What are the beatitudes?
Our Lord pronounces in the beginning of the first sermon in the gospel of St. Matthew eight blessings over those who have the poverty of spirit, who are meek, mourn, who hunger and thirst after justice, who are merciful, who are clean of heart, who are peacemakers and who suffer persecution for justice’ sake. In a slightly different order we find them also in the gospel according to St. Luke, in the 6th chapter.
All want to be happy. Our Lord speaks of blessedness, because by nature man wants to be blessed, eternally happy. By pronouncing the beatitudes Our Lord teaches us of what perfect happiness consists, where it can be found and who gives us the means to achieve this perfection.
The beatitudes are not a distant goal or ideal of the perfected, but true means to reach heaven. To understand their importance it is useful to revisit catechetical principles:
The beginning of the cooperation with divine grace takes place when we exercise virtues. By giving us graces and allowing us to act by using our natural faculties, God “accommodates Himself to the human mode of action” (Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.). To act virtuously means to exercise our human abilities which are made supernaturally effective by divine grace.
In advancing His effective presence in us God then bestows on us His gifts. Through the gifts, we are consenting freely to the operation of God in us, being led by the Holy Ghost in doing good works.
To develop the gifts of the Holy Ghost we have to practice the moral virtues. To become more and more docile to God’s grace one has to overcome bad habits, vices, and form good habits, stable, consistent good acts, the virtues.
God does not grant gifts of the Holy Ghost without our free, generous, and virtuous cooperation. God does not fill the sails of our soul with the free wind of His gifts without that we regularly make the effort to row the boat by exercising virtues.
Once we respond faithfully to the Holy Ghost and exercise the virtues - and the gifts - generously, our heart is filled with “holy joy.” This joy, this delight in acting virtuously, we call fruits. These fruits are acts of virtue “which reach a certain degree of perfection.” “But once we have grown accustomed to the practice of virtue, we acquire facility and perform these acts without great difficulty, rather with pleasure …” (Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.)
Finally, we achieve the beatitudes: They are fruits as well, but fruits of such great perfection that they give us the “foretaste of heaven”. They are more perfect than anything else, because they are the fruits of the works we do by using the gifts of the Holy Ghost, by using the power and force God Himself puts in us and makes effective in and through us.
Now we understand why Our Lord calls those who are perfected in virtue blessed and why they are happy in this and the life to come: “Because when a man begins to make progress in the acts of the virtues and gifts, it is to be hoped that he will arrive at perfection, both as a wayfarer, and as a citizen of the heavenly kingdom”, says our patron Saint Thomas of Aquinas (I, II, q. 69, a 2).
“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” As Cardinal Burke wrote recently, this beatitude is the most fundamental of all: It is fundamental to empty one’s heart completely from all those things, attachments and preferences which are not compatible with the love of God, His will as it can be known in His commandments, in the teaching of His Church and in our daily life of prayer, joys and sacrifices. To be poor in spirit means to make an effort again and again - and to make it successfully - to be freed from strictly human and strictly worldly interests and to be filled with the grace of God.
It would be a grave mistake therefore to think of the beatitudes exclusively as promises of rewards in a distant future. What Our Lord promises for all of us is given to us already now in the moments when we generously and lovingly lift up our hearts to Him in the awareness of our neediness. What is the perfection of our lives as faithful children of God is also the beginning of all movements of our heart towards Him: To admit freely and with great honesty that we are nothing without His grace and His constant protection.