The Ladder of the Beatitudes

I was thinking during All Saints Mass, in our university chapel, of a nice hokey homily one could give.  All Saints celebrates, among other things, the unnamed, uncelebrated saints.  The marvelous reading from Revelation says, “from every nation, race, people, and tongue.”  We could add, from every walk of life: unnoticed stay-at-home moms, grandmothers, homeless men, garbage men, mailmen, and accountants.

And then, with the reading of the Beatitudes, you could say, here are various kinds of sanctity.  Wherever there is true poverty of spirit, there lies a hidden saint.  Wherever there is Christian mourning, genuine meekness, deep hunger and thirst for justice, authentic mercy – those are saints.  The pure of heart and the peacemakers: two more kinds of saints.

That would be a nice little homily to help those struggling with the idea of sanctity to consider that saints live not only among the statues, but in real virtues in real life.  That would be a helpful homily, and true, and rich.

***

But I’d like to take advantage of today’s reading of the Beatitudes to go a step deeper.  Because, although they show various faces of sanctity, they are not just a disjointed list.  The tradition sees in them a united whole: though it might be helpful to think of them as different faces of sanctity, in truth, there is never one without the others.  Even more, they are an ordered whole, building from bottom to top in a ladder of sanctity.

This post is going to be too long, and I’m only going to be able to hint at this ladder.  But I hope I can give you something to meditate on.

***

There is something funny about the structure of the Beatitudes.  Eight times, Jesus speaks in the third person: “Blessed are they.”  But then at the end, he says, “Blessed are you.”  The setting is, “His disciples came to him.  He began to teach them.”  They might be interested in what he has to say about some other “they” who are blessed – but most of all, they want him to address them as “you.”  When are we, your disciples, blessed?  Bless me, Lord!

All those other eight build up and culminate when he finally says, “Blessed are you”: “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.”  Before that last moment, he has not said, “you” and “me,” but here is the summit.

Our reading from Revelation today said, about all the saints, “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.”  Somehow, it all comes to a head in being persecuted because of him, being united to his cross, bathing in the Blood of the Lamb by passing through the time of distress.

Sanctity can only be union with Jesus, can only be motivated by our desire for identification with him.  And it only comes to perfection when that identification with him comes to suffering.  There is no true sanctity, no final beatitude, apart from being persecuted “because of me,” being bathed in the blood of the Lamb.  That’s the top of the ladder, the peak of sanctity.  Everything is there, in a nutshell.  This is the only beatitude addressed to “you,” his disciples.  We need to long for that persecution, which will come, one way or another.

***

BUT – we had better be careful, because not all persecution is “because of me.”  If you are hated because you use Christianity as an excuse to be a jerk, that is not the peak of sanctity.  It is not sanctity at all, just a cheap imitation.  And this is where the rest of the ladder comes in.

You can’t reach that top of the ladder without climbing the step before it: “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.”  That sounds almost the same, but it isn’t.  The perfect blessing is to be persecuted for the sake of him – but it is not for the sake of him unless it is also for the sake of righteousness.  Are you being a good person?  Only if you are can you claim that you are being persecuted for the sake of him, and not rightly slapped down for being a jerk.

But what is righteousness?  There is, of course, false righteousness, too.  You can’t reach that step of the ladder without the one before: “Blessed are the peacemakers.”  If you face conflict because you are causing conflict, there is no blessing in that.  But if you are making peace, bringing the peace of Jesus, then perhaps your persecution is for the sake of righteousness, and for the sake of him.  Jesus was crucified for being a peacemaker, not a jerk.

And what is peacemaking?  The step before is “blessed are the pure of heart.”  There are a lot of false kinds of peace, cheap imitations of the peace of Christ.  To make real peace – a positive thing – requires clearing away all the dross in your heart.  You cannot be a true peacemaker without first being pure of heart.

But purity of heart, too, can be false.  There are many kinds of purity – Nietzsche is scathing on this – defined more by our isolation from others than by real Christianity. To be pure by standing aloof is Phariseeism, not the way of Christ.  To be persecuted for that kind of holier-than-thou attitude is not persecution for righteousness or persecution for Christ, and it can’t make real peace.  No, to have true purity of heart, we need first to climb the step before: “Blessed are the merciful.”

And of course there is false mercy, as well – parallel to spoiling children, which gives them what they want not for love of them but in hopes that they will leave you alone.  That’s not mercy, that’s a cheap imitation.  Real mercy, too, requires the step before: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.”  Benedict XVI has a nice line about this: don’t say you are giving to others from what is yours unless you first give them what is theirs; love and mercy are greater than justice, but don’t tell me you love me if you won’t be just to me.  Only a passion for justice, a real desire to set things right, results in true mercy.

Ah, but justice – well, the problem with this step might be the most obvious of all.  Because we know crusaders for justice are often inhuman.  St. James says, “The wrath of man does not work out the righteousness of God.”  Most of our claims to be fighting for justice or righteousness are rooted not in righteousness, but in our demand for our own rights, and our desire to fight.  And so the previous step is necessary: Blessed are the meek.  Until we have conquered our anger with meekness, our claims to be hungering and thirsting for justice are bogus.

And how can I be meek?  First I must be aware of my sin: “Blessed are those who mourn.”  Before I can heal the problem, I need to see the problem.  I have to be pierced by the unrighteousness of men, by the tragedy of my sin and the sin of others.  Without that mourning, I might be mousy or conflict-averse, but I am not meek.

And – this is the bottom rung of the ladder – I cannot mourn as a Christian until I abandon earthly splendor: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” which (says St. Thomas, quoting Augustine and Ambrose) says either means the renuncation of pride or the spiritual renunciation of worldly goods.  Until I have abandoned worldliness, in either or both of those ways, I will always be mourning for the wrong things, for the loss of earthly goods instead of the loss of my soul.

***

Well, this post is too long.  But the point is, if you memorize the Beatitudes – or just take a Bible with you to prayer – you can meditate on how they fit together.  There is not one without the others.  Each one guarantees the truth of the others.  And there is a ladder, climbing from our renunciation of earthly goods in poverty of spirit all the way to being persecuted, not for our own stupidity or meanness, but for Jesus himself.

eric.m.johnston

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.