What are the Beatitudes?

One thousand nine hundred and ninety years ago, on a low hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee, Jesus Christ sat down and spoke to his disciples. The site is the present-day location of the church of the Beatitudes, memorializing the spot where the transformative Sermon on the Mount was pronounced. The Sermon contains the Beatitudes, nine poetic expressions of God’s values.[1] “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” is the first Beatitude, recorded in the Gospel of Matthew at 5:3.

What are the Beatitudes? What is their significance, especially for people nowadays? A common, but mistaken, impression is that the Beatitudes are just a set of rules that Jesus added, over and above the Ten Commandments, for people who aspire to a higher level of holiness. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI tells us this common interpretation “totally misconstrues these words of Jesus.”[2] So, what are the Beatitudes?

The Beatitudes are paradoxes—they turn the standards of the world upside down because they see things from God’s perspective; they state God’s values.[3] “The Beatitudes are promises resplendent with the new image of the world and of man inaugurated by Jesus, his ‘transformation of values.’”[4] The Beatitudes tell us that it is not the rich and successful, the powerful and praised, who will be rewarded; rather, it is the poor in spirit, for their reward will be eternal life in heaven. As such, “the Beatitudes stand opposed to our spontaneous sense of existence, our hunger and thirst for life.”[5]

But the Beatitudes are not just some contrarian philosophy of life. They give “a proper ordering to our lives.”[6] Ancient Greeks were “deeply aware that man’s real sin, his deepest temptation, is hubris—the arrogant presumption of autonomy that leads man to put on airs of divinity.”[7] “This awareness that man’s true peril consists in the temptation to ostentatious self-sufficiency, which at first seems so plausible, is brought to its full depth in the Sermon on the mount in light of the figure of Christ.”[8]

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” says Jesus in His third Beatitude. The Beatitudes are revealed truth; they are the words of God, instructing us on how to live, about what is valuable and right. They give us “the correct image of man and his happiness.”[9] As promises, the Beatitudes foretell the great reward that will be given to those who adopt the Beatitudes as their attitude of life: reasonable happiness in this life and eternal happiness in the next. As such, “they are directions for discipleship[10],” for following Jesus Christ.

The Gospel of Luke also gives an account of the Sermon on the Mount. Luke recounts a warning added to the Beatitudes: “But woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.” (Lk 6:25). The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche asked “what has been the greatest sin on earth so far? Surely, the words of the man who said ‘Woe to those who laugh now’”.[11] Though Nietzsche died of mental illness, much of his philosophy “has found its way into the modern mindset…”[12] His philosophy worked its way into the minds of the Nazis, whose ideology resulted in the greatest man-made catastrophe in human history.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Mt. 5:4). “The mourning of which the Lord speaks is nonconformity with evil; it is a way of resisting models of behavior that the individual is pressured to accept because ‘everyone does it.’”[13] The Beatitudes present us with a challenge. We can exercise our freedom to follow them or we can exercise our freedom to be indifferent to them, as did Nietzsche.[14] The choice to live the Beatitudes results in a freedom of excellence.[15] On the other hand, history teaches us that we laugh at the Beatitudes at our own peril.

[1] (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth-from the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), p. 71).

[2] (Benedict, Jesus of Nazareth, 70).

[3] (Jesus of Nazareth, 71).

[4] (71-72).

[5] (98).

[6] (98).

[7] (Id.).

[8] (98-99).

[9] (99).

[10] (74).

[11] (97).

[12] (97).

[13] (87-88).

[14] (Dr. Matthew Ramage, PhD.,lecture on The Sermon on the Mount: Beatitudes (Cromwell, CT: Holy Apostles College & Seminary, recorded 12 September 2016).

[15] (Id.).

False Desires

St. John of the Cross was, and continues to be through his writings, the spiritual director par excellence. He maintained his spiritual direction of followers by means of short spiritual maxims which he placed in directees’ places in the dining room to help focus their commitment.[1] The Sayings of Light and Love are a collection of some of these maxims.

From the Sayings of Light and Love by St. John of the Cross:

#22:     A bird caught in birdlime has a twofold task: It must free itself and cleanse itself. And by satisfying their appetites, people suffer in a twofold way: They must detach themselves and, after being detached, clean themselves of what has clung to them.

Birdlime is a sticky, adhesive substance spread on branches and twigs to capture small birds. Physical pleasures and desires can often be like birdlime. Consider alcoholism; once addicted the alcoholic is stuck to the bottle, addicted to it, so much so that he or she cannot get away from its hold. Violent or sexually explicit images in a movie will often cling to our memory. So, even after sobriety or after seeing a graphically suggestive movie, we need to cleanse ourselves of the hold the drug or drama has on our memory and imagination. This is the twofold task St. John speaks of in Saying #22—first to free ourselves from the hold the drink, drug, or thought has on us; second to cleanse ourselves of its lingering, sticky effects.

Grace is the solvent that will free us and cleanse us from these snares. Prayer disposes us to receive this grace. So, we must work hard at beating these additions, working as if everything depended on us and praying as if everything depended on God. (St. Ignatius of Loyola).

[1] Leonard Doohan, A Year with St. John of the Cross: 365 Daily Readings and Reflections, p. 109 Amazon Books (2015).

Appetites and Adversities

From the Sayings of Light and Love by St. John of the Cross:

#56: “The soul that journeys to God, but does not shake off its cares and quiet its appetites, is like one who drags a cart uphill.”

#57: “It is not God’s will that a soul be disturbed by anything or suffer trials, for if one suffers trials in the adversities of the world it is because of a weakness in virtue. The perfect soul rejoices in what afflicts the imperfect one.”


What is life? The question is so huge it has innumerable answers, but the most fundamental is that life is existence, for without existence there is no life. An animate being must exist in order to have life. So, what is existence?

Whenever the word ‘existence’ comes into my mind it is accompanied by the image of Moses at the Burning Bush asking God His name. “I AM” responds God. Grammatically speaking, ‘I am’ is the first person singular of the verb ‘to be’. To be is to exist, so God is telling us that He is existence. The great philosophers and theologians, from Aristotle to Aquinas agree; God is the First Cause, the one necessary being.

It helps to keep this fact in mind: God is existence. Why? For at least two reasons; first, it helps us in prayer. When we pray we want to feel as if we are being heard, that we are speaking to someone within earshot, as opposed to someone who is in a galaxy far, far away. We want to know that the person to whom we are speaking is listening, so we practice the Presence of God. We try to imagine that God is present to us, that He is close and that He is listening to us. Oftentimes this is difficult. We feel as if God is far away and indifferent. We just can’t imagine Him being so close because our external senses tell us nothing is there.

Our Faith, however, teaches us the revealed truth that God is existence, and since we exist, then we must be participating in the life of God to some extent—at least at the level of existence. We exist because He exists in us. What could be closer to us than existence? So, when I focus on this reality I feel the Presence of God, His nearness.

Second, it helps us in our relationships with our neighbors. When we believe that God dwells in all human beings, at least at the level of existence, then we should find it easier to respect and love our neighbor. “Amen, Amen, I say to you whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me,” Christ tells us.(MT 25:40). If we understand that God dwells in each person, then we realize that the way we treat other people is the way we are treating God.

Existence is fundamental, and good foundations are essential for any significant project. I am reminded of the incident told by one of the great UCLA basketball players who played for the legendary coach John Wooden. On the first day of practice Wooden had all the new members of the team—the highly sought after high-school stars from around the nation—remove their basketball shoes and socks, and he then proceeded to tell them how to put them on correctly. These star recruits were incredulous that anyone would try to tell them something they thought they already knew well enough. But Wooden taught them that by putting them on with care, correctly, they could avoid getting blisters and being forced out of a game at a critical time in the fourth quarter due to foot injury. The new players learned a greater lesson than just putting on their shoes; they learned that one has to have the fundamentals firmly in place in order to play the whole game well.

Life is not a game, but like any significant event, project, or building, it has to have a good foundation in order to be lived well. Those of us who know by faith that God shares His existence with us have a solid foundation upon which we can perfect the building of our life.

Br. James

What’s Wrong with this Picture?

During this Lenten Season, I have been reflecting on the way my life is and the way it ought to be. So, perhaps I should not be surprised that my mind made an unusual connection between a child’s game and an examination of conscience. The child’s game is ‘what’s wrong with this picture?’ a game where two pictures are placed side-by-side, the one on the left being the exemplar and the one on the right being a copy with subtle differences. The object of the game is to find the differences.

In one sense, an examination of conscience is much like this child’s game. We compare how our day actually happened to how it should have been.  There are a number of different ways of making this comparison, but essentially we are reflecting back on what we actually did, said, or thought during the day and comparing it to how it should have been.  We determine how it should have been by some standard of conduct, namely, the Ten Commandments or the Beatitudes, for example.

The picture I saw that triggered the connection was a happy scene of two children jumping rope outdoors under a tree, with flowers, birds, and a rabbit in the background. The copy had a weed instead of the flowers, the bird was missing, as was a branch of the tree, and the rabbit had become a cat. The effect of the differences conveyed a less cheery scene in the copy as compared to the original. Oftentimes, there is a similar effect in real life when our actions fall below the standard established by God for our good relations with Him, ourselves, and our neighbor.

Other times, the difference is not so drastic. There might be only one difference: one weed instead of a flower. In this case, we could conduct a particular examination of conscience. A particular examination is conducted with a focus on one particular sin, fault, or imperfection so as to eliminate that weed from our life and replace it with a beautiful flower: a virtue instead of a vice. We anticipate situations that may arise during the day where we are prone to fall, and we plan ahead; if we fail, we take note and resolve to act differently next time. If we succeed, then we give thanks to God for helping us along the way of perfection.

Br. James