I am at my “happy place,” directing a number of retreatants on their 8-day directed retreat at the Jesuit Retreat House in OshKosh. I offered the reflection at one of the Masses yesterday, for which the Gospel was the opening of the Sermon on the Mount: the Beatitudes.
I can think of no better way to understand what it means to model our lives on that of Christ than living our lives in a way that reflects the Beatitudes. And I’m not unique in thinking that.
Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et exsultate emphasizes the universal call to holiness, reminding us that being holy is not only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to live secluded lives of prayer. Rather, we are all called to be holy. As to what that means, he says this:
There can be any number of theories about what constitutes holiness, with various explanations and distinctions. Such reflection may be useful, but nothing is more enlightening than turning to Jesus’ words and seeing his way of teaching the truth. Jesus explained with great simplicity what it means to be holy when he gave us the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are like a Christian’s identity card. So if anyone asks: “What must one do to be a good Christian?”, the answer is clear. We have to do, each in our own way, what Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount. In the Beatitudes, we find a portrait of the Master, which we are called to reflect in our daily lives.
So the Beatitudes are not intended as sweet platitudes, but as ways we orient and live our lives – lives lived in imitation of Christ. They provide direction. But having said that, the directions are a little more complicated than the IKEA directions for putting together a bookcase. They don’t say “do x” or “don’t do y.” Rather, they illuminate the stance we adopt in everything that we do.
One of the reasons I often suggest the Beatitudes to retreatants and directees as a focus for prayerful reflection is that I think we don’t always take them seriously as an instruction for how to live our lives. We hear them and are struck by their poetic beauty, but we don’t always view them as speaking to our lives. Perhaps that is because we fear the implications of putting into actual practice a stance that is so counter-cultural.
For if we are to live as Jesus, then:
- In a world that celebrates my talents, my achievements, we aim to embrace a poverty of spirit that acknowledges that all we are and all we have is gift from God.
- At a time when it is so easy to close our eyes and ignore the suffering around us, we keep our eyes open and to see and mourn the injustice and exploitation we see.
- In a culture that often rewards those who push themselves to the front of the line, we strive to walk with a meekness that says it doesn’t always have to be about me and I don’t have to win every argument,
- At a time when it is so easy to distract ourselves in so many different ways, we never lose sight that our ultimate concern – what we deeply thirst for – is God.
- In a world obsessed with giving people only what they earn or what it felt they deserve, we commit ourselves to mercy, love and compassion to everyone, without regard to desert.
- And in a polarized society where it is so easy to act in ways that heighten discord, we look to promote peace.
None of that is easy. There is no question the Beatitudes are challenging, even costly. Living in that stances doesn’t advance you far in worldly terms, and likely will set you back. But it is what we are called to if we are to live our lives in imitation of Christ.
And we know it is possible, and not just for Jesus. We can all think of examples like Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr., who lived lives that exemplify the spirit of the Beatitudes.
I once read a book about the efforts of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi against Hitler. Both undertook their efforts knowing the potential cost – and both lost their lives in concentration camps. For Bonhoeffer, it was Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that inspired his activities. He wrote:
I believe I know that inwardly I shall be really clear and honest only when I have begun to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously. That is the only source of strength that can blow all this stuff and nonsense sky-high, with only a few charred pieces of the fireworks remaining. The restoration of the church will only come from…a life of uncompromising adherence to the Sermon on the Mount in imitation of Christ.
“Uncompromising adherence to the Sermon of the Mount in imitation of Christ.” That is what our Gospel invites us to.