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The Grandeur of Christian Perfection and the Beatitudes

"The Sermon on the Mount,"  Carl Heinrich Bloch, c.1877 Photo: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Bloch-SermonOnTheMount.jpg
"The Sermon on the Mount," Carl Heinrich Bloch, c.1877 Photo: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Bloch-SermonOnTheMount.jpg
"The Sermon on the Mount," Carl Heinrich Bloch, c.1877 Photo: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Bloch-SermonOnTheMount.jpg

Theologians' most common teaching regarding perfection focused heavily on the beatitudes. (1) Garrigou-Lagrange calls the Sermon on the Mount "the abridgment of Christian doctrine," claiming that it condenses everything that represents the ideal of Christian life.

St. Augustine and St. Thomas divided the beatitudes into three areas of perfection.

The first three beatitudes tell the happiness that is found in the flight from sin and deliverance from it, in poverty accepted for love of God, in meekness, and in the tears of contrition.

The two following beatitudes are those of a Christian’s active life: they correspond to the thirst for justice and to mercy exercised toward one’s neighbor. Then come those of the contemplation of the mysteries of God: the purity of heart which prepares the soul to see God, and the peace which springs from true wisdom.

Finally, the last and most perfect of the beatitudes unites all the preceding ones in the very midst of persecution endured for justice’ sake. These are the final trials, the condition of sanctity. (2)

Both felt that by dividing them into these three attributes precisely illustrated Christian perfection. In addition, by doing so they claimed that such a categorization exemplified how the beatitudes surpassed the limits of asceticism (3) (virtues acquired through our own effort) and proved a necessary reliance on the gifts of the Holy Ghost.

"The superhuman mode of the gifts," Garrigou-Lagrange writes, "when it becomes frequent and manifest, characterizes the mystical life, or the life of docility to the Holy Ghost." (4)

BLESSED ARE THE POOR IN SPIRIT, FOR THEIRS IS THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN
There are a variety of ways to be "poor in spirit." One of those is the bearing of material poverty humbly and avoiding impatience or envy.

Another is the rejection of the "spirit of riches, pomp, and pride" by those who enjoy material wealth. Though they possess the goods of the earth, the goods of the earth do not possess them.

A few examples of saints who were wealthy while on earth, but were detached from the material world are St. Louis IX, (5) St. Thomas More, (6) and St. Elizabeth of Hungary. (7) So yes, though it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, some rich people do manage to slide into heaven!

And, of course, there are those who relinquish all their wealth for a life of poverty. St. Francis of Assisi (8) and St. Clare of Assisi (9) are common examples.

More fortunate still are they who will leave all to follow Christ, who will make themselves voluntarily poor, and who will truly live according to the spirit of this vocation. They will receive the hundredfold on earth and eternal life.

BLESSED ARE THE MEEK, FOR THEY SHALL POSSESS THE LAND
Some of the "qualities" of meekness include the avoidance of:

  • becoming irritate against your brethren
  • taking vengeance on your enemies
  • desiring to dominate others
  • judging rashly
  • perceiving a neighbor as a rival to be supplanted but a brother to be helped

Garrigou-Lagrange writes that the gift of piety inspires meekness with "a filial affection toward God, our common Father." He adds that the meek are not "stubbornly attached to their own judgment" and "do not feel the need to call heaven to witness in trivial matters."

To be thus supernaturally meek, even with those who are acrimonious, demands a great union with Him who said: “Learn of Me, for I am meek and humble of heart,” with Him who did not crush the broken reed or extinguish the smoking flax.

According to Bossuet, (11) the broken reed is sometimes our angry neighbor, who is broken by his own anger. We must not crush him by taking vengeance on him. Christ has been compared to the lamb, which lets itself be led to the slaughter without uttering a complaint.

There is such a thing as false meekness, however. Some project a persona of being meek when actually, their "meekness" is borne out of self-love and fear. These are people who never argue or take a stand because they fear the rejection or mockery of others. Political correctness is a prime example of such a condition and the opposite of the beatitude of suffering for justice' sake.

True meekness, Garrigou-Lagrange writes, presupposes a great love of God and one's neighbor.

Moreover, it succeeds in stating the whole truth, in making counsel and even reproaches acceptable, for he who receives them feels that they are inspired by a great love. Blessed are the meek, for they shall possess the land, the true, promised land. Even now, they possess spiritually the hearts that trust in them.

BLESSED ARE THEY THAT MOURN, FOR THEY SHALL BE COMFORTED
Garrigou-Lagrange uses the parable of Lazarus, the beggar (12) to illustrate the merits of this beatitude.

Blessed are they who, like the beggar Lazarus, suffer patiently without consolation from men, for their tears are seen by God.

More blessed still are those who weep for their sins, and through an inspiration of the gift of knowledge know experimentally that sin is the greatest of evils, and by their tears obtain its pardon. (13)

BLESSED ARE THEY WHO HUNGER AND THIRST AFTER JUSTICE, FOR THEY SHALL HAVE THEIR FILL
True justice is the rendering to God what is due Him, and the giving of God of himself to the soul. Garrigou-Lagrange calls this "the perfect order in perfect obedience, inspired by love, which enlarges the heart."

The gift of fortitude enables the soul to persevere when sensible enthusiasm weakens and it is tempted with despair.

The Lord wishes to see us hunger and thirst for this justice to such an extent that we can never be satiated in this life, as the miser never has enough gold.

These hungering souls will be satiated only in the eternal vision, and on this earth in spiritual goods.

When men are in the state of sin, they do not experience this spiritual hunger: when they are free from all sin, then they experience it.” (14)

BLESSED ARE THE MERCIFUL, FOR THEY SHALL OBTAIN MERCY
Garrigou-Lagrange warns that a Christian's hunger and thirst for justice should not be so overwhelming as to produce a bitter zeal toward the guilty (i.e., revenge). Justice must always be tempered with mercy.

Mercy includes such charitable acts as caring for the sick and feeding the hungry. "The Lord will give the hundredfold," Garrigou-Lagrange writes, "to those who give a glass of water for love of Him, to those inviting to their table the poor, the crippled, the blind, who are mentioned in the parable of the guests."

Thus, one should be happier to give than to receive, pardon offenses (giving to those who have offended, more than is due them) forget insults, and before offering his gift at the altar, reconciles with his brother.

It is the gift of counsel that increases our capacity for mercy, increasing within us the capacity for empathy and the ability to console and uplift others.

If our activity were frequently inspired by these two virtues of justice and mercy and by the gifts corresponding to them, our souls would find even here on earth a holy joy and would be truly disposed to enter into the intimacy of God. (15)

BLESSED ARE THE CLEAN OF HEART, FOR THEY SHALL SEE GOD
In contrast to those philosophers who believed that wisdom was the key to perfection, Christ clarifies through this beatitude that goodness far outweighs knowledge. Garrigou-Lagrange describes a truly clean heart as "the limpid waters of a lake in which the azure of the sky is reflected, or like a spiritual mirror in which the image of God is reproduced."

Keeping in line with the "no pain, no gain" methodology, he also reminds the reader that in order to be pure of heart "a generous mortification is prescribed."

Ugh!

“And if thy right eye scandalize thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee. For it is expedient for thee that one of thy members should perish, rather than that thy whole body be cast into hell." (16)

It is important to always be aware of purity of intention, also, such as avoiding the giving of alms or praying to draw esteem from others.

Even here on earth, the Christian will, in a sense, see God in his neighbor, even in souls that at first seem opposed to God. The Christian will see God in holy Scripture, in the life of the Church, in the circumstances of his own life, and even in trials, in which he will find lessons on the ways of Providence as a practical application of the Gospel.

Under the inspiration of the gift of understanding, this is the true contemplation, which prepares us for that by which, properly speaking, we shall see God face to face, His goodness, and His infinite beauty. Then all our desires will be gratified, and we shall be inebriated with a torrent of spiritual delights. (17)

BLESSED ARE THE PEACEMAKERS, FOR THEY SHALL BE CALLED THE CHILDREN OF GOD
Perfection of this beatitude, according to St. Augustine and St. Thomas, requires the gift of wisdom, which renders the soul docile to the understanding of "the wonderful order of the providential plan."

Only with peace of soul can one comprehend Divine Providence, freeing it from anxiety over painful and unexpected events in its life, for the soul is then able to perceive such events as a means or an occasion of turning to him. This wisdom commands complete docility to the Holy Ghost, who waits to give this understanding, the precondition for union with God.

Hence we received in baptism the gift of wisdom, which has grown in us by confirmation and frequent Communion. The inspirations of the gift of wisdom give us a radiating peace, not only for ourselves but for our neighbor.

They make us peacemakers; they help us to calm troubled souls, to love our enemies, to find the words of reconciliation which put an end to strifes. This peace, which the world cannot give, is the mark of the true children of God, who never lose the thought of their Father in heaven. (18)

BLESSED ARE THEY THAT SUFFER PERSECUTION FOR JUSTICE’ SAKE, FOR THEIRS IS THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN
It is through this beatitude that Christ refers to the final trials which are requisites for sanctity. Perhaps one of the toughest of the eight, it directs that a soul should find happiness even amidst suffering and persecution for the sake of justice.

This quality is what separates the men from the boys in the spiritual world. It is a characteristic of many of the great saints and practically understood only by enlightened souls.

Garrigou-Lagrange describes the many "degrees" of this beatitude as ranging "from that of the good Christian who begins to suffer for having acted well, obeyed, and given good example, up to the martyr who dies for the faith." It is the most perfect of the beatitudes, he writes, because it is the one that shares most closely with the crucified Christ.

Though severe persecution, such as beheadings and crucifixions, has not yet come to the United States, there are many ways that one can "suffer for justice' sake." An example is the plight of parents' whose children are living in mortal sin. If a son or daughter becomes involved in an immoral relationship, how many parents will say something to that child? Very few will risk the mockery of family or even the rejection by that child and simply say nothing. Though this sounds trivial, all parents will be held accountable to God for their parenting choices.

Christ insists on the reward promised to those who thus suffer for justice: “Blessed are ye when they shall revile you, and persecute you, and speak all that is evil against you, untruly, for My sake. Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven.” (19)

In summary, many of the saints and mystics agree that full perfection of Christian life is not part of the ascetical order but rather, belongs to the mystical. Simply stated, to attain perfection, the soul cannot merit it on its own through the acquired virtues. Contemplation, the infused gifts of the Holy Ghost, and the infused graces are necessary to reach the heights of holiness as described in the loftier attributes of the beatitudes.

Next: Perfection and Heroic Virtue

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(1) Matthew 5:3-12
(2) Garrigou-Lagrange, Reginald, O.P., "The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Volume I," trans. Sister M. Timothea Doyle, O.P., Illinois: Tan Books, 1989, p165
(3) http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01767c.htm
(4) Garrigou-Lagrange, p165
(5) http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09368a.htm
(6) http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14689c.htm
(7) http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05389a.htm
(8) http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06221a.htm
(9) http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04004a.htm
(10) Garrigou-Lagrange, p166
(11) http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02698b.htm
(12) Luke 16:25
(13) Garrigou-Lagrange, p168
(14) St. Thomas, In Matth. 5: 6.
(15) Garrigou-Lagrange, p169
(16) Mathew 5:29-30
(17) Garrigou-Lagrange, p170
(18) Ibid., p171
(19) Ibid., p172