Christ’s fourth beatitude, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” cuts to the rotten flesh at the heart of the modern world.
It shows a striking difference between our culture and all others, especially our own culture’s past. As Solzhenitsyn said in his great and shocking 1978 Harvard commencement address, nothing more conspicuously distinguishes us than our lack of courage, our lack of passion.
You see this strikingly when you live in another culture, or even when you read the writings of another culture, like the Middle Ages or ancient Israel. Kierkegaard says in Either/Or,
Let others complain that our age is wicked; my complaint is that it is wretched, for it lacks passion. Men’s thoughts are thin and flimsy like lace; they are themselves are pitiable like lace makers. The thoughts of their hearts are too paltry to be sinful. For a worm it might be regarded as a sin to harbor such thoughts, but not for a being made in the image of God.
Even their lusts are dull and sluggish, their passions sleepy. They do their duty, these shop-keeping souls, but they clip the coin a trifle. … They think that even if the Lord keeps a careful set of books, they may still cheat Him a little. Out upon them!
This is the reason my soul always turns back to the Old Testament and Shakespeare. Those who speak there are at least human beings: they hate; they love; they murder their enemies, and curse their descendants throughout all generations; they sin.
The greatest good, according to our culture’s primary prophets, is self-esteem, self-satisfaction. Christ shocks us by blessing dissatisfaction, not the dissatisfaction with our place in the world, not worldly ambition, the profit motive, the American Dream, hunger for glory, honor, fame, power, wealth or success, but hunger and thirst for righteousness, for sanctity — dissatisfaction with our sins, passionate thirst for a sanctity we know we do not have, and know we must have.
There is one thing in the lives of all the saints that turns us off, and cuts of off, from perhaps the single most effective evangelistic weapon in the Church’s arsenal — using the lives of the saints — and that is the saints’ passionate insistence that they are great sinners, and their insistent passion for holiness. It’s not that we do not admire holiness; it’s that we do not admire the passion for holiness, the hunger and thirst for righteousness.
What Christ blesses, we curse as fanaticism, our soft, sophisticated culture’s worst insult. But this is Christ’s blessing. More than a blessing, it is a requirement. It is what our Lord requires us to be in order to be his, that is, to be a saint, that is, a fanatic, to love one thing infinitely, to put all our eggs in his basket. It contains only one pearl of great price. He uses a shocking word for our Laodicean [vocab: Lukewarm or halfhearted, esp. with respect to religion or politics] niceness: “Because you are neither hot nor cold I will spit you out of my mouth.” He is content with us only if we are discontent with ourselves.
Freud wrote that our civilization’s success in seeking contentment has produced instead greater discontent — a profound question, but he did not know the answer why. I think that was the profoundest thing he ever wrote, only one step from Augustine’s great answer, that our hearts are restless until they rest in God.
Pascal, on the other hand, knew why, for his patient, unlike Freud’s, was himself, and his psychoanalyst, unlike Freud’s, was not himself, but Christ. And therefore he knew why we multiply our passions for little things, and decrease our passion for great thing, why we multiply diversions, and cultivate indifference, especially to death and our eternal destiny. He knew where this disease came from. He wrote,
The fact that there exist men who are indifferent to the loss of their whole being and the peril of an eternity of wretchedness is against nature. With everything else they are quite different: they fear the most trifling things. They foresee them and feel them. The same man who spends many days and nights in fury and despair at losing some office, or some imaginary affront to his honor, is the very one who knows that he is going to lose everything through death, but feels neither anxiety nor emotion. It is a monstrous thing to see one and the same heart at once so sensitive to minor things and so strangely insensitive to the greatest. It is an incomprehensible spell, a supernatural torpor that points to a supernatural power as its cause.
Many thinkers have written sentences that begin like this: “There are only two kinds of people” or “There are only three kinds of people”. In fact, one version goes like this: “There are only two kinds of people, those who believe there are only two kinds of people, and those who don’t.” But Pascal’s version is the best I have ever heard. He writes, “There are only three kinds of people: those who seek God and have found Him — these are wise and happy; those who seek God and have not yet found Him — these are wise and unhappy; and those who live without either seeking God or finding Him — and these are both unwise and unhappy.” You see, it is the seeking, the hungering and thirsting, that makes all the difference, in fact, the eternal difference. Jesus said it even more succinctly than Pascal (Jesus spoke more succinctly than anyone ever): “Seek and you shall find,” implying that non-seekers do not find.
The Pharisees were non-seekers, like the pop psychologists, full of self-esteem. Therefore he said to them that he had come on earth to save everyone but them. He said, “Those who are sick need a physician, not those who are well. I came to call not the righteous, but sinners.”
Socrates said the same thing: on the intellectual level, there are only two kinds of people, fools who believe they are wise, and the wise who believe they are fools. Pascal says: “There are two kinds of people: sinners, who believe they are saints, and saints, who believe they are sinners.” Jesus says that the wise “fools” and the saints are right, and the clear empirical test for the difference between them is the hunger and thirst, the passion, the discontent.
When Christ says that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, that is, for sanctity, shall be satisfied, does he mean they shall be satisfied only in the next life? I think he means they will begin to be satisfied even in this one. Already in this life the saints have a peace and a joy that the world cannot give. They are at the same time dissatisfied and satisfied, like Romeo with Juliet, like you listening to a great symphony, or watching a great storm at sea.
By a wonderful paradox, the refusal to accept self-esteem turns out to be the highest self-esteem. To accept the title “sinner” means you are the King’s kid acting like an ape. To refuse that title and accept yourself as you are means that you are only a clever, successfully evolved ape, even when you act like a prince. What a privilege to sing, “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!” No ape, however evolved, can rise to the dignity of being a wretch. Only one destined for infinite, unending, and unimaginable ecstasy in spiritual marriage to God can bear the dignity of being a wretch. Only the betrothed is wretched until united with the Spouse.