The Ladder of the Beatitudes II: Embracing the Challenge
by Norm Rich
Gregory of Nyssa imagined the Beatitudes as a staircase ascending toward Godeach one needing to be fulfilled in order to take the next step.
For a more comprehensive Study Guide and Related Readings, see the end of this article.
Gregory of Nyssa imagined the Beatitudes as a staircase ascending toward God—each one needing to be fulfilled in order to take the next step. In this article, we examine the Beatitudes that remind us of the possibility of persecution, yet call us to be merciful, pure of heart, and makers of peace so we may climb closer to the top of the staircase where we will experience more fully the presence of God.
To Live for Others
The desire of every human being is to be happy. We might say we want wealth or fame or power, but we only mention these things because we believe these things will make us happy. In the Gospels, however, it is clear that the path to happiness does not lie in our worldly desires. Rather, it lies in the path set forth in the Beatitudes.
The word blessed comes from the Greek word makarios, which means “happy.” In our culture, happiness is a state of feeling good. However, in the time of Jesus, the word makarios reflected the idea of living in harmony with our nature or being in touch with our soul. Since God is love and God created us, we are living according to our nature when we live a life of love. Ultimately, the Beatitudes teach us how to love.
Matthew’s Gospel states that “they who lose their life will save it” (16:25). One common thread found in the three Beatitudes discussed in this article is the challenge to live not for self but for others. Embracing the challenge of the Beatitudes means living beyond ourselves so that we may be merciful, pure of heart, and seekers of peace. Only in embracing this challenge can we live according to our nature and find the happiness that comes from love.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
In 1985, Ronald Cotton was identified by Jennifer Thompson as the man who assaulted and raped her. Even though he swore his innocence, he was sentenced to prison where he spent ten years of his life. After DNA evidence exonerated Ronald Cotton of the crime in 1996, Jennifer Thompson asked to meet with him in order to apologize for her grave mistake.
Filled with intense guilt and shame, Jennifer broke down in tears before she could even utter an apology. As tears flowed from Jennifer’s eyes, Ronald held her in his arms and said the words she desperately needed to hear: “I forgive you.”
When asked by a reporter how he could forgive so easily, Ronald stated that he knew what it was like to lose part of his life and he didn’t want Jennifer to lose part of her life feeling guilty for a mistake. The two of them went on to write a book, give talks across the country, and share a common friendship that remains today.
The Greek word for mercy, eleos, implies “pouring out” love onto another. One could understand how Ronald Cotton, a black man, might hold a grudge against a white woman who cost him ten years of his life. Yet, he was able to empty himself of anger, resentment, and judgment in order to put himself into the shoes of another fallible human being.
In the Letter of James, we read that “mercy triumphs over judgment” (2:13). In emptying himself, Ronald Cotton was able to extend forgiveness and “pour out” his love on Jennifer.
“Blessed are the merciful” calls us to “forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12) and to love those who hate us. Father John Hardon, S.J., defines mercy as “love that overcomes resistance.” As ministers in the Church, we will encounter those who “trespass against us.” Like Ronald Cotton, we must be willing to empty ourselves of resentment and put ourselves in the shoes of those to whom we minister. Being ministers to those we like is easy—but this Beatitude calls us to minister to those who resist us as well.
Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.
At the turn of the fourth century, a young man named Augustine abandoned the Christian faith of his mother and lived a hedonistic lifestyle. Engaging in sexually promiscuous behavior, drunkenness, and gambling, he took for himself a concubine and had a son out of wedlock. But all of this would change and he would go on to be one of the greatest theologians the Catholic Church has ever known. As revealed in his Confessions, it was a change of heart that ultimately led Augustine to give up his unholy lifestyle, embrace celibacy, and commit his life to the Church as a bishop.
Augustine embraced the importance of having a “pure heart” as he began to pay attention to his restless soul and the reality that he was not living in accord with his nature. He understood that his lust and selfish desires were leading him to behave in ways that made his life unfulfilling. In his Confessions he states: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (I, 1).
It was a conversion back to the Christian faith that led Augustine to empty his heart of impurity and allow it to be filled with God’s grace. He knew that to live a life pleasing to God we must begin with what is in our hearts. Thus, his prayer became, “O Holy Spirit, descend plentifully into my heart. Enlighten the dark corners of this neglected dwelling and scatter there Thy cheerful beams.”
The Beatitude “happy are the pure of heart” reminds us to purge ourselves of unclean thoughts. Augustine reminds us that it is not good enough just to do what is right; we also must think and desire what is right. Matthew’s Gospel warns that “everyone who looks at a woman with lust, has already committed adultery” (5:28). While we may struggle with the idea of being able to sin without action, human nature is such that our actions often flow from our hearts. Many theologians view this passage as Matthew’s way of reminding us that purity of heart matters because our hearts will influence what we do.
Being pure of heart requires us to change ourselves, not just our actions. Gandhi once said, “Be the change you seek in the world.” Being pure of heart calls us to change, to get rid of our own selfish desires and the pride that prevents us from being honest with ourselves. It requires us to pay attention to the unclean thoughts and feelings we have about others and to challenge them at every turn. When we empty ourselves of our own preoccupations, we can allow God’s love to fill us. Only then will we desire what God created us to seek: love.
In dealing with a variety of people as ministers, we naturally make internal judgments. It is easy to act against such judgments in our behavior, but sometimes these judgments can be obstacles to seeing the dignity in those we serve. As ministers in the Church, we must challenge ourselves not just to act with love but to think and feel love as well.
Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
These were the last words of Sr. Dorothy Stang as she was being murdered. For most of her life, she defended poor farmers in Brazil from the wealthy ranchers who forged documents and used intimidation to steal land. In 2005, Sr. Dorothy was walking to a village that needed her assistance when two hired assassins blocked her route in an effort to intimidate her. Her friend Ciero was hiding in the bushes when the men tried to scare her into giving up her quest for justice. When asked if she had a weapon, she pulled out her Bible and said, “This is my weapon.” As she began to recite the Beatitudes, she was shot and killed.
Being a peacemaker does not mean avoiding conflict. Rather, it means confronting injustice without resorting to violence. Like Sr. Dorothy Stang, it requires us to seek justice and strive for reconciliation in an effort to promote harmony and the common good. Sister Dorothy was a model peacemaker who sought justice for the oppressed without losing sight of God’s love for all—even those she fought against. From Sr. Dorothy’s example, it is clear that being a peacemaker requires courage and perseverance—two qualities that defined this extraordinary woman.
Being a maker of peace also requires us to have mercy and purity of heart—to love our enemies. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” Sometimes a peacemaker is one who can “transform an enemy into a friend.” But there are times when we simply must love our enemy.
In addition, Sr. Dorothy was an example of one who was persecuted for the sake of righteousness. A friend of hers told me that she had a stack of threatening letters as high as her desk; yet, she had the courage to continue her work. In this Beatitude, Christ reminds all of us that we will be rewarded for our righteousness. If the promise of heaven can give Sr. Dorothy the courage to persevere, perhaps we as ministers can endure the more subtle persecution that comes with our vocation.
As ministers in the Church, we typically don’t face the kind of challenges Sr. Dorothy faced, but we do experience conflicts with our colleagues and those we serve. Whether the conflicts involve differences in personality, a clash of ideas, or an instance of miscommunication, this Beatitude requires us to detach ourselves from our own animosity and self-centered goals in order to look at the person with a loving heart.
As we climb the staircase of the Beatitudes, we will experience more fully the presence of God in our lives. Embracing the challenge of the Beatitudes means living beyond ourselves so that we may be merciful, pure of heart, and seekers of peace. It is only in embracing this challenge that we can live according to our nature and find the happiness that comes from love.
Hardon, John S.J. “The Beatitudes: Generosity and Happiness” at catholiceducation.org.
King, Jr., Martin Luther. Strength to Love. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981.
St. Augustine. Confessions.
Norm Rich has taught theology for 23 years. He is currently teaching at Archbishop Alter High School in Kettering, Ohio.
Study Guide and Related Readings
The last four rungs of our ladder deepen our conversion, conviction, and commitment to a Beatitude way of life. Rich points out that we become more transparent as we detach ourselves of “self” and live fully for others. We come to understanding that our discipleship is one that calls us to be merciful and pure in heart and to find ways to be peacemakers and to bring reconciliation into our world, families, and local communities. The journey up the ladder is a journey into the heart of God. In emptying ourselves of “self” we truly discover God in, with, and among us. We have become the light set on the mountaintop for all to see and praise God!
1. How am I coming to realize that my ascent along the ladder of the Beatitudes is nurturing or can nurture a deeper experience of the presence of God?
2. Rich opens his article with a contemporary story of forgiveness. What does this story say to me? What personal experiences have I had with either forgiving someone or having been forgiven? What impact has this had in my life?
3. Mercy is described as “love that overcomes resistance.” What does this mean? How have I exercised this kind of mercy in my life? How have I failed? Why?
4. Who are the specific people that I struggle to love? How merciful am I toward them? Do I expect mercy from them? What do I learn here?
5. What do I learn from the life of St. Augustine, a great Father of the Church?
6. How can I explain the meaning of “pure of heart” to my students? What are the challenges for cultivating “pure of heart” in contemporary times?
7. What is the meaning of “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God”? Our world needs peacemakers at every single level of existence. Each level influences the next from family, to school, to parish, to civic, to community, and to nation. What am I doing in small, ordinary ways to create a culture of peace around me, my family, and my parish? (Be specific.)
8. Read the National Directory for Catechesis nos. 47 through 49. From that reading, what additional insights can I apply to the reading of this article? (Be specific.)
9. As I complete the brief climb up the ladder of the Beatitudes, what new understanding or questions do I have for incorporating a more intentional way of living the Beatitudes in my life? What are my challenges? What are my resolutions?
1. Engage in a contemporary literature search for books or articles that inspire you to appreciate and embrace forgiveness or reconciliation. Share your discoveries with a friend or colleague. Or incorporate your discovery into your lesson plan or reflection in a prayer service.
2. Identify biblical accounts that articulate reconciliation as the story of God’s healing presence in human history. Parallel these biblical accounts to accounts recorded in history today?
3. Have students work on a Pastoral Plan for Peace Accord. Based upon research, study, debates, dramas, role playing, etc., compose a Peace Accord that is grounded on the Beatitudes and holds all students and faculty accountable for quality Beatitude living.
4. Engage students in nurturing a Bully Free Zone within the school or classroom for nurturing a Beatitude life. Create a Beatitude Bully Free Zone Campaign throughout the learning environment.
5. Have students compose a play or skit around the “pure of heart” Beatitude for living a countercultural life.
6. Assign each grade a different Beatitude to study, practice, and integrate into their lives. The goal is for students to have studied in depth the eight Beatitudes by the time they complete the catechetical program or the grades of the Catholic school. A total experience of living the Beatitudes is woven throughout the learning environment.
Foley, Leonard, O.F.M. The Beatitudes: Finding Where Your Treasure Is. Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press (Catholic Update).
Healey, Joseph G., M.M. Once Upon a Time in Africa: Stories of Wisdom and Joy. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2007.
Kroeger, James H. and Eugene Thalman. Once Upon a Time in Asia: Stories of Harmony and Peace. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2007.
McKenna, Megan. Blessings and Woes: The Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Plain in the Gospel of Luke. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001.
Morneu , Robert. Reconciliation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2007.
Murphy, Roseanne. Martyr of the Amazon: The Life of Sister Dorothy Stang. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2007.
Stott, John. The Beatitudes: Developing Spiritual Character. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998.
United States Catholic Catechism for Adults. Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2006, chapters 25 through 35.
National Directory for Catechesis. Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2005, nos. 47-49.
Copyright 2015, Bayard, Inc. All rights reserved. This article is protected by United States copyright and other intellectual property laws and may not be reproduced, rewritten, distributed, redisseminated, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast, directly or indirectly, in any medium without the prior written permission of Bayard, Inc.