Matthew chapter 5 verses 1 – 9.
Here we are at one of the most familiar passages in the Bible: these few short verses, known as the Beatitudes, followed by the longer sequence of teaching known as the Sermon on the Mount. Impossible to put into practice – right? That’s what most of us think, especially if we have sincerely tried. But suppose we are not reading it right. Suppose we have always heard this teaching as a list of very difficult demands. Jesus often talked about ‘those who have ears to hear’ or ‘eyes to see’; and certainly we can be both deaf and blind to the truth he wants us to see and hear. Why? Because we think it is head stuff, but actually it’s heart stuff. Do I mean it’s mostly about feelings? No. It’s deeper than feelings. Cynthia Bourgeault writes:
“In these eight familiar sayings we can now see that Jesus is talking about a radical transformation of consciousness, embraced through an attitude of inner receptivity; a willingness to enter the flow; a commitment to domesticate those violent animal programmes within us; and above all a passionate desire the unify the heart. This is a very powerful fourfold path…..not unlike the teaching you would hear today from the Dalai Lama and other great spiritual masters who have dedicated their lives to increasing the quality and quantity of human consciousness.” The Wisdom Jesus, page 47.
For most of Christian history only a few outstanding people have understood this teaching. We have called them saints, so unusual have their lives been. But now, perhaps, we find ourselves in the midst of a silent revolution in which more and more ordinary people do have eyes to see and ears to hear the truth Jesus is pointing to. Curiously, many of them have little connection with religion, with the churches. Those of us who stay connected to organised religion can find it pretty frustrating. This silent revolution has been gathering pace for more than a hundred years now. I began this blog last year on the hundredth anniversary of a book by Evelyn Underhill in which she wrote:
“The energising Spirit of Life cannot be communicated in a sermon. Hence the greater number of Paul’s converts quickly degenerated into mere formal believers, once the stimulus of his great personality was withdrawn. Thus the distinction between the inner and the outer church, so strongly marked in the Synoptic gospels, was, if not acknowledged, at once established; the outer church of new creed, the inner church of new creatures, of organic change and growth. We must…..sharply distinguish ‘Christian Mysticism’, the transcendent yet biological secret of Jesus, from the compromise which is commonly called ‘Christianity.” The Mystic Way, page 214/15
In 1936 Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit palaeontologist, wrote:
”We now have to accept it as proven that mankind has just entered into what is probably the most extensive period of transformation it has known since its Birth… Today something is happening to the whole structure of human consciousness: a fresh kind of life is beginning to appear.”(Science and Christ)
I can offer just a few clues about what these verses have come to mean for me. I do this very cautiously because, unless you come to see for yourself, hear for yourself, you will be in danger of staying in your head instead of shifting to your heart. When the shift happens you will see and hear and understand.
Verse 3. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Sometimes I feel I am a failure in spiritual matters: forever coping with unloving thoughts and attitudes.
Verse 4: Blessed are those who mourn. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the images on the television screen showing the folly and dysfunction of the world. As I write this, aren’t we all deeply affected by yet another outbreak of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians?
Verse 5. Blessed are the meek. Someone once added, for they will inherit the earth, er….if it’s all right with you!
Verse 6. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Again this speaks to my sense of helplessness and weakness, when confronted with human folly and dysfunction, of which I am part.
Verse 7: Blessed are the merciful. The root of the word merciful means something like exchange, as in merchant and commerce. The French for ‘thank you’ – merci – has the same root. Resolution of any conflict involves compromise and that means some form of exchange.
Verse 8: Blessed are the pure in heart. For me this has little to do with impure thoughts. Rather it’s about singleness of heart: returning to centre when suffering the afflictions of the first five beatitudes.
Verse 9: Blessed are the peacemakers. That is people whose language reflects meekness, mercy, poverty of spirit; people who are likely say ‘in my humble opinion’; people who are non-violent communicators.
Verse 10. Blessed are the persecuted. How fortunate I am! Here in the UK I am extremely unlikely to be persecuted in the way that, for example, Christians in Syria are. Yet persecution happens all around me. We call it abuse. I can even persecute myself: accuse, threaten, berate myself!