding, patience and kindness ( 2 Cor 6:6 ); speech, life, love, and faith ( 1 Tim 4:12 ); and reverence ( 1 Peter 3:2 )[2].

So, this is the Scriptural understanding of purity. The rest of our Catholic Tradition expands on this biblical background.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that the "pure in heart" refers to those who have attuned their intellects and wills to the demands of God's holiness, chiefly in three areas, which we will explore one by one:

·         Charity: This means accepting other’s as our neighbours and not for what we can get from them (‘need-based love’), or because of our natural chemistry, or because of their human ‘loveliness’, but because they are unique and beloved sons and daughters of God in their own right.

·         Chastity: This lets us perceive the human body - ours and our neighbour's - as a temple of the Holy Spirit, a manifestation of divine beauty, a treasure to be honoured and reverenced. 

·         Truth: This gives us clarity to see beyond our myopic human vision, with its preferences and limited understanding, and to see with a God’s eye-perspective.

The virtue that helps us to foster pure hearts, hearts which are ordered towards charity, chastity and truth is primarily temperance. Temperance is one of the fruits of the Spirit, which manifests in us when the divine life of God’s love and presence is flowing through us.

What does temperance mean in these three areas?

·         Charity.

Temperance relates to charity by means of learning how to order and control our emotions. Returning to what I said earlier, purity in the New Testament is especially associated with understanding, patience, kindness ( 2 Cor 6:6 ) and reverence ( 1 Peter 3:2 )[3]. Tempering our negative or unruly passions purifies our heart and allows it to love more freely and deeply, to expand beyond erotic or familial love and become universal, sacrificial, God-like agape love.

The Dominican friar Gerald Vann says that “to be intemperate is to be a destroyer”, and the intemperate man does a threefold violence: to himself (since his nature is created to love; to our neighbour, because other creatures are worthy of love; and to God who is love and loves what He has created).

·         Chastity.

Temperance relates to chastity because it disciplines our bodily desires with the aim of loving ourselves or each other totally, wholly. Our bodily desires and earthly pleasures – whether for sex or food or anything else – can easily become selfish. The practise of temperance through ascetical disciplines such as silence, fasting and abstinence, and keeping sex within marriage is a way of expressing our desire for a wholehearted giving of self to God and other’s. Far from being a denial of the body, asceticism recognises that the body is an instrument of salvation. 

·         Love of truth and orthodoxy of faith.

The love of truth pertains to truth both externally (i.e., doctrinal truth – its opposite being heresy) and internally (i.e., the truth about myself – otherwise equated with humility). It has been argued by some theologians that the greatest sin against purity of heart is not unchastity, as is commonly thought, but hypocrisy, a pretence of truthfulness.

Temperance relates to the intellect because our appetite for knowledge can be so consuming it can lead us to excess, specifically to the vice called curiositas. There are six expressions of curiositas:

1.      Seeking knowledge of one aspect of reality while neglecting the wider picture.

2.      Pursuing unimportant knowledge rather than knowledge that will allow us to fulfil our obligations.

3.      Seeking knowledge about things we have no right to know or trying to gain knowledge by lawful means.

4.      Seeking knowledge in order to gain power over others.

5.      Seeking knowledge in order to take pride in our intelligence and show ourselves superior to others.

6.      Seeking knowledge of created things for their own sake without viewing them in relation to the source and centre of all things, which is God.

Knowledge is of itself good, and the desire to know is indeed a God-given quality. But due to our damaged intellects there are many roads by which our untempered desire for knowledge can lead us astray, and in pursuing knowledge wrongly we can paradoxically be left with a weaker understanding of things[4]. Purity of heart is not hyper-focus or specialisation but proper ordering. St Bernard of Clairvaux said that it is our lack of attentiveness of heart that leads to the vice of curiositas.

There is a connection between purity of heart, of body, and of faith, and of how we attain purity through the practise of temperance in our emotions, our bodies and our intellects. The three work together in a total self-giving to God.

Purity of heart, then, is more than just sexual or spiritual ‘cleanness’. It is more accurately encapsulated as single-mindedness, whole-heartedness, totality or unity towards God. In the Catholic monastic tradition, for example, the word ‘monk’ is derived from the Greek word ‘monos’ meaning ‘alone’. This indicates both the celibacy of the monk but also the whole monastic quest: wholehearted pursuit of God.

The Heart:

I now want to say something about ‘the heart’, and again to set straight what I think is often a misconception about what the heart means. This misconception comes from a modern understanding of the word rather than from Christianity.  

The modern understanding of the heart, it seems to me, is to confine it exclusively to the realm of emotion. For example, we identify states such as love or hate primarily as emotional experiences, or talk about the ‘conflict between the heart and the head’, where the former means feelings and the latter reason.

However, in Scripture the heart is the centre of the whole personality: emotions, appetites, intellect and interior being. The Catechism says that the heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation: it is the place of covenant[5].

Christ says that “out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19). And what is the origin of our evil intentions and subsequent evil actions?

 In the Letter of St James, we hear that “A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways” (James 1:8). In the Scriptures, we’re told double-mindedness causes instability. Double-mindedness means unreality or untruth, not necessarily in the sense of deceiving others but in the deeper sense of deceiving oneself.

So one who is two-hearted is in every sense a self-deceiver. The self-deceit causes insecurity and doubt, as we hedges our bets and gives ourself first to one thing and then the other, but never fully to either.

It means a person of un-faith, and volatile: the Letter of St James further says, “He who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6). He doubts because he knows himself to be disloyal and unreliable, and he projects that unreliability on God and others[6]. It is adultery of the heart – and sometimes, of the body too.


So notice how doubt, indecision, instability and multitasking, are all the opposite of a pure heart. How is it then that we end up with such inner division in our heart?


For those of you who attended our last series of Holy Preaching talks on the Eight Evil Thoughts, you may remember the Desert Father Evagrius of Pontus. The Evagrian tradition – along with others like St Bernard of Clairvaux – asserts that original sin was a consequence of negligence as much as of disobedience. The understanding of negligence is that there was a gap in man’s dwelling within himself – not in looking at himself, but in keeping his attention inwardly. Inward attentiveness is not navel-gazing, but raised by God to contemplation, which is gazing at Him. Evagrius affirmed that Original Sin happened because humanity experienced boredom with the Beatific Vision. It is this first error of negligence (which is basically a state of distraction) that ultimately led to their disobedience[7].

All of us are probably aware of the first negative commandment that God gave Adam and Eve: not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But perhaps we are unaware of the first positive precept. The Lord God places man and woman in the garden to till it and cultivate it. To till and cultivate was a commandment, according to St Bernard of Clairvaux. There was a purpose for which God placed humanity in the garden – it was not just to prance around. There was work to be done, and the work was to take care of the garden. For St Bernard, this pre-fall commandment is of decisive importance. The garden is our own heart, and our fundamental task is to care for it. All our senses should be turned inward, mounting guard over our heart[8]. The Book of Proverbs says, “Keep watch over your own heart; for it is from there that life proceeds”. And so man’s first disobedience was in their failure to till the garden and to cultivate it – the garden of the heart.

The monastic tradition has long advocated “custody of the heart” or ‘nepsis’ (meaning watchfulness) in Orthodox theology as the spiritual discipline necessary to obtain purity of heart. It basically means vigilance – taking care of what we read, watch, and say as these things form our inner soil; noticing our dark desires and thoughts and sharing these with a trusted companion or confessor so that weeds do not take root and choke out goodness. Custody of the heart keep us like the wise virgins in Matthew’s Gospel – ready, watchful and faithful.

Interior and Exterior: 

So I have just told you about the Desert Father’s focus on the important of inwardness. But I don’t just want to leave you in your inward state. We have already seen how the heart is the seat of the whole personality. And so I want to address what I think is another common misconception about the heart.

The physical ‘heart’ is obviously an internal organ. In the spiritual life, however, it is a misconception is to associate the ‘heart’ entirely with inwardness/interiority. The ‘heart’ is a symbol of totality rather than interiority. Totality means that our outward behaviour also matters and is also part of our heart.

In the Catholic religion, faith and works are inseparable. The Letter of St James (2:14-26) tell us forthrightly that faith without works is dead. This is why for us, as opposed to other Christian denominations, we believe that salvation and sanctification is a process not a one-time event.

In contrast, the Reformation initiated a rupture with the Christian tradition, and came to define Christianity as a matter of ‘faith alone’, and faith understood as an inner, individual conviction. The risk is that it leads us to reducing the heart to a secret place (which is partially true), to good intentions and private conscience. But just as St Paul counsels Christian not to use freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, (Galatians 5:13), so invoking ‘the heart’ must not become an excuse for acting on mere private impulse.

What we see is that the modern conception of religion – in both many mainline Protestant churches and in secular society – is therefore associated with an inward state, with faith rather than action, with feeling rather than reason, with the spiritual rather than material or concrete[9]. This is what forms part of the culture of ‘spiritual but not religious’ people. This is why commitments and beliefs can change if a person no longer ‘feels it’. It is the condition of the instability St James warned us about in the double-minded man.

It is true that ‘God asks for the heart’ – we hear that a lot – but the heart is a symbol for everything. The heart is our total commitment – we give God our faith, action, feelings, reason, soul, body, spirit and material goods. This is important, again because today there is a tendency to compartmentalise or split off parts of ourselves and of our life.

The Catholic tradition of faith and works actually keeps continuity with Judaism, the faith of our ancestors. Judaism was not – and was never intended to be – simply an externally observant, legalistic, ethical system. No, Judaism was always meant to hold halacha (law and observances) with agada (religious experience, intention and storytelling). If that were not the case, it would be hard to understand Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees, who had focused on the former at the expense of the latter. Jesus came to restore the split off parts of true religion – and of ourselves – and intensify the two aspects of the spiritual life that make up wholehearted worship of God.

While I think it is true that human beings do have parts of themselves, the point for us as Catholics is that in a healthy human being, these parts all belong to a unified whole called the ‘Self’. It is important that we are in the process of integration and transformation in Christ. So purity of heart includes my external religious observances and my moral actions, as well as my faith and intentions. It means that Catholics really are required to physically attend Mass every Sunday if they are able to, and that they are to attend Mass with as much faith and devotion as they can muster. And that is the lifelong battle, the fruits and the promise of purity of heart.

The Face of God:

Finally, we come to the fulfilment of a pure heart, which is the promise of seeing God. To see God means to experience His immediate, direct presence. This promise is fully and ultimately fulfilled at the Beatific Vision (or Heaven), which means “the sight that makes happy”. Although God can engage all our five senses, it is vision that is the predominant sense metaphor used to describe an encounter with God in Scripture, because of its ability to unify the subject and object of sight.

While it is true that “now we see in a mirror, dimly”, and we “know only in part” (1 Corinthians 13:12), we can have a foretaste of the vision of God now on earth. Seeing God is used as a metaphor for insight (gnosis), contemplation, and knowledge of God that is mystical or spiritual. One of the glorious things about this beatitude is that Christ was fulfilling it in the presence of those he preached to in that moment, for the crowd had already seen the image of the invisible God made visible through his face.

This is important because another common misconception is that intimacy or union with God is only possible in Heaven. Rather, spiritual writers such as St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross indicate that union with God is possible (although not inevitable) in this life through spiritual growth, and that there is life after union which is seen in bearing spiritual fruit.

The saints are the pre-eminent examples teaching us how to continuously seek God’s face. Only last month (15th October 2023) the Pope published an Apostolic Exhortation dedicated to St Therese of Lisieux of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. The Pope writes that “her genius consists in leading us to what is central, essential and indispensable”, which is nothing other than to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind”. The Pope has drawn our attention especially to St Therse – a woman of totality – precisely to remind us of the task and blessing of a pure heart.