Sacred Heart of Mary, Barling, Arkansas
March 26, 2017
Introduction at Weekend Masses
After Jesus leaves the desert he makes his way into Galilee which for him is home territory since Nazareth is in that area. There he meets and calls Peter, Andrew, James, and John. We are told that crowds gathered around, and so like another Moses, up the mountain he goes and there he unfolds the conditions of a new covenant that will be sealed in his blood. Like the commandments which expressed the old covenant, the Beatitudes Jesus speaks of unfold the conditions and promises of the new covenant, and into that new covenant we will venture this week during our Parish Lenten Mission.
These Beatitudes are not pious hopes of what shall be. They are not glowing prophecies of some future bliss. They are exclamations of what is. It is not for some future world postponed, either. It is a state into which the Christian has already entered. The beatitudes are a proclamation of what it is to know Jesus as Lord. They proclaim the conditions in which people of the Covenant live. Saint Augustine wrote a powerful commentary on the Beatitudes, and he said that anyone who ponders the Sermon on the Mount will find there the perfect standard of Christian life, because the Beatitudes are directed inward toward our own poverty and spiritual peace. They are not about someone else or about some other time. St Augustine insists that the Beatitudes describe the “attitudes” that lead to satisfaction. If you want to find out how to be holy? Internalize the Beatitudes. When you recognize someone who is holy, you have recognized the Beatitudes being lived. So, that is exactly what I would like to do with you three nights this week: reflect upon the Beatitudes that can lead us to a holy life.
Early in life we develop a sense of how one thing leads to another; and that makes it possible for us to become calculating, “If I do this, then I will look good and be in a position for getting that.” Once you delve into the mystery of God who is present without a past or a future, there is no such thing as a “good position” in our dealings with God. God does not have a past or a future. There is no time with God only the present. We do not have to work out how to get into a good position for having a relationship with God. We do not have to put on our “happy face”, be pious or act holy. Think of it this way: a man ran up to Jesus and asked a question. “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” There is no answer to that question because it is irrelevant and actually counter-productive. We can’t DO anything. It’s already been done by that man on the cross. We must BE something, “Blessed”.
There is no reason whatsoever to think that “if only we had nicer neighbors, if only I knew how to pray, if only I were humbler, everything would be great. There is no “if” or no “if only” with God. All that matter is what IS. We do not have to figure out how to explain our position to God. God cuts through all of that. God knows. Forget the excuses and the blaming. We are exactly what God made: good, and we cannot be other that what God has made. Meister Eckhart (QMA V, 206) once wrote that a truly spiritual person does not seek tranquility because they are in no way hampered by the lack of it.
The Beatitudes are not goals or some kind of perfection we much achieve. Trying to become poor, for instance, is completely absurd. First of all, we start “trying” which is a completely different experience from being. It’s like pretending, like acting, or “trying out” for a play. We must not try. We must discover what we really are, poor; and the best thing to do is stop trying. We are all, in the end, equally privileged but unentitled beggars before the door of mercy.
The beatitudes draw a strange picture of one who is blessed: they are poor and unimpressive, hungry and in mourning, trodden on, yet able to make peace. We always think of “those poor” when we think of the poor, and then most likely move on to a rather condescending concern to improve their lot. Or, maybe worse, we indulge in a highly dramatic version of “I in my poverty and pain…” and go ranting around the stage like a badly produced melodrama. It is hard for us to say, “I am poor” and leave it at that. Usually we want to go on and say: “And something should be done about it.” Or, “How about some applause?” We always want some outrage about poverty. We have to turn it into something else because as a Beatitude it is something different.
The Beatitudes are about me, not someone else. “Blessed are you” is the way it goes. It does not say “Blessed are those poor.” So, the Beatitudes are a call to see ourselves in a way that does not come easily to us. We have to give up the effort to see ourselves in a “good” light. Righteousness for a follower of Christ does not feel like righteousness the way this world see righteousness. The world’s way is a do-it-yourself kind of justification. “What do I have to do to be saved?” That is the world speaking in that man who runs up to Jesus. In the world, what you do makes you righteous, and the consequence is a feeling that we deserve something. You can hear that in the prayers of those who complain to God. “How could this happen to me; I have been faithful and prayerful. What did I do to deserve this?” This is that old kind of thinking that Jesus came to confront and challenge. People at his time who were sick, lame, blind, or deaf were not suffering because of their sin or the sins of their parents. Feelings and expectations that we deserve something because of something we have done or refrained from doing are ridiculous. There is a powerful and sometimes troubling parable about a servant who works all day, and when night comes, that servant puts on an apron and then waits on the master. Why? Because after all that’s what they are, servants who deserve nothing. It is not about deserving or earning. It is about grace and the beauty of grace and the attitude of someone who is living in that state of grace. When we feel ourselves poor, humiliated, desperate and all the rest of it that is when we can qualify for the label “blessed”. If you want to count yourself among the Blessed and discover what it really means, come and join me this week.
2017 Lenten Parish Mission
St Peter the Apostle, Naples Florida
March 5, 2017
Sacred Heart of Mary, Barling, Arkansas
March 26, 2017
BLESSED ARE THE POOR
Blessed are the Poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Luke 16, 19-31
It is helpful to remember that the Beatitudes are not statements, they are exclamations which is why some translations will say, “Happy” But that English word is not so good because Happy gives away its own case. It contains the root “hap” which means “chance”. Human happiness is something which is dependent on chances which come and go. Life gives and also takes. It’s all by “chance”. Not so with the meaning of these exclamations. This is about Blessedness and Joy which nothing in life can take away. So, these are not pious hopes of what shall be. These are congratulations on what is. This Blessedness exists here and now. It is not something into which the Christian will enter. The very form of the Beatitudes is a statement of the thrill and radiant gladness of the Christian life. Their greatness is that they are not wistful glimpses of some future beauty; they are not even golden promises of some distant glory; they are triumphant shouts of bliss for a permanent joy that nothing in the world can ever take away.
When Matthew set about collecting these sayings of Jesus and putting them together in Greek, he used very strong and intense words for every one of them. Φτωχός is the word he chose for this Beatitude. “Poor” is an unfortunate choice of English words to carry the full power of what is being proposed. “Poor” is the woman observed putting in her offering at the Temple. She has a little to give, but by her gift she becomes Φτωχός which means destitute. Φτωχός is also the word Luke uses to describe Lazarus in this parable. It describes absolute and complete destitution. NOTHING is what this is about: complete and total dependency. It is this radical idea that leads the apostles to react so desperately when Jesus talks about how it is easier to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The suggestion that wealth and prosperity were not the blessing and favor many at the time believed them to be was a startling suggestion. Proposing the reverse was unthinkable.
We might recall that the giving of the Law with Moses was accompanied by promises of blessing, and that wealth and prosperity were taken as signs of God’s pleasure. It was a long-lasting belief. As Israel came from the desert into Canaan and grew prosperous, it became evident to the prophets that wealth brought a great temptation to break the covenant. It was not simply wealth, of course, but the attitude of self-satisfaction that so often accompanied the acquisition of wealth that often turned the rich away from God. Seized by the passion for possession, for security, for power, those rich were willing to do anything in order to build their homes of ivory and their summer palaces. Prophets confronted this, they turned more to the poor of the land as the only hope for maintaining the covenant with God. The poor had nothing to cling to but God, and so the prophets proclaimed that the future restoration would be built upon the remnant represented by the poor. The kingdom would belong to them and not to the rich. It was not because God did not care for the rich and powerful, but because the rich and powerful had a way of regarding themselves as self-sufficient and without need of God. Into this steps the Rabbi Jesus with this Beatitude. There is only one thing we need, and those who have it are in Blessed!
There is an old Jewish proverb that says, “You cannot eat at both tables.” It springs from this thinking about those who have a lot things being blessed and favored by God. The unspoken other side of that thinking is that those who have nothing are out of favor with God, or that God has abandoned them. The book of Job challenges this thinking so contrary to the reality of life. Bad things do happen to good people. Every day this reality is confirmed. Job is as good as a person could be, yet he is struck down by one catastrophe after another. His friends insist that he must have sinned which is the only way they can understand what has happened to him. Job insists that he has not sinned, and the author’s purpose is that we believe Job. By the end of his story, Job is restored to prosperity, but not before his concept of God is shattered and replaced by a far more profound idea of God.
This is the heart of the matter. Before we can enter into Beatitude Life, our concept of God must be purified or fine-tuned. If there is any trace of that old thinking that prosperity is a sign of God’s favor, you are not ready. The concept has to be re-envisioned. That’s what happened to Job. He came to a much more profound idea of God, and a much more mature and healthy relationship as a consequence.
What the Prophets were looking for then was a spiritual attitude, a disposition of soul which could be called to poverty: a self-dispossession which made room for the Word of God. The meaning of this poverty is seen in the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. The characters of Mary and Elizabeth, of Zachary and Simeon, all conform to the image of these “Anawim” – these faithful poor waiting patiently for the Lord. Think of Mary, who in the Magnificat praises God for looking upon the lowliness (the poverty) of his handmaid. She was poor in spirit; she was of the kingdom. She did not cling to anything, not even her own understanding of what her virginity should mean. Yet, no one is poorer than Jesus himself. He is the full realization of poverty, and of course, in as much as he is the revelation of what God is, we can say that God is poor. The obedience of Jesus Christ is a manifestation of that poverty. Jesus gave up everything including his own will surrendering to the Will of the Father.
As this doctrine developed there was a growing belief that there was a sharp distinction between the present age and the age to come which was God’s age and an age of reward. This is what provided that image of two tables. You cannot eat at both. If you have your reward in this world, there is no reason to expect another reward in the next world. All kinds of parables and sayings of Jesus point to this truth. What good is it to store up riches? Think of that parable about the rich man and Lazarus and what happens to them in the age to come. Remember how the Lord observes those who make a great parade of their piety in order to impress the world around them. They can expect nothing in the time to come. “They have their reward” says Jesus. Jesus insists that it is useless to store up anything. Even if we can and even if we do preserve them, we cannot preserve our lives, so what’s the point of all this preservation? “To whom will it go? Asks Jesus.
Our efforts to hold onto things is really useless in this world. People spend all kinds of money these days on security systems and arm them while they go out to dinner and then die in a car wreck on the way home. There is a great song from “Show Boat” that describes the reality of life. “It just keeps rolling, it keeps on rolling along.” Heraclitus, often called the “weeping philosopher” once said you can’t step into the same river twice. By the time you have stepped into it the second time it is not the same river, and you are not the same person. So, the effort to hang onto things gets called into question. “That’s mine.” “I’ve got it.” This is the thinking of someone in for a rude surprise. Once you set a goal and achieve it, you have had your reward. The challenge ever before us is to get deeper into the poverty Jesus speaks of in the Sermon. To do so it helps to go back to the beginning; to “Genesis.”
The serpent says that if you eat fruit from the tree of knowledge “your eyes will be opened and you will be as God, knowing good and evil.” The subtlety of this comes from the other version that states that God made man, male and female, “in his own image and likeness.” That is to say, it is not simply a temptation to wish to be like God. We were created, intended, and meant to be like God by reason of the way God has already acted. There is nothing wrong with that temptation to “be like God.” The problem is the idea that we, or Adam and Eve, could make ourselves be “like God.” God does that, not us. What the serpent offers is a distortion of possessing something that is already there. The serpent is seeking to propose a new concept of ownership.
Likeness to God was something that God had already given. Originally there was nothing that man and woman had to do on their own. Think about it. When all creation had been given to them, what could they do to possess something that was already given to them by God? How could man and woman secure ownership of something that is always a gift from God? Satan suggests that they should do something to become like God, that they should take their likeness to God into their own hands. The gesture of taking the fruit and eating the fruit is a symbol of man taking something into his own hand and storing it away safely inside himself! It is a symbol of that security of possession which has become such an obsessive concern for fallen human people.
Possession is the issue. Possessiveness is destructive of relationships by hanging on too tightly. Something like friendship can only be possessed in so far as it is constantly received as a gift which is ever new. I can’t count the number of relationships I have seen fall apart because someone in the relationship was too possessive. Fallen human beings like things they can hang onto or think they can. It is really the poor in spirit who can actually have anything because they are the ones who know how to receive gifts since everything for them is a gift. Consider the parable of the master who goes away leaving his property to 3 different people – the one who buries the money is afraid of risk. He is afraid of losing, and because of this fear he does lose. The master wants the servants to take risks just like the master takes a risk in leaving portions of his property with them. That loser wants to hang on to what he got, so he buries it. Not a good Gospel plan. Think about those apostles who had five loaves and two fish. It was all theirs, but Jesus asked them to give it up. He asked them to become poor like the people around them. When they did, remember what happened to that food?
The reason why it is so important for us to unlearn the kind of possessing that Satan proposes is that ultimately the only thing worth possessing is completely beyond possessing. When we possess nothing, then everything is available equally shared by all. If everyone possessed nothing and did not hang on to anything, everything that is, everything God has created, would be available and equally shared by everyone. That would be an experience of “Blessedness.” As soon as we begin to take and hold as our own, there is that much less for everyone else. Some would call this thinking “Socialism” and others might call it “Communism.” I call it “Gospelism” or authentic Christianity.
Perhaps the first and most essential characteristic of this Φτωχός is the profound awareness of who we are as creatures before God. We exist moment by moment only because of the creative love and fidelity of the Father. We have and we are nothing apart from God. We are totally unnecessary. Yet much of our lives is spent avoiding this realization. It is not by chance that the first of the Beatitudes confronts the First of all Sins: Pride. The first characteristic of the poor is embracing this truth. Everything we have is a gift received.
The characteristic of this Φτωχός is the ability to listen. One rich in this world lives with a cluttered mind and heart, many voices, many longings and desires fill those lives. The rich do not and cannot listen to the other, for too much energy is spent in listening to the conflicting shouts of passion. In a song by Kris Kristofferson, “Me and Bobby McGee, there is a line, “Freedom’s just another name for nothin’ left to lose.” I love that description of poverty. The poor person is able to leave the land of father and mother and journey to a far place on a promise; the poor person is able to let another go in freedom; the poor person can hand over the body in crucifixion for others. The poor person is of the kingdom because the kingdom consists in those who hear the Word of God and keep it. And only the truly poor can hear.
As I said at the beginning, God is very poor because God clings to nothing. Blessedness is a measure of how much we resemble God in whose image we are made. The hymn of Philippians that is sing at Vespers so often says it all. He did no grasping, but poured out everything. A frightening thing about this is that to become poor we have to surrender even our grip on ourselves which very well might mean being exposed and experiencing times of mental, emotional and spiritual deprivations. We call this: “Dark Nights.” We have all been there, but I dare say, we probably failed to understand what it means and even what it offers as a blessing.
Think of Mother Theresa when a few years ago her letters to her spiritual director revealed that she spent the largest part of her life in that kind of darkness. She probably did not at the time understand that this very painful experience was her most real experience of poverty and her most intimate connection with the poor she served. I believe that this darkness is exactly what stripped her of everything she might have wanted to hold onto leaving her with nothing. In that poverty, she was able to realize the image of God in herself and become the angel of mercy, compassion, and self-giving by which we remember her. She became poor so that her identity with the poor lifted them up.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who have allowed themselves to be stripped of acquisitiveness and “security”, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, because they no longer seek to possess, but to be possessed. If we ask the question, ‘What does it mean for the Kingdom of God to be ours? We begin to realize that it means our lives are centered upon God and imitating the very way God lives and acts. This is the ultimate depth of a Beatitude, “Poverty of Spirit.”
BLESSED ARE THE MEEK
Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.
Numbers 12, 1-8 The Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel is always cast in the shadow of or in the image of Moses, so here is Moses “by far the meekest man on the face of the earth.” It is a new Moses then who proposes that real Blessedness, real Beatitude is found in Meekness. Πράος is the Greek work here. Again, this is a very strong word. The Greeks used that word to describe the domesticating of a powerful animal. It means, great strength under control. These animals, horses or oxen had to be “meeked.” Important to realize is that meekness is not weakness. It is quite the opposite: strength used in control, with discipline.
Inherit is the word here that makes a big difference from the Beatitude before it. Meekness goes along with poverty of spirit so opposed to grasping and manipulating and perverting, and so this inherit word opens us to receiving. An inheritance is not seized, it is received. This is a way of seeing all things as gifts from God’s hands, our own lives first of all. It is a reverence which recognizes that where God is at work, as in creation, there is the Holy. It is a response, therefore, which lets things be what they are and uses them appropriately.
Meekness inherited recognizes that the kingdom of God is itself a gift that cannot be seized at our own initiative. We do not possess it. We are gifted with it; moment by moment with the result that every moment of our lives should be characterized by thanksgiving.
The meek are those who wait knowing that what they wait for has already been given and will be given again – the gift of God’s own life. The meek like the poor are radically dispossessed, because they desire nothing but that which comes to them as a gift from God. Those are the ones who truly are able to rejoice in, celebrate, and make use of the earth as children of God. Those who seek to grasp never really possess. The paradox of the beatitudes like the paradox of the kingdom, is that those who lose their lives will gain them. Those who are poor enough, meek enough, that is to say, free enough to desire nothing but what is given are the ones able to rejoice in all things. Blessed are the meek who are not in too big a hurry to get things done and know how to wait, helpless, nailed to a cross. Against all the odds it is they who will in inherit the earth.
It is the teaching of this world that the earth belongs to those who seize it, that power is meant for domination, oppression and exploitation, and that the only limits to my freedom are the limits imposed by my appetites, that arrogance and lack of care are signs of strength. This attitude, and the understanding of humanity which it expresses, has dominated much of our history in the western world for the past four hundred years. It is an idea of man based upon the myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods that humans might have light and warmth. That theft was regarded as the heroic appropriation of an item to which man was entitled by virtue of his mere presence on earth. So, this “entitlement” has justified the thoughtless domination of technology in our world today. It has enabled us to throw railroads and ribbons of concrete across the land, to erect great mountains of steel and mortar, to seal our lives in plastic wrapping. With this view of humanity, we have created a “world of man” that is destroying creation. We have forgotten that the earth belongs to another. What we are only now beginning to discover is that by seizing the earth, we have destroyed it. And in the process, we are seeing this “world of man” turning into a demonic world, filled not with the light and hope and the optimism of science, but seething with the forces of violence and decay. With the blowing a fuse our shining cities become chaotic nightmares of luting and murder. An old folk song asked us once, “Where have all the flowers gone?” We might ask more appropriately, where has the image of humanity gone? Now that the world has been shaped to the image of Promethean man, is it possible to recognize ourselves?
Now Psalm 37 gives us a focus for this Beatitude, and I believe that Matthew intended it so. The psalmist is looking around the world. He sees all the wrong people prospering. The people who ought to be doing well, the righteous followers of God’s law seem to be helpless before the successes of the wicked. It does not make sense. So, the psalmist, trying to find comfort if not understand, meditates on the state of the world in the light of the mystery of God’s plan.
The message is clear. There is no future for the wicked. Consequently, there is no need to interfere any more than necessary to make the grass shrivel up in the sun. Indignation is inappropriate, and it is a long way from meekness. The meek simply laugh. The psalmist suggests that it is silly to take the unrighteous seriously. Reaction and outrage give them more substance than is their due, and it will accomplish nothing but harm. In other words, Evil has only as much reality as we give it.
Now that is not to suggest something simplistic. Evil is a part of our world as we know it, and a powerful part. So, we should notice that there is a shift in verb tenses between the first and the second Beatitude. “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Julian of Norwich summed up meekness best of all: “All will be well.” Our temptation is, and always has been, to try to achieve God’s purposes by using the methods of the world. But every attempt to do so is shut off by the cross of Christ. Matthew 5:39 says: “Do not resist the evil.” If the previous Beatitude suggests that something has gone wrong with our normal ideas about possession; this Beatitude suggests that there is something wrong with our normal ideas about our attempts to get things done. In fact, this raises some question about the whole idea of trying to achieve something.
This whole business of “trying” is suspicious to me. Trying to do something always involves a division: it means doing one thing with an eye on another. Someone may play scales because they are trying to play the piano. Some may exercise because they are trying to stay healthy. It always seems to me that this can lead to two mistakes. First, we get into the way of thinking that everything that we do needs some kind of extrinsic justification. So, we become suspicious of people just doing things because they want to. The consequence is that we resort to all kinds of pseudo-justifications, like going for walks “for exercise” or worse we declare that walking is really important. We end up decorating harmless occupations with high-sounding meanings. Then the second thing kicks in. We forget that no amount of trying ever automatically produced the desired results. We can practice our scales, but some will never become pianists. I had a very close friend who went running every day, and one day while showering after his run, he fell dead in the shower. Fifty-seven years old! I’m not going to run. Between the trying and the doing, there is always some disconnect. My point is that our concern with trying to do things can often get us out of tune with God, because God does not try to do anything. Eckhart whose insights always leave me dumbfounded said that God acts without a reason why. God does things just because God is God. A German mystic remarked that a rose exists without a reason why; it blossoms because it blossoms. Now a biologist would want to take that further and talk about pollen, seeds, and reproduction. By the time the biologist or plant scientist is finished, there is no wonder, no awe, and hardly any beauty which is often the gateway to the divine. Aristotle used that Greek word, Πράος to define the virtue between two extremes. It was for him, the “happy medium” between opposite passions. For example, Πράος described a generous man as opposed to a miser or a spendthrift. He goes on to describe the difference between complete passivity and rage as “meekness” or Πράος. As Aristotle saw it, there was a happy medium between too much and too little anger. This folds over into our understanding the Capital Sin, Anger, which Augustine rather artificially matched to this Beatitude in one of his sermons. Meekness thought of in this way, as I said at the beginning, is not weakness. The Meek are not without the passion or a virtuous Anger. It is just that they get angry about the right things, and they are never angry about any injury or affront to themselves.
Power is among the great temptations Aquinas warns against, and this Beatitude is its antidote. This Beatitude as about yielding. This is about directing our talents to a virtuous end. “Learn from me” says Jesus, for I am meek and humble of heart.” We have to become students; we have yield to the Teacher. The Epistle of James (1, 21) insists that we must receive with meekness the Word which is able to save our souls. We yield, we give control of our lives to Christ. If not, our lives will forever remain out of control.
If we are going to be and act like God, if we are to appreciate the act of God, we must come to appreciate the point of pointlessness or the joy of unnecessariness. There is some meekness in learning that there is satisfaction sometimes in just doing something for its own sake. As this truth began to dawn on me not too long ago, I began to understand my mother’s response and the wisdom of it when I would ask “Why?” She would look at me, shrug, and then say, “Because.” And that was all there was to it. It was always the end of the conversation. The reason why you go to Mass is not to try and be holy or obedient. It is because you do. It is because of who you are. It is because that is what Catholics do. There does not have to be some great and noble reason. There is meekness in this.
The meek will inherit the earth. The meek can be trusted with the good of this world. They will not hold too tightly. They will use everything in creation without exploitation or abuse. The meek do not feel the need to rush out and do something. It is better to rejoice in the Lord and be content to rest in his truthfulness and to gaze with wonder upon the world of his making with the eye of faith and the heart of hope. The meek are the source of hope and optimism in the face of helplessness.
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.
Blessed are the Pure of Heart
Blessed are the Pure of Heart for they shall see God
Ezekiel 36, 23-27 & Luke 10, 38-42
We are told that Saint Catherine was at one time very devoted to the verse from Psalm 51, “create in me a clean heart”; and one day she had a strange experience in which it seemed that the Lord came to her and removed her physical heart. Later he inserted a new heart into her, his own heart saying, “I am giving you my heart so that you can go on living with it forever.” Now whatever else we may want to make of a story like this, it is at least a dramatic representation of the teaching of St Paul. “I live now not I but Christ lives in me.” (Galatian 2, 20). Our deepest identity is Christ.
The age and culture in which we live is very conscious of identity and sometimes the lack of it. An “identity crises” is not uncommon. Personally, I think this is what gives rise to great deal of patriotism and a new kind of nationalism across the globe. Language is big part of this. I suspect this is why there is so much sad political turmoil between the English speaking and Spanish speaking peoples among us. I saw this several years ago when I was Rector of the Cathedral in Oklahoma City as a generation of Vietnamese struggled over their identity and desperately wanted Mass in Vietnamese. More recently the establishment of new Lebanese Maronite Rite Parish, a Syro-Malabar Coptic Parish, and a Korean Parish in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, right in the middle of the Bible Bely is amazing, and it is a clear indication that identity wrapped in cultural customs, language, and rituals of faith is very important these days.
Our identity however you choose to look at it has one source, our Creator. Made in God’s image. There is only source of life, and as much as we share that life, the source of it is within us. The more there is life for us, the more of God there is, and the more fully human we become in this life, the more we become divine. To me in this way of thinking, the most fully human and the most perfect human was and is, Jesus Christ. Consequently, the more human we become, the more divine we become. God is the heart of our heart. To think and believe in this way puts us deep into the mystery of God. To have a pure heart then is to have a heart that is known to be rooted in the mystery of God. The mystery of God and the mystery of the soul belong together. There is a little story of how an early Christian responded to the demand of a powerful pagan: “Show me your God”? He said, “Show me your man and I will show you my God.”
To have a pure heart is to have a heart that is not just created by God and then abandoned to us for us to make the most of it; it is to have a heart which is constantly being created and sustained by the newness of the life of God. If our life is rooted in God, so that the source of life in us is God, we shall see as God sees. And what God sees is God. This is why those who are pure of heart will see God. God does not have two different kinds of vision, one for seeing himself and another for seeing his creatures. It is within his eternal and blissful contemplation of himself that he sees all that he has made. That is why he sees that it is very good.
If we have a pure heart, a source of life welling up from the eternity of God, then what we shall see is God. “Everything is pure to the pure.” (Titus 1, 15) Those who have a pure heart cannot see evil, just as it is said of God that he is too pure to be able to see evil. To have a pure heart means that wherever you look, whatever you are looking at, what you see is God. God, revealing himself in myriads of different ways, but always God. This does not mean that when you look at butterflies, you have a “Hallmark” moment and hear violins playing inside your head and sing out, “How beatific!” It means that you are going to have to look at a man on a cross, broken, his wounds streaming with blood, and know that you are looking at God. To have a pure heart is to be capable of that. Origen, and early Church Theologian thought that it is in learning how to see things properly that we fist begin to be enchanted by the beauty of God. We are led by the beauty of things we can see to an awareness of what cannot be seen.
The Greek word Katharos that Matthew chooses for this Beatitude can mean clean in sense of clean laundry or clean hands, but just as often it is used to describe something that is pure or unmixed as we might describe a wine that is not a blend. When used to describe a person, it describes the simplicity of a single motive. There are no mixed motives. For instance, a charitable donation is made because of the great need without a single thought that it might also be a tax deduction or make us feel good that we did something for someone. If we do some fine work of kindness, it means we have care at all about whether anyone noticed or whether anyone says, “thank you.” Purity of heart clarifies things, so that we can be humble in our view of others seeing them as good. It also clarifies things so that we can see even sin in the context of a whole vision of God and of God’s providence and his creation. An opportunity for compassion then is what we see from a pure heart. It makes us sensitive to the good that is truly present even in what is evil. Ancient Fathers of the Church (Pseudo-Dionysius) thought it inconceivable that anything or anybody should be totally devoid of good. Even a person who opts for the worst possible kind of life is at least desiring life and the life that seems best to him so far as it goes is good. To have a pure heart is to enter into the very drama of God’s creating. It is to have a heart like the heart of Christ, taking into itself all the anger and hatred of men and consuming them in and into a fire of infinite love. Purity of heart is in fact one of the ways in which God actually makes himself present in our world. To have a pure heart is to become a person renewed, a person restored to our original calling and purpose. And that person, in the image and likeness of God, shares in the creativity of his creator.
Finally, Jesus himself speaks to this concern with Luke’s story of Martha and Mary with which we began just now. Martha’s complaint receives the comment, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and trouble about many things. Only one thing is needed.” Martha’s anxiety is the issue. An anxious heart is a divided heart. The divine guest urges her not to stop cooking, but to stop being anxious. It is an interesting challenge to those of us who sometimes think we are being efficient and productive by “double tasking.” The message is, all of what we do must be for one purpose. All of what we do must somehow be focused on God. This calls for a practiced kind of attentiveness. When our heart is focused on the One, Jesus, we will be able to see God.
Blessed are the Peace Makers
Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Romans 14, 17-19
There is an intimate connection between this beatitude and the previous one, because purity of heart and peace belong inseparably together. True peace in ourselves is a product of purity of heart, and without true peace in ourselves we stand little chance of being peacemakers for anyone else. There is a little story about this in the tales of the Desert Fathers: There were three friends who were eager workers, and one of them chose to devote himself to making peace between people who were fighting in accordance with ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’. The second chose to visit the sick. The third went off to live in tranquility in the desert. The first toiled away at the quarrels of men, but could not resolve them all, and so, in discouragement went to the one who was looking after the sick, and he found him tiring as well and not fulfilling the commandment. So, the two of them agreed to go and visit the one who was living in the desert. They told him their difficulties and asked him to tell them what he been able to do. He was silent for a time, then he poured water into a bowl and said to them. “Look at the water.” It was all turbulent. A little later he told them to look at it again, and see how the water had settled down. When they looked at it, they saw their own faces as in a mirror. Then he said to them, “In the same way a man who is living in the midst of men does not see his own sins because of all the disturbance, but if he becomes tranquil, especially in the desert, then he can see his own shortcomings.”
The word SHALOHM describes wholeness. Used as a verb it described the mending of a net. It has to do with putting back together whatever is broken. As Jesus used the word it was a greeting that announced that he was there present in their midst, and that the relationship he had with the apostles was not broken by death. The way to peace is the acceptance of the truth, the truth about our brokenness, truth about our lives broken by emotions and passions that are not in union with our goodness or in union with our very beatitude.
Peace is not something that we can produce for ourselves. It is something given and proclaimed by God in Christ. This peace that we seek is a wholeness that does not exist simply in ourselves, it is in Christ; but because it is in him, and we are in him, our acceptance of ourselves as we are, with all the upsets and tensions becomes less of source of anxiety.
As I said on Tuesday of this week quoting Meister Eckhart: the spiritual man does not seek peace because he is not hampered by the lack of peace. If we are in Christ, we can be in peace even when we feel no peace. The beginning of peace must be the acceptance of lack of peace just as the beginning of relaxation must be the acceptance of tension. This peace is something that enfolds us rather than something which we grasp. It is a peace that Paul in Philippians says “surpasses all mind”, all comprehension.”This peace is something declared not something we work at or work for. It is not negotiable. It is God’s the complete tranquility of God’s presence.
With that understood, the peacemaker is then not someone who comes to patch things up, arrange a settlement with balanced concessions all around, or try to find a compromise. The peacemaker declares the truth of God announcing that a fallen world can be remade. So, there is no room for give and take, no room for concessions and compromise. There is only room justice which knows nothing of compromise. I am old enough to remember the day when Pope Paul VI stood at the General Assembly of the United Nations and shouted emphatically: “If you want peace, work for justice.” That work is the labor that tills the soil and prepares our hearts for the seed, the gift, the promise of peace. It will bring about a unity among us that reflects the unity of God. The unity of God is the focus for everything that is real. Understanding this is why I find this rise of “nationalism” so curious and in some ways so uneasy. It is taking us in the wrong direction. Instead of finding our common unity in God, we are continuing to fragment and individualize our identity. If left unchecked, we will hardly be able to recognize that we have a common “father” and therefore hardly be children of God. This peace that springs from the truth of our unity is not achieved by paring down or ignoring the complications of life, but by entering into the magnetic pull of God’s unity.
Within the heart of every person, and in the memory of every society there exists a profound nostalgia for paradise. The creation and origin myths of every people describe our beginnings as a time when God and humanity dwelled together as one. Our own primordial tale in Genesis speaks to us of the peace of Eden and it describes the relationship that existed between the creator and the creature. In those days, God spoke to his creature face to face, and there was no fear. The Bible tells us that God strode the garden in one evening to converse with his beloved creatures. From this oneness man experienced peace within himself and with woman. From that moment, in the primal paradise, the longings of the human heart were properly ordered, and there was peace. The significance of that order remains for us: The basis of human peace is peace with God.
In the mythology of nearly every people there is also an account of how the human creature fell from this state of peace. It does not matter whether this took place at one moment in history, because for us all it takes place at every moment. There is something flawed in our hearts. There is a tragic misdirection of freedom which we inherit, reaffirm, and pass on. The Genesis story speaks to this condition. First is the break with God. At the sound of his coming there is fear, hiding, and deception, evasion, and shame. But the even more saddening effects of this are seen most clearly in the way the man and woman turn on each other with anger or blame. He blames the woman. She blames the serpent. Here at the beginning it is the same as the end, division between human beings. The story goes on with anguish and progressive alienation. There is murder with Cane and Able. There is treachery of Noah’s son who exposed his father’s nakedness. Then there is the story of the tower. It is all about man seizing by force what has been offered as a gift.
Then there is a shift from universal to particular with Abraham. It is a new beginning in the story of our people, and the start of God’s plan to restore peace between himself and his human creature. It unfolds slowly, but as we proclaim in one of the Eucharistic Prayers: “Again and again you offered a covenant to human beings, and through the prophets taught them the hope for salvation.” The purpose of covenant was to bring about a state of shalom between the parties. It was God’s choice, and God’s right to establish the covenant and terms. As the people failed to keep the terms of the covenant, they failed to be at peace with one another. Oppression and the perversion of Justice was the consequence. The prophets of Israel not only called the people back to covenant, they looked forward to the coming of one in whom the promise might be realized. Psalm 72 tells of this hope.
Jesus came. The very first announcement of his coming was a proclamation of Peace: “Peace on earth and good will to men” say the angels. In his life among us, he reached through and across every barrier by the simple gestures of acceptance and speaking the truth. He showed us what divine peacemaking was all about. It was his “atonement” with the Father that enabled him to bring that unity to humans for one purpose: “That they may be one as we are one.” The great mystery of his peacemaking is that it was accomplished by an act of violence. In this foolishness was the wisdom of God’s way revealed; in this weakness was his power to save. In this violence by which his body was torn apart, the man of peace handed over his spirit. Before his death he told his followers, “Peace I leave you, my peace I give you.” And when he appeared to them alive after his death, he said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, I am sending you”. We are to continue that peacemaking of Jesus by manifesting effectively the same attitudes of forgiveness and mercy, of acceptance and reconciliation that he showed toward us. In this we shall be called children of God.
To do this, we must be at peace with ourselves. The peace Jesus leaves with us has little to do with feeling good inside, much less with assurance of a calm, unruffled life or a successful career. The peace given by a crucified Messiah would not manifest itself in trivialities. The peace of Jesus has to do with fidelity toward the Father, with the awareness that we are loved and accepted by God. Once grounded in this, we are able to reach out to others in peace. Because we need not find our center in pleasure, possessions, or power, we have no conflict with others over the world and the things of this world. Not needing to possess or use others as assurance of our own worth, we are able to freely see them for what they are, God’s children and place ourselves at their service.
Without this basis in God, all the world’s attempts at peace-making re futile. They all eventually break down because of the conflicting idolatries of humans. Without peace with God, there can be no peace among us. What is different now is that peace has been given to us by the Lord Jesus Christ.
Blessed are the Persecuted
Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven
John 15, 18-20
Asked about the growing secularization of the world and increasing violence against people of faith, Cardinal George once said: “I expect to die in bed. My successor will die in prison. His will die a martyr in the public square. The next one will pick up the shard of ruined society and slowly help to rebuild civilization as the church has so often in history. As this culture falls away or destroys itself from within, the Church will always remain to rebuild the civilization of love.”
Dealing realistically with persecution is a delicate business. It is so easy to become paranoid or masochistic or to develop a messianic complex “Everybody hates me; therefore I must be right.” These delusional systems have been a part of our story too. But authentic Christian witness does not seek out persecution or seek to justify itself by the opposition it receives. On the other hand, authentic Christian witness seldom has to seek our persecution. There is something about the truth being lived boldly which draws it out. People are just not prepared to come to terms with the truth of what they are – either the truth of their total dependence on God or the truth of their actual, sinful and painful condition. They are likely to be offended by a message which will have no truck with their defensive “face”. They are likely to react with hostility.
A world defining itself by darkness does not want the light. A world built on a system of lies will have little patience with the word of truth. Based on what we have seen in Jesus, we can estimate that the more authentically and powerfully the Gospel is preached, the more it will stimulate rejection. This, should make us consider our own degree of acceptance by the world. We ought to wonder sometimes why we are liked in this world. Is it because we are indistinguishable from this world? I get really uncomfortable when I hear people say: “Father is just like the rest of us.” Isn’t there something in my life which might make people question the way they are living? Or have I just make people comfortable because the Gospel we have grown comfortable with offers them no threat?
This suffering insists the Beatitude must be for the sake of righteousness. It is for the sake of doing the right thing: not the safe thing, the easy thing, the popular thing, or the convenient thing. Today we can count the persecuted because they defend the unborn, the stranger, the immigrant, and the poor because it is the right thing. Not all of us are called to be social activists; not all of us are meant to take prophetic stances; not all of us can march and picket and lobby and debate. But all of us are called to do the right thing and live lives which express truly if implicitly a judgment on the standards of the world apart from God. One of the surest signs of how far we have come from the standard of right is the way people respond who get caught doing the wrong thing. They are always more upset over getting caught than over the fact that they were doing wrong. Instead of wondering if they should have done something in the first place, they wonder how they made the mistake of getting caught.
We suffer persecution not to fulfill some need to be punished, or out of self-righteousness, but “for holiness” sake, that is, for God’s sake. We are able to suffer creatively only because God suffers with us in the wounds of Jesus, which remain even in his risen life the testimony of God’s participation in the anguish of his world. And because we suffer persecution for holiness’ sake, our suffering is for the sake of those who persecute us. It is as servants that we suffer, handing over our lives for the sake of their lives. Suffering persecution in this way is an act of peace-making in the world; an ultimate act.
The first Beatitude and the Last offer the same thing: The Kingdom of Heaven. The first Beatitude and the Last offer the same thing in the present tense while the other Beatitudes speak of things to come. The persecution is happening now because the Kingdom is not something for the future. The Kingdom has come, and the Kingdom of this world stands in opposition. The Kingdom of truth meets the Kingdom of lies. The Kingdom of freedom meets the Kingdom of slavery and bondage. The Kingdom of Life meets the Kingdom of Death. The truly blessed, those who bear witness in glory to the one who is Blessed and whose life is Beatitude, do so for the sake of righteousness. They do so for the sake of the one who is poor, merciful, meek, hungry, mourning, pure, and making peace. He is Beatitude. In as much as we conform ourselves to him, then we shall expect to be persecuted, but we shall do so with joy which is that inner delight that never changes no matter what the circumstances.
It is surely no accident that the people who do get martyred are often precisely the people who have shown the most love. We are sometimes bewildered when we hear, for instance, of devoted missionaries being killed by those whom they have served for years with unfailing generosity. “Why them? We ask in perplexity and distress. Could it not be that it was precisely their devoted service which draws martyrdom towards them? Because they have been seen to love, they give confidence to those who are unsure of love; but this confidence eventually becomes a need to probe further. Their final sacrifice is very much a sacrifice of love, and who can say what its fruit may be?
Christ did not come to make life easy, but to make us great. From the times of the Roman Empire to this day, the only crime of a Christian is that they put Christ before all others. Suffering persecution makes things easier for those who follow. We ought not forget that truth. We enjoy the blessing of liberty and freedom which we possess because men in the past were willing to buy them for us at the cost of blood. They made it easier for us, and by our own steadfast witness for Christ we may make it easier for others who are still to come. It has always seemed to me that those who suffer for Christ are the closest to Christ, for they suffer with Christ, and Christ suffers with them. There is always one question: “Why”? “Why does the church suffer at all?” The answer is that suffering is inevitable because the church is the conscience of the world. Where there is something great, the Church must praise. Where there is something wrong, the Church must condemn, and inevitably there will be an effort to silence the troublesome voice of conscience.
For most of us, being persecuted for the sake of Christ is not going to mean anything very public of glorious; it is going to mean an endless and boring array of petty harassments. And the “they” who persecute us will, in all probability not be obvious enemies, but our friends and neighbors. This is the persecution that is real and the persecution that is ours, and because it is so subtle, so petty, and so little, it may not seem to measure up to what people like Archbishop Romero, the Sisters in El Salvador, or Stan Rother have experienced, but it will be in the measure of our capacity for bearing that persecution and facing it with Joy because of the company we keep in that experience.
For three days now we have opened ourselves to the light and to the wisdom of the Gospel of Matthew. The first beatitude promised the kingdom to those who were poor in sprit. The last promises the kingdom to those who are persecuted. And so, at the end, we learn again how the Kingdom of God is rooted in the mystery of the One who proclaimed it, proclaims it still, the Lord Jesus himself. He, the poor and persecuted, the suffering servant, was alone among human kind meek and pure of heart. He above all others hungered and thirsted for his Father’s holiness. He alone touched the depths of both the human and divine sorrow, and alone showed perfect mercy. It is only because we share his spirit that we can hear his words, accept them, and being slowly and painfully transformed manifest them in our lives. It is always through him that we utter Amen to the glory of God the Father.
Having reached the end of the Beatitudes, we ask ourselves if there is any place on this earth for the community they describe. There is only one place and that is where the poorest and meekest of true humans is found, on the cross of Golgotha. The fellowship of the beatitudes is the fellowship of the crucified. With him his followers have lost all and with him they have found all and from the cross there comes the call: Blessed. Blessed. It is there we see the ultimate expression of Beatitude. It is there we see the poor the meek the merciful the peace possessing and the persecuted once there we see the ultimate blessing/beatitude. His Son giving everything for us in an ultimate act love. Die to self-Make our lives a Beatitude a full and free gift of ourselves to be the blessing of God to the world.
Perhaps the best way to conclude this week together is to recognize that we have all gotten into the boat and set sail for the other side. Along the way, the storms come up and we get frightened and discouraged and are not too sure that we are going to make it to the other side. It is easy to forget who is in the boat with us. As the story is told, he sleeps some of the time. As the story is told, when they wake him up, he does not rebuke them at all, but turns and rebukes the wind and the waves. My best guess is that he turned and looked at them with a smile, rolled his eyes and shrugged shaking his head and went back to sleep. The real heart of this story and the thing to remember is that every now and then, we need to remember who is with us and wake him up. Wouldn’t it be foolish to sink the boat because we never woke him up?