Blessed are Those Who Mourn
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Luke 19, 41-44 and John 11, 33-35
There is an intensity with this Beatitude just as with the others. The Greek word that Matthew chooses means more than sorrow. It means, agony. Πενθουντες speaks of a broken heart, the kind of broken heart that comes from a great loss like the grief felt by a parent over the death of a child. Thinking of it in this way, with this sense, we gain a deeper insight into God himself, a God who grieves, the kind of grief that a father would experience over the death of his first and only son. Think of David and his response to the death of his dearest son. 2 Samuel 12, 15-17 tells us: “The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you – O Absalom, my son, my son!” This sorrow is among the most profound of human emotions. There is the feeling that something of us is lost, and aware of it we mourn. Our freedom confronts the tragedy of finite human existence.
The first two Beatitudes considered established a kind of emptiness. Letting go of possessions and of “go-getting” activism. Left to themselves, they could just leave a void, but now we are warned against that void. Blessed are those who mourn warns us against a negative kind of detachment and helplessness which could lead us to say: “I have nothing and I can do nothing. So, what the hell! I don’t care.” Those who do not care do not mourn, and so they are outside of Beatitude. Jesus is calling sorrow itself a blessed human condition, and like all of the beatitudes, it is a sample of his life.
The world in which we live would do everything to avoid this experience, and it finds grief, sorrow, or mourning to be anything but a Blessing, and so like all the others, this world would deny it and avoid at all costs. A perfect example of this is this world’s attitude of avoidance toward death. Death remains a taboo, one of the few we have left. We talk freely enough about sex but blush at a serious talk about death. There is almost a conspiracy of silence about death. Funeral directors assure us by the careful use of cosmetics that nothing has really happened our loved ones look as good as ever, so if there is no loss, there is no pain. One of the most vicious lies invented by our age is the refusal to acknowledge to a dying person that he or she is dying. We deprive those who are dying of the dignity of death and chance to mourn the passing of their lives. We want them to stay cheerful so we do not have to make any change. Life as usual, business as usual. Brisk efficiency, a sunny smile. We live in a “cheer up” kind of world in which the reality of grief and sorrow is considered morbid and unhealthy; anything but a blessing.
The same obsessive fear of and avoidance of death drives our compulsive seeking after pleasure and comfort. Deep in our hearts we know that we must face the greatest of losses in our death, but we try by every means available to ignore the fact. We narcotize ourselves; we do not allow ourselves to feel; we keep moving. The same tranquilization of the heart affects our relationships. We are afraid to truly take the risk to love another person in any depth, because we fear the loss of that love and cannot face the sorrow that loss will bring. It is safer never to let ourselves be deeply touched by love for another. It is safer to control our relationships, keep things on a businesslike basis. It is not surprising then that love can become manipulative, calculating, and cold. True, we never really exposed ourselves, never really allowed ourselves to become involved, and never opened our hearts to the possibility of being hurt.
There are two parts to this Beatitude, and the two Gospel fragments bring them to our attention. The scene at Bethany relates to natural human sorrow and grief that is known only to people who love and care for one another. There is here the promise of com-fort. Fortitude is the suggestion of this promise, not denial nor escape. The comfort comes from an awareness that we are not alone in our grief, for God himself has grieved the death of his Son, and his Son grieved the death of his friend. God know sadness, and God knows what to do about it, for in this sadness it is possible to experience the presence of God. For Martha and Mary, the presence of Jesus Christ was itself a Beatitude. While he wept, it was also a moment of faith and hope in the resurrection. God worked in the midst of that grief to accomplish something.
At the death of his mother, St Monica, Saint Augustine tells us that at first, he refused to weep. He believed that his hope in the Resurrection would be denied by his tears. Eventually however, he realized that he needed to let his tears flow mourning not her death so much as mourning the sorrow, sadness, and pain his wild sinful life had caused her. The hurt he caused brought him to tears. He wrote: “My tears became like a pillow for my soul.” He became a great pastor and could comfort others because his mourning became a blessing. Augustin speaks to a second kind of mourning, that which comes from the experience of Jesus standing over Jerusalem. He weeps because of sin.
This speaks to us about a kind of spiritual mourning over the sins of this world and our own. It brings us to grief over terrorism, abortion, genocide, orphans of war, and children abused by people trusted and respected. I had a spiritual director once who told me that their morning prayer went like this: “Lord, break my heart with the things that break your heart today.” When we look honestly at what our sins have done, and look at a crucifix we ought to be moved to tears of sadness and pushed beyond regret to repentance. If we are called to rend our hearts not our garments by the prophets, the we ought to do so because a broken heart opens a crack into which we can look with honesty. In this kind of sorrow, the depths of our hearts are touched, are carved out leaving a space for God. Without sadness or sorrow, grief or mourning, are lives are shallow, and that creates a very false spiritual life. It means we have lost our greatness; the greatness of what God created us to be. Se we coast along in an insulated cocoon of non-feeling. Something as simple as our eating habits reveals spiritual conditions with great accuracy. We never fast anymore, we only diet. Because we do not know what feasting is we have forgotten how to fast. Because we do not know sorrow, neither do we truly know joy.
Leon Bloy once said, “There are places in our hearts which do not yet exist, and it is necessary for suffering to penetrate there in order that they may come into being”. I think this is the key to the blessedness of suffering and sorrow. True sorrow opens our being breaks through the smooth veneer of routine and regularity and exposes our inner selves. The message of the kingdom remains constant. To Peter, who wished to save Jesus from the pain of suffering, Jesus said simply, “Out of my sight, Satan.” To the disciples walking on the road to Emmaus sad and grieving his death he walked along and revealed himself comforting and bringing them to joy. “Only those who sow in tears and sorrow can really reap with joy.” Says Psalm 126.Only the heart which enters with Jesus into the agony of death and sorrow can rise with him in glory.
The Arabs have a saying: “All sunshine makes a desert.” The land on which the sun always shines will soon become an arid place in which no fruit will grow. There are certain things which only the rains will produce; and certain experiences which only sorrow can realize. Sorrow can do two things. It can show us, as nothing else, the essential kindness of our fellow-man; and it can show us as nothing else can the comfort and the compassion of God. We see it all the time with the tragedies the media puts before us. The outpouring of good will, charity, and concern is always amazing, and so often we hear the victims of storms and tragedies give witness to the ways in which they have found the power of God’s presence
When we considered the first two Beatitudes, we saw that it is always right to be detached from things, but it is never right to be detached from people. Our faith begins with a sense of sin. Blessed is the man who is intensely sorry for his sin, the man who is heart-broken for what his sin has done to God and to Jesus Christ. The man who sees the Cross can only be appalled by the havoc wrought by sin. It is why the cross is so important for us, not just as sign of victory for Christ, but as a sign of sorrow for us. We look at a cross and are bound to say: “That is what sin can do. Sin can take the loveliest life in the all the world and crush it onto a cross. When the reality of that sinks in we are moved to penitence with a broken and contrite heart which Psalm 51 insists God will never despise. The way to the joy of forgiveness is through the sorry of a broken heart.
Blessed Are The Merciful
Blessed are the Merciful for they shall have mercy
Exodus 34, 1-9
Fifty years ago, when I was a transitional deacon and assigned for the summer months at Blessed Sacrament Church in Lawton, I learned a lot from Father Wade Darnall. He was one of the “giants” in Oklahoma Church History. He was what we call “a late vocation,” meaning that he finished a career as in infantry man before he went to the seminary. He was as tough as any drill sergeant to some, and biggest push-over in the world to others. To me he was a unique, noble, and prophetic man who left a great hole in our lives when he went from this life into Beatitude.
Every day at noon there would be line of men and women at the Rectory door on 7th Street, but charity was not confined to that hour. It was simply more predictable. There was always some cash in a metal box, and the rule was, if someone needed some help, food or cash it was to be provided. It was expected that whoever opened the door would give a polite and respectful ear to the story presented. Then without judgement something was to be provided. I will admit that after a few weeks I caught myself rewarding good stories with more generosity. If it was creative and colorful, I produced more. After being ordained priest, I went back to Blessed Sacrament to celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving, and I spent the night. The next morning I was headed to St Joseph Old Cathedral moving into my first assignment. During breakfast, the bell rang, and a regular I recognized from the summer months was there. He was so regular that Wade had nick-named him, “Crooked Nose.” He was an old Apache who rang the bell about once a week always with a new story thinking we did not recognize him. I handed him a sandwich, a coke, and a $10.00 bill. I got in my car and drove directly to the Old Cathedral, and within an hour of arrival while moving a few belongings into the rectory, the bell rang, and it was Crooked Nose. He looked at me, and I looked at him. He shook his head and started to back away. I said, “You made good time.” He said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I’m everywhere, just like you.” At that point Msgr. Harkin arrived, greeted the man with the same name and handed him a sack of food. I learned from them both how reckless charity and its motive, mercy, must be.
In Luke 6, 30 it says: “Give to everyone who asks.” It does not say we should find out what they are going to do with it. It does not say that we should make sure that they are not alcoholics, nor does it give us any way of protecting ourselves against being exploited by people who are perfectly capable of supporting themselves. All of the normal prudential limitations we set upon our generosity are conspicuous by their absence from the Lord’s teaching. We like to think that we are being responsible in not giving to everyone who asks. But maybe it is even arrogant and even ungodly to want to be responsible in this kind of way.
When our Lord tells us to be merciful as our heavenly Father is merciful, he prefaces this command with the declaration that God gives to good and bad alike with no distinctions. He is, if you like, irresponsible in his giving. But then, who does God have to be respond to? He does not wait to see whether we are going to make good use of his gifts before he gives them. His grace is not given strictly in accordance with how he for sees we shall profit by it. He rains upon the just and the unjust in equal measure, regardless of whether or not the unjust has an umbrella.
My own personal definition of mercy comes from my experiences with Father Wade and Msgr. Harkin. Mercy is at work when we do not really get what we truly deserve. In other words, if God was not merciful, we would receive the full measure of his wrath. Mercy in a sense is just the opposite of grace as mercy is that which we don’t get but we do deserve, and grace is that which we do get but don’t deserve.
It is in this spirit that God forgives. Forgiveness is only a special instance of the way in which God manages all his giving. He does not say, “Well, all right. You’re a good man underneath it all. I’ll give you one more chance.” When St Peter wanted to make sure he had the arithmetic of forgiveness right, he was answered only with a sum he probably did not know how to do. Forgiveness is an example of reckless mercy. It squanders itself upon rogues who have no intention of improving themselves. All it asks for is that it be received. The only unforgivable sin is the sin against forgiveness, the sin which directly and immediately refuses forgiveness.
Now it is in this spirit that forgiveness must be received too. We must not pretend that we are forgivable and that is why we are forgiven. We are no more forgivable than anyone else. If we think we can privilege our claim to forgiveness, it is not forgiveness we are looking for but some other kind of recognition. If it is forgiveness we are after, then it must be unconditional and unlimited forgiveness. And we can accept that only if we are prepared to accept the company that forgiveness places us in. It is no good wanting to be forgiven and then reserving the right to look around disapprovingly on all the others. We belong in their company.
This is why forgiving is so inseparable from being forgiven. It is why reckless almsgiving is an apt expression of the spirit of forgiveness. It is a way of acting out a new way of seeing the world that is quite different from our normal, calculating approach. There may be many benefits we can convey to our fellow human beings in more calculating ways; but if they exhaust our repertoire it may be that the most important act of all is missing: mercy.
Without it we have to admit that we fall short of being merciful and share in all that is wrong with the world. We must not disguise this failure as responsible giving. We may sometimes not give because we cannot be bothered, or we are afraid of the consequences, or because the particular beggar stinks, or because they speak rudely to us, or because they behave like a con man, or because they have annoyed us in the past. There are a thousand reasons why we will sometimes not give, but they are bad reasons. And so long as we know that they are bad reasons, they will probably not do much damage. They will be simply part of the brokenness which we entrust, in hope, to the hands of God. But when bad reasons become good reasons, then we are moving out of the sphere of mercy, and shifting back into the world of our own making and planning. In that world, there is nothing to save our souls.
To be consistent with my earlier remarks, I investigated the Greek word again ελεημον which we all recognize from the liturgy: ελεημον. I discovered that this word was the best earlier translators from the Aramaic and Hebrew could do since the Hebrew word is untranslatable! It does not simply mean being sympathetic nor does it mean being sorry for someone in trouble. The Hebrew word translated as ελεημον means to get into someone’s skin until we see things with their eyes, think what they think, and feel what they feel. This is a lot more then, than emotional wave of pity. It is a kind of sympathy not given from outside, but which comes from a deliberate identification with the other person until we see what they see and as they feel. There is something profoundly incarnational about this experience. In Jesus Christ, in the most literal sense, God got inside the skin of human kind. He came as a man. He came seeing things with men’s eyes, feeling things with men’s feelings, thinking things with men’s minds. God knows what life is like, because God came right inside life, and that is the motive for, the wonder of, and truth about Mercy.
The quality of God’s mercy is the point of that parable of the prodigal. The hero of the story, as we know, is not the son but the father. Jesus tells this story to teach us about the possibility of repentance, yes, but even more to tell us that we can always repent because there is a merciful father who runs before us with mercy, a ring and a robe every day. He is no scorekeeper; he is in the game and risks his love with us constantly.
It is a strange thing about us, the way we all long so much for love, understanding, trust, and acceptance, yet so systematically reject all of them by our fear of being hurt. This is the great sign of sin, a lasting scar of evil. We long for others to trust us, yet cannot show them trust; we ache for understanding, yet are pleased to view others from prejudice; we crave tenderness, yet deal in cold currency. And we see all around us how a lack of knowledge, closure, and distance generate destruction and alienation; how fear gives birth to fear. It is so hard to break out of this cycle. It is so hard to realize not just in thought but in fact, that where there is no love we must put love in order that we might draw love out. It come as a wonderful and somewhat overwhelming shock when we finally do risk our hearts in trust and discover we are trusted in return, when we show mercy and receive mercy back.
Of ourselves, our fear is so great we cannot do it. But our God has not only shown us what mercy is, he has given it to us in the gift of his Spirit. We who deserved nothing have been given all things by gift. The more we realize this, the more we will be able to entrust ourselves to each other in the gift of mercy, the more we will be able to take with each the risk God has first taken with each of us.
Blessed are Those Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will have their fill.
John 4, 4-15
If you can tolerate a brief Greek grammar lesson, there is something going on here that is very revealing with a clear understanding of the way Matthew uses the language. It is a rule of Greek grammar that verbs of hungering and thirsting are followed by the genitive case which in English is expressed by the word of. For instance, of the man is that genitive case. The genitive which follows verbs of hungering and thirsting in Greek is called the partitive genitive. Hear the word “part” in this instance. The idea is this. The Greek would say: I hunger for of bread.” It was some bread he desired, a part of the break, not the whole loaf. A Greek would say, I thirst for of water.” It was some water desired, a drink of water, not the whole tank. Now, in this Beatitude the genitive case is not used by Matthew. He uses the accusative case. This changes the meaning very dramatically. Instead of hungering and thirsting for some, the hunger and thirst is for it all! Everything. The whole thing! To say I hunger in the accusative case which Matthew uses here it means, I want the whole loaf, or the whole pitcher. Now keep that in mind as we explore a bit more of this Beatitude.
There is a sense in which the Beatitudes are our way of participating in divine life. That experience we used to call “the Beatific Vision” is what participating in Beatitude is all about. Being poor, meek, mourning, and being merciful is for us a participation in divine life because, as I’ve said, God is poor, meek, mournful, and merciful. God is also hungry and thirsty, so our willingness and readiness to enter into this hunger and thirst makes us “beatified” so to speak. It brings us very close to God. It draws us into the mystery of God.
When Christ says to the woman, “I thirst”. He is speaking to us today. There is in God since there is in Christ a very real and very powerful thirst and hunger for us. As the verses unfold, a reversal takes place and the one with the bucket becomes the thirsty, and the one without quenches the thirst by his presence and his Word.
The experience of hunger and thirst is an absolute reminder that we are not independent and self-sufficient. WE are dependent in kinds of ways on all kinds of things. We are dependent on a God whose very God-nature is love, a love that seeks and has created something/someone to love.
This Beatitude does not promise the hungry that they will be given bare sufficiency, but that they “will have their fill”, stuffed full. If filled, we then have everything we need is the clear implication here. St Thomas teaches that no authentic desire is created in vain. Beatitude itself means having everything you want. What this Beatitude proposes is that the Blessed want Righteousness.
It is Paul who tells us what righteousness is when he writes to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1, 30) “Consider your own calling, brothers. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, and not many were of noble birth. Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the week of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing to reduce to nothing those who are something so that no human being might boast before God. “It is due to him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God as well as righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, so that whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord.”
What those in Beatitude hunger for then is not some Thing, but some One. This hunger leads us into communion; heaven’s bread for our deepest hunger. When we come seeking water, when we come to the altar seeking food, Christ comes because he seeks us and knows our hunger. First, he asks for a drink revealing the longing God has for us. Prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst for us so that we might thirst for him.
One of the things I learned from and about the poor who would come begging to Wade and Monsignor at those parish doors was that the truly hungry will lose all their pride to get something to eat. There is no pride in those who are really hungry. They will dig everywhere and search through every bit of trash to find something to eat. Hunger casts out pride, and once stripped of it, the hungry will be filled. The promise of that is prefigured in the stories of Jesus feeding the hungry who have come to feast first on his Word. The story starts with two fish and five loaves. It ends with twelve baskets full after they have all had their fill. There is always enough in the presence of Christ. But even then, it is not enough. Did you ever notice on big holidays after a huge meal like on Thanksgiving or Christmas that after a few hours we’re up with the refrigerator door open again looking around for more? We often want more when we have been satisfied, but what we really want and seek is that communion that feeds us as much as the food itself. The glutton eats alone and knows no joy in eating. For them, food is an end itself. For people in communion, there is always joy because food is a means to further communion. The glutton lives to eat. The Blessed eat to live.
Too often in life we are content with bits and pieces of things. Deep in this Beatitude there lies a challenge for us who are sometimes satisfied too easily. What we hunger for is not a snack, it is the banquet. What we need is not just the first course, but the whole thing. We cannot be content with a part of goodness or righteousness even though we might have achieved some measure of goodness in our lives. The Beatitude says that we should not be satisfied with partial goodness, but that we must be desperate for, desperate like a starving man or someone actually dying of thirst, desperate for total and complete goodness. It does not suggest that we have to have achieved that level of perfection, but that we want it as much as a man dying in the desert that drink of water that will save.