The Beatitudes as a pattern for prayer
By Sr Tamsin Mary Geach o.p.
Youtube version here: Some extra material.
On Monday of last week I was travelling to London and I was handed a free magazine. Normally I don’t open these things but this time I did. It was a very worthy magazine, mostly about how to improve - how to eat the best food, drink the best drink, exercise and so on. I was struck by something that had been bothering me in various explorations of the non-theist aspects of the internet. There are many pundits who give advice to the young, and it follows more or less this pattern: If you organize your life and eat well and exercise a lot, if you establish what you really want, and pursue your goals single-mindedly, or even ruthlessly, you will be healthy and wealthy and wise. Occasionally they mention love or relationships as well.
What they seldom mention is God, and when they do it is often as a part of this general package, so that God is seen as a human construct, as a means to happiness. So there is a modern version of the Beatitudes: Happy are you when you are rich, healthy, fulfilled, confident, ambitious, strong. The problem with all of this is that very often these pundits seem to mistake a second order level of behavior with the first principle of our lives. They are correct in their assumption that everyone seeks happiness, but we are all incorrect insofar as we set happiness on these exterior goals, either of the material or the active life as the fulfillment of that goal.
Rather our happiness lies in God. Augustine in the Confessions says ‘Since in seeking you, my God, I seek a happy life, let me seek you so that my soul may live, for my body draws life from my soul, and my soul draws life from You.(Confessions 10.20) It is only in seeking God as our ultimate end that we shall achieve the goal of true happiness. Beatitude in this sense is not about our relating to God as a source of happiness. Rather He is the end to which we are all called. This message is reiterated throughout the Beatitudes in the rewards we are offered in them.: we are to inherit the earth, have mercy sown us, have our thirst for justice satisfied, but more, we are to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven; we are to ‘see God’, be called ‘Sons of God’ (even the women!), enter into the joy of the Lord (Mt. 25.21) and into His rest (Heb. 4.9) We are to become ‘partakers of the Divine nature (2.Pet. 1.4), sharing through Christ in the Spirit the life of the Holy Trinity. We shall ‘see God.’ And seeking all of this should be part of our lives even here on earth: in the hierarchy of values, or in the ordering of our days or in the decisions about priorities, this last end should colour and order all our actions. This is achieved through prudence, according to which, as an internet friend of mine says, we act in this order: ‘Pray. Discern. Decide. Act. Rethink. Repeat.’
So how should we pray? There is a fourfold dimension to prayer according to the mnemonic ‘PACT’: Petition, Adoration, Contrition, Thanksgiving.’ This is a good model, but all prayer comes with a health warning. It is ‘results based’ not feelings based. And the results we should be looking for are whether there is an increase in faith, hope and love. If not, no amount of good feelings will make the prayer ‘real.’
The pattern for prayer set before us by Our Lord is the ‘Our Father,’ and most Christians I suspect say this prayer many times a day, at Mass, in the Divine Office, or in private devotions such as the Rosary. St Augustine writes: Everything that pertains to prayer is embrace in the Lord’s Prayer (Handbook on Faith, Hope and Love ch. 114) and ‘whatever else we say when we pray, if we pray as we should, we are only saying what is contained in the Lord’s Prayer.' (Epist. 121.12)
So, how can we, or should we, use the Beatitudes in prayer, and if we pray the Beatitudes, how do they relate to the ‘Our Father’? What follows is a suggestion of how to pray, and how to pray the Lord’s prayer in relation to the Beatitudes.
When the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, He suggested three contexts for prayer: ‘When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’ (Mt. 6.6) ‘I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my father in heaven, for where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them. ‘ (Mt 18.19-20) and ‘If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Mt.5.23 ff.) The three contexts for prayer then are in private, in a small group, and in public liturgy. What prayer is not - and here there is a massive health warning from Our Lord – is a spectator sport. You may pray on street corners, no doubt, but you must not go to street corners to pray.
So we pray the Our Father – in private, in common and in public liturgy. What does it mean? What can it mean? And can we move beyond the lip-service of automatic recitation to something deeper?
So we say ‘Our Father.’ Jesus here invites us to the divine filiation, the divine Sonship. He has called into His brotherhood the peoples of the nations; and the Only Son has 'numberless brethren' (Augustine Sermon 7 on the New Testament). The One Who called God ‘Abba’ invites us to do likewise. In the Beatitudes the ‘peacemakers’ are to be called Sons of God, and inthis Beatitude we come closest in likeness to the Son, Who was in the beginning with God, but has become our reconciliation and our peace.
‘Who art in Heaven.’ Already in Christ, God, Who is in Heaven, is our Father, in that Kingdom of Heaven which is the reward in two of the Beatitudes, of the poor in Spirit, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. We should understand that this Sonship in Christ answers the deepest poverty, the sharpest longings of our hearts. Augustine says about this ‘Of such a Father, what shall we ask?’ He replies that we pray for rain. An answer my parents were given in preparation for being received into the Church was: ‘anything it is alright to want.’ Augustine goes on to say ‘How much [we ought] to cry to Him, that we may come to that place where we shall never die!'(op.cit)
‘Hallowed be Thy Name’: God’s name is always Holy. In a certain sense, Jesus Himself is the ‘Name’ which is above every name, at which every knee in heaven and on earth an under the earth shall bow. When we say ‘Hallowed be thy name’ we are reminding ourselves ‘to desire that His name, which in fact is always holy, should be considered holy among men.' (Augustine Letter to Proba) On earth we ‘mourn’ and are’ persecuted in the cause of righteousness’, but in the hallowing of the Name, we shall be comforted, we shall inherit the Kingdom.
‘Thy Kingdom come’ Jesus Himself is the King of that Kingdom we wish to inherit, which ‘will surely come whether we will it or not. But we are stirring up our desires for the Kingdom so that it can come to us, and we can deserve to reign there.’ (op. cit). In that Kingdom the poor in Spirit and those who are persecuted for the cause of righteousness shall be the inheritors, so we should be praying here for humility and a willingness to suffer for the Name.
‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ Here according to Augustine we are asking God ‘to make us obedient so that His will may be done in us as it is done in heaven by His angels’ (op cit). This part of the prayer should be very dear to us as it is one of those which Our Lord prays on His own behalf as He suffers in the Garden of Gethsemane. We should strive to have a soul-thirst in us for righteousness, for that purity of heart which the Beatitudes enjoin upon us. We are promised that this soul thirst will be satisfied, that purity of heart will ensue in the very vision of God.
‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ Augustine interprets this in a two-fold way as referring either to the things we generally need or ‘the sacrament of the faithful, which is necessary in this world, not to gain temporal happiness but to gain the happiness that is everlasting.’ We need to relate to God as a merciful Father, to be ‘the merciful’ and show mercy in both material and in spiritual things so that we may expect mercy of our loving Father. Christ is that Bread which we pray for and is in Himself the fountainhead of the mercy that we show through His grace.
‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ Here according to Augustine we ‘are reminding ourselves of what we must ask and what we must do in order to be worthy in turn to receive.’ Christ Himself shows us the example we must follow, when on the Cross He prays the Father: ’Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’ This forgiveness and reconciliation is fundamental to the law of prayer. In each of the places where Jesus speaks of prayer He also speaks of reconciliation. Here the ‘peacemakers,’ the ‘meek’ come into their inheritance and are called ‘Sons of God.’ So pray this with sincerity, and if there is some unresolved conflict in your life, make a private act of sorrow and repentance each time you say this prayer. This is life-changing.
‘Lead us not into temptation.’ Lately Pope Francis said about this part of the Our Father that no-one is tempted by God. The original Greek reads: μη εισενεγκης ημας εις πειρασμον which does seem literally translated to mean ‘Do not carry us into temptation/testing’ However no text of scripture can be interpreted alone, and if we search further we find this written by St James ‘When tempted no-one should say “God is tempting me” for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone (James 1.13) Augustine, often austere on the subject of predestination also interprets this in such a way as to clear God of guilt: ‘When we say “Lead us not into temptation”, we are reminding ourselves to ask that His help may not depart from us; otherwise we could be seduced and consent to some temptation, or despair and yield to it.’ I think the general trend of this is something like this: the way the prayer appears in Greek and in Latin does remind us that everything comes about through God’s will either creative or permissive, but the constant tradition of the Church in interpreting this, from St. James on, sees the responsibility of sin lying within ourselves. At the same time there are temptations, and we should pray not to be put to the test. We may hope that we would be steadfast if we were ‘persecuted for the sake of righteousness’ but in fact we now of ourselves that we are weak and easily swayed. We should rather ‘mourn’ for our weakness, remembering the mourning that Christ went through both in the desert and in the Garden of Gethsemane, and be comforted by understanding that whatever temptation has come our way, He has conquered it by going ahead and suffering, being tempted in every way that we are but without sinning: it is He Who pre-eminently has been ‘persecuted for the sake of righteousness’ and has thereby won for us the Kingdom of Heaven.
‘Deliver us from evil’: Augustine says that this final petition of the Lord’s prayer ‘has a wide application: In this petition the Christian can utter his cries of sorrow, in it he can shed his tears, and through it he can begin, continue and conclude his prayer, whatever be the distress in which he finds himself.' (Ad Proba) It relates very directly to the final Beatitude: “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in Heaven, for so men persecute the prophets who were before you.’
I have rather sketchily attempted to show you the ways in which the Beatitudes are an invitation to the imitation of Christ, a way of examining the conscience, a programme for the active life and an invitation to prayer. There is much more that could be said, but I hope that what we have looked at during these days of Lent will help us all to live more truly according to the spirit of the Beatitudes and to take them more seriously as a programme for beginning to live with the life of the Holy Trinity.