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St. Chrysostom on the Beatitudes: Start with Humility and Meekness

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By Ben Duphiney, The Catholic University of America

How does man attain eternal happiness––or beatitude? It is not an easy process, especially since man desires perfect happiness and the temporal world cannot offer that. Attaining beatitude is a strenuous journey, but there is hope in the teachings of Jesus Christ on how to arrive at eternal happiness. In Homily 15 on Matthew, St. John Chrysostom offers new insights on how to practically attain union with God, which constitutes our beatitude. Taking the four pagan cardinal virtues, with a focus on fortitude, Chrysostom elevates their object of desire by mirroring them with the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.

Pagan thinkers have arrived at certain truths without revelation, such as Aristotle. He concludes in his work Metaphysics that [G]od is pure actuality––actus purus.[1] Truth was attained using pure reason, and was confirmed through the revelation of Moses from the burning bush when God said to Moses, “I am who I am.”[2] Revelation comes strictly from God, who bestows this gift upon man, yet it does not contradict reason; rather, it elevates reason and purifies it. With this in mind, Chrysostom demonstrates that the Sermon on the Mount––the Magna Carta of Christianity––elevates pagan virtues, ordering them and purifying them to the embrace of the Creator and creation. Just as a child swings from one monkey bar to the next, using momentum and a strong grip, Chrysostom begins with the first bar towards union with God: humility. The very first line of Chrysostom’s homily reflects the disposition of Jesus even before preaching, as he was “unambitious…and void of boasting.”[3] Just as Christ is humble, man too must be “humble and contrite in the mind”;[4] a man must be poor in spirit. This is the first beatitude that leads to union with God. Poverty of spirit is a total emptying of oneself, an abandonment of the self to the will of God. It is only upon emptying himself that man can “surely also mourn,”[5] which is the second beatitude. Repentance is a sign that conversion is desired, and is the second step towards union with God. As man “mourn[s] for misdoings…[and] enjoy[s] forgiveness,”[6] he will also be “both meek, and righteous, and merciful.”[7] Chrysostom connects the third, fourth, and fifth beatitudes because they are contingent upon repentance and conversion, since these three things are divine gifts. The meek man follows Christ through his example to be docile and submissive towards authority––like a horse whose reigns are constrained. The righteous man cultivates a “desire [for] a new object, freedom from covetousness.”[8] If men shows mercy, “the recompence…is a far greater thing than the act of goodness…[since] they show mercy as men [and ultimately] they obtain mercy from the God.”[9] It is upon attaining these attributes––or swinging to these bars––that will lead to purity of heart. The final three beatitudes are the final steps towards union with God, because the pure of heart shall see God, the peacemakers will be called sons of God, and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness will be rewarded with the kingdom of heaven.[10]All three ends are union with God. The roadmap has been given to humanity, but it is a difficult journey that must be strived for daily.

In his presentation of the Beatitudes, Chrysotom emphasizes the importance of endurance and perseverance. Notice the formula of each Beatitude: first, the state that man is called to in this world (i.e. those who mourn). These temporal, virtuous states are possible through the cardinal virtue of fortitude and the two theological virtues of faith and hope. Second, what is attainable in eternal life (i.e.they shall be comforted). Fortitude gives man the disposition to face danger, difficulty, or anything that may cause suffering well.[11] Also known as courage or bravery, fortitude makes man able to see the good placed before him (the first part), pursue it, and attain it (the second part), despite the challenges and vices he may face. Fortitude is the momentum that is needed to swing from one monkey bar to the next, continuing to life eternal on the other side of the monkey bars. While this cardinal virtue assists man in the ordinary challenges of life, such as by combating laziness, fear, etc., the two theological virtues of faith and hope elevate man’s courage to face extraordinary challenges that could prevent man from attaining union with God, such as sin and vice.

Faith is the virtue “by which we believe in true things about God and God’s relationship to humanity.”[12] Through this virtue, man can trust that God will fulfil his promises, and thus through faith man shall purify his desire to pursue union with his Creator. Faith’s very object is God as truth.[13] In pursuing this truth, man can either doubt or believe it; faith allows man to ascend to it and thus believe in it. Once the virtue of faith is present, hope aids man to “yearn for union with God as one’s…source of complete fulfilment.”[14] Hope combats the vice of despair, which attempts to make man believe that “eternal happiness…is not truly available.”[15] If a man were to despair, they would think that eternal happiness is out of reach, and union with God is impossible. Union with God is not impossible, and on the path towards it, the theological virtues of faith and hope guide man as the two hands that swing from one monkey bar to the other. Graced with faith and hope, man may “apply [themselves] to virtue…[and] be more enviable than any” to strive for union with God, a union which is love.[16]

The theological virtue of charity is loving “God for God’s own sake…and all others in God.”[17] “The greatest of these [virtues] is love” because, upon seeing the face of God in the beatific vision, man will not need faith or hope.[18] Seeing the face of God is seeing the face of Love Itself, which will only be seen by the pure of heart; faith and hope are virtues for the wayfarer, whereas love is the destination of the wayfarer. Chrysostom supports this by stressing the magnitude of seeing God: “For there is nothing which we need so much in order to see God, as this last virtue [love].”[19] Purity of heart allows man to see the face of God, and to see like God in all things that he does. Beatitude is union with God––with Love Itself, the end of man’s destiny and the anticipated destination of his lifelong pilgrimage.

Chrysostom continually emphasizes poverty throughout his work, and its connection to humility is the key to achieving beatitude. “For though [you] be poor, you are free; though [you] be a working man, [you are] a Christian,” carrying the love of Christ.[20] Poverty is what gives man freedom, just as being poor in spirit will eventually lead to purity of heart. Poverty of spirit is humility incarnate, and prepares men to face the most deadly vice of pride. As Chrysostom says, “Pride is the fountain of all wickedness, so is humility the principle of all self-command.”[21] Jesus lived and preached the Beatitudes perfectly, and the saints strove for this perfection. St. Francis of Assisi, who “set Christ crucified as a seal upon his heart, as a seal upon his arm,” inspires man to strive for beatitude.[22] His very identity is meekness and humility, which continually renew the disposition to have a pure heart. St. Francis calls and inspires many towards the path of beatitude since “he left us an outstanding example of humility.”[23] Man learns by example, and Jesus was the perfect example of humility. St. Francis––and countless other saints––have walked in the light of Christ’s perfect example to see Him face to face. The saints are at the other side of the monkey bars, cheering on those who are swinging forwards, because they have made it successfully across. The journey to gaze upon the face of God requires courage because the world avoids meekness, mourning, and poverty of spirit. Nevertheless, man can place his faith in God and ardently hope to see the face of God as he journeys on the path towards a pure heart.

Bibliography

Biblical references are from the New Revised Standard Version: www.biblegateway.com/

Bonaventure, Armstrong, R., Hellmann, J. and Short, W., 2007. Such is the Power of Love (Works of St. Bonaventure). Hyde Park, N.Y.: New City Press.

Chrysostom, John. “Homily 15 on Matthew.” CHURCH FATHERS: Homily 15 on Matthew (Chrysostom), www.newadvent.org/fathers/200115.htm.

Mattison III, W., 2008. Introducing Moral Theology: True Happiness and the Virtues. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos.

Newadvent.org. 2021. CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Actus Purus., Aristotle [online] Available at: <https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01125b.htm> [Accessed 8 March 2021].


[1] Aristotle, Metaphysics, Bk. XI

[2] Exodus 3:14, NRSV

[3] Homily 15 on Matthew, St. John Chrysostom, ¶1

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., ¶ 9

[6] Ibid., ¶ 4

[7] Ibid., ¶ 9

[8] Ibid., ¶ 6

[9] Ibid., ¶ 6

[10] summary of Matthew 5:8-10

[11] notes from class 2.11.2021; Introducing Moral Theology, Mattison p. 67

[12] Mattison, p. 227

[13] notes from class, 2.25.2021

[14] Mattison, p. 258

[15] Ibid., p. 257

[16] Chrysostom, ¶12

[17] Mattision, p. 292

[18] 1 Corinthians 13:13, NRSV

[19] Crysostom, ¶ 6

[20] Crysostom, ¶ 15

[21] Crysostom, ¶ 3

[22] Morning Sermon on St. Francis (1255), St. Bonaventure (p. 34)

[23] Evening Sermon on St. Francis (1255), St. Bonaventure  (p. 42)

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