Tag Archives: Beatitudes

How long, O Lord, how long?

Matthew’s gospel chapter 11.

Jesus and John the Baptist – how well did they get on together? We’ll never know for certain because we’ve only got Matthew and the other gospel writers to go on and they weren’t interested in biography. But look at what pops up in this passage at the beginning of chapter 11 of Matthew’s gospel:

“….no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence [or, ‘has been coming violently’] and the violent take it by force.” (verses 11-15)

Isn’t that intriguing? What can it mean? No serious student of the Bible is sure but this fool of a contemplative Christian is going to rush in with an idea. I wonder if there’s a clue in some verses at the end of this chapter?

“I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” (verse 25)

“Come to me all that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (verses 28-30)

John the Baptist was an ascetic. He lived in the desert, wore rough clothes and had a restricted diet of locusts and honey: a pretty severe character I would have thought. Jesus was different: enjoying himself, eating and drinking with a bunch of social misfits. There’s a long history of people being severe on themselves in their persistent (sometimes desperate) search for the truth. The Buddha, for example, spent many austere years before he was enlightened. Christian saints have fasted, flagellated and forced themselves into what they hoped was an acceptable state of being before God. Might this be what is meant here by violent people taking the kingdom of God by force? Perhaps Jesus could see what John the Baptist was getting at but thought there was a gentle, more direct route to take.

George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community in Scotland, clearly wasn’t happy with traditional spirituality. In his book, Only One Way Left, he painted a picture of a series of individual souls, laboriously climbing ladders to heaven where “a perpetual concert was in progress.” He pointed out that there were two routes from his front door to his front garden gate. He could leave by the back door and circumnavigate the globe, or……. you’ve guessed it. He could take the direct route. Maybe it was no coincidence that George MacLeod, like Jesus, began his ministry among misfits and outcasts – in the 1940s slums of Glasgow. There would have been no point in telling people like that to restrict their diet and wear rough clothes if they wanted to enter the kingdom of God. They didn’t have much choice about things like that.

Slowly, over the last hundred years more and more people have been discovering the direct route. I should say ‘re-discovering’ the route. It’s been available ever since Jesus pointed it out. We lost sight of it pretty quickly, because people expected the return of Jesus in glory to change the world: the kingdom of God postponed. Fortunately, over the centuries there has always been someone saying, ‘look, look, can’t you see? It’s here, now!’ God, whatever we might mean by that word, isn’t over there somewhere. God is here, now, within. The momentum of this re-discovering is increasing, and it’s not a route that we are finding. There isn’t anywhere to go. That way of thinking dumps us back in the old ways of the postponed kingdom. In a recent lecture Fr. Vincent MacNamara said, “The beatitudes don’t have to be imported into our lives.” Nothing has to be imported. Everything is waiting to be discovered as we allow ourselves to become aware of the sacred beauty in the depths of each one of us. To be sure, that process is usually a long and often painful one but the yoke that Jesus spoke of gives rest to our weary souls as we lay down the burden of being harsh on ourselves and others.

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The silent revolution

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!