The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 58, No 4, July-Aug. 2005

Theology for the Laity

The Beatitudes, Part II

By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.

Personal and Scriptural Sorrow

       And Jesus said, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."

       Of the Beatitudes, this second is, perhaps, the most difficult to comprehend. Not because we do not understand what it means to be sad, but because the Scriptural understanding of sorrow evolved over time, and our personal understanding of sorrow has failed to keep up.

       When Jesus promises a reward to those who mourn, we may think of the sorrow we feel when someone dies. But there is also a unique "Scriptural" sort of sorrow that has less to do with personal loss, than it does the pain and harm the community experiences as a result of sin or oppression. This collective sorrow is different from the personal sorrow experienced by an individual, so the blessing that rewards one type of sorrow is different from the blessing that rewards the other.

Personal Sorrow and the Cross

       First, let us consider the value of personal sorrow. Obviously, we mourn when someone dies. At the time, we may not feel particularly holy, but the preface for the funeral Mass reminds us that "the sadness of grief gives way to the bright promise of immortality." These words are not only a promise of eternal life for those who die, they should also be a reminder of the blessing that comes to those who mourn.

       At some point we have to be consoled by the thought that Jesus also mourned the death of a friend. The new Catechism of the Church reminds us that grace

       Human grief unites us with Christ, who wept at the death of Lazarus, so grief is one more of those things that refines the image of Christ in us.

       That is the here and now reward of our sorrow. We cannot imagine what other forms the consolation for our grief will take, but there is a maxim in our faith that the Church believes as it prays. Our prayer over and over repeats the promise of reunion with those who have died, so we reasonably look forward to this reunion as one more consolation for our grief.

Collective or Spiritual Sorrow

Perfection & Sorrow for Sin

       But what shall we say about communal or "Scriptural" sorrow, the grief we express when we ask forgiveness for sin? This is the sort of "mourning" the early Christian writers considered almost exclusively.

       Here we may find it profitable to remember that St. Thomas Aquinas places the Beatitude of comfort for those who mourn among the blessings that remove the obstacle of sensual happiness. In the previous reflection, on the happiness Jesus promises to those who are poor, we remarked that sensual happiness comes from money, power, and distinction, as well as the more predictable sex, food - and any of the other created, material goods that insulate us from the pain of everyday life (S.T., I-II, 69.3,4). St. Thomas says that virtue, - that is, good habits - enables us to resist the lure of sensual happiness by using these things in moderation.

       But if the Christian is striving for perfection, there is a goal higher than moderation. The Catechism says, the beatitude we are promised confronts us with decisive moral choices. It invites us to purify our hearts of bad instincts and to seek the love of God above all things (1723).

       General Electric has a motto, "Good enough isnít," and that is the point the Catechism makes. It is not enough for Christians to be good. God calls us to be perfect. Nor is it enough merely to "avoid evil." We must also "do good."

       The Catechism reminds us that the highest good is seeking the love of God over everything else - even to the extent, Aquinas says, of "...cast[ing] them aside altogether; nay more, so that, if need be, [one] makes a deliberate choice of sorrow" (S.T., 69.3).

       Created things are attractive, good, and reasonable. But they do not last. We can lose them, or fear that we will lose them. No matter how many things we have, or how excellent they are, if we find our happiness in created goods, we commit ourselves to an unending cycle of striving to gain something we cannot possess for long. St. Augustine reminds us that this is at best a fragile happiness, for "there [In the world's created goods] the mourner is comforted by things which make him fear lest he have to mourn again."

       A 17th-Century Jesuit moralist, summed this up very elegantly - and also very frighteningly, "When nothing more is to be wished for, everything is to be feared... for where desire ends, apprehension begins." (Baltasar Gracian, "A Truthtelling Manual," 200).

Grace and Detachment

       The saints tell us that the only thing that can make us happy is God, because God is the only thing we cannot lose. Therefore, the saints admonish us to cultivate a disdain for the material things that delight and console us, or at least to be aware that we own nothing in this world, so we must never expect a created thing to make us happy.

       To be fair, St. Thomas Aquinas says that we do not reach this point of detachment by ourselves. Virtue will lead us as far as moderation, but if we are going to achieve heroic detachment, God must intervene in our lives by grace. The good news here is that if we do not achieve absolute detachment from created things, we are not altogether to blame. Nevertheless, beatitude is the result of choice, and seeking Godís love above all is the choice we always need to strive to make.

       Here is where the sorrow we feel for personal loss can help us to understand the sorrow we ought to feel for our sins. St. John Chrysostom wrote,

       Sorrow is the result of loss. The loss can be an event that befalls us accidentally, or it can be something we seek - as when we give up a legitimate pleasure for Lent, or try to break the habitual attachment to some sin. Whatever the cause of it, our sorrow is a point of connection between us and Christís cross. And when we make that connection we are consoled because sorrow is both a sign of the cross in our midst now, and a pledge of Christís love for the future - the only thing capable of satisfying us completely.

Meekness: the Corrective to Power

       And Jesus said, "blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." If the Scripture confuses us in the second beatitude by employing a technical meaning for mourning, our language itself betrays us here by devaluing the virtue of meekness.

       Meekness is one of those words we simply do not understand. We look at someone who stands off to the side and never expresses an opinion, and we say the person is meek. But that is to confuse meekness with shyness, and Jesus does not promise a reward for being shy. Meekness is altogether different from shyness, but it has a great deal in common with the poverty of spirit and the mourning that Jesus commends in the Beatitudes.

Getting What We Want

       Thus far we have considered the relation between the Beatitudes and what St. Thomas Aquinas calls sensual happiness - a technical theological term that means following our own designs, or getting our own way. When we talk about getting our own way, we need to talk about the means by which we gain something we want.

       We can pay for a good, which is where wealth comes in handy. Or we can choose from whatever comes along that makes us feel good, and here some cultivated sensibilities and good taste are useful. But there is a third way to get what we want, and that is force. "...cruel and pitiless men," Aquinas says,

The Remedy of the Beatitudes

       Poverty of spirit enables us to govern our desire for affluence, and mourning helps us overcome an attachment to the things that delight our senses. There is one more part to this picture, and meekness fills in the blank space.

       Meekness is the virtue that moderates anger, which is a desire for vengeance. Thus, those who will inherit the earth are the same individuals who might very easily have taken it by force but who allow themselves to be restrained by the example of Christ who is meek and humble of heart.

       When Jesus promised the earth to the meek he was undoubtedly identifying his own people, subject to foreign, pagan occupation. His words echo Psalm 37, in which,

Meekness, Economics and Us

       The apocalyptic rewards for patient endurance still inspire many individuals, and for the economically disadvantaged and the politically oppressed, the beatitudes are a strong and hopeful promise of redress. But for most of us living in the developed economic world circumstances are far different. For us to understand the blessing of meekness, we need to look at the world for just a moment from the point of view of the bullies.

       St. Thomas says that "cruel and pitiless men seek by wrangling and fighting to destroy their enemies so as to gain security for themselves." Even if we are not talking about acres of land, who of us is not capable of wrangling and fighting until we get our way?

       The goal is security, and meekness reminds us that we will not find security in the things we commonly wrangle and fight about. Either a better fighter will come along or if we get what we want by arguing, we feel so guilty we want to give it back.

The Beatitudes: a Sacramental Way of Life

       When we were small we learned that sacraments are outward signs, instituted by Christ to give grace. This means that Jesus has chosen certain elements of our lives to go beyond whatever meaning they have in themselves to allow us to touch Him.

       To be poor in spirit, to mourn, and to be meek is to cultivate a sacramental attitude toward creation - to find signs of the kingdom of heaven in the things that surround us, and to cultivate the attitudes toward the created world that will make us the ministers -here and now- of the life we look forward to enjoying fully in the future. W

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