Archive for the ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ Category

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Blessed Are the Poor — Anthony Esolen

March 7, 2014
As the great Karl Adam says, "Jesus loves the poor not simply because they are poor but because spiritually they are more capable than the rich of hearkening to the message of the coming kingdom, of hungering and thirsting after justice."

As the great Karl Adam says, “Jesus loves the poor not simply because they are poor but because spiritually they are more capable than the rich of hearkening to the message of the coming kingdom, of hungering and thirsting after justice.”

Jesus, strong in stature, His constitution toughened by years of the hard physical labor of His trade, and by His hale attraction to long walks, mountains, and the wilderness, climbed a hillside so that the crowds of people could hear Him. Among them were men, women, and children, the old and the young, the healthy and the sick, people who knew they were sinners, and people who didn’t. And Jesus, in a voice that must have made the hillside ring, uttered words unlike any that men had heard before: “Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God!” (Luke 6:20).

I’d be a liar if I said I know what those words mean. We could spend the rest of our lives, I think, meditating upon this first and most fundamental of the Beatitudes and never come to an end of drinking of its wisdom.

That is, if we want to drink of its wisdom. The noblest of the pagans would have shrunk from it. Aristotle, a practical philosopher if ever there was one, held that to be really happy a man needed some wealth, not so much for comfort as for the pleasure of being generous with it. You can’t be a great benefactor to your city unless you have some means.

What he would have said about the poor widow whom Jesus praised, who gave her small coins to the Temple, and who therefore “cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury” (Mark 12:43), I am not sure. He probably would have praised her too — but to call her “blessed,” that might have required a stretch of the imagination. Or more, infinitely more. It might have required the lifting of his human mind and heart to a new reality — as a sapling transplanted into another and brighter world.

But what do those words mean? Jesus was not sent among us to be a social worker, armed with a sheaf of strategies for eliminating poverty from the world. Indeed, He seems to suggest that that will never happen. “The poor always ye have with you” (John 12:8), says He. But that does not mean He is indifferent to the poor. Nothing could be further from the truth. He goes out to meet them. He feels deep pity for them. He inveighs against those who abuse them from their positions of prestige and wealth.

It is not hard to see Jesus’ preference for the company of sinners as also a preference for the poor. For who could be poorer, or more miserable, than the tax collector in His parable? The Pharisee strides with insouciance to the foremost reaches of the Temple, where he contemplates the riches that God has showered upon him. He does not know it, but he is essentially falling down in adoration before man’s favorite idol — himself.

“God, I thank thee,” he says, “that I am not as other men are” (Luke 18:11), for instance like the tax collector he noticed as he passed him by. And this Pharisee goes on to mark off, as a man taking inventory of his precious goods, all the righteous deeds he performs, as, for instance, giving to the United Way, and suchlike. Meanwhile the tax collector, “standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).

Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Come with me to a prison cell. The most brilliant scholar of his day there sits at his desk, writing. He has been charged by his enemies with treason. It is essentially a political assassination. He is awaiting an unjust death, and, ever since the half-barbarian Goths came to be the overlords in the western empire, executions are horrible and cruel.

Perhaps he knew what sort of death he would die, from having watched others. One account has it thus. His enemies soaked a leather thong in heated vinegar, to stretch it. Then they bound the man hand and foot, and tied the thong around his forehead. The thong would take a day or two to shrink, slowly, agonizingly, resuming its original size, crushing the bones and penetrating the brain.

So the man, Boethius by name, is writing. He pretends in his own person to be moaning the treachery of Fortune, who once blessed him with honor and now has taken everything away. But in the midst of his sorrow he is visited by a figure of surpassing splendor. It is Lady Philosophy. She will lead him back to the threshold of his true dwelling place.

She does not say that the things that men pursue, such as wealth, fame, honor, power, and pleasure, are bad in themselves, but that they are only partial goods and that anyone who seeks them alone or even in combination with one another both gives himself over to the whims of Fortune and misses the true and unchangeable good he really seeks.

This is especially true of the wicked: for instance, those liars and power-grabbers who have conspired against this just man’s life. “Consider how terrible is the weakness of wicked men!” she exclaims. They fail not merely in the quest for some earthly good, but in the quest for the greatest good of all, for the fulfillment of their beings as creatures who are made to love the good and the true. Consider, she says, that if God denies the wicked His mercy, He may allow them to continue in their ways, rich in the things of the world, and utterly destitute. For happiness, says Lady Philosophy, is not something that man can scramble up on his own, in measurable amounts. It combines in itself the goodness of all good things. It can be found only in God. Indeed, it is itself God.

What God gives, no man can take away. We can only refuse the gift. So Boethius, with his whole life snatched from him, awaited his execution filled with riches. He had been reduced to a poor prisoner in a cell. His enemies gloated. Yet just because he had the Lord, he had everything. As Saint Paul says, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). If the people of the nearby countryside are worthy of trust, Boethius died in a state of grace. They revered him as Saint Severinus, after one of his Roman names. His bones are honored in a tomb in the cathedral at Pavia, in northern Italy, where rest also the bones of Saint Augustine. His bones rest there, but his soul sings in Paradise.

Blessed are the poor, says Jesus, for theirs is the kingdom of God, and I look about my own home and say, “How can this be?” For I have worked hard to provide my family with good things — a comfortable and attractive home, and a cottage far away for vacations in the summer. And I look at the alumni whom my school — a genuinely Catholic school — most pointedly celebrates, and they are not housewives and plumbers and carpenters and janitors and kindergarten teachers, but those who have made a “success” of themselves in the world of business or medicine or, Lord help us, politics. Those are the stories we like to hear. We especially like to hear them about ourselves.

There is the danger. In one sense it does not matter how much we have in our bank accounts. Jesus did not come to preach the evil of personal property. That would be the companion error to believing that our salvation comes from property. “Except ye be converted,” says Jesus, “and become as little children, ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). There is nothing in all the sagas and chronicles of the ancient pagan world that prepares us for such a saying; the closest, perhaps, is the sight of the aged and blind Oedipus, humbled by unspeakable suffering, led by the hand by a young girl, his loyal daughter Antigone. What can Jesus mean by it?

A little child has nothing of his own, but receives everything as a gift. This we can do whether we own a yacht and enjoy sailing it on the high seas, or whether all we can do is tie an old tire to a tree for our children to swing on. Is this what He means by the blessing of poverty? That we heed the word of Saint Paul, and buy, as though we “possessed not” (1 Corinthians 7:30)? Is this the whole of it, that we do not set our hearts on such things, as if we were their masters? Perhaps.

And yet there is the danger. “He hath filled the hungry with good things,” says Mary, dwelling with joy upon the wonderful thing God has done for her, “and the rich he hath sent empty away” (Luke 1:53). The danger is that the things will stuff us full, and we will not be hungry for what really satisfies. The danger is that the things will be heaped so high that we will not see the vast homeland beyond. The danger is that the things will so distract us with their racket that we will not hear the still small voice that fairly broke the heart of the prophet Elijah.

But maybe there is more. Maybe I underestimate the very blessings of poverty. Let us engage in no sentimentality here. A life of poverty is not easy. It strikes fear into the heart of fallen man, as does the approach of the ultimate destitution, the thing we all fear. Says Dante, speaking of the young Saint Francis:

Still a lad,
Against his father he swept off to war
to win his lady love: and such was she,
no one for her unfastens pleasure’s door,
As not for death.

Francis’s father accused the boy of stealing money from the family till, to buy mortar to repair the local churches. Before the bishop and the town elders, in the public square of Assisi, he threatened to disown his son, but before he could do that, Francis disowned him instead, stripping off his clothing and tossing it back to him. That was his wedding embrace of the lady in whose honor he sang, Lady Poverty. Others fear her as they fear death, but, as Dante puts it with almost terrifying power, that Lady

was constant and so fierce
that when his mother Mary stood below,
she alone wept with Christ upon the Cross.

The world tells stories of people who work hard and go from rags to riches. It also tells stories of people who through their own folly or wickedness go from riches to rags. But Christians tell stories of those who through poverty — and often the material poverty we seek to eliminate — reap untold riches. This is not because we scorn the good things of the world, but because we seek what is above. Saint Francis himself, as that poor man of God, would fall in love all the more joyously with the beauty of the earth, even preaching to the birds.

This is hard for us to understand. A secular person might say, “Yes, I see what you mean. You are advocating a simple life, like the one that Thoreau lived when he retreated to Walden Pond. Then he could appreciate the beauties of nature, and not be encumbered by the cares of the world.” No, that is not it at all. Thoreau was animated less by love than by disdain. Sure, he was in a better position to love the natural world while living in a hut by the side of a lake than while living in town. But the joy of Saint Francis is missing.

That is because Thoreau’s self-imposed poverty was a protest against the way his fellows lived. Saint Francis, in his poverty, did not betake himself to the woods to escape the evils of Assisi. He preached in that town he loved, by his way of life. He was so obviously enraptured by his bride, Lady Poverty, that he attracted others to him, and soon there was a community, one whose spirituality would breathe in the art and poetry and song and life of the Christian West for hundreds of years. Thoreau died with a grumble; Francis, with a hymn.

Perhaps it takes a Christian artist who himself knew the pangs of hunger and the embarrassment of debt to help us to understand. The novelist Leon Bloy was a poor man with a family. He wrote fiery satires against the self-satisfied rich in France at the turn of the twentieth century and how they subjected the poor to indignity, squalor, thievery, and contempt. But in his novel The Woman Who Was Poor, we see the noble heroine Clotilde, after she has lost her infant son to disease, and after her beloved husband has laid down his life while saving others from a conflagration, give up everything and live as a beggar in the streets of Paris.

She has known great suffering. Her mother tried to sell her off to prostitution. Her mother’s bedmate was a filthy sot who once tried to rape her, with her mother’s tacit consent. When her child died, an evil and debauched woman neighbor spread the rumor that Clotilde and her husband had smothered him. And yet she has the riches of Jesus. Has she been unhappy?

Her final words are simply these: “There is in the end only one unhappiness: not to have been one of the saints.”

As the great Karl Adam says, “Jesus loves the poor not simply because they are poor but because spiritually they are more capable than the rich of hearkening to the message of the coming kingdom, of hungering and thirsting after justice.” I imagine a palace atop a steep mountain. There is a legend that within that palace is unending and unquenchable joy. Every so often, a strain of music can be heard from it, but it is soon drowned out by the bustle in the plains below. Every so often, a radiance can be seen from its turrets, like the northern lights, but it is soon smothered by the glare of the shops and streetlights below.

In the city of the plains, people bustle. You can read about them in the newspapers. Their stories sell. Their bodies sell, too, and sometimes the buyers won’t have the story without a picture of the body. There is also a vast mart called an exchange, where people, jittery, breathless, hunted, suspicious, buy and sell stocks. Much of the bustle in this city on the plain is devoted to the elaboration of emptiness. You can buy emptiness in bright boxes. You can wear it on your shoulders. You can erect monuments to it. You can consume it, and in more than one way.

Now I imagine a young man at the base of the mountain. He has heard a distant echo of the strains of joy coming from the palace. He sees the steep narrow path that leads to the palace gates. It is called, by the city folk, the Eye of the Needle. They tell terrible stories about people losing everything who venture on that road — prestige, money, power, pleasure, and other objects of ultimate importance. All at once he sees a stranger before him. The stranger looks upon him with love. He says, “Come, let us go up to the altar of God.”

Now, the young man has a camel with him. The camel is heaped up with boxes. One box is full of diplomas, from the University of the World, Mammon Polytechnical, and Self-Lifting High. The young man is proud of them. He plans to use them to do good things. There is another bundle tied up with a rope. In it are pillows and blankets and sheets he has bought from an exchange called Astarte’s Secret. The young man is taking them along, just in case. He isn’t a dissipated fellow, not one to find himself ever feeding pods to swine, but he isn’t a Puritan either. It is important to be prepared — that is what he has learned as a scout.

Then there’s a contraption with iron weights, for making his body handsome and strong, and a keg of beer, for doing the opposite. Medals, mirrors, letters from girls, pictures of himself, memories of victory, all heaped up on the camel, for the great adventure of life. This adventure, for most, means meandering about the plain, looking into the shops, dragging camels along, trying to keep the boxes from falling over, until the play is over.

“Come with me,” says the stranger, smiling. And the youth replies, “I want to — I do. But what do I do with all my things?”

“You will lose nothing true. You may lose much that is untrue. We in the palace do not trade a genuine pleasure for a genuine pleasure. We cast away shadows and give what has substance. You can only gain. Aren’t you hungry for it? Don’t you thirst for it?”

“But what am I to do with my honors from the University of the World? I know I’m not the most important person alive, but I did think I would do something with myself. That was my plan, at least.”

“Anything of truth you have learned there,” replies the stranger, “you will not only retain, but you will find bearing fruit a hundredfold. But the chaff will be blown away. You must forget about honors. Think of your hunger instead. Think of joy.”

“Maybe I can try to climb the pathway with my camel?”

“You may try, but you will fail. The poor beast cannot make it. This is not a path one climbs by being weighty and great. It is a path one climbs by being light and little. Take the boxes off the camel’s back, and then lead him too, if you love him.”

“I don’t know… Can I think about it?”

“That isn’t true, is it? You don’t want to think about it. You want to think about something else instead. Come, isn’t that so? Here, turn that noisebox off for a moment — I have a melody to give you. Or take down that neon light. I have a sunrise to give you.”

“Why,” says the young man, “you are a trickster! You don’t want me to have less. You want me to have even more. You want to give me things. Why should I exchange these things for those things?”

“Because my gifts are true, and you know it. Please now, let’s take these boxes and bundles off the poor camel. May I?”

What shall we do? Shall we let Him unload the stuff? He is waiting to give us all good things, if He can but find the room for them in our hearts. Why, He is waiting to give us Himself, if we would only come to Him as children. Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God.

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Blessed are the Peacemakers; Blessed are You when Men Persecute You — Peter Kreeft

January 2, 2013
The peace that Christ blesses is the peace the world cannot give. It is peace with neighbor, self, and God; not with the world, the flesh, and the devil. It not a peace with greed, lust, and pride, but the peace that comes through poverty, chastity, and obedience, three most counter-cultural virtues.

The peace that Christ blesses is the peace the world cannot give. It is peace with neighbor, self, and God; not with the world, the flesh, and the devil. It not a peace with greed, lust, and pride, but the peace that comes through poverty, chastity, and obedience, three most counter-cultural virtues.

The Seventh And Eighth Beatitudes
Seventh, Christ blesses not peace, but peacemakers. Peacemakers are not pacifists. Peacemakers are warriors, but they are spiritual warriors, warriors against war. Sometimes war can be conquered only by war. Everyone speaks highly of peacemaking. How, then, is that countercultural, except to terrorists? Because the peace that Christ blesses is the peace the world cannot give. It is peace with neighbor, self, and God; not with the world, the flesh, and the devil. It not a peace with greed, lust, and pride, but the peace that comes through poverty, chastity, and obedience, three most countercultural virtues. These two kinds of peace are in fact at war with each other.

Our world’s peacemakers will embrace Christ’s peace, but only if they do not have to give up the world’s peace and only if they do not have to fight for it. Thus, paradoxically, we lack true peace because we are reluctant to war against the enemies of peace, and also because we do not put the three ingredients of Christ’s peace in the proper order. We preach incessantly about peace with neighbor, but seldom about peace with God.

Thomas Merton reminds us of this necessary order in three wonderfully simple sentences when he says, “We are not at peace with each other because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God.” Christ does the same in putting the first table of the law first, as Moses did. We need to relearn lesson one.

Christ blesses peacemakers, but when you are at war, you can make peace only by waging and winning war. Christianity is judgmental and repressive and negative. For Christianity says to us that we are at war, ever since a certain incident in Eden, and war judges the enemy (that’s why a war is fought: because a judgment is made about an enemy) and represses the enemy (that is what defense is: repressing the enemy’s offense) and negates the enemy, destroys the enemy (that is what offense is, destroying the enemy’s defense). Our enemies are real, just as real as flesh and blood; they are principalities and powers. They are not men; they are demons. And they are also our own sins.

Our Lord told us that he came into the world to bring a sword to wage and win this war. The sword is a cross. Happiness does not consist in pacifism; happiness consists in peace, and peace can be obtained only by waging and winning a war to make peace. The cross is like a syringe; it gives us a blood transfusion. It is the opposite of a normal sword. What Christ does is exactly the opposite of what Dracula does. Dracula, like the demons, takes our blood, our life. Christ gives us a blood transfusion. We are on a battlefield between Christ and Dracula.

When Christ says that peacemakers are blessed because they “will be called the sons of God,” he does not mean that peacemaking is the cause and being a son of God is the effect. The other way around: only the sons of God can make God’s peace, do God’s work. Peacemaking is the effect. But peacemakers are called sons of God. They are known to be sons of God because we recognize the cause by the effect.

Blessed are You when Men Persecute You
The eighth beatitude blesses not just pain or suffering, but persecution, that is, suffering imposed by rejection and hatred. This is the only one of the beatitudes that Christ repeats, both to emphasize it as the final and most outrageous beatitude of all, and to emphasize that it is not merely the pain, but the rejection, the reviling, the slander, that is blessed.

But how can this be? Everyone wants to be loved. How can it be blessed to be hated? One possible explanation is utterly inconsistent with Christ: a kind of sneering superiority, as if it were blessed to say to those who hate us, “I wouldn’t want love from worthless fools like you.” Surely it is great grief that the persecutors are fools. Of course they are not worthless fools; if they were, there would be no reason for our grief for them. And therefore grief on our part that they are not blessed is real, if we love our persecutors as Christ does and commands us to: “Love your enemies.” Notice that he does not say, “Do not use the word enemy, it is not nice.” We have enemies, but we must love them.

The reward that makes persecution blessed is the same as the one that makes poverty blessed: the kingdom of Heaven. Persecution has the same blessing as poverty because persecution is a form of poverty, poverty not of money, but of love, that is, of being loved. Both money and love are blessed only when they are given: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

We desperately crave love from the world. But the world is not Christ. The world is fallen, fallen into the knowledge of good and evil. The world is therefore afraid of Christ as the cavity is afraid of the dentist or as the liar is afraid of the light. (I use the word world here in the scriptural sense: not as the planet (Gaea, matter), which God created good, but as the time word, eon, that designates the era of sin, the kingdom of the devil.

Persecution is not blessed in itself, but it becomes blessed if it is persecution “for righteousness’ sake”, for the sake of God, not only explicitly, but also implicitly, that is, if you are persecuted for being that which God is: for being Godlike, for being righteous. Thus the righteous pagan like Socrates is also blessed when he is misunderstood, hated, rejected, persecuted, and killed, like Christ.

Just as your peacemaking is a sign that you are a child of God, and thus blessed, so being persecuted for the sake of your righteousness is also a sign that you are a member of His kingdom and thus blessed. Blessing comes only from what is good, and persecution, poverty, etc. are not good in themselves. Christ is not a Stoic or a Hindu or a Buddhist; blessing does not come from not caring about the good things of this world, which God created, nor from seeing through this world as an illusion, as maya, nor from the clever device of spiritual euthanasia by which our desires for things are quenched so that we can avoid the suffering that they bring. No, the Christian knows something real and good in itself that the Stoic, the Hindu and the Buddhist do not know (even though they may implicitly long for it and even attain it in the end), and that something is, simply, Jesus Christ. He makes blessed even the nails in His cross. And only He makes them blessed.

He that Loses His Life for My Sake shall Find It
Our ninth desire is for life, and the ninth blessing is death. Death contains all the other paradoxes. Christ teaches us this blessing of death not in words only, but also in deed — by his cross, which sums up all the beatitudes.

And the cross reveals the hidden source of all eight beatitudes: the historical fact, not the abstract principle, that God, out of sheer love for us, became incarnate, died, and rose to save us from sin and death. As Dorothy Sayers said, “The dogma is the drama.” By this dramatic judo, death itself was turned into an instrument for life, as an earthen dam is overwhelmed by the waters of the flood that conquers it, and the dam is swept along and made into a part of the flood itself. So the flood of God’s infinite life, when it entered our world, not only conquered death but turned death itself into life’s most powerful instrument. In the words of the old anthem “Open our Eyes”, “Thou hast made death glorious and triumphant, for through its portals we enter into the presence of the Living God.”

Blessed are the Peacemakers
We anticipate that final death, and its final blessing, in all our little deaths now. Our participations in Christ’s eight beatitudes are those little deaths. We not only anticipate it, we actually participate in it, in these little deaths, the real little (or large) dyings that we do every day. And we also anticipate and actually participate in the final blessing, “the presence of the Living God,” every time we “open our eyes” and see who it is that is really present there. Where our eyes see only the most undramatic little wafer of bread, look who is present! How absurd that we find it easier to get up off our knees than to get down!

The secret of happiness is very simple. It is Jesus. Not just the philosophy of Jesus, but Jesus, his real presence. He actually comes to us in such unlikely vehicles as poverty, pain and persecution. He has weird taste in vehicles. He came to Jerusalem on a donkey. And when he comes, he acts with power, though usually also with subtlety and not bombast. He really works!

I am haunted by my memories of a few precious hours in the company of two happiest groups of people I have ever met in my life. In both cases I was supposed to speak to them. In both cases, they spoke to me — with very few words, like Mother Teresa, like Jesus. One group was in fact Mother Teresa’s nuns, in Boston’s worst slum. Another was a convent of contemplative Carmelites in Danvers, Massachusetts. What they said to me, simply by being who they were, was unmistakable: “See how happy I am; see how happy Jesus makes me!” This is how happiness happens: it is not so much taught, like math, but caught, like measles.

The Church is in the business of spreading the good infection, like in “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, only this is a good infection. And that is “the new evangelism”. And it is also the old evangelism that won the world two thousand years ago. It will do it again, for there is no argument against real happiness. The smiles of the saints are the arguments that will win the world for Christ again. They are unarguable. Only one thing, then, is necessary to create a world of happiness from pole to pole. And it is not doing any of the many good things that Martha did, but doing the one thing that Mary did: just sit at Jesus’ feet; just be in his presence, know his love, all day. That is the scandalously simple secret of happiness.

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Happiness: Blessed are Those who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness — Peter Kreeft

December 31, 2012
Nothing more conspicuously distinguishes us than our lack of courage, our lack of passion. Courage is when there is no other option.

Nothing more conspicuously distinguishes us than our lack of courage, our lack of passion. Courage is when there is no other option.

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.

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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.

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Happiness: The First Three Beatitudes — Peter Kreeft

December 28, 2012
As Chesterton said, “It is because we are standing on our heads that Christ's philosophy seems upside down." We are looking at the earth and kicking up in rebellion against the heavens.

As Chesterton said, “It is because we are standing on our heads that Christ’s philosophy seems upside down.” We are looking at the earth and kicking up in rebellion against the heavens.

Christ proposes a vision of happiness which is the exact opposite of what everyone in the post-Christian West assumes to be the sources of the greatest happiness in life.

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Blessed are the Poor in Spirit
We say how blessed we are as individuals or as a nation when we have wealth. He says no, you are blessed when you are poor. Poor not only in your bank account, but even more than that, not less, poor down to the depths of your heart, poor in spirit, detached from riches, whether you are physically rich or poor.

When Harvard University invited Mother Teresa to give a commencement address, she shocked them by taking issue with the gracious invitation they sent to her, as “the most famous person in one of the world’s poorest nations, to address the world’s richest nation.” She said no, “India is not a poor nation; India is a very rich nation. She has a wealth of riches, true spiritual riches. And America is not a rich nation. She is a poor nation, in fact, a desperately poor nation. She slaughters her own unborn children.”

Why? Because the mother fears those children will be poor, or will make her poor. The mother fears that she will not be able to afford to have these children, as if children are like cars or computers, calculable items in the household’s economy, consumer goods rather than consumers, objects rather than subjects, part of the circle rather than the center of the circle.

The supposed insanity of Christ’s saying thus turns out to be an illusion of perspective. In a lunatic asylum, from the lunatics’ point of view, it is the sane outsider who is insane. How useful to have a continual supply of outsiders, the saints, to remind us of where we live: east of Eden, in a lunatic asylum. Christ gives us a map to show how far east of Eden we are. The poor in spirit, of course, are not the weak-spirited; they are exactly the opposite. They are strong enough to be detached from riches, that is, from the whole world. They are those who are strong enough not to be enslaved to their desires for the things of this world.

Blessed are Those who Mourn
Well, what could Christ possibly mean by his second beatitude? Weeping and mourning is certainly not an expression of contentment, of the painless state that we all long for as part of happiness. Yet Christ tells us that those who mourn are blessed. How ridiculous for some Bible translations to translate makarios by ‘happy’ in this verse, in a society that means by ‘happy’ simply subjectively satisfied or content. That translation would make Christ say, “Those who weep are content,” which is not a meaningful paradox, but a meaningless self-contradiction.

Mourning is the expression of inner discontent, of the gap between desire and satisfaction, that is, of suffering. Buddha founded an entire religion on the problem of suffering, or dukkha, and its cause, tanha, or greed, and its cure, the Noble Eightfold Path leading to nirvana, the abolition of both suffering and its source.

Unlike Buddha, Christ came not to free us from suffering, but to transform its meaning, to make it salvific. He came to save us from sin, and he did so precisely by embracing the suffering and death that are the result of sin. It must sound as absurd to a Buddhist to say that suffering is redemptive, as it would sound to a Christian to say that sin is redemptive. Each religion must accuse the other of the most radical practical error: confusing the problem with the solution.

The reason Christ gave for declaring mourners blessed is that they shall be comforted. For in hope this future is made present. It’s true that “one foot up and one foot down, that’s the way to London Town,” whether one is going to London to be crowned king or to be hanged on Traitor’s Gate. But the future destiny of the journey makes everything in the journey itself different, not just accidentally, but essentially, and not just extrinsically, but intrinsically. A journey to be hanged is tragic, even if it is in a comfortable coach. A journey to be crowned, even if it is in an uncomfortable wagon, is glorious.

St. Teresa said, “Looked at from the viewpoint of heaven, the most horribly painful earthly life will turn out to be no more than one night in an inconvenient hotel.” And Christ has the viewpoint of heaven. Christ is the viewpoint of heaven. Christ is heaven. In giving us himself, he gives us heaven, and its viewpoint, that is, his.

Blessed are the Meek
The meek who will inherit the earth, whom Christ calls blessed — who are they? They are not well-known. They do not thirst for honor, fame or glory, and do not usually have it.

We all want to be known. But God, who is supremely blessed, is anonymous. He works by nature most of the time. He hides instead of constantly showing his glory. He came as a baby, and died as an executed criminal, and lets himself be ignored. He lets himself be eaten daily, as what looks like a little piece of bread. He is utterly meek, and utterly blessed. If we are utterly meek, we will be utterly blessed. If we are half meek, we will be half blessed. If we are not meek, we will not be blessed, for God is the source of all blessedness, and God is meek. And the effect cannot be the opposite of the cause.

The meekness that Christ calls blessed in his third Beatitude is indeed in sharp contrast to the desire to conquer nature that Francis Bacon declared to be the new summum bonum, the new meaning of life on earth, and to the desire to conquer fortune that was Machiavelli’s new summum bonum. But it is not the contrast that the world thinks. It is not a blessing on wimps, sissies, dishrags, wallflowers, shrinking violets, worry-warts, Uriah Heeps, nebbishes, nerds or geeks. The meek are those who do not harm, who do not see life as competitive, because they understand the two premises from which this conclusion logically follows.

  1. First, that the best things in life are spiritual things, not material things. That life’s meaning is to be found in wisdom and love and creativity, in understanding and sanctity and beauty, rather than in money or power or fame or land or military or athletic conquest.
  2. And they understand the second principle, too, that spiritual things are not competitive. That they multiply when shared, while material things are divided when shared. Since happiness depends on understanding the best things in life, and since the best things in life are spiritual, and since spiritual things do not diminish when shared, and since what does not diminish when shared cannot be obtained by competition, and since competition is the alternative to meekness, therefore meekness makes for happiness.

We should not be surprised that Christ the Logos is at least as logical as Socrates. Or that we are not. That’s why his pure reason sounds outrageously paradoxical to us. As Chesterton said (it’s impossible to stop quoting Chesterton; that’s like stopping eating potato chips), “It is because we are standing on our heads that Christ’s philosophy seems upside down.” We are looking at the earth and kicking up in rebellion against the heavens.

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Ancient and Modern Concepts of Happiness – Peter Kreeft

December 26, 2012
We all seek happiness, and that we seek it as an end, not as a means. No one seeks happiness for any other reason.

We all seek happiness, and that we seek it as an end, not as a means. No one seeks happiness for any other reason.

Adapted from a lecture by Dr. Kreeft, who is a treasure of the Catholic Church:

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My topic today is Jesus’ concept of happiness. And we must begin with the dullest and most necessary preliminary: defining our term. Nearly everyone, from Aristotle to Freud, agrees that we all seek happiness, and that we seek it as an end, not as a means. No one seeks happiness for any other reason. We argue about other things, but not about happiness. We may say, “What good are riches if they don’t make you happy?” But we don’t say, “What good is happiness if it doesn’t make you rich?” This is clear, to both ancients like Aristotle and moderns like Freud.

But there is a very significant difference between the typically ancient and the typically modern meaning of happiness. Ancient words for happiness, like eudaimonia, or makarios in Greek or beatitudo in Latin, mean true, real blessedness, while the modern English word happiness usually means merely subjective satisfaction, or contentment, so that in modern English, if you feel happy, you’re happy. It makes no sense, in modern English, to tell someone, “You think you’re happy, but you’re not.”

But that is precisely the main point of the most famous book in the history of philosophy, Plato’s Republic: that justice, the all-inclusive virtue, is always profitable, that is, ‘happifying’. And injustice never is. Thus, that the just man, even if like Socrates, he has nothing else, is happy. And the unjust man is not, even if he has everything else, like Gyges, or Gollum, with his ring of power and invisibility. Thus, we should distinguish the ancient concept, which is really blessedness, from the modern, which is really contentment. I shall be talking about blessedness here.

  1. Blessedness differs from contentment in four ways, all of which can be seen by analyzing the Greek word eudaimonia. First, it begins with the prefix eu, meaning good, thus implying that you have to be good, morally good, to be happy.
  2. Second, daimon means spirit, thus implying that happiness is a matter of the soul, not the body and its external goods of fortune. The word happiness, by contrast, comes from the Old English word hap, meaning precisely fortune, luck or chance, which was the one Pagan thought category Christianity subtracted. In all other cases, Christianity added to Paganism. As Chesterton said, summing up all spiritual history in three sentences: “Paganism was the biggest thing in the world. Christianity was bigger, and everything since has been comparatively small.” If blessedness is spiritual, it is free. You are responsible for your eudaimonia, but happiness just happens.
  3. Third, eudaimonia ends in ia, which means a lasting state, something permanent. Contentment is for a moment, blessedness for a lifetime. So much so that Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics could not make up his mind whether to agree or disagree with the saying “call no man happy ’til he is dead.” That is, wait for the end of the story to judge it.
  4. Fourth, and most important of all, the state of eudaimonia is objective, whereas contentment is subjective. When we say happiness, we usually confuse these two meanings, the ancient and the modern. And that is not wholly unwise, because within the ancient concept of happiness, in a secondary way, there is also present the modern one: the need for some contentment, peace of mind, pleasure and at least a modicum of the gift of fortune. While within the modern concept of happiness, that is, within subjective contentment, there is also present, in a secondary way, a feeling for the need of something of the typically ancient ingredient, the need for at least some virtue and the feeling that the happiness, to be deep and lasting, ought to be real and earned and true happiness, whatever that may be.

We are about to explore Christ’s concept of happiness. It is typically ancient (blessedness) but it also includes the above ambiguity or doubleness of meaning: subjective satisfaction as well as objective perfection.

Our Concept of Happiness
Let’s look first at our concept of happiness. When I speak of our concept, who is us? I mean our culture, the mental landscape we all inhabit, even when we feel like aliens here, most generally the modern, post-Christian West, but most specifically contemporary America, as it would appear on opinion polls.

If an opinion poll were to ask Americans to list the nine most important ingredients in the happy life, they would probably give an answer pretty much like the following:

  1. First, the most obvious, though not the profoundest ingredient, is probably wealth. If you notice your friend has a big smile on his face today, you most likely would say to him, “What happened to you? Did you just win the lottery?” If that’s what you’d say, it must be because that’s what would put the biggest smile on your face. And let’s face it; money can buy everything money can buy, which is a lot of stuff.
  2. Second might be our culture’s most notable success, the conquest of nature and fortune by science and technology, allowing each of us to be an Alexander the Great, conqueror of the world.
  3. Third would probably be freedom from pain. I think few of us would disagree that the single most valuable invention in the entire history of technology has been anesthetics.
  4. Fourth would probably be self-esteem, the greatest good, according to nearly all of our culture’s new class of prophets, the secular psychologists — and secular psychologists are among the most secular of all classes in our society.
  5. Fifth might be justice, securing one’s rights. Justice and peace summarize the social ideals of most Americans, the ideals they want for themselves and for the rest of the world.
  6. Sixth, if we are candid, we have to include sex. To most Americans, this is the closest thing to heaven on Earth, that is ecstasy, mystical transcending of the ego — unless they’re surfers.
  7. Seventh, we love to win, whether at war, at sports, at games of chance, in business, or even in our fantasies. Our positive self-esteem requires the belief that we are winners, not losers. We want to be successful, not failures.
  8. Eighth, we want honor. We want to be honored, accepted, loved, and understood. In our modern egalitarian society, we are honored, not for being superior, but for being one of the crowd. In most ancient societies, one was honored for being different, better, superior, excellent. But we still crave to be honored. Some even want to be famous. All want to be accepted.
  9. Ninth, we want life, a long life and a healthy life. Thomas Hobbes is surely right in saying that fear of violent death, especially painful and early death, is very, very powerful. Your life is not happy if it’s taken from you, obviously.

This all seems so obvious and so reasonable as to be beyond argument. Higher ideals than these are arguable. Some of us seek them and some of us do not. But these nine would seem to be firm and impregnable, universal and necessary. Whoever would deny that they form a part of happiness would be a fool. Whoever would affirm that happiness consisted in their opposites would be insane.

Christ’s Concept of Happiness
Let us now perform a fantastic thought experiment. Let us suppose that there was once a preacher who did teach precisely that insanity, point for point, deliberately and specifically. Perhaps you cannot stretch your imagination quite that far, but I’m going to ask you to stretch it even one step farther. Imagine this man becoming the most famous, beloved, revered, respected, and believed teacher in the history of the world. Imagine nearly everyone in the world, even those who did not classify themselves as his disciples, at least praising his wisdom, especially his moral wisdom, especially the single most famous and beloved sermon he ever preached, the Sermon on the Mount, the summary of his moral wisdom, which begins with his 180 degree reversal of these truisms.

Perhaps you find this far too incredible to be imaginable. It would be a miracle harder to believe than God becoming a man. It is hard enough to believe that anyone would believe the strange Christian notion that a certain man who began his life as a baby, who had to learn to talk, and ended it as an executed criminal, who bled to death on a cross, and in between got tired and hungry and sorrowful, is God, eternal, beginningless, immortal, infinitely perfect, all-wise, all-powerful, the Creator.

But it is even harder to believe that anyone would believe his utterly shattering paradoxes about happiness. Perhaps we do not really believe them after all. Perhaps we only believe we believe them. Perhaps we have faith in our faith rather than faith in his teachings.

For, of course, I am referring to Christ’s eight beatitudes which opened his Sermon on the Mount, the most famous sermon ever preached, and the one part of the New Testament that is still held up as central and valid and true and good and beautiful even by dissenters, heretics, revisionists, demythologizers, skeptics, modernists, theological liberals, and anyone else who cannot bring himself to believe all the other claims in the New Testament or the teachings of the Church. These people strain at the gnats but swallow the camel. So let’s look at the camel that they swallow. Perhaps they only seem to swallow it. Perhaps they swallow only their own swallowing, gollumping like Gollum.

To our desire for wealth, Christ says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” To our desire for painlessness, he says, “Blessed are those who mourn.” To our desire for conquest, he says, “Blessed are the meek.” To our desire for contentment with ourselves, he says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” To our desire for justice, he says, “Blessed are the merciful.” To our desire for sex, he says, “Blessed are the pure in heart.” To our desire for conquest, he says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” To our desire for acceptance, he says, “Blessed are the persecuted.” And to our desire for more life, he offers the Cross. And now this man carrying his cross to Calvary even dares to tell us, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

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A Reading of the Eight Beatitudes – Fr. Robert Barron

October 6, 2011

 

Salvador Dali, The Crucifixion

Law is not the enemy of freedom but precisely the condition for its possibility. What is joy but the experience of having attained the true good? Therefore in this more biblical way of looking at things joy (beatitude) is the consequence and not the enemy of law. What Jesus gives us in the Sermon on the Mount, therefore, is that new law that would discipline our desires, our minds, and our bodies so as to make real happiness possible.

I would like to suggest a reading of the eight beatitudes that looks first at the more “positive” formulations and then, in light of those, at the more “negative” prescriptions. Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). This stands at the heart of the matter, for mercy or tender compassion (Chesed in the Hebrew of the Old Testament) is God’s most distinctive characteristic. Saint John would give this same idea a New Testament expression in saying “God is love” (1 John 4:16). Saint Augustine reminded us that we are, by our very nature, ordered to God: “O Lord, you have made us for yourself, and therefore our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”

If this is true, then nothing short of God, no substitute for God, will ever finally satisfy us. But since God is tender mercy, “having” God is tantamount to exercising compassion, being merciful ourselves. And attend to the way Jesus articulates this law: those who exercise mercy will themselves receive mercy. According to the “physics” of the spiritual order, the more one draws on the divine life, the more one receives that life, precisely because it is a gift and is properly infinite. God’s life is had, as it were, on the fly: when one receives it as a gift, he must give it away, since it only exists in gift form, and when he gives it away he will find more of it flooding into his heart. If you want to be happy, Jesus is saying, this divine love, this Chesed of God, must be central to your life; it must be your beginning, your middle, and your end, your “work day and Sabbath rest.” Everything else that is good will find its place around that central desire, which is why Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides” (Matthew 6:33).

We turn now to the closely related beatitude: “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8). This means that you will be happy if there is no ambiguity in your heart (the deepest center of the self) about what is most important. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that the saint is someone whose life is about one thing. He didn’t mean that the saint lives a monotonous existence; he meant that a truly holy person has ordered her heart toward pleasing God alone.

Again, many interests and passions and actions can cluster around that central longing, but none of them can finally compete with it. And thus, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6). We want many things — food, drink, shelter, fame, financial security, and so on — but what, most fundamentally, do we want? What is the Hunger that defines and orders the attendant and secondary hungers? What, in Paul Tillich’s language, is your “ultimate concern”? If it is anything other than the will and purpose of God righteousness — then you will be unhappy and unfulfilled.

The last of the “positive” beatitudes is: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Since God is the Creator, he is that power through which all creatures are connected to one another. As we have seen in the first chapter, God is a gathering force, the unifier of all that he has made. Therefore someone who has ordered himself fundamentally toward God is, ipso facto, a peacemaker, for he will necessarily channel the metaphysical energy that draws things and people together. One of the most readily recognizable marks of sanctity — on clear display in all the saints — is just this radiation of reconciling power. This is why peacemaking will make us children of God and therefore happy.

With these more positive beatitudes in mind we can turn with increased understanding to those beatitudes that can strike us initially as perhaps confounding and counterintuitive. The simple fact of the matter is that on account of the mysterious curvature of the will that we call original sin, we deviate from the very actions and attitudes thatwill make us happy. In the elegant formulation of Saint Augustine, we have turned from the Creator to creatures, and as a result we are wandering in “the land of unlikeness,” which is to say, a place of spiritual aridity. Jesus recommends a series of negative prescriptions, designed to orient us wanderers aright.

One of the most fundamental problems in the spiritual order is that we sense within ourselves the hunger for God, but we attempt to satisfy it with some created good that is less than God. Thomas Aquinas said that the four typical substitutes for God are wealth, pleasure, power, and honor. Sensing the void within, we attempt to fill it up with some combination of these four things, but only by emptying the self in love can we make the space for God to fill us. The classical tradition referred to this errant desire as “concupiscence,” but I believe that we could neatly express the same idea with the more contemporary term “addiction.”

When we try to satisfy the hunger for God with something less than God, we will naturally be frustrated, and then in our frustration, we will convince ourselves that we need more of that finite good so we will struggle to achieve it, only to find ourselves again, necessarily, dissatisfied. At this point, a sort of spiritual panic sets in, and we can find ourselves turning obsessively around this creaturely good that can never, in principle make us happy.

And so Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). This is neither a romanticizing of economic poverty nor a demonization of wealth, but rather a formula for detachment. Might I suggest a somewhat variant rendition: how blessed are you if you are not attached to material things, if you have not placed the goods that wealth can buy at the center of your concern? When the Kingdom of God is your ultimate concern, not only will you not become addicted to material things; you will, in fact, be able to use them with great effectiveness for God’s purposes. Under this same rubric of detachment consider the beatitude “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).

Again, this can sound like the worst sort of masochism, but we have to dig deeper. We could render this adage as how blessed, how “lucky” (a legitimate rendering of makarios, according to some scholars) you are if you are not addicted to good feelings. Pleasant sensations — physical, emotional, psychological — are wonderful, but since they are only a finite good, they can easily drive an addiction, as can clearly be seen in the prevalence of psychotropic drugs, gluttonous habits of consumption, and pornography in our culture. Again, Jesus’ saying hasn’t a thing to do with puritanism; it has to do with detachment and hence with spiritual freedom. Unaddicted to sensual pleasure, one can unreservedly follow the will of God, even when such a path involves psychological or physical suffering.

Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land” (Matthew 5:5). I don’t know of any culture at any time that would be tempted to embrace this beatitude as a practical program of world conquest! Meek people don’t come to positions of political or institutional influence. But once more, Jesus is not so much passing judgment on institutions of power as he is showing a path of detachment. How lucky you are if you are not attached to the finite good of worldly power. Many people up and down the centuries have felt that the acquisition of power is the key to beatitude. In the temptation scene in the Gospel of Matthew, the devil, after luring Christ with the relatively low-level temptations toward sensual pleasure and pride, brings Jesus to the top of a tall mountain and reveals to him all of the kingdoms of the world in their glory and offers them to Jesus.

Matthew’s implication is that the drive to power is perhaps the strongest, most irresistible temptation of all. In the twentieth century, J. R. R. Tolkien, who had tasted at first hand the horrors of the First World War and had witnessed those of the Second, conceived a ring of power as the most tempting talisman in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. But if you are detached from worldly power, you can follow the will of God, even when that path involves extreme powerlessness. Meek – free from the addiction to ordinary power — you can become a conduit of true divine power to the world.

The last of the “negative” beatitudes is “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10). We must read this, once again, in light of Thomas Aquinas’ analysis. If the call to poverty holds off the addiction to material things, and the summons to mourn counters the addiction to good feelings, and the valorization of meekness blocks the addiction to power, this last beatitude gets in the way of the addictive attachment to honor. Honor is good thing in the measure that it is a “flag of virtue,” signaling to others the presence of some excellence, but when love of honor becomes the center of one’s concern, it, like any other finite good, becomes a source of suffering.

Many people who are not terribly attracted to wealth, pleasure, or power are held captive by their desire for the approval of others, and they will, accordingly, order their lives, arrange their work, and plot their careers with the single value in mind of being noticed, honored, and endowed with titles. But this again involves the attempt to fill up the infinite longing with a finite good, and it produces, by the laws of spiritual physics, addiction. Therefore, how lucky are you if you are not attached to honor and hence are able to follow the will of God even when that path involves being ignored, dishonored, and, at the limit, persecuted.

Thomas Aquinas said that if you want to see the perfect exemplification of the beatitudes, you should look to Christ crucified. The saint specified this observation as follows: if you want beatitude (happiness) despise what Jesus despised on the cross and love what he loved on the cross. What did he despise on the cross but the four classical addictions? The crucified Jesus was utterly detached from wealth and worldly goods. He was stripped naked, and his hands, fixed to the wood of the cross could grasp at nothing. More to it, he was detached from pleasure.

On the cross, Jesus underwent the most agonizing kind of physical torment a pain that was literally excruciating (ex cruce, from the cross), but also experienced the extreme of psychological and even spiritual suffering (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). And he was bereft of power, even to the point of being unable to move or defend himself in any way. Finally on that terrible cross he was completely detached from the esteem of others. In a public place not far from the gate of Jerusalem, he hung from an instrument of torture, exposed to the mockery of the crowd, displayed as a common criminal. In this, he endured the ultimate of dishonor.

In the most dramatic way possible, therefore, the crucified Jesus demonstrates a liberation from the four principal temptations that lead us away from God. Saint Paul expressed this accomplishment in typically vivid language: “[13] And even when you were dead [in] transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, he brought you to life along with him, having forgiven us all our transgressions; [14] obliterating the bond against us, with its legal claims, which was opposed to us, he also removed it from our midst, nailing it to the cross; [15] despoiling the principalities and the powers, he made a public spectacle of them, leading them away in triumph by it” (Colossians 2:15).

But what did Jesus love on the cross? He loved the will of his Father. His Father had sent him, as we saw, into the farthest reaches of godforsakenness in order to bring the divine love even to that darkest place, and Jesus loved that mission to the very end. And it was precisely his detachment from the four great temptations that enabled him to walk that walk. What he loved and what he despised were in a strange balance on the cross. Poor in spirit, meek, mourning, and persecuted, he was able to be pure of heart, to seek righteousness utterly, to become the ultimate peacemaker, and to be the perfect conduit of the divine mercy to the world.

Though it is supremely paradoxical to say so, the crucified Jesus is the man of beatitude, a truly happy man. And if we recall our discussion of freedom, we can say that Jesus nailed to the cross is the very icon of liberty, for he is free from those attachments that would prevent him from attaining the true good, which is doing the will of his Father.

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