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Mercy at the heart of the beatitudes

  • Donald P. Richmond, OSV Newsweekly
  • |
  • January 07 2016
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How Jesus' words in Matthew 5 can be used as stepping-stones to further our own spiritual growth

In celebration of the upcoming Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, this week’s Faith story has been written by Rev. Donald P. Richmond, an oblate with the Reformed Episcopal Church and Order of St. Benedict.

Every Catholic Christian is called to be a saint. This is God’s intention and, through the proper use of the sacraments, our spiritual inclination. Holiness is not just a potentiality, it is a Spirit-inspired and sacrament-empowered possibility. God, in Christ by the Holy Spirit, wills and works within his people to accomplish the dual purposes of personal holiness and practical evangelism.

If we are committed Catholics, we want to be holy. Because we have the Holy Spirit living within and among us, and because we strive to fully and faithfully participate in the sacraments, we are enlivened and empowered to live saintly lives.

But how, practically speaking, do we become the people God has called us to be? How is holiness received and achieved? The beatitudes, as found in St. Matthew 5:3-12, provides us with crucial answers to our inquiries.

Grace of holiness

When we examine the beatitudes, we are prone to think of them as individual — and often unrelated — statements of wisdom. More often than not, they remind us of proverbs or precepts that, if understood and applied, enrich and empower our lives. Although there is some truth associated with this perspective, the beatitudes provide far more than singular statements for self-improvement. Rather, and essentially, they provide spiritual stepping-stones by which we ascend the spiritual ladder of Christian holiness and evangelistic effectiveness.

In Matthew 5:3-5, we read about how we receive the grace of holiness. According to our text, poverty of spirit, mourning and meekness are critical to receiving this gift of godliness. Careful and prayerful reflection upon these principles reveals an imperative process of spiritual growth. The primacy of perceiving our spiritual poverty is the first step in this process. When we see and accept ourselves as we really are, we experience a pronounced sense of spiritual poverty. This identification of our marked need quite naturally leads to mourning, a deep sorrow over our sin.

These, together, lead to a genuine humility, or meekness. These are stepping-stones that help us move toward the “perfection” that God wants us to enjoy and employ (Mt 5:48). Only when we walk this perpetual path of poverty, mourning and meekness, as encouraged through the proper use of confession, are we able to receive the graces of the kingdom, comfort and inheritance. All sainthood begins with an appropriate awareness of our spiritual impoverishment and the mourning and humility resulting from this reality.

But these are only the beginning of spiritual progress and formation.

Hunger and thirst

Having passed from poverty to mourning to meekness, we now arrive at that place where we genuinely and intensely “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Mt 5:6). Until we embrace the process of perpetual spiritual poverty, this hunger for holiness can never be entirely satisfied. Unless poverty, mourning and meekness become the attitudes by which we live, righteousness is only a distant hope. The ongoing recognition of our need, enlivened through repentance and faith, empowers us to the possibility and potentiality of living righteously.

Unfortunately, at this point, many people may feel that they have “arrived.” Having “received” the gift of spiritual impoverishment, many think that they have now achieved the grace of righteousness. This, however, is not the case. There is a difference between having a hunger for holiness and having this spiritual appetite fully satisfied. Between the aspiration of verse six and the satisfaction of verse eight falls the virtuous path of verse seven. That is, in other words, mercy is the practical bridge between our hunger for holiness and the satisfaction of our hunger. Only by exercising mercy are we able to achieve satisfaction and perceive God.

As designated by Pope Francis, we are in the Year of Mercy. This emphasis upon mercy is not, however, a stand-alone idea. The pope is not simply trying to tell us to be nice. Although being nice is to be preferred above its negative alternatives, the Holy Father wants to move us well beyond spiritual niceties into spiritual renewal and social revival. He wants us to live holy lives. He wants us to be and become saints and, as saints, influence the world.

Exercising mercy

As we process through this Year of Mercy, let us attend to the three priorities presented in the beatitudes. First, and not to be overlooked or underestimated, the exercise of mercy depends upon recognizing and embracing our own spiritual impoverishment (Mt 5:3-5). We are in desperate need of mercy, and having received it, we extend this gift of grace to others (Mt 18:21-35).

Truly knowing our own desperate state helps us to appreciate the desperate need of others. Second, as those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” we must understand that the satisfaction of our hunger for holiness is only achieved as we exercise mercy toward other human beings. The difference between Pharisaical “perfection” and Christian “perfection” is found in the exercise of mercy. Third, and finally, mercy always has evangelistic overtones. When mercy is genuinely exercised, effective evangelism will occur. We see this briefly and broadly communicated in the remainder of the beatitudes and extending through verses 14-16 of Matthew 5.

Do we want to be holy? Do we want to share our faith? The exercise of mercy bridges saintliness to society.


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