Saturday, October 26, 2013

An Upside Down Beauty

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:3

Reflection – A while ago I went through the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) as a sort of Year of Faith project: this is what it means to live by faith in Jesus Christ. At the time I skipped the Beatitudes (Mt 5: 3-11) as they are worth their own series, each one of the eight containing enough material for its own post.

I thought it timely to get back to the Beatitudes, then, and blog about them, since we are heading this week towards one of the principle feasts of the liturgical year. That is the Solemnity of All Saints, on November 1 next Friday. The Church chooses this Gospel for the Mass of the day, and in so doing holds out the Beatitudes as the very essence of holiness, the heart of the saints.

I am still reflecting on my trip to Rome at the beginning of this month (hard to believe I’ve only been back two weeks, since it feels like ages ago). My conclusion, after seeing all the grandeur of art and architecture, the pomp and genuine beauty of Rome and all its splendor, is that the glory and greatness of the Church lies in none of those things, lovely and, I would say, fitting as they all are. The glory of the Church is the saints: Peter and Paul, Francis and Therese, Dominic and Ignatius and Catherine and Teresa and… on and on it goes, down through the millennia. The great roll call of the people of the Beatitudes. 

This is what makes the Church beautiful; the externals are truly beautiful, but without the saints, then and now, it is a dead beauty, and God made his Church to be alive, not dead. It is the saints who make it and keep it alive, or rather, it is God the Holy Spirit acting in and on the saints who does this.

But what a strange beauty the Beatitudes show us. An upside down beauty, a crazy beauty. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ – what does that mean? Our normal human way of thinking about ‘beauty’ is to think in categories of fullness: the curved breast, the rippling muscle, the full mouth, big eyes, smoothness of skin, luxurious hair. To be beautiful is to ‘have it’, to have what it takes.

And a beautiful life, stepping away from the strictly physical categories, we normally see as a life ‘full’ of blessings. We may not be so foolish as to associate happiness, beatitude, with possessions and wealth, but most of us do associate it with having lots of loved ones, days filled with laughter and song, work that we love, and yes, a modicum of the world’s goods. Beauty = riches is a powerful, almost inescapable equation in the human spirit.

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ Something new is introduced here into the human equation. Something incalculable, an entirely new way of seeing reality. Real beauty, real happiness, real blessing comes not from a life filled with good things, but a heart empty and open, available to God and to neighbor, ready for anything because it has nothing of its own to hold onto.

We see this in St. Francis, stripping himself naked in the town square of Assisi and running off to rebuild the Church like a lunatic… and the Church is still being rebuilt by the Franciscan way. In Therese of Lisieux, so convinced of this that her whole life was a conscious choice towards littleness and nothingness, towards being absolutely tiny in herself, so that God could be everything in her… and this little nun continues to bless and inspire millions. 

In all the martyrs who knew they had no other treasure but Jesus, and died to preserve that treasure, in all the missionaries who left everything behind and embraced the danger and travails of strange lands and difficult journeys, in all the monks and nuns who abandoned everything for the one thing necessary, and in all the ordinary people through the centuries who became not so ordinary as they embraced the first beatitude and learned its lesson.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. As we slowly, painfully learn these words, which only happens over a life of day after day striving towards them, we come to see that the only true wealth, the only true fullness of life, the fullness that survives the ravages of time and the turns of fortune, is the Lord Jesus Christ and his love, that we are made for nothing else but to be an open space for that love, and the price of being that open space is to embrace one’s own personal poverty, however it manifests in your life, and to confidently expect Him to fill it with his richness, and to leave that filling and that beatitude to Him, to His wisdom and goodness. And that is the secret of the saints.

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