The Light of the Beatitudes Casts Shadows

by Jim Forest

In the Soviet time, a certain comedian developed a stage act in which he played a drunken priest. Dressed in robes for the Liturgy and armed with a censor exhaling thick clouds of incense, he did a comic imitation of the Liturgy. Part of the performance was to recite the Beatitudes but with altered words — one can imagine such alterations as “blessed are the cheese makers” — while struggling to control the censor. His had done the act time and again and been complimented by the authorities for his work in promoting atheism. But on one occasion things didn’t go as planned. Instead of saying his revised version of the Beatitudes in his well-rehearsed comic manner, he chanted them as they are actually sung in a real Liturgy, and instead of inspiring laughter he listened to the sacred words that were coming out of his mouth. He listened and something happened in the depths of his soul. He fell to his knees weeping. He had to be led from the stage and never again parodied the sacred. It was the beginning of a new life. What happened to him later on I don’t know. The authorities would have been unforgiving. Probably he was one more of those sent into the gulag. Whatever his fate, be brought the Beatitudes with him.

Truly, the Beatitudes can change one’s life.

Such a short text — only ten verses long.

“Blessed” is the most repeated word in these ten verses. It’s not a word we use very much. When was the last time you used the word “blessed” in daily conversation? What does it mean?

In the Latin translation of the Greek text made in the fourth century, St Jerome chose the word beatus, the Latin word for “happy.” The result is that in some modern English translations “blessed” has been replaced with “happy,” but “happy” doesn’t tell us much. We are happy we didn’t miss a train, happy that we passed a test, happy something lost or stolen was returned to us… It doesn’t take much to be happy. Happiness tends to be a transient condition.

What we need to do is look closely at the Greek word makarios.

Many Jews spoke Greek fluently and even used it as a first language. It was at an early date, well before the end of the first century, that the Greek text of Matthew’s Gospel was written down. It may even be that Matthew wrote it in Greek.

Let’s look closely at this key word, makarios. In classical Greek makar was a word associated with the immortal gods. The second syllable comes from kari which means fate or death. It may be related to the Sanskrit word karma, meaning an action with consequences that determine your fate. According to the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation, someone who has made unfortunate choices might be described as having “bad karma” — thus his fate will not be enviable.

Add to “kari” the negative prefix “ma” and you get makar and from that the adjective makarios — a word that means being deathless, no longer subject to fate. It’s a condition both inaccessible and longed for by mortals. Avoiding death is on of the main projects of mortal life, and fear of death the main fear for a great many people. It was because of their immortality that the gods, the hoi makarioi, were regarded as the blessed ones. Unlike human beings, they could do as they pleased without paying the price of death.

If we look for a word in our own language that might take the place of blessed, one possibility would be “deathless” or “immortal.” In the case of the Beatitudes, we could say, “Immortal are the poor in spirit.”

Even better, we could use the paschal proclamation: risen from the dead. Thus,

Risen from the dead are the poor in spirit…
Risen from the dead are they who mourn…
Risen from the dead are the meek…
Risen from the dead are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness…
Risen from the dead are the merciful…
Risen from the dead are the pure of heart…
Risen from the dead are the peacemakers…
Risen from the dead are the persecuted…

Where do we find the Beatitudes in the New Testament? Is there any special significance about the location of these ten verses?

The Beatitudes are the first lengthy text in the Gospels from the mouth of Jesus — a succinct presentation of his teaching of Jesus. The Beatitudes, the opening verses of the Sermon the Mount, are a summary of that message, so short that it can be easily memorized.

Keep in mind that, in the early Church, the New Testament had not yet been assembled as a canonical book. During the first few centuries of the Christian era, it was a major labor the Church to decide which accounts of Christ’s life were authentic and which were false, unreliable or were instruments of heresy.

When at last the New Testament as we know it became a canonical text, it was certainly not by accident that Matthew’s account of Christ’s life was made the first book. One result of that decision is that it put the Sermon on the Mount, and thus the Beatitudes, in a very prominent a location — the gate through which we enter in book of good news.

In the Slavic tradition we normally sing the Beatitudes, this summary of the Gospel, at exactly the time when the Gospel Book is being carried in procession into the church nave and then back into the sanctuary. Sunday after Sunday we hear these same ten verses sung over and over. The result is that they become deeply embedded not only in our memory, but in our heart. What more could the Church do to impress these life-giving words upon us? I can imagine there are aged people with dementia, people who can hardly remember family names or recall who is alive and who is dead, but who can still sing the Beatitudes.

We are supposed not just to memorize the Beatitudes but let them burn in our thoughts like candles. Quite literally, they are meant to illumine us.

Let’s look briefly at the each of the Beatitudes — so easily recited but about which so much could be said.

First, think for a moment about their order. Do you see a kind of architecture in them? Would it make any difference if the beatitude of peacemaking came first and poverty of spirit came last? Can we arrange them any way we like?

The Beatitudes connect with each and depend on each other. Each Beatitude builds on the ones below. For example if you want to be a peacemaker but have an impure heart, what you will do in the name of peace will only drive people further apart and increase violence in the world. If you hunger and thirst for righteousness but have no mercy, your righteousness may damage rather than heal.

We can describe the Beatitudes as a ladder reaching from the hard earth on which we live to a paradise more perfect than the paradise of Adam and Eve.

The first Beatitude is the foundation of all that follow: Risen from the dead are the poor in spirit…

Poverty of spirit is the essential beginning, the context of discipleship. None of the Beatitudes that follow are possible apart from poverty of spirit. Without it we cannot begin to follow Christ.

What does poverty of spirit mean? It is my awareness that I cannot save myself, that I am basically defenseless, that neither money nor power will spare me from suffering and death, and that no matter what I achieve and acquire in this life, it will be far less than I wanted. Poverty of spirit is my awareness that I need God’s help and mercy more than I need anything else. Poverty of spirit is getting free of the rule of fear, fear being the great force which restrains us from acts of love. Being poor in spirit means letting go of the myth that the more I possess, the happier I’ll be. Poverty of spirit is a letting go of self and of all that keeps you locked in yourself. In the words of Dostoevsky, “Blessed are they who have nothing to lock up.”

“The first beatitude,” comments Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, “stands at the threshold of the Kingdom of God…. Blessed are those who have understood that they are nothing in themselves, possess nothing that they dare call ‘their own’. If they are ‘something’, it is because they are loved of God and because they know for certain that their worth in God’s eyes can be measured by the humiliation of the Son of God.”

Poverty of spirit is not something we can achieve by having no possessions. While most saints had little personal property, there are also saints who, at least for a substantial part of their lives, possessed a great deal and lived in comfort, rarely worrying about a roof over their heads or a pillow under it.

As Saint Leo the Great observed: “While it cannot be doubted that poverty of spirit is more easily acquired by the poor than the rich, for submissiveness is the companion of those in want, even in many of the rich is found that spirit which uses its abundance not for the increasing of its pride but on works of mercy, regarding as the highest profit that which it expends in the relief of others’ hardships.”

When you look closely at the life of the saints, you discover what they had or didn’t have was part of their particular obedience to Christ. All the saints are linked by poverty of spirit. All the saints lived an ascetic life. All of them approached God in a state of destitution, seeking as a matter of life or death to know God’s will in their lives and to live it, for God not only creates us but gives each of us a unique identity, a unique responsibility, a unique path to follow on the way to heaven. Poverty of spirit — the condition of being a spiritual beggar — is seeking to live God’s will rather than one’s own.

Each Beatitude raises questions. Here are several to consider: Do I really seek to know and embrace God’s will in my life? Am I regularly praying that God will give me poverty of spirit? Do I keep the Church fasts that would help strengthen my capacity to live this Beatitude? Am I willing to be seen as odd or stupid by those whose lives are dominated by values opposing the Beatitudes? When tempted to buy things I don’t need, do I pray for strength to resist?

On to the next rung on the ladder: Risen from the dead are they who mourn…

The word used in the Greek New Testament, penthein, signifies intimate, intense, heart-breaking sorrow.

Poverty of spirit is inseparable from mourning. Without poverty of spirit, I am always on guard to keep what I have for myself, and to keep me for myself. An immediate consequence of poverty of spirit is becoming sensitive to the pain and losses of people around me, not only those whom I happen to know and care for, but also people I don’t know and don’t want to know. To the extent I open my heart to others, I will do whatever I can to help — pray, share what I have, even share myself. Not only am I called to mourn the tragedies others suffer but to mourn for my sinful self, who so often has failed to see, to notice to care, to respond, to share, to love.

Christ too shed tears. The shortest verse in the Bible has just two words, “Jesus wept.” Christ stood before the tomb of his friend Lazarus and, before summoning him back to life, he cried.

This is not the only time we know he shed tears. The other occasion happened as he stood gazing at Jerusalem from a distance. “And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it.” It must have been a bewildering experience for his disciples. They saw a shining, golden-walled city dominated by its great Temple, with people like themselves streaming busily in and out of the fortified gateways. Jesus saw what had not yet happened, Jerusalem’s destruction, the suffering of the city’s inhabitants, and the enslavement and deportation of its survivors. He wept for the victims of a catastrophe decades in the future, but so real to him, so immediate, so devastating, that he grieved as if it was happening at that moment. He said to those who were with him, “Would that today you knew the things that make for peace!”

Questions to consider: Do I seek to do the things that make for peace? Do I weep with those who weep? Have I mourned those in my own family who have died? Do I open my thoughts and feelings to the suffering and losses of others? Do I open my heart to the calamities of others who may be far away and neither speak my language nor share my faith?

Now up another rung on the ladder… Risen from the dead are the meek…

Often confused with weakness, a meek person is neither spineless or cowardly. Understood biblically, meekness is making choices and exercising power with a divine rather than a social reference point. Meekness is the essential quality of the human being in relationship to God. Without meekness, we cannot align ourselves with God’s will. In place of humility we prefer pride — pride in who we are, pride in doing as we please, pride in what we’ve achieved, pride in the national or ethnic group to which we happen to belong. Meekness has nothing to do with blind obedience or social conformity. A meek Christian does not allow himself to be dragged along by the tides of our passions or by political power. Such a rudderless person has cut himself off from his own conscience, God’s voice in his heart, and thrown away his God-given freedom. Meekness is an attribute of following Christ no matter what risks are involved.

Questions to consider: When I read the Bible or writings about the saints, do I consider what the implications are in my own life? Do I pray for God’s guidance? Do I seek help with urgent questions in confession? Do I tend to make choices and adopt ideas that will help me fit in to the group I want to be part of? Do I fear the criticism or ridicule of others for my efforts to live a Gospel-centered life? Do I listen to others? Do I tell the truth even in difficult circumstances?

The next rung… Risen from the dead are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness…

In his teaching about the Last Judgment, Christ speaks of hunger and thirst: “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink.” To hunger and thirst for something is not a mild desire but a desperate craving. Our salvation hinges on our caring for the least person as we would for Christ himself. Did he not say, “What you have done to the least person you have done to me”?

To hunger and thirst for righteousness means to urgently desire that which is honorable, right and true. A righteous person is a right-living person, living a moral, blameless life, right with both God and neighbor. A righteous social order would be one in which no one is abandoned or thrown away, in which people live in peace with God, with each other and with the world God has given us.

Questions to consider: Does it disturb me that I live in a world which in many ways is the opposite of the kingdom of heaven? When I pray “your kingdom come, you will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” am I praying that my own life might better reflect the God’s priorities? Who is “the least” person in my day-to-day world? Do I try to see Christ’s face in him or her?

Up one more rung… Risen from the dead are the merciful…

One of the dangers of pursuing righteousness is that one can become self-righteousness. If all you have is a thirst for righteousness, how easy it is to become merciless. This is why the next rung of the ladder of the Beatitudes is the commandment of mercy. Mercy is the quality of self-giving love, of gracious deeds done for those in need.

Twice in the Gospels Christ makes his own the words of the Prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” We witness mercy in event after event in the Gospel accounts of Christ’s life — forgiving, healing, freeing, correcting, even repairing the wound of a men injured by Peter in his effort to protect his master. Again and again Christ declares that those who seek God’s mercy must be merciful others. The principle is included in the only prayer Christ taught his disciples, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” He calls on his followers to love their enemies and to pray for them. The moral of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that a neighbor is a person who comes to the aid of a stranger in need. No where in the Gospel do we hear Christ advocating anyone’s death or blessing his followers to kill anyone. At the Last Judgment Christ receives into the kingdom of heaven those who were merciful.

Questions to consider: When I see a stranger in need, how do I respond? Is Christ’s mercy evident in my life? Am I willing to extend forgiveness to those who seek it? Am I generous with my time and material possessions to those in need? Do I pray for my enemies? Do I try to assist them if they are in need? Have I been an enemy to anyone? What am I doing to make my society more welcoming, more caring, more life-protecting?

Now we ascend to the next rung… Risen from the dead are the pure of heart…

Christ didn’t say, “Blessed are the pure in mind” or “Blessed are the brilliant in mind.” Instead he blesses purity of heart. But in our world the brain has come up in the world while the heart has been demoted. The heart used to be recognized as the center of God’s activity within us, the hub of human identity and conscience, linked with our capacity to love, the core of both physical but also spiritual life — the zero point of the human soul. The Greek word for purity, katharos, means spotless, stainless, unbroken, perfect, free from anything that defiles or corrupts.

What then is a pure heart? A heart free of possessiveness, a heart capable of mourning, a heart which thirsts for what is right, a merciful heart, a loving heart, a heart not ruled by passions, an undivided heart, a heart aware of the image of God in others, a heart drawn to beauty, a heart aware of God’s presence in creation. A pure heart is a heart without contempt for others. In the words of Saint Isaac of Syria, “A person is truly pure of heart when he considers all human beings as good and no created thing appears impure or defiled to him.”

Opposing purity of heart is lust of any kind — for wealth, for recognition, for power, for vengeance, for using others as sexual objects. A rule of prayer in daily life helps heal, guard and unify the heart. “Always keep your mind collected in your heart,” instructed the great teacher of prayer, Saint Theofan the Recluse. The Jesus Prayer — the Prayer of the Heart — is part of a tradition of spiritual life which helps move the center of consciousness from the mind to the heart. Purification of the heart is the striving to place the mind under the rule of the heart, the mind representing the analytic and organizational aspect of consciousness. Purification of the heart is the lifelong struggle of seeking a more God-centered life, a heart illuminated with the presence of the Holy Trinity.

Questions to consider: Am I attentive to beauty in people, nature and in the arts? Do I take care not to read or look at things that stir up lust? Do I avoid using words which soil my mouth? Am I sarcastic about others? Is a rhythm of prayer part of my daily life? Do I prepare carefully for communion, never taking it for granted? Do I observe fasting days and seasons? Am I aware of and grateful for God’s gifts?

We’re well up the ladder now. Next comes: Risen from the dead are the peacemakers…

Christ is often called the Prince of Peace. He calls us not simply to be in favor of peace — nearly everyone is — but makers of peace. The peacemaker is anyone who helps heal damaged relationships. Throughout the Gospel we see Christ bestowing peace. In his final discourse before his arrest, he says to the Apostles: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” After the Resurrection, he greets his followers with the words, “Peace be with you.” He instructs his followers that, on entering a house, their first action should be the blessing, “Peace be upon this house.” Christ is at his most paradoxical when he says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” He is speaking not of a sword that sheds blood but the sword of division. We see how those who try to live Christ’s peace may find themselves in trouble, as all those who have died a martyr’s death bear witness.

Sadly, for most of us the peace we long for is not the Kingdom of God but a slightly improved version of the world we already have. We would like to get rid of conflict without eliminating the spiritual and material factors that draw us into conflict.

The peacemaker knows that ends never stand apart from means: figs do not grow from thistles; neither is community brought into being by hatred and violence. A peacemaker is aware that each person, even those who seem to be possessed by evil spirits, is made in the image of God and is capable of change and conversion.

Questions to consider: In my family, in my parish and among co-workers, am I guilty of sins which cause or deepen division and conflict? Do I seek forgiveness when I realize I am in the wrong? Or am I always justifying what I do no matter what pain or harm it causes others? Do I regard it as a waste of time to communicate with opponents? Do I listen with care and respect to those who irritate me? Do I pray for the well-being and salvation of adversaries and enemies? Do I allow what others say or what the press reports to define my attitude toward people I have never met? Do I take positive steps to overcome division? Are there people I regard as not bearing God’s image and therefore innately evil?

Only now do we reach the top of the ladder: Risen from the dead are the persecuted…

The last rung of the Beatitudes is where we reach the Cross. “We must carry Christ’s cross as a crown of glory,” wrote Saint John Chrysostom, “for it is by it that everything that is achieved among us is gained…. Whenever you make the sign of the cross on your body, think of what the cross means and put aside anger and every other passion. Take courage and be free in the soul.”

In the ancient world Christians were persecuted chiefly because they were regarded as undermining the social order even though in most respects they were models of civil obedience and good conduct. But Christians refused to treat kings and emperors as gods. They would not sacrifice to gods their neighbors venerated, and were notable for their objection to war or bloodshed in any form. Is it surprising that a community which lived by such values, however well-behaved, would be regarded as a threat by the government?

“Both the Emperor’s commands and those of others in authority must be obeyed if they are not contrary to the God of heaven,” said Saint Euphemia in the year 303 during the reign of Diocletian. “If they are, they must not only not be disobeyed; they must be resisted.” Following torture, she was killed by a bear — the kind of death endured by thousands of Christians well into the fourth century, though the greatest number of Christian martyrs belong to the twentieth century, in Russia most of all. Just to be a Christian believer was to be seen by the state as an enemy. In many countries religious persecution continues this very day.

Questions to consider: Does fear play a bigger role in my life than love? Do I hide my faith or live it in a timid, half-hearted way? When I am ordered to do something which conflicts with Christ’s teaching, whom do I follow? Am I aware of those who are suffering for righteousness sake in my own country and elsewhere in the world? Am I praying for them? Am I doing anything to help them? Do I understand that each Christian is called to carry the cross — not he cross we choose but the cross that is given to us?

At the very top of the ladder of the Beatitudes we reach the resurrection, the joy of no longer being a captive of fear and a prisoner of death. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

One last thought: Climbing the ladder of the Beatitudes is a daily task. When you fall off you start again. It helps to know these ten verses by heart and think about them. Recite them as a prayer. Recite them with your heart. Let them question you. Use them as a light when you are preparing for confession and communion.

talk by Jim Forest for a session of the parish retreat at St Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam 24 March 2012. The text draws on two books: Ladder of the Beatitudes and Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness, both published by Orbis.

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Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar

[email protected]

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