Jesus Speaks: The Beatitudes

Today was the second session of the Fall Reflection Series I am offering this fall at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.  The reflection series is titled Jesus Speaks and it is designed to deepen our appreciation of fundamental Christian teachings drawn from the words of Christ.  Each session includes a talk, time for individual reflection and some sharing of the prayer experience.

The focus of today’s session was The Beatitudes. Pope Benedict XIV wrote that “the Beatitudes express the meaning of discipleship.” They are meant, not as a series of sweet platitudes, but as ways we ought to orient and live our lives.

Since I have given so many talks on the Beatitudes, I decided to do something different today. For each of the Beatitudes, I invited the participants to share something of their understanding before offering some thoughts of my own. It was a rich discussion and I think broadened how many (including myself) thought of some of the Beatitudes.

At the end of our discussion, I distributed prayer material on the Beatitudes participants may want to pray with this week. You can find a copy of the that handout material is here.

If you wish to hear a recording of a talk I have given on the Beatitudes, you can find one here.

Our session continues next week with a focus on the Eucharist.

Poverty of Spirit

At yesterday’s Mass at the retreat house, I offered the reflection on the readings.  The Gospel was St. Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes and in my talk I focused on the first of the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

We have a temptation is to treat the Beatitudes as a series of sweet platitudes rather than as a statement of the meaning of discipleship under Christ, that is, a template for the way we should orient our lives. I remember when I was growing up in the 1960s, at the folk Mass I sometimes attended we sang a bouncy song based on the Beatitudes, “Happy is the Man who walks in the way of the Lord and God our King, Blessed is he and Happy are they who put their trust in him.” And we’d bop and sway our way through the verses recounting the Beatitudes without the slightest thought that they actually meant anything.

At least part of that temptation comes from the fact that the way of being the Beatitudes describe is so counter to the standards of the world in which we live. And I think there is nothing that better illustrates the contrast between the way of the world and the way of discipleship under Christ than the first of the Beatitudes; hence my focus on poverty of spirit.

Poverty of spirit has little to do with material poverty and everything to do with our recognition of our absolute dependence on God, of our appreciation that all we are and all we have is gift from our loving God. Macrina Weiderkehr paraphrases the first Beatitude by saying: “Blessed are those who are convinced of their basic dependency on God, whose lives are emptied of all that doesn’t matter. The Kingdom of heaven is theirs.”

In my reflection, I spoke on what I think are the three related elements at play in the first Beatitude.  First, poverty of spirit means I acknowledge and embrace my absolute and utter dependence on God. And not just giving lip service, but feeling in the depth of my soul my need for God’s grace.  Second, poverty of spirit also means that, in acknowledging my dependence on God, I choose guidance over self-determination.  Finally, third, in acknowledging my dependence on God, I recognize that nothing else other than God is sufficient to satisfy me.  I talked a little about each of these elements, including talking about how each is so counter-cultural.

Although I think poverty of spirit highlights in the clearest way the contrast between the way of the world and the way of discipleship in Christ, I encouraged the retreatants to sit with each of the other Beatitudes and reflect on its contrast with the way of the world, considering where the challenge is for them in living in the spirit of the Beatitudes.   And they are challenging, precisely because they are so antithetical to the way of the world. To be poor in spirit, peaceful, merciful, and meek is not easy in a culture grounded in competition, self-promotion, and intolerance of those who don’t fall in line with the prevailing worldview.

So how can we possibly bear the difficulty of orienting our lives in accordance with the Beatitudes? In that beautiful first reading we heard today, Paul answers that question: Our God of encouragement encourages us in every affliction. “As Christ’s suffering overflows to us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow.” As we share in the sufferings, we also share in the encouragement.” And part of that encouragement is Jesus’ promise: choose my way and yours is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

Today’s Gospel from St. Matthew is the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount: the Beatitudes. Following up on the prayer for peace at the Vatican yesterday that included Pope Francis, Patriarch Bartolomeo I of Constantinople, and Presidents Shimon Peres of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine, I want to focus on “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “It is not enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.” Robert Fulghum once said, “Peace is not something you wish for. It’s something you make, something you do, something you are, and something you give away.”

We are called by Christ to be people of peace. That means more than praying for peace in the world (although that, too, is a good thing). Equally important is what can we do, not just wish for and end to war, but to answer the call to be peacemaker in our everyday lives. That is, each of us must recognize that in each moment we have the ability to bring unity or strife, to bring peace or its absence. To stir love or hatred.

It is so easy to act in ways antithetical to peace. To harbor negative thoughts about others that color how I behave toward them. To gossip…to stir up trouble or disagreement. To feel the need to retaliate, at least in words, when someone hurts me.

The reality is that we can, by our individual actions, make a difference. Each of us can contribute to peace and justice in the world. Ordinary people, making ordinary decisions can make real contributions to building a better society, to transforming the world.

In this context, we might reflect on the Vow of Nonviolence of Pax Christi, the international Catholic peace movement:

Recognizing the violence in my own heart, yet trusting in the goodness and mercy of God, I vow for one year to practice the nonviolence of Jesus who taught us in the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons and daughters of God…You have learned how it was said, “You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy: but I say to you, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. In this way, you will be daughters and sons of your Creator in heaven.”

Before God the Creator and the Sanctifying Spirit, I vow to carry out in my life the love and example of Jesus
• By striving for peace within myself and seeking to be a peacemaker in my daily life;
• By accepting suffering rather than inflicting it;
• By refusing to retaliate in the face of provocation and violence;
• By persevering in nonviolence of tongue and heart;
• By living conscientiously and simply so that I do not deprive others of the means to live;
• By actively resisting evil and working nonviolently to abolish war and the causes of war from my own heart and from the face of the earth.

God, I trust in Your sustaining love and believe that just as You gave me the grace and desire to offer this, so You will also bestow abundant grace to fulfill it.

Who Are The Meek That Are Blessed?

One more follow-up from the retreat I gave this past weekend.

During one of my talks, I spoke about the Beatitudes, which included sharing some thoughts on what it means to be “meek.” “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth is one of the difficult Beatitudes, because we tend to confuse meekness with weakness.

Yesterday, one of the retreatants sent me this poem by Mary Karr, titled Who the Meek Are Not. It is a different way of understanding weakness than some I had suggested, and I love the image the poem conveys.

Not the bristle-bearded Igors bent
under burlap sacks, not peasants knee-deep
in the rice-paddy muck,
nor the serfs whose quarter-moon sickles
make the wheat fall in waves
they don’t get to eat. My friend the Franciscan
nun says we misread
that word meek in the Bible verse that blesses them.
To understand the meek
(she says) picture a great stallion at full gallop
in a meadow, who—
at his master’s voice—seizes up to a stunned
but instant halt.
So with the strain of holding that great power
in check, the muscles
along the arched neck keep eddying,
and only the velvet ears
prick forward, awaiting the next order.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Lent Retreat in Daily Living: Week 5

Yesterday was the fifth weekly gathering of the Lent Retreat in Daily Living I am offering this year at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. Our retreat this year is a truncated version of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Easter being as late as it is makes the retreat particularly challenging for our students, who are trying to juggle multiple events during these last couple of weeks of classes, as well as starting to prepare for exams.

During this past week, participants prayed with events in the life of Jesus, part of Week 2 of the Spiritual Exercises. After the participants spent time sharing in small groups their prayer experience during this past week, we talked about some of the difficulty people sometimes have in praying with events about which they are so familiar. There is a tendency to approach some of the events of Jesus’ life with the attitude of “heard that already…already know what that is about.” My encouragement was to try to let go that sense, to try to engage in Ignatian Contemplation with less focus on what the Gospel records and more on what God may want to reveal to me about this episode.

I then offered a reflection on the Beatitudes, which will be the subject of the participants’ prayer this coming week. Ignatian spirituality is fundamentally concerned with our lives as disciples of Christ and the Beatitudes help us flesh out what discipleship means. Jesus Christ himself lived the Beatitudes – indeed, he is the perfect embodiment of them – and thus they offer a pretty full statement of what it means to follow Christ, to live as Christ did in the world. I shared some thoughts on each of the Beatitudes as an entry into their prayer for the upcoming week.

You can listen to the talk I gave at our gathering here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 33.55. You can access the prayer material for this week here.

Be Holy As Your Heavenly Father is Holy

During the weekend retreat I gave for UST undergraduates this weekend on Developing the Beatitudes in our Lives, Fr. Patrick Tobin of Campus Ministry was our presider at liturgies (as well as being available for the sacrament of Reconciliation for the students and just generally being present for all of us).

The Gospel for yesterday’s Mass was Jesus teaching to his disciples to go beyond what the law had demanded of them. “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil….You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” The passage ends with Jesus direction to his disciples to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Fr. Tobin translated that last line as a command that we “Be holy, just as your heavenly Father is holy.”

Interesting choice, he suggested. God could have invited us to be like him in all sorts of ways; God is a lot of things. God has many qualities he could have invited us to imitate.

But God doesn’t say, “Be self-sufficient, just as your Father is self-sufficient.” Instead, as we learn in the Beatitudes we are invited to recognize our dependence on God.

God doesn’t say, “Be adored, just as your Father is adored.” God doesn’t say, “Be popular.” Instead, we get, Happy are you when they persecute you because of me.

God doesn’t say, “Be a winner, as I the Lord your God can win over all of my enemies.” Instead, the Beatitudes teach us to be meek.

God doesn’t say, “Be just as your Father is just.” Instead, he invites us to mercy.

Too often, Fr. Patrick suggested, we try to embrace other aspects of God, deciding, for example, that we ought to imitate the deadly wrath of God. Or the strength and power of God.

God, however, doesn’t invite us to any of those things. The only thing he asks us to imitate is his holiness. And our blueprint for becoming more like unto God in holiness is given to us by Jesus in the Beatitudes.

It was a wonderful sermon to round out our weekend. And stay tuned: I’ll post some podcasts of my retreat talks sometime this week – as soon as I get a chance to upload them.

What We See in The Book Thief

Last night my husband and I saw the movie The Book Thief, an adaptation of the novel by Markus Zusak with the same name. The book, which I read recently at the recommendation of my daughter, is quite good – one of those books that, having started, I couldn’t put down until I finished reading it – so I was anxious to see the movie.

As is almost always the case, much is lost in the translation of book to movie. As just one example, in the book, I thought the narration by Death worked well and adds to the story; it adds nothing to the movie. Nonetheless, I thought the movie worthwhile.

I read a piece about the movie the other day that raised the question whether we need more Holocaust movies, suggesting that perhaps there “isn’t anything new to be said about World War II, the Nazis, and the Holocaust that hasn’t been said (and said very well) before.”

I had two thoughts on the question after seeing the movie. First, while many of us have seen many films about the Holocaust and about Nazi Germany, for many young people it is just something they may have read about in school. The book was written for young adults, many of whom will be the audience for the movie. Is the movie going to tell them everything they need to know about the period? Of course not. But does it begin to tell, in an age-appropriate way, the horrors of the Nazi period and the power of words to demonize others.

Second, the movie (and the book) are not just about the evil of the Nazis and the Holocaust, but about people who stand up against evil even when there they face grave danger in doing so. Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether the context is the Holocaust or some other injustice, but it is good for us to see examples of people willing to put themselves on the line to do what is right. Do we already know some people did that during World War II – hiding Jews and helping them to safety, acting to try to upset the Nazi order? Sure we do. But it does something to our souls to see it, touches us in a way different than the intellectual knowledge does. The Hans and Liesel’s of the world teach us something about strength in the face of adversity.

I spent time during the day yesterday afternoon preparing for a weekend retreat I will be giving in February on the Beatitudes. Specifically, I was working on the talk I will give on “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And so I was thinking of people like Oscar Romero, who consistently spoke out against poverty, social injustice and government-sanctioned torture in El Salvador, even when it became clear that his words would lead to his death, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose actions to oppose Hitler I wrote about recently. Countless people over the years have been willing to pay a high price in order to live their lives consistently with the Gospel and to call others to do the same. In his recent Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Francis wrote that “The disciple is ready to put his or her whole life on the line, even to accepting martyrdom, in bearing witness to Jesus Christ.”

It matters to us to see such people in film. Even if we’ve heard their story before.

Jesus Teaches the Beatitudes

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, we get the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus’ teaching of the Beatitudes. How confusing some of this must have sounded to the crowds!

Yet, embracing and living the Beatitudes is central to our lives a Christian disciples. Several years ago, during a fall reflection series at UST Law School, I gave a talk on Developing the Beatitudes in Our Lives. My talk focused on how we might discern what the Beatitudes mean for our lives, how they direct our lives of discipleship. I shared with the participants Pope Benedict’s view of the Beatitudes as both a “veiled interior biography” of Jesus and a set of directions for his disciples and offered some thoughts on each of the beatitudes.

You can find the recording of that talk here . (The podcast runs for 19:27.) In the event you want to spend some time praying with the Beatitudes, you can find some prayer matieral here .

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you
and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.
Rejoice and be glad,
for your reward will be great in heaven.
Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Blessed Are You When People Hate You

Today’s Gospel passage is St. Luke’s account of the Beatitudes, a subject about which I’ve spoken and written on a number of occasions. Jesus offers his disciples a series of statements intended, not as sweeping platitudes, but as the way they (and we) are intended to orient our lives. In Pope Benedict’s word, they “express the meaning of discipleship.”

None of the Beatitudes is all that simple for us to live up to. But perhaps the most difficult is

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day!

Rejoice! Leap for joy! Not the first reaction most of us have to being hated, excluded and denounced.

Let’s face it. None of us likes to be treated badly. Persecution, hatred, exclusion, are not things we look for.

But Jesus was being realistic here. Those who speak truth tend to get themselves in trouble in the world. Look at how many of the prophets ended up being killed. (:For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way.”) Look at Jesus himself.

This is not surprising. When people are confronted with someone who challenges their views (particularly the own lack of adherence to what is right and true, unless they are ready to be converted, one response is to destroy or otherwise tear down the one who reveals the unpleasant side of the self. And there will always be some – perhaps many – people who are uncomfortable with people who try to live as Christ asks them to live and their response to that can be angry and hurtful.

It is easy for us to respond to that by clamming up, by hiding who and what we are and what we believe in. But if we aspire to live as did Jesus, we will have no fear and will speak truth, even when if means painful consequences.

Clean of Heart

I’ve been reflecting on the Beatitudes during my prayer the last several mornings, prompted by the fact that they were part of Sunday’s Gospel reading from Matthew, not to mention the fact that we could profitably spend endless hours reflecting on this central teaching of Jesus.

Reading the passage the other day, the line that I paused at is “Blessed are the clean of heart.”  People give different meanings what Jesus was getting at by the phrase “clean of heart.”  Where I immediately went in my prayer that morning was to an understanding of clean of heart as signifying a heart free from that which pulls us away from God, a heart turned wholeheartedly toward God. 

As I had that thought, what came to my mind unbidden were the words from Psalm 51, “Create a clean heart in me, O God.”  With those words, as I sometimes do in my prayer, I had an image of Jesus touching my heart.  And with that touch came the realization that the presence of Jesus within me also meant the presence in me of Jesus’ Sacred Heart. 

We often look at images of the Sacred Heart.  Most Catholic churches I’ve been in have a statue or picture of the Sacred Heart in them and I’ve before mentioned the beautiful Sacred Heart statue that is at the top of the driveway going into St. Ignatius Retreat House in Manhasset.  But in my prayer what hit home was that Jesus’s Sacred Heart is not outside somewhere, not some distance away, as a statute of Jesus over there somewhere might suggest.  Rather, it is in me.  I walk with the Sacred Heart of Jesus in my being.  Realizing that gave me a feeling of both comfort and strength.

What was also clear to me as I continued to reflect was that it is not that Jesus’ heart is there in place of mine.  God doesn’t take out my heart and replace it with Jesus.’  Rather my heart is there – to be transformed by the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to become more and more a reflection of the Heart of Jesus. 

And so I continue to pray, “Create a clean heart in me, O God.”