The Beatitudes as an examination of conscience
by Sr Tamsin Mary Geach
For an audio version of this talk click here
In Summa Theologiae q69 a3 corpus St Thomas sees the beatitudes as being, among other things, an instantiation of the progress of the Spiritual life: The purgative state – the process of turning away from sin and ceasing to pursue happiness in the wrong place - he sees as belonging to the first three beatitudes. The next two he regards as relating to the life of active virtue, while the final two he sees as relating to prayer. I will discuss this schema in more detail in the third talk. Meanwhile, I want to focus on the Beatitudes as being directed towards our conversion – as capable in general of being used as an examination of conscience, a tool of self-knowledge and a preparation for the sacrament of confession.
Sometimes a person who uses the sacraments regularly will feel that they are not going forward. One thing that may contribute to this feeling is the sense of ‘always confessing the same things.’ Of course this is natural – we remain much the same, and God allows us to be weak in certain ways so that we do not become proud. At the same time, a good book on the subject I read once made the sapient remark that ‘if your confession is general, the advice given by the priest will also be general. You may have an uncomfortable feeling that somehow you are not going forward, or that fixed patterns of behaviour remain stubbornly fixed and do not move however often you confess them. Sometimes it makes sense to revisit one’s ‘list’ of sins and reconsider what should be on it, and also perhaps to focus in on a particular thing. I remember once deciding towards the end of a confession that what I was seeing as a ‘smallish’ sin that floated into my mind was not worth confessing. I focussed on it in my next examination of conscience, and it unravelled a whole pattern of behaviours that was getting in the way of my spiritual life.
In the task of re-evaluation, a new examination of conscience is a great help. However an examination of conscience is a tool with a double edge, and it is important to recognise as we consider what follows that the purpose is to learn the deepest truth about oneself as a beloved child of God, so as to be healed and strengthened in love and service. It is not intended to cast us into a state of despair over our state, but as a means of conversion. Confession is the sacrament of liberation. We sometimes make the error of thinking that we have to be holy already in order to use this sacrament – but it is here in particular that the Church should be seen as a ‘field hospital’ for the wounded. A regular habit of confession, if seriously undertaken, will promote and strengthen us in those good qualities we long to have, and which so often evade our merely human efforts. So what I will now say is not intended to make you feel bad, but to encourage you in truer self-knowledge. Some of it will be obvious and standard, but you may hear something that had not occurred to you before, or be shown a way to see the truth about sin in a new light. Most of the thinking today comes from the great saints, St Thomas and St Augustine, and one of the functions of the saints is to help us to see and understand the light of grace.
‘Blessed are the poor in Spirit’: St Augustine in his commentary on the sermon on the Mount says ‘the poor in spirit are rightly understood here, as meaning the humble and God-fearing, i.e. those who have not the spirit which puffs up. Nor ought blessedness to begin at any other point whatever, if indeed it is to attain unto the highest wisdom; but the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;’ while St Thomas relates this Beatitude to the virtues of humility, reverence, fear of the Lord and piety. So we might ask ourselves in relation to this beatitude Do I give to God what belongs to Him in terms of love and reverence? Do I pray daily, and attend Mass on Sundays? Do I treat the name of God with reverence and respect? Do I work on Sundays? Have I taken communion in a non-Catholic Church? Am I proud? Do I relate truthfully to myself, to others and to God? Do I wallow in self-pity or self-aggrandisement? Do I boast? Do I go in for self-harm of any kind, either physical or mental?
Blessed are those who mourn: St Augustine says: Mourning is sorrow arising from the loss of things held dear; but those who are converted to God lose those things which they were accustomed to embrace as dear in this world: for they do not rejoice in those things in which they formerly rejoiced; and until the love of eternal things be in them, they are wounded by some measure of grief.’ (On the Sermon on the Mount, Ch.2 sec. 5) St Thomas relates this beatitude to the virtue of moderation. So we can ask ourselves: Do I cling onto unreal values, or go in for excessive attachment to physical pleasures? Do I eat or drink too much, or go in for excess in some other part of my life? Do I spend too much time on the internet, or watching television? Do I indulge my sexual appetites in ways that attack my own dignity or the dignity of others? Do I see others as objects rather than subjects? Do I allow my work to take over my life to the neglect of my other duties towards my family and friends and my own health?
Blessed are the meek: St. Augustine says ‘the meek are those who yield to acts of wickedness, and do not resist evil, but overcome evil with good,’ (On the Sermon on the Mount, Ch.2 sec. 4), while St Thomas relates this Beatitude to the virtues of fortitude and piety, or reverence. I have already talked about reverence towards God, but there are other focuses for reverence, under God. So in relation to this Beatitude we might ask ourselves: Do I show respect to others as being made in the image of God? Do I respect the right to life and strive to uphold that right in our society? Am I bold in proclaiming the truth, and when I do, do I also do this with gentleness and respect? Do I quarrel and fight for earthly and temporal things? Do I support and show reverence for my parents, even when they fail me? Do I obey the law, pay my taxes, and honour my debts as far as I am able?
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ These, St Augustine says (op.cit 2.7) are ‘lovers of a true and indestructible good[who] will therefore be filled with that food of which the Lord Himself says, ‘My meat is to do the will of my Father,’ which is righteousness’ St Thomas relates this and the following Beatitude to the virtues of the active life, which he says consists chiefly in our relations with our neighbour ‘either by way of duty or by way of spontaneous generosity’. The virtues he links to this Beatitude are justice and fortitude. So we may ask ourselves, do I act justly in relation to God, my neighbour and my family? Do I do my duty in work, honestly performing the tasks I am paid to do, not deliberately wasting time that I am paid for? Do I stand up for what is right? Do I speak the truth, avoid backbiting, and strive to promote all that is good, honourable and beautiful? Do I show love to those whom I owe it to, my family, my community, my neighbours? Do I respect marriage, and live so as to promote and cherish the bonds of family life?
Blessed are the merciful: Blessed that is are those who ‘relieve the miserable,’ according to Augustine. St Thomas interprets this beatitude interestingly as a sort of extension of justice, rather than a contradiction of it ‘With regard to spontaneous favours we are perfected—by a virtue, so that we give where reason dictates we should give, e.g. to our friends or others united to us; which pertains to the virtue of liberality—and by a gift, so that, through reverence for God, we consider only the needs of those on whom we bestow our gratuitous bounty.’ So we may ask ourselves: Am I merciful? Do I forgive, or do I exact revenge? Do I bear grudges? Do I apologise when I have done wrong, and do I accept apologies generously when they are given? Do I try to relieve misery and suffering in the world? When I do promote justice, do I ‘tie up heavy burdens’ for others without trying to help them? Do my words build up or tear down?
Blessed are the Peacemakers: According to St Augustine the peace that is chiefly intended here is of those who b ring their mind and reason into perfect subjection to God. ’ bringing in order all the motions of their soul, and subjecting them to reason…and by having their carnal lusts thoroughly subdued’ St Thomas says about this beatitude that ‘to make peace either in oneself or among others, shows a man to be a follower of God, Who is the God of unity and peace’ and relates this beatitude to the virtue of justice and the gift of wisdom. So we may ask ourselves: Do I seek first of all to be at peace in my soul, or do I allow bitterness, greed, pride and resentment to disturb my peace? Do I set God’s will above my own? Do I consider the claims of God in making decisions in my life? Do I seek to promote peace in my family or community, or in my place of work? Do I pray for peace in the world? Do I promote peace so far as this lies in my power?
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ Augustine says a propos of this beatitude ‘Let anyone who is seeking after the delights of this world and the riches of temporal things under the Christian name, consider that our blessedness is within; as it is said of the soul of the Church by the mouth of the prophet, All the beauty of the king's daughter is within for outwardly revilings, and persecutions, and disparagements are promised; and yet, from these things there is a great reward in heaven, which is felt in the heart of those who endure, those who can now say, We glory in tribulations: knowing that tribulation works patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope: and hope makes not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.’ Aquinas says of this beatitude that it is ‘is a confirmation of all the beatitudes,’ and that ‘ the kingdom of heaven is promised to the poor in spirit, as regards the glory of the soul; but to those who suffer persecution in their bodies, it is promised as regards the glory of the body.’
So do I seek the glory of this world and temporal riches rather than the kingdom of heaven? Does my lifestyle proclaim that I belong to Christ? Am I prepared to suffer the loss of reputation, advancement or promotion for Christian values? Do I uphold Christian values in my voting, my political decisions? If people at work, or my family, speak ill of Christ, or His Church, do I respond by upholding the truth? Do I accept calmly and meekly the disadvantages that come my way because of my faith, be it casual insult or outright discrimination? Do I stand up for the rights of those persecuted in a more open way? Do I stand up for the rights of or visit the refugees, looking out for my Christian brothers and sisters who suffer persecution even in the places they have fled to in order to escape persecution?
It is common in British circles to mock at something they call ‘Catholic guilt’; I don’t know if this disease has spread as far as Finland, but in case it has, I will conclude this talk by referring you to another section of St Thomas’ Summa altogether, where he explores the question whether penance is a virtue . He answers that after the general definition of repentance has been posited, that is ‘to deplore something one has done’ the word penance may be taken in two ways: firstly as ‘a passion of the sensitive appetite, and in this sense penance is not a virtue, but a passion.’ But secondly ‘it denotes an act of the will, and in this way it implies choice, and if this be right, it must, of necessity, be an act of virtue. For…virtue is a habit of choosing according to right reason. Now it belongs to right reason than one should grieve for a proper object of grief as one ought to grieve, and for an end for which one ought to grieve. And this is observed in the penance of which we are speaking now; since the penitent assumes a moderated grief for his past sins, with the intention of removing them. Hence it is evident that the penance of which we are speaking now is either a virtue or the act of a virtue.’ ST85 A1 corpus
That is to say, you are not supposed to wallow in grief over your past, but to appraise it sensibly, and to take the right action, which right now, is to determine to make a good confession at the earliest opportunity, presenting to your loving Lord the things you have done and left undone, that He may cast all your sins behind His back.