In ascetical books, Christian perfection is often discussed in an exceedingly dry and abstract manner. About all we find is an enumeration of the virtues which it requires and an insistence on the perfection of charity. But what this perfection of charity consists in, and how it differs from the charity of beginners and those who are more proficient, is not shown in a sufficiently concrete and vivid way.
The greatness and majesty of Christian perfection will appear in a very concrete and living way if we bear in mind the first sermon of our divine Lord on the beatitudes (Matt. 5 and Luke 6).
At the outset Christ begins to speak of happiness, because all men naturally desire to be happy; but they often wander aimlessly, seeking this happiness where it is not to be found in sensible pleasures, in riches, in honors, in power, and are easily deceived by the concupiscence of the flesh, by the concupiscence of the eyes, and by the pride of life. Christ, on the other hand, shows where true happiness is to be found, in its beginning in this life and in its perfection after death.
Similarly, St. Thomas begins his exposition of moral theology with his tract on man's final end and happiness, because the end is first in the order of intention, although last in the order of execution.
Spiritual theology must insist on the greatness of Christian perfection, by describing it not only theoretically and in the abstract but in a concrete and living way, in the very words of our Lord. Such a method will show how intimately contemplation on the mysteries of faith and intimate union with God belong to Christian perfection, and will clearly distinguish Christian perfection from the charity of beginners and the more advanced.
This is particularly necessary when we are considering the perfection toward which a priest, as distinct from the ordinary faithful, should strive.
St. Augustine has given us an interesting and illuminating insight in his work, The Lord's Sermon on the Mount. There he notes that in St. Luke's Gospel (6:20) four beatitudes are mentioned, and eight in St. Matthew's Gospel (5). There are four beatitudes missing in St. Luke's Gospel blessed are the meek, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers.
St. Augustine remarks: "Jesus first ascended the mountain and made this address to His disciples. Afterwards, when He had come down, He found that a crowd had gathered, and He preached to them also, recapitulating many things which He had said."
It seems, therefore, that this sermon in its depth and fullness was directed to the Apostles and is consequently of special value for priests.
In each beatitude our Lord mentions the meritorious act and its reward beginning in this life and perfected after death. These meritorious acts, according to St. Augustine and St. Thomas, are acts of perfect virtues, performed with the aid of the gifts an act of the virtue of fortitude, for example, aided by the gift of fortitude, the virtue of meekness aided by the gift of piety, of prudence aided by the gift of counsel the initial reward already points to a union with God which shall later be consummated in heaven. There is no way more concrete, therefore, to describe Christian perfection toward which priests particularly should strive so that they may be able to guide the faithful toward it.
The Beatitudes Imply
An Approach to Good:
|Blessed are they who suffer persecution||All the gifts and perfect virtues|
|Blessed are the peacemakers||Gift of wisdom|
|Blessed are the clean of heart||Gift of understanding|
|Blessed are the merciful||Gift of counsel|
|Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after justice||Gift of fortitude|
A drawing away from evil:
|Blessed are they who weep||Gift of knowledge|
|Blessed are the meek||Gift of piety|
|Blessed are the poor||Gift of fear.|
St. Thomas, following St. Augustine, explains these eight beatitudes in his commentary on St. Matthew and in the Summa (1-2, q. 69). Both Matthew and Luke list the beatitudes in an ascending order, beginning with the beatitude of poverty and rising to the beatitude of those who suffer persecution. In Isaias (11:2), however, the list descends from the supreme gift of wisdom to the lowest, the gift of fear.
Similarly, the petitions of the Lord's Prayer begin with the higher ones: from "Hallowed be Thy name" to "But deliver us from evil." St. Augustine calls this to our attention in order to make more obvious the correlation between the beatitudes and the gifts.
St. Thomas points out that, in ascending order, the first three beatitudes imply a drawing away from evil (blessed are the poor, the meek, and those who weep); the others imply an approach to what is good and best. Among these the beatitudes of the active life are first listed: "blessed are those who hunger and thirst after justice" and "blessed are the merciful." The beatitudes of the contemplative life come next: "blessed are the clean of heart" and "blessed are the peacemakers." Finally, there is the chief beatitude, "blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice's sake." It is the summit of Christian perfection and is most strikingly shown by martyrs.
St. Thomas presents an excellent exposition of
these eight steps on the road to perfection both in his commentary on
St. Matthew's Gospel and in the Summa.1
While the world says: "Happiness consist in an abundance of material goods, sense pleasure, and honors," Jesus says: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This beatitude proceeds from humility and from the gift of fear, and it is opposed to greed, jealousy, and the pride of life. All who aspire to perfection must aim at a spirit of evangelical poverty. If they have riches, they should likewise possess a spirit of mortification; particularly is this true of priests. One can have perfect charity without the effective practice of the counsels, but never without their spirit.
Similarly, while the world says: "Happy are those who have power over others," Jesus says: Blessed are the meek, for they shall possess the land. In other words, blessed are they who do not become angry, who do not seek revenge against their opponents, or power over others, but power over their own irascible passions so that their soul may become entirely peaceful. This beatitude springs from meekness and the gift of piety, because this gift makes us consider God as a father, and men as brothers whom we must regard with gentleness.
Similarly, while the world says: "Happy are those who find consolation in luxuries or in vanities," Jesus says: Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall he comforted. In other words, blessed are they who weep over their own sins and realize that the only true evil is mortal sin, the death of the soul. These find a consolation which is infinitely superior to the delights of the world. They use their concupiscible appetites very moderately in a spirit of penance and in the light of the gift of knowledge by which they realize the vanity of earthly things and the gravity of sin (cf. 2-2, q. 9, a. 4). Knowledge is an understanding of things, not in the light of their first cause, but through dependent and deficient secondary causes. The priest must be penitent and must welcome penitents, moving them to a true and lasting sorrow for their sins.
The first three beatitudes imply a drawing away from evil, as in the purgative way. The two following ones imply an approach to good and they are part of the active life; they are in the proficient stage.
Pride says: "Happy is he who lives and acts just as he pleases, who is subject to nobody, who is in charge of others and dominates over them." Jesus says, on the contrary, Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after justice, for they shall have their fill. According to St. Augustine and St. Thomas, this beatitude corresponds to the gift of fortitude, which helps us overcome difficulties and keeps alive in us, for the duration of our lives, a burning love for justice and perfection. As we grow older we see that hunger and thirst after justice are not merely a warm feeling or a burning of the soul which soon passes away and is conquered.
But the love of justice ought to be united, as it is in God, to a love of mercy. And so another beatitude follows immediately: Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. In other words, blessed are they who do not oppress those who are subject to them, and who are good counsellors to those who are in trouble; to them God will be merciful. This beatitude, according to St. Augustine and St. Thomas, corresponds to the gift of counsel, because mercy inclines one to give good counsel to those who are in trouble, and when the mind hesitates between the path of justice and the path of mercy, the Holy Spirit inclines it to mercy by which the sinner is helped to return to justice.
The sixth and seventh beatitudes are connected with the contemplative life. St. Luke does not mention them; and very probably they were preached not to the people, but to the disciples.
While many philosophers were saying that happiness consists in speculating about truth and were caring very little about purity of heart, Jesus said: Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God. In other words, by heart-to-heart talk with God they already receive in this life an understanding of divine things, a contemplation of the mysteries of salvation, which enables them to preach out of the abundance of the heart. According to St. Augustine and St. Thomas, this beatitude of cleanliness of heart corresponds to the gift of understanding, which allows us to penetrate divine things. In this way, living faith becomes penetrating; it understands mysteries and in particular the superiority of the last end compared with other ends: how God, infinite Love, is immensely superior to the objects of concupiscence and pride. This is the contemplation which was the source of the Apostles' fruitful preaching.
Then: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall he called the children of God. These are the truly wise and happy, not because they are peacemakers in a human way, but because they see all things in relation to God. They worry not, but find true peace, preserve it and communicate it to others who are worried. This peace is the tranquility of order which springs from the gift of wisdom, because this gift connaturally judges everything in relation to God. By it we know, almost by experiencing it, that evil comes only because it is permitted by God for a greater good. Peace is thus preserved, and these peacemakers reconcile men who are divided among themselves. They are makers of peace, like great pastors or bishops.2
Finally, the eighth beatitude is the most perfect of all, because it expresses perseverance in spite of unjust trials: Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This meritorious act springs from all the virtues and gifts, particularly from heroic patience in persecution by which the soul is finally purified, so that a super-human happiness is found even in those torments. These sublime words were never heard before, and they are a sign of supernatural wisdom and mortification. Referring to these words, St. John Chryso-stom says: "He who seeks only the glory of God is not afraid of being defeated in the sight of men."
Theirs is the kingdom of heaven, the joy of contemplation and union with God even amid persecutions.
This is a vivid and concrete description of the greatness of Christian perfection; as grace surpasses nature, it is immensely superior to merely human perfection of which the wise Greeks spoke. And those words throw light on the proposition in which the whole sermon on the Mount is summed up: Be you, therefore, perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Have that perfection which is supernatural, not merely angelic but divine, whose goal is to see God, as He sees Himself, immediately, and to love Him forever.
Priests in particular should strive after this perfection.
NOTES TO CHAPTER 8
1. See, in particular, S.T., 1-2, q. 63, a. 3.
2. See Ibid., 2-2, q. 45.The Correlation of the Virtues and Gifts
|Faith||Gift of wisdom||Blessed are the peacemakers|
|Hope||Gift of understanding||Blessed are the clean of heart|
|Charity||Gift of knowledge||Blessed are they who weep|
|Prudence||Gift of counsel||Blessed are the merciful|
|Justice (religion)||Gift of piety||Blessed are the meek|
|Fortitude||Gift of fortitude||Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after justice|
|Temperance||Gift of fear||Blessed are the poor|