Beauty is the perfection of order and symmetry, and as such is a primary source of holiness. This basic truth can be seen by any Christian believer or any person of good will. And yet, such a claim is regarded as peculiar in contemporary Western societies because of something Saint Paul unmasked, namely, the “great exchange” of divine glory for the fallen things of this world. (cf. Romans 1:18-24)
In its current Western form, this great exchange abandons religion for self-help practices, the objective realities of life for subjective preferences, faith-and-reason for an absolutized reason without conditions, male/female complementarity for sexual disorder. And – sadly – the compromises of the great exchange continue into a rapid downward spiral of confusion and misery.
In such societies, people are fragmented, institutions of belonging are redefined, and essential sources of identity are clouded. This leads to widespread social ills, from an epidemic in pornography, widespread opioid abuse, to an increase in suicide rates.
But weren’t we made for something greater that makes beauty and holiness possible in our souls and in society?
It was to answer such questions that Jesus Christ entered human history. By his life and teachings, culminating in his Paschal Mystery, the Lord points us to a more excellent way. He presents this way of life in what the Christian tradition has come to call “the Beatitudes.” The Lord gives the Beatitudes as an interior autobiography of his own heart. He offers them as a remedy to our ills, and as a path toward internal harmony and social tranquility.
The eight Beatitudes reflect the symmetry of beauty and are, therefore, a sure path to peace and holiness. Rather than a random collection of platitudes, the Beatitudes hold an inner logic and offer us a path to harmony.
It is no surprise that only the first and eighth Beatitude refer to the “kingdom.” The two are seen to form bookends. The first Beatitude calls for a “poverty of spirit,” which is a radical existential declaration of a true need for God. This is the beginning of wisdom, tranquility, and happiness. The eighth Beatitude, by contrast, is a commission to accept persecution for the sake of righteousness.
In between, however, lies the hard work for holiness. As the first Beatitude leads us to an assertion of our need for God, so the second one calls us to a sorrow and repentance for our sins and the evil of the world. This grieving compels us to the meekness of the third Beatitude. The meekness here is not passivity, but an authentic desire to know our place in the world, to discern our vocation, given by God, and to live accordingly.
The movement of the first three Beatitudes – from our need for God, our sorrow over evil, and our drive to know our place – reaches a culmination in the fourth Beatitude, which urges on us hunger and thirst for righteousness. Knowing ourselves better, we now want to be excellent, virtuous, and holy. This hunger and thirst doubles down and re-directs our attention.
The focus shifts, therefore, in the fifth Beatitude. We now look to our neighbor and are moved to mercy. From this state of compassion, we are guided into the “purity of heart” of the sixth Beatitude. Such a summons to purity helps us to see God’s Providence, to see what others cannot, namely, healing in brokenness, goodness in the midst of evil, and the power of light over darkness.
This enables us to be the “peacemakers” of the seventh Beatitude and to desire a tranquility of order in our own lives and in the world around, which makes us strong enough and ready to accept and live the commission of the eighth Beatitude.
This simple walk through the Beatitudes reveals to us the beauty of holiness, but also its challenges.
In our culture, there are Jesuitical attempts to discredit moral truth about marriage, family, and sexuality. By classifying certain moral truths, such as sodomy or contraception, as not having been “received” by the People of God (since a majority of believers may not consent to them), such teachings are argued to have not, therefore, really been given by the Holy Spirit.
But we could say the same about the very Beatitudes given to us by Jesus. Many have tried to live up to them, but then quit because they appeared to be too hard or not rewarding enough. Some only pay the Beatitudes lip service, others try to redefine them, while still others completely reject them.
It might even be argued that a majority of believers do not assent to the full life of the Beatitudes. And yet, could we claim that they have not been “received” and therefore are not from God? And even if they’re not “received,” can they be let go?
Of course not. The Beatitudes are here to stay, as is all moral truth. And any such argument is an abuse of the sensus fidelium, which does not mean “what’s everybody doing,” but is the actual living out of the Church’s declared faith by the People of God. That way of viewing things does not reflect the demands of discipleship born from truth and beauty, but rather manifests a rationalization of the tenets of revealed religion. The argument is an intellectual appeasement of this world and a shameful display of the “great exchange” denounced by Saint Paul.
And so, whether “received” or not, the Beatitudes, and the entire body of moral truth, offer the human family another way, a more excellent way, of love. It’s a way that is difficult and marked by toil and struggles. It’s rejected by many. But it’s one that leads to true peace. And the hearts that receive it – and labor to live it – find holiness and the joy of life in God. And they’re the ones whose righteousness ends up converting and changing the world.
*Image: The Sermon on the Mount by Cosimo Rosselli, 1481-1482 [fresco on the northern wall of the Sistine Chapel, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City]