The recent second readings in the Office of Readings have been from the beginning of a sermon on the beatitudes by Saint Pope Leo the Great. Also given this week’s Mass readings from the Sermon on the Mount, it reminded me of the many articles I’ve written over the years on how I’ve grown to appreciate the importance of the Sermon on the Mount, and specifically the Beatitudes as presented by Saint Matthew. I thought this might be a good first article for my rejuvenated blog site. The following is a condensation of the chapter on the Beatitudes from my book, Life From Our Land. (1) I look forward to any of your comments. (2)
Years ago in my readings, I discovered the writings of a fourth-century bishop, St. Chromatius of Aquileia (AD 340–408). He was a contemporary and friend of Sts. Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome. He preached something about these Beatitudes that I had never heard, but which was understood by many of the early Fathers of the Church. In a sermon on Matthew, Chromatius wrote:
Our Lord, Our savior, establishes extremely solid steps of precious stones, by which saintly souls and faithful can climb, can rise to this supreme good, which is the kingdom of heaven…. Brethren, before your eyes are the eight rungs of the gospel, constructed, as I have said, with precious stones. Behold Jacob’s ladder which starts on earth and whose top touches heaven. He who climbs it finds the gate of heaven, and having entered it, will have endless joy in the presence of the Lord, eternally praising Him with the holy angels. (3)
Another contemporary of St. Chromatius, St. Gregory of Nyssa (AD 335-386), the brother of St. Basil the Great, also promoted this view. Whereas St. Chromatius wrote as a western Latin Catholic bishop, St. Gregory, however, was an eastern Greek bishop. There is no evidence that they ever communicated, and St. Gregory’s sermons on the Beatitudes may even have predated those of St. Chromatius. Here is how St. Gregory introduces this concept:
When one climbs up by a ladder, he sets foot on the first step, and from there goes on to the one above. Again the second step carries the climber up to the third, and this to the following, and hence to the next. Thus the person who goes up always ascends from where he is to the step above until he reaches the top of his ascent. Now why do I begin like this? It seems to me that the Beatitudes are arranged in order like so many steps, so as to facilitate the ascent from one to the other. For if a man’s mind has ascended to the first Beatitude, he will accept what follows as a necessary result of thought, even though the next clause seems to say something new beyond what had been said in the first. (4)
Pope St. Leo the Great (d. 461), a generation later, confirmed this idea of the Beatitudes as a staircase of conversion in his own sermon on the Beatitudes: “Thus whoever longs to attain eternal blessedness can now recognize the steps that lead to that high happiness” (5). Jesus was not merely saying that God blesses those who find themselves impotently in a state of poverty, mourning, meekness, etc., but rather He was commanding His hearers to willingly choose poverty of spirit, etc. As St. Pope Leo wrote, “[Our Lord] shows that the kingdom of heaven is to be given to those who are distinguished by their humility of soul rather than by their lack of worldly goods.”
From the perspective of Sts. Chromatius, Gregory of Nyssa, and Leo the Great, Jesus was telling His followers that each Beatitude was a step or “rung” that leads to the next and therefore becomes a foundation for the next. Each step yields a reward, yet also entails a crisis (either an obstacle to moving forward or a temptation to fall back), for each step requires sacrifice, perseverance, and choosing to actualize the grace available.
While this perspective from the Doctors of the Church certainly deserves a more thorough discussion, here we have room only for a fairly simple one.
A Staircase to Conversion
In the image of Moses bringing the old Law down from Mount Sinai, our Lord gave the new Law to those who desired to grow closer to Him and thereby enter the kingdom. He gave this in a sermon on a mount of grass, out in a field, to people gathered around Him, enjoying the wind and the sun, the songs of birds and the camaraderie of family and friends.
Jesus talked about being blessed, about the qualities that this requires, and about rewards. We’ve all heard these Beatitudes, and usually they’re interpreted as separate promises referring, possibly, to separate groups of individuals:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The first step, “blessed are the poor in spirit,” refers to detachment from the world, and therefore choosing an attachment to Jesus Christ. Here is a poverty that we choose, regardless of material wealth or condition in life. Though certainly not always the case, there are poor people who sadly envy what others have. There are, also, rich folks who recognize that everything they have is a gift from God, for which they are eternally responsible, and therefore focus on filling the needs of the poor. This poverty of spirit involves seeing life from the perspective of God the Father: material things are good in themselves, but not as ends; they are only fleeting, and of no eternal value.
This first step involves, essentially what the first disciples did: “Immediately they left their nets and followed him” (Mk 1:18). All of Jesus’ instructions on discipleship begin here, and one must not turn back: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:62).
The reward for detachment from the kingdom of this world is “the kingdom of heaven.” A crisis can arise, however, when a person starts to “mourn” for the things they’ve left behind or could have had. We can fall back, through our choices, to our old attachments, or we can willingly, by grace, choose to move to the next step.
Step two (“Blessed are those who mourn”) involves detachment from sin in obedience to Jesus Christ: mourning how the sins to which we have become attached have separated us from God and from becoming the people He created us to be. The reward for remorse and repentance is being “comforted”, or having an inner affirmation of being forgiven, cleansed by grace — new creations by grace. A crisis can arise, however, from our pride, when we second-guess the need to change and, instead, regress back into sin. This was why St. Paul warned the newly baptized pagan converts in Ephesus not to fall back into their former sinful lifestyles, but exhorted them: “Put off the old man, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new man, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:22–24).
After one has detached from this world and from sin, step three (“Blessed are the meek”) involves detachment from self: choosing humbly to be like Jesus. When we let go of ourselves as the center of our own universes, and trust in God’s providence, He literally promises us the world (“for they shall inherit the earth”). But a crisis can arise if we once again “hunger and thirst” for the attention we once had when we were the center and focus of our lives. We can fall back, seeking the attention and praise of others, or we can willingly, by grace, choose to put others first — seeking their good, for the sake of Christ — and by grace move to the next step.
Being detached from the world, sin, and ourselves, we can attain the fourth step where, by grace, we “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Jesus promises that if we respond to and attach ourselves to this inner longing for holiness, we “will be satisfied”; we will be changed by grace. A crisis can arise, though, when we discover that this requires more sacrifice — that we are to forgive and show mercy, even to those who hurt or hate us. We can fall back by refusing to love and forgive, by returning to love of self over others, by returning to sinful behavior rather than listening to anyone else, and by attaching ourselves again to things of this world. Or we can ask God for the grace necessary to help us choose to love, to forgive, regardless of how we feel, which leads to the next step.
Step five (“Blessed are the merciful”) involves willingly obeying and living out righteousness: loving as Christ has loved us. The reward is that we in turn receive and experience God’s mercy. A crisis can arise when we are tempted to feel bitterness for letting go of what we consider justice: when we regret letting go of punishing someone who has hurt us. We can harbor within our hearts bitterness because we have shown love, forgiveness, and mercy towards those whom we feel deserve rejection, punishment, and justice! This bitterness can build within our hearts until we quench the Spirit, stepping backwards into self, sin, and away from God. Or, we can repent of this sinfulness of heart, asking God to cleanse our hearts of whatever turns us away from Him, praying as David once did, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (Ps 51:10), leading us, then, to the next step.
As a result of willingly detaching ourselves, aided by grace, from the world, sin, and self, hungering and thirsting instead for righteousness, and living this out in mercy toward others, our hearts become changed and purified (“Blessed are the pure in heart”). The reward for this is the gift of “seeing God.” The great Christian spiritual writers, of both East and West, have understood the gift of “seeing God” as the intimacy of contemplation. A pure heart is one that has been cleansed of the distractions of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and by grace is able to experience the journey of the Three Ways of the Spiritual Life, particularly the passive purgation of the senses and the spirit, leading to an intimate union with Christ.
A crisis can arise here, however, through the possibility of isolation. Up to this point, all of the steps have the potential of tempting a person into a self-preserving isolation. As a result of our efforts to detach ourselves from the world, sin, and self, followed by a concentrated hunger and thirst for righteousness, and then a desire to be loving and merciful to whomever crosses our path, we may in actuality have cornered ourselves into an exodus from the world, an inward focusing upon ourselves; even a resentful privatization of our spiritual lives, leading to bitterness whenever anyone has the “insensitive gall” to interfere, to intrude upon our “superior” efforts at holiness! Or, we can respond malleably to the implications and call of the first six steps, following in obedience their trajectory out from ourselves, following the example of Christ, out into the world, leading to the next step.
Beatitude seven involves imitating Christ in the world by being a peacemaker (“Blessed are the peacemakers”). This does not so much mean becoming a skilled negotiator or arbiter between warring peoples, but rather being a willing messenger of Jesus into the lives of others. The reward for stepping out in obedience to live out the implications of these steps in the relationships that God has given us — in our marriages, families, neighborhoods, parishes, workplaces, etc. — is that people may recognize us as indeed “sons of God.” They may be moved to “see our good works and give glory to God the Father” (Mt 5:16).
However, they may not, and this could bring about a crisis. They may react negatively to our efforts, maybe even turn against us in ridicule or persecution. We can respond by backing off. We can return to the safety of our self-focused corner to seek holiness in isolation. Or worse, we can begin doubting, even rejecting the previous stages, giving in to the criticism of the crowd by joining their ranks. We can begin desiring their acceptance over the desire for righteousness, until we have stepped so far backward, that we are once again attached to seeking what is “best” for ourselves, to sin, and the world.
Or, by grace, we can accept the suffering that comes from standing up for what is right and good, pure and true, which leads to the next step.
Here, by grace, we have become willing to accept the persecution that comes from defending truth (“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake”). Those who react in ridicule may not realize why you are doing this (or in whose Name you are doing this); they may merely be reacting against our pointing out, even if done in love, their failure to do what is true, good, and pure. Our reward? At this stage, we might expect by now an exalted, glorious reward, but in fact we receive what we were promised in step one: membership in the kingdom. In other words, being persecuted for doing what is right is par for the course: this is our duty as members of the Body of Christ. But then again, what is greater than eternal membership in the Family of God?
This can bring on a crisis, however, when others reject, ridicule, or persecute, not just the moral or ethical imperatives of our efforts, but our religious convictions and motives: they may ridicule our Lord and cast aspersions on our Christian faith. We can respond by backing off and, like Simon Peter, denying our Lord and our faith. Maybe only in a subtle way; maybe only by slighting the underlying motivating significance of our religious convictions; maybe by declaring that we are doing this not because Jesus says so or because our Faith says so, but just because it is right! Jesus, however, warned: “whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 10:33). In time, this can lead to a cascading spiritual tumble backwards.
Or, by grace, we can accept this rejection as nothing more than what is to be expected and accepted as a follower of Jesus Christ, and move to step nine (7), when, by grace, we accept whatever persecution comes because we stand with Jesus (“Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account”). Our reward, for which we are to “rejoice and be glad,” is eternal union with Christ in heaven. Until then, however, we can still fall back, when we realize that these steps have not led to a comfortable plateau; that we haven’t reached an end where we can rest in peace knowing that we’ve arrived. Rather, we have merely reached the stage of discovering our lifelong mission, the “obedience of faith” in which we are called to live by grace everyday until He calls us home.
We can become complacent in our presumptions, assuming that, through our efforts in obedience to Christ, we have arrived, and as a result blindly fall backwards, glorying in our successes, even arrogantly wallowing in the external symbols of our spiritual progress.
Or, by grace, we can continue living the steps, which must be revisited and renewed every day, following St. Paul’s example:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature be thus minded; and if in anything you are otherwise minded, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained. (Phil 3:12–16)
Admittedly, these steps as presented are intimidating; each alone can seem out of reach, let alone a step to the next. Just making any headway toward detaching ourselves from the world seems impossible, in this age when our very existence seems dependent upon technologies, politics, and economic entanglements those first-century Christians could never have imagined. The impossibility of these steps, in fact, is why so many of Jesus’ hearers refused to follow Him. Yet, Jesus did not back down from the importance of these challenges, for in the sermon, He said: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). He also said, though, that this radical living was to be augmented with prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (Mt 6:1–18), and that if we asked, sought, and knocked, He would help us (Mt 7:7–12).
Just realizing the significance and promise of these Beatitudes, is a start—is the self-affirming evidence that God’s grace is at work. Any effort we make at least to begin detaching ourselves from the world, sin, and self, initiates a hunger and thirst in our hearts for righteousness. This in turn can strengthen us to show at least some mercy, which gives us a glimmer of the presence of God, which by grace can give us the courage to begin stepping out in His Name. This whole process involves little steps, day by day, inch by inch, until, by grace, these steps become habitual, virtues. So said Thomas à Kempis: “Each day we should renew our resolution, and bestir ourselves to fervour, as though it were the first day of our conversion, and say, ‘Help me, O Lord God, in my good resolve and in your holy service: grant me this day to begin perfectly, for hitherto I have accomplished nothing’” (8).
Three Stages of Conversion and Reconciliation
Understanding the Beatitudes as nine steps or rungs of continuous conversion shows many parallels to how the spiritual life has been described through the history of the Church. For example, the nine steps correspond quite nicely to the traditional three stages of conversion or growth in the spiritual life (9). The first three Beatitudes entail detachment, emptying oneself of attachments to the world, sin, and self. The staircase to heaven requires passing through suffering and sacrifice. In the second three Beatitudes, we are filled with the new, more rightly directed attachments to Christ: righteousness, mercy, and intimacy with God. The last three Beatitudes involve living out our attachments to Christ in love of neighbor, stepping out into the world as a peacemaker, a Christlike messenger of the Gospel, accepting by grace whatever ridicule or persecution the world has to give.
This interpretation of the Beatitudes has a practical application, for almost everything Christ taught was directed at restoring broken relationships, with God and with others. When we experience a broken relationship, with a spouse, family member, or friend, the Beatitudes can provide a step-by-step path towards reconciliation:
Dying to Self:
1st. Recognize that everything we have is a gift of God (gratitude);
2nd. Recognize our own guilt for sins and the misuse of God’s gifts (remorse);
3rd. Recognize our own pride that exacerbates difficulties in the relationship (humility);
Adopting the Mind of Christ:
4th. Do what is right in the eyes of God (love);
5th. Turn the other cheek (relinquish the “right to justice” and show mercy);
6th. Pursue purity of soul and the grace to stand without blemish before God;
Acting as Christ Would:
7th. Take action to restore peace, in imitation of God;
8th. Stand firm in the face of whatever rejection may come for acting according to God’s commands;
9th. Accept without retaliation ridicule for our faith in Christ.
This may seem idealistic, even insurmountable, but again, like conversion, it is a process empowered by grace through faith. Reconciliation begins with ourselves: by setting our hearts and minds in the direction of reconciliation, it then shapes our prayer, until it sets our convictions and our wills, until we step out and make peace with family, friends, and neighbors.
What about those “rewards” Jesus promised? It’s crucial to understand that these steps are not meant to be guaranteed methods for earning or working our way to heaven. Rather, this path is what it means to believe, to have faith.
When St. Paul wrote in Ephesians to those newly baptized convert pagans that “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this [was] not your own doing” (Eph 2:8), he was not specifically referring to the salvation they might one day experience at the end of their earthly lives, if by grace and perseverance they remained faithful. Rather, he was saying that it was the grace and mercy of God that had reached them and awakened them to truth, while they were yet lost in their attachments to the world, sin, and themselves, outside the Church (cf., Rom. 5:6-11). As Father Jean Nicolas Grou wrote many years ago, our focus must not be on whether, as a result of our efforts, even our faith, we will be “saved”, for in essence this can grow to become a self-centered quest; we can wrongly become attached to a myopic, self-motivated quest to reach heaven. Rather, our focus is to be, first, on giving glory to God; second, on growing by grace in holiness (the steps of the Beatitudes); and then, thirdly, our happiness, entrusting our eternal destiny in hope to the mercy of our Heavenly Father (10).
And so, those rewards? We are blessed! Our focus on Him and following Him in faithful obedience by grace, step by step, reap the blessings of his grace: “from his fulness, have we all received, grace upon grace” (Jn 1:16).
This is a revised version of Chapter 14, “Inch by Inch, Row by Row” from my book, Life from our Land: The Search for a Simpler Life in a Complex World (Ignatius Press, San Francisco: 2015), pgs. 159-173.
Allow me to begin by referencing a comment made recently by a Protestant professor from the Evangelical seminary I attended far too many years ago. He blankly pooh-poohed all traditional Catholic or Orthodox spiritual writers who used the images of a staircase or ladder as methods of works righteousness—strategies for earning one’s entrance into heaven. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Beatitudes, as well as all traditional teachings on the spiritual life, presume the foundation of salvation by grace through faith; it is through the spiritual disciplines that already-saved children of God grow in grace and “strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). Of course, those who hold to a “one saved—always salvation” theology of redemption will have a hard time hearing anything in this article. Again, I look forward to your thoughts.
St. Chromatius of Aquileia, “Sermon on the Beatitudes,” quoted in Glimpses of the Church Fathers, by Claire Russell (London: Sceptor Press, 1996), p. 215, 219.
St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory of Nyssa: The Lord’s Prayer, and The Beatitudes, trans. Hilda C. Graef (Paulist Press: New York/Mahwah, 1954), p. 97.
Pope St. Leo the Great, Sermon 95, A Homily on the Beatitudes, quoted in The Liturgy of the Hours, vol. 4, 22nd Week, Thursday, Office of Readings, p. 207.
We often hear of the Eight Beatitudes, but there are those who speak of nine. I chose nine here because it seems like Jesus was prophetically pointing to what has too often happened historically: believers step out into the world to do good deeds for righteousness’ sake but are hesitant to do so in the name of Christ. Acknowledging these as two intentions allows for a recognition of the necessary progress in courage and conviction.
Thomas à Kempis, Imitation of Christ (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), p. 48.
The Beatitudes, for example, have been linked to the traditional three ways of the spiritual life (the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive); see, for instance, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., The Three Ages of the Interior Life.