Climbing the Ladder of the Beatitudes

Anastasis – Christ Harrowing Hell (Chora Church in Istanbul)

by Jim Forest

I want to begin with a story, but first I have to preface it with a little information about how the liturgy is carried out in the Orthodox Church. During the service, there are two processions. During the first half, the liturgy of the word, a book containing only the four Gospels is carried through the church and is then placed on the altar. During the second half, the liturgy of communion, a similar procession carries bread and wine to the altar.

During the first procession, it’s the tradition in the Russian Orthodox Church to sing the Beatitudes. The reason is simple. The Beatitudes — the first ten verses of the Sermon on the Mount — are a compact summary of the teaching of Jesus. The Church wants everyone, even children, to know the Beatitudes by heart. Singing them at every liturgy makes memorization easy. There are Orthodox people suffering from dementia, people who can no longer remember family names or recall who is alive and who is dead or identify whose face they see when they look in the mirror, but who can still sing the Beatitudes.

The second fact I should mention is that, in the decades following the Bolshevik revolution, the Soviet state made a very serious effort to destroy the Church and to convert everyone to atheism. Religious education was forbidden, atheist education was compulsory. Churches and monasteries were turned to other uses or simply destroyed. In the 1980s and 90s, I often stood in the ruins of Russian churches. Many thousands of Christians were executed. Millions more died in the labor camps known as the Gulag Archipelago.

Now the story: In the Stalin years, a popular Russian comedian developed a stage act in which he played a drunken priest. Dressed in wine-stained priestly robes and armed with a censor exhaling thick clouds of incense, he did a comic imitation of the  liturgy. Part of his performance was to chant the Beatitudes but with distorted words —such alterations as “blessed are they who hunger and thirst for vodka”  and “blessed are the cheese makers” — while struggling to manage his out-of-control censor and to remain more or less upright. He had done his act time and again and been rewarded by the authorities for his work in promoting atheism and in making worship seem ridiculous.

But on one occasion things didn’t go as planned. Perhaps he was actually drunk rather than pretending. Or perhaps he was ashamed of his many desecrations of piety and beauty. Instead of saying his garbled version of the Beatitudes in his well-rehearsed comic manner, he chanted the sentences as they are actually sung in a real Liturgy. His attention was focused not on the audience but on the life-giving words that were coming out of his mouth, words he had learned and sung as a child. He listened to the memorized words and something happened in the depths of his soul. After singing the final Beatitude, he fell to his knees weeping. He had to be led from the stage and never again parodied the sacred. Probably he was sent to a labor camp, but even so it’s a story of a happy moment in his life. He had begun a new life in a condition of spiritual freedom that no prison can take away. Whatever his fate, be brought the Beatitudes and his recovered faith with him.

Truly, the Beatitudes can change one’s life.

The Beatitudes are such a short text — eight of them and only ten verses long. “Blessed” is the most repeated word in the most familiar English translation. What does it mean? To find out, let’s look at the oldest text of the Gospels in the Greek New Testament. Here the key word at the start of each Beatitude is makarios.

In ancient times, many Jews spoke Greek fluently and even used it as their first language. The oldest Bible that has come down to us, the Septuagint, was written not in Hebrew but in Greek by Jewish scholars in Alexandria about 650 years before Christ. It was before the end of the first century that the Greek text of Matthew’s Gospel was written down. It’s likely Matthew wrote it in Greek.

Here we encounter the beautiful Greek word makarios, a word derived from makar, a term referring to the state of the gods, a state beyond suffering and anxiety, a state that is free of death. For the Greeks the most impressive attribute of the gods was that they were immortal.

Adapted to Christian usage, makarios means participating in the life of God, a transformation which has its own Greek word, theosis, that is an intimate sharing in God’s Being, thus the ultimate joy, a happiness without the fault lines of death running through it. There is no higher gift. We are not simply capable of an intellectual awareness that God exists or of studying God as an astronomer might study the night sky all the while knowing the stars are unbridgeable distances away. The blessing extended to us is participation in the communion of the Holy Trinity, sharing in God’s immortality, and being endowed with qualities that seem humanly impossible.

How might we translate the word makarios in a way that makes its meaning clearer? I suggest “free from the fear of death” or, even simpler, “risen from the dead.” To the extent we follow Christ we become people whose choices are not driven by fear and death. Thus we can say:

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 they who are persecuted for righteousness sake…

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 of the Church to decide which accounts of Christ’s life were authentic and which were false, unreliable, or were vehicles of heresy that undermined the Gospel.

When at last the New Testament 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 location — the gateway through which we enter into the book of good news. The Beatitudes are the first lengthy text in the Gospels from the mouth of Jesus — a distilled presentation of his teaching.

We are supposed not just to memorize the Beatitudes — that’s only a first step — but to let them burn in our thoughts like a row of candles. Quite literally, they are meant to illumine us.

Let’s look very briefly at the each of the Beatitudes.

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? I don’t think so.

The Beatitudes connect with each other 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 is likely to 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 Eden of Adam and Eve, what Christ calls the kingdom of God.

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 without poverty of spirit. But what does poverty of spirit mean? It’s 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 what 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 that restrains us from acts of love. Poverty of spirit is a letting go of all that keeps me locked in myself, imprisoned in myself. Being poor in spirit means letting go of the myth that the more I possess, the happier I’ll be. In the words of Dostoevsky, “Blessed are they who have nothing to lock up.”

Poverty of spirit is not something we can achieve by having no possessions. When you look closely at the life of the saints, you discover what they had, little or much, was part of their particular vocation and 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 spiritual 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.

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

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 perhaps 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.

The second Beatitude is the Beatitude of tears. Christ 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 he shed tears. The other occasion we know of happened as he stood gazing from a distance at Jerusalem. “And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it.” It must have been a puzzling 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 city’s 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 very 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!”

Now up another rung on the ladder, the third Beatitude: Risen from the dead are the meek…

Often confused with weakness, in fact a meek person is neither spineless nor 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 or racial 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 passions or propaganda or political power or fear or imposed obedience. Such a rudderless person has cut himself off from his own conscience, that is from 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.

The next rung, the fourth Beatitude: 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 — caring to the point of hunger and thirst — 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 truthful, 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.

Up one more rung, the fifth Beatitude: 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 others.

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. Again and again Christ declares that those who seek God’s mercy must be merciful to 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. But how many enemies are we including in our daily prayers? The moral of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that a neighbor is whoever happens to be in front of us. Nowhere in the Gospel do we hear Christ advocating anyone’s death or blessing his followers to harm anyone. At the Last Judgment Christ receives into the kingdom of heaven those who were merciful.

Now we ascend to the next rung, the sixth Beatitude: 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 and 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 searching for the image of God in others, a heart drawn to beauty, a heart aware of God’s presence in each face. A pure heart is a heart without contempt or hatred of 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 or economic objects. A discipline of prayer in daily life helps heal, guard and unify the heart. “Always keep your mind collected in your heart,” instructed one of the great Russian teachers 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: “Lord Jesus, have mercy on us.” 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.

We’re well up the ladder now, almost at the top. Now comes the seventh Beatitude: 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. Another word for peacemaking is healing. We could say, “Risen from the dead are those who heal and those who repair.” Throughout the Gospel we see Christ bestowing peace with healing words and actions. 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 kills no one and calls no one to kill. The one act of bloodshed committed by his apostles was caused by over-zealous Peter injuring the ear of one of those who came to arrest Jesus, while Jesus’s last miracle before his crucifixion was the healing of that wound. In the words of one of the earliest Christian theologians, Clement of Alexandria, “The church is an army that sheds no blood.”

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 seeking to eliminate the spiritual and material factors that give rise to conflict.

The peacemaker knows that ends never stand apart from means: figs don’t grow from thistles; neither is community brought into being by glares, hatred and violence. A peacemaker is aware that each person, even those who seem to be slaves of evil, is made in the image of God and is capable of change and conversion. So much depends on how I relate to adversaries and enemies. So much depends on hospitality of the face.

One of the things a peacemaker isn’t is a war maker. He or she doesn’t foment hatred or conflict, steers clear of war-justifying propaganda, and doesn’t dehumanize the adversary but sees in each person a brother or sister, albeit in some cases estranged. We are challenged by the example of early Christians, who, like the Savior, took no part in bloodshed. They regarded themselves as patriots only of the kingdom of God.

Only now do we reach the top of the ladder, the eighth Beatitude: 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 refusal to take part in war or bloodshed in any form. Is it surprising that a community that lived by such values, however well-behaved, would be regarded as a threat by the government? And it still goes on. One pays a price for following Jesus rather than Caesar.

“Both the Emperor’s commands and those of others in authority must be obeyed if they are not contrary to the God of heaven, but if they are, they must not only not be disobeyed; they must be resisted,”said Saint Euphemia in the year 303 during the reign of Diocletian. Following torture, Euphemia 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. In many countries religious persecution continues to this very day.

At the very top of the ladder of the Beatitudes, beyond the eight rungs, 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.”

We’ve made a speedy climb up a tall ladder. Just one last comment: Climbing the ladder of the Beatitudes is a daily task in which we often fail. Every time you fall off, all you need to do is start again. While climbing, it helps to know the Beatitudes by heart and think about them often. Recite them as a prayer. Breathe them in and breathe them out. Recite them with your heart. Let them question you. Let them renew and reshape your life.

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Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands

[email protected]

15 August 2017

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One of Jim Forest’s books is “Ladder of the Beatitudes.” (Orbis)
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