The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 50, No 3, May-June 1997

Theology for the Laity


By Father Paul A. Duffner, O.P.

Among the various maxims and counsels that our Blessed Lord gave to guide the conduct of his followers are the beatitudes that He gave in the sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5:3-11). The sixth of those beatitudes is “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God.” It might be helpful to examine that brief maxim to see in what sense, and why it is true.


When the Scriptures refer to the “heart,” it is not the physical organ that is meant, but rather the source and seat of the dispositions of soul in the very depths of one’s being, the source of one’s choices and commitments - whether good or evil. In keeping with this broader meaning of the word, theologians point out that the “purity of heart” referred to in this beatitude is the fruit of a twofold purification: a purification of the will, or the affective side of our nature (of undue attachments to persons, places, things, etc.) in which disorderly attachments are rejected, and which is effected by the exercise of the moral virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit that perfect them; and a purification of the mind, by which all errors against faith are rejected, and which is effected by the gifts of understanding and knowledge.

This cleanness of heart presupposes that God is present in our MIND as the object of our faith, and present in the WILL as the object of hope and charity. That is to say, our minds must be enlivened by a living faith, made vital by the state of grace and charity, for only as such can faith help us to see God and be called the beginning of eternal life in us. Too, the assent of the mind to what God has revealed would not be meritorious, if that assent did not come from the command of the will motivated by the virtue of charity, the supernatural love of God. Thus, charity gives supernatural life to faith, as the soul gives natural life to the body. (Cf. St.Thomas, II II, 4,3 - who is our main guide in these reflections)


The declaration that the clean of heart shall see God does not mean that such persons will experience visions of some sort. It refers rather to seeing God with the eyes of the mind, and an awareness of His presence in daily life. God is LOVE, and the many expressions of His will in the events of daily life (even trials) are expressions of His love at work. The “pure of heart” recognize that love (i.e. they see God) and surrender their will to His. God is TRUTH, and His word contained in the Scriptures and handed down by the Church is an expression of His Truth. The “pure of heart” recognize that truth (i.e. they see God), and humbly submit their judgment to the truth of faith. Thus St. Thomas does not hesitate to say that in this very life “when the eye of the mind is purified by the gift of the Spirit one can, so to speak, see God.” (I II, 69,2, ad 3). Since we are speaking of seeing the Love and Truth that is God - as “seeing God.” it will be helpful to see the various grades of our knowledge of God.

  1. The natural power of understanding
    Man can arrive at a knowledge of God’s existence and attributes as known by the natural light of reason, and this apart from supernatural revelation.

  2. The supernatural light of faith
    Faith is a special gift of God bestowed at baptism, that becomes operative at the age of reason, and disposes and enables one to believe all that God has revealed for our salvation on the infallible authority of Him who revealed it. It is a divine light elevating and perfecting the intellect, bringing knowledge and conviction of the supernatural order, an entirely different order of being than that known by the senses. While it brings knowledge of supreme truths, it does not bring an understanding of them, nor (of itself) does it add to the goodness of man. As we have seen, only faith vitalized by charity, and expressed in action is meritorious before God. “It was ignorance of this fundamental philosophical truth,” comments Fr. Walter Farrell, O.P., “that was the root of the exaggerated optimism of Luther and the reformers relative to faith.” (Comp. to Summa, III, 16)

  3. The Gift of Understanding
    Since faith enables the mind to assent to the truths of revelation, not because one understands them but because God revealed them, it needs the gift of understanding which brings a deeper insight into the things of God, a fuller understanding of the mysteries accepted by faith. This gift of the Holy Spirit lifts us above our natural mode of knowing (which depends on the light of reason), and enables the intellect, as by a divine instinct, to grasp the deeper meaning of revealed truths. It involves a supernatural mode of knowing in which the mind understands divine truths more by intuition than by the natural powers of reasoning. In every article of faith there is always something which is mysterious or hidden, some obscurity due to the weakness of the human mind. While the gift of understanding does not remove the veil of obscurity, it gives, even in this life, a certain foretaste of the divine manifestations of the life to come.

    The pages of Sacred Scripture are full of instruction, but a fuller and deeper grasp of the divine message they contain requires the gift of understanding. For that reason those pages do not reveal their secrets to one who is out of tune with God, that is, one not possessing the divine life of grace. This gift does not enable one to see God as He is in Himself, that is reserved for Heaven. Rather it helps one to see, as St. Thomas explains, what God is not. (II II,8,7); and as one knows God more perfectly in this life, he better understands that God exceeds everything that the human mind can imagine.

    This gift of understanding purifies the mind of errors that can result from too worldly or too self-centered judgments, giving one a true understanding of God’s laws, and commandments and counsels. This gift is not reserved for a select few far advanced in the way of sanctity. It is possessed by every soul in the state of grace, and is needful for the normal living of the Christian life. Yet it is not possessed in the same degree by all, just as the growth of sanctifying grace in the soul is not the same for all. Yet, in general, the gifts of the Holy Spirit become more operative as grace grows.

  4. The Gift of Knowledge
    While the GIFT OF UNDERSTANDING enables one to penetrate the revealed truths of our faith bringing a deeper understanding of them through the special enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, the GIFT OF KNOWLEDGE is a special enlightenment in judging rightly created things in relation to the purpose for which God created them. It enables one to judge the true worth of creatures as coming from God, and intended for His glory. In a word, it enables one, by a divine instinct, to have a correct estimation of the present life in relation to eternal life.

    Under the impulse of this gift, the Holy Spirit gives intuitive insights as to the emptiness and vanity of the allurements of this world, the temporariness and uncertainty of earthly things, and their powerlessness to bring true and lasting happiness. If these insights take hold of the mind and heart, and one (aided by grace) determines to rely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, he is freed from the attractions of the world, free to follow God’s plan for his life with a detachment of heart. “If you abide in my word . . . you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (Jn. 8:31)

    The world then ceases to be an obstacle (to seeing God), and becomes an aid, a constant reminder of the God who made it. The starry heaven, the mountains, the landscape, the sunset, etc. become mirrors of God's beauty and wisdom. In nature such a one is constantly seeing “God’s footsteps,” as spiritual writers express it. When suffering, misfortune or sickness comes, it is seen to have its place - in the light of Christ’s redeeming passion.

    The detachment, or purity of heart, that this gift helps to effect is a gradual process; but it is utterly impossible without the insights and urgings of the Holy Spirit, and our cooperation with His gifts. The gift of knowledge guides one with certitude concerning what we must believe or not believe (Cf. II II,9,2, ad 1). One in whom this gift is intensively operative even without having studied theology - instinctively senses that some practice, or devotion, or teaching, or counsel is or is not in accord with the true faith. The fact that many true mystics were simple uneducated persons bears this out. Our Lord referred to it in the gospel: “Father, Lord of heaven and earth, to you I offer praise; for what you have hidden from the learned and the clever, you have revealed to the merest children.” (Mt. 11:25)


St. Thomas dedicates an entire question to two vices that are special obstacles to the gifts of understanding and knowledge. They are LUST which causes spiritual blindness, and GLUTTONY which causes dullness of the spiritual sense. Both of these are sins of the flesh. He describes these vices as follows:

A certain spiritual blindness is characteristic of those referred to as lukewarm souls. Every person in the state of grace possesses the gifts of understanding and knowledge, but those gifts can be activated only by the Holy Spirit. And the lukewarm are so captivated by the things of the world, and their inner attention and affections focused so strongly on them, that the insights and inspirations of the Holy Spirit are hardly noticed or ignored. They never arrive at a clear awareness of God’s presence in the world, in their neighbor, in the crosses and trials of life. A spirit of prayer is foreign to them.

However, sins of the flesh are not the only ones that impair spiritual vision. The deepest rooted and most subtle of the weaknesses of our fallen nature is pride, and it is that weakness that so often becomes an obstacle to the action of the Holy Spirit and the divine light He brings to perfect the gift of faith. For that reason, another basic requisite for that purity of heart that enables one to see God is humility. We call to mind again St. Thomas’s reminder that “humility removes pride, whereby a man refuses to submit himself to the truth of faith.” The divine truth that is God is expressed in His revealed word and handed down by the Church. If one is so attached to his own judgments that he refuses to accept the official teaching of the Church, he places an obstacle to the enlightening and liberating action of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who safeguards the deposit of faith in the Church down through the centuries, and it is that same divine Person who “creates a clean heart” (Ps.51:10) in those open to His action.

There are many degrees of “cleanness of heart” corresponding to the different degrees of growth in grace and holiness. This is true because God gives his graces and gifts in the measure that we do not place obstacles in the way, in the measure that we are “clean of heart.”

Ordinarily in the natural process of knowing, no thinking is possible without our mind relying on internal images formed from things perceived by the external senses - from which our ideas are abstracted. However, when the Holy Spirit acts through the gifts of understanding and knowledge those internal images are not needed, for then one is enlightened by divine instinct (rather than by the natural aid of reason). This brings an immediate and deeper understanding of the divine truths, a certitude in judging what is to be believed or not believed, and a greater awareness of God in His creation. It is this action of the Holy Spirit through the gifts in more advanced stages of “cleanness of heart” that is referred to as “infused contemplation.”

God has given us a free will, and demands our cooperation in His work in our sanctification and salvation. But He is the principal cause of the growth of grace in the soul. We are only secondary causes, our work being to remove the obstacles that interfere with His work, to trust in His guidance, and to give Him a free hand to deal with us as He will. This might seem like a simple solution, but it demands a painful discipline of our fallen and self-seeking nature. A crucifixion has to precede the resurrection. Neither of these is possible without the aid of the Holy Spirit. We would do well to make our own the words of the Psalmist:

“A clean heart create for me, O God,
and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Cast me not out from your presence,
and your Holy Spirit take not from me.”


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