Sunday, February 03, 2008

Beatitude Adjustment

(4th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 2 & 3 February, 2008, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; Read Matthew 5:1-12)

Do you need a “beatitude adjustment?” That is the question we are forced to ask ourselves this weekend in light of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. Christ begins that great oration with what we have come to know as the Beatitudes.

The word “beatitude,” is a Latin word that means “blessed” or “happy,” and we discover right away that Jesus is not talking about the blessedness or happiness that we usually hear about in our culture.

When people talk about happiness, what they often mean is someone who has the wealth, power or influence to live the way they want to; many see happiness as a life without troubles or difficulties, basically carefree. It is a life—at the very least—without pain, suffering or sorrow.

Jesus takes that vision of happiness and turns it upside down in our gospel! He stands on the mountaintop and boldly proclaims:

Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are they who mourn…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness…
—Matthew 5:3-12

We can imagine the reaction of the people listening to that message for the very first time. They must have been scratching their heads, and asking:

How on earth are these people happy?
For heaven’s sake, what kind of blessedness is that?

What Christ was challenging them—and also every one of us—to do is to make a “beatitude adjustment;” to look at happiness, blessedness, and even eternal life from a fresh perspective. Christ challenges us to see this earth and heaven itself, in an entirely different way.

One of the greatest works of Christian literature ever produced is the Italian classic, The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri. It is a powerful story about the journey to eternal life and beatitude, but that story begins on a very sad and sorry note. Dante begins in medias res, revealing the consequences of a life poorly lived:

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost.

He was lost, alone and in the dark, seemingly without God. But then, suddenly, he looks up and his entire perspective changes. He sees the mountain of God, way off in the distance, shining in the sun. He recognizes that this is what he has been missing, this is the vision God has called him to, and his heart quickens. He immediately makes his way towards that mountain, resolute on its ascent.

No sooner does he begin his climb, however, when he encounters three terrifying and ferocious beasts: the leopard, the lion and the she-wolf. They each represent—in Dante’s world—the things within us which are base and most opposed to the vision of God.

The leopard, beautiful to look at but very dangerous, represents all the sensual pleasures of this life. The lion, “his head held high” represents pride, arrogance and self-importance. Finally, the she-wolf embodies the cravings we have for the things of this world only: it is our greed, lust, and all those earthly vices that are never satiated, never satisfied.

Cleary Dante is no match for these creatures, and so he is forced to turn his vision, instead, downward…all the way down. He journeys into the depths of the Inferno, in the realm of Hell, and there he sees the men and women who have made the worse choices of all. He looks at sin and all its ugly consequences, and it makes him physically sick.

Eventually he makes his way up into the Purgatorio, where he begins to become purified, purged of all self love. He now understands clearly how very much he is in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness, and how willing God is to pour out that mercy!

Only now is he ready and capable of taking in the vision that captured his heart from the very beginning! He has received a “beatitude adjustment,” and he is ready to enter into the Paradiso, and to stand with all the blessed in heaven, beholding God Himself for all eternity.

Are we ready to make that same adjustment in our own life? Are we ready to adjust our vision of ourselves so that we can take in the beauty and majesty of the living God?

One of the most beloved saints down through the centuries has been “the poverello” from the small Italian city of Assisi, St. Francis. His humility and holiness are renowned. Catholic author G. K. Chesterton describes how Francis’ conversion and transformation came about through a series of ongoing humiliations. Willingly and voluntarily, as well as through the mysterious action of God, St. Francis was stripped of everything that would have given him comfort and consolation in this world.

It was, Chesterton describes, as if Francis’ life was slowly turned upside down. He was forced to see life from an entirely different perspective: one of total and absolute dependence upon God. That, describes Chesterton, is the way we should all view the world around us.

In his biography on the life of St. Francis, Chesterton says:

If a man saw the world upside down, with all the trees and towers hanging head downwards as in a pool, one effect would be to emphasize the idea of dependence… He would be thankful to God for not dropping the whole cosmos like a vast crystal to be shattered into falling stars.

Perhaps St. Peter saw the world so, when he was crucified head downwards… men have said “Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed.”

It was in a wholly happy and enthusiastic sense that St. Francis said, “Blessed is he who expecteth nothing, for he shall enjoy everything.” It was by this deliberate idea of starting from zero…that he did come to enjoy even earthly things as few people have enjoyed them.

That, in the words of G.K. Chesterton, is St. Francis’ “beatitude adjustment.” It is what enabled him to see that his own happiness, blessedness, and everything else in this world, was completely dependent upon God.

Now let us read Jesus’ teaching of the beatitudes in that key. Christ says:

Blessed are the poor in spirit…

Why are they blessed? Because they are totally dependent upon God to provide for them in everything…and He will!

Blessed are they who mourn…

Why are they blessed? Because they are not dependent upon the good things and good feelings of this life for happiness; their happiness, their consolation and their joy completely depends upon God…and He is so ready and willing to give them that consolation and joy!

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…

Why are they blessed? Because they are not dependent upon the justice and satisfaction of this world only; they have a satisfaction and a justice—and mercy—that comes from God Himself. How could they not be blessed by that?

How is God challenging us to embrace these beautiful and rewarding teachings in our own lives? How are we called to make a “beatitude adjustment?”

How are we being called this week to recognize, along with Dante, that we are sinners in desperate need of the mercy of God, and that He has a desperate desire to give us that mercy?

How are we called to stand on our heads, and like St. Francis, to see the world around us as totally dependent upon God?

May we truly come to see how blessed we are by God in this life, and receive in its fullness the beatitude He is calling us to in eternal life.