BLESSED ARE THE PURE OF HEART FOR THEY SHALL SEE GOD (Matthew 5:8). This beatitude impressed the early monks to the point where they made it the goal their life’s program so to live as to attain to purity of heart. For then they would be given the great grace to behold God in his glory; they took Jesus at his word in their conviction that to the pure of heart God reveals himself. They were persuaded that the only source of the truly happy life is the contemplation of the Blessed Trinity. Accordingly, they considered it the work of wisdom to devise a way of life in which all one’s strivings were directed to prepare for this great gift.  

Of course, the monks were not alone in this persuasion; ‘For the glory of God is a living man; and the life of man consists in beholding God’, St. Irenaeus had written already in the second century [‘Against Heresies’ IV.20.7 Anti-Nicene Fathers I (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905) 490]. To see God is to share in his very life in some ineffable manner. Man is made in the image of God and so is capable of attaining to the divine glory. Indeed, he must behold that glory or he shall perish. The Bishop of Lyon states this truth categorically: ‘ Men therefore shall see God, that they may live, being made immortal by that sight and attaining even unto God’ (Heresies, IV.20. 6, 489).  Such a conviction, to be sure, is the work of faith; it is not simply the result of human reasoning. Nor is it possible to nature unaided by grace. 

Even God’s special friends, such as Moses, Elijah and the other prophets, were not granted this favor, Irenaeus explained, for such a favor was to be conferred only through the Incarnate Son of God. ‘The prophets, therefore, did not openly behold the actual face of God, but [they saw] the dispensations and the mysteries through which man should afterwards see God (Heresies IV.20 10, 490).’ 

Reason can arrive at the conviction that God alone can satisfy man’s longing. However, though the greatest philosophical minds were convinced of the existence of the Supreme Good, or as Aristotle preferred, the First Cause, yet they did not conceive of a personal God who would take initiative to reveal himself to his creatures. If man wishes to know God and so to arrive at the happy life reason alone is not sufficient; one must become like God according to Plato. He wrote that ‘The gods have a care of anyone whose desire is to become just and to be like God, as far as man can attain to the divine likeness, by the pursuit of virtue [‘The Republic, 613 a7-b 1cited in F. Copleston, ‘ A History of Philosophy’, I, 244]. He remarked in another work that ‘And he who would be dear to God, must as far as possible be like Him and such as He is. Wherefore the temperate man is the friend of God, for he is like Him’ (‘Laws’, 715 e 7-717 a, Copleston, 244). 

About eight centuries after Plato St. Augustine, before his baptism, took up the same question concerning what constitutes the truly happy life and wrote a book on the subject. His conclusion is typically honest and demonstrates the limits of human searching:  

We must confess that, while we are searching, we have not yet reached the very source of truth. We are not yet saturated by the plentitude [of wisdom]. . . we have not yet arrived at our standard of truth, and though God is now our helper, we are not yet wise and happy [‘De beata vita’, 4, 35, cf. Vernon Bourke, ‘Augustine’s Quest for Wisdom’ (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co.: 1945), 74, 75] 

During this same period when the future Bishop of Hippo was still trying to find his way to a fuller understanding of truth, he came to a concept of reason that is quite different than we tend to conceive it. We associate reason with logic and the process of drawing legitimate inferences from premises. Augustine came to view reason as the ‘gaze of the soul’, a view eminently suited to a contemplative approach to the truth which he already had come to associate in some way he had not yet defined, with Christ. The soul possesses its own faculty of seeing, ratio’, reason, and its act is a form of spiritual looking. Only when the Word became flesh in the person of Jesus was the veil drawn back to reveal that God calls us to share his life in the vision of his glory for all eternity.   

 Later on, after his baptism when Augustine had come to grasp more fully the mystery of Christ, he elaborated a theory of understanding called ‘Divine Illumination’ that plays a major role in his manner of conceiving the process of knowing truth. This theory maintains that the mind arrives at understanding by virtue of a certain spiritual light of a unique kind, given by God. Whether it is a supernatural grace or an endowment bestowed by God through nature is not always clear. However, it would seem that Augustine believed a special intervention by Christ, the one True Teacher, is necessary for man truly to learn something new, and that is clearly the case when it is question of saving knowledge, that is to say, understanding of the mysteries of salvation. 

Though a man may read books and listen to instruction of various kinds, he cannot really attain to understanding except in the light of interior truth. This is shown by the fact, easy to demonstrate that the same words pronounced before an audience, are understood by some, with varying degrees of insight, and not at all grasped by others. Hearing words does not produce understanding of truth; only the one who receives an interior enlightenment. Words about things unable to be understood at the time pass into the memory. “ But truth does not speak in this way; it speaks interiorly to minds that understand. It instructs not by sound but by pouring out an intelligible light [‘Sobre el Evangelio de San Juan’, 54.8 (Madrid: B.A.C., 1965) 248]. ‘The ‘student of truth’ is he who can see with the inner eye. ‘For what is taught externally through signs is merely a “guideline” for what is taught when, turning inward towards God, one discovers “the blessed life”- a route that many seek but few find  [cf. ‘De magistro’ 14. 18-27, in Brian Stock ‘Augustine the Reader’ (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998) 160].   

There is no reason to believe that Augustine was familiar with the works or doctrine of Evagrius Ponticus, nor is his doctrine of illumination the same conception as that of the eastern monk. They do, however, agree in this point, that there is an interior light that reveals to the mind truth which had been hidden from the conscious self. The doctrine of Evagrius, a mystical theologian and a man of contemplative prayer, is that the soul itself when purified gives off a light that is natural to it but which was covered over by sin. He makes this point in the following saying: “ The proof of apatheia is had when the spirit begins to see its own light” [‘The Praktikos’, 64 in Evagrius Ponticus, ‘The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer’, Cistercian Studies Series 4 (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1981) 33]. At the time of pure contemplative prayer this light emerges into consciousness once the subject frees the soul from the darkness of all disordered passion. He seems to imply that this illuminated soul is sufficiently like God to be capable of receiving a true knowledge of the Blessed Trinity.  Evagrius does not elaborate further, but leaves it to the reader to ponder the function of this phenomenon as well as the manner in which this light of understanding is imparted.  

The first time our Lord spoke about the vision of God he was quite explicit in pointing out the need for spiritual cleansing. BLESSED ARE THE PURE OF HEART FOR THEY SHALL SEE GOD, is the way he put it. Taking up this requirement of purity of heart, the teachers and preachers of the early church sought to clarify just what was meant by this term.  There have been various ways of understanding this state of soul and mind. The Fathers of the Desert already realized that this was a matter that required the insight arising from holiness and wisdom. We find reference to this in the Apophtegmata where we read that one of the seniors made a special trip in order to consult the man with perhaps the highest reputation among all the ancients in the desert.  “Abba John, who had been exited by the Emperor Marcian, said, ‘ We went to Syria one day to see Abba Poemen and we wanted to ask him about purity of heart. But the old man did not know Greek and no interpreter could be found. So, seeing our embarrassment, the old man began to speak Greek [‘The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Benedicta Ward, SLG, tr. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications 1984) 192].’ The answer he gave is a bit enigmatic but suggests that purity of heart comes through frequent hearing of the word of God and opening the heart to fear of God. 

At the time when the early church was being harmed by various heresies purity of heart was conceived to mean belief in the true faith. We may find it strange at first that any one would understand our Lord’s words in that manner. But upon further reflection this conception takes on a more plausible show of truth. After all, it was because the Pharisees and Scribes did not have a true conception of Jesus’ true identity that they misinterpreted his message and rejected his person. On the other hand, the disciples and faithful followers of our Lord formed a true conception of Jesus and his teaching and as a result came to love him and in the end were sanctified. After they received the Spirit following the resurrection the content of their faith was integral and so they attained to a profound purity of heart. 

Among others St. Leo the Great undertook to give an interpretation of this text in the course of a sermon where he defined a pure heart in the following words. ‘And what does it mean to have a clean heart, if not to practice those virtues [namely, justice and mercy] of which we have just spoken?’ [‘Homily on the Steps of the Ascent to Blessedness’ The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, IV (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996) 483]. Leo, then, considered that purity of heart is the disposition, sufficiently strong to learn to effective practice of justice tempered with loving mercy. These attitudes are what enable us to behold the vision of God, even in this life. 

The best known among the authors who treat of purity of heart, certainly in monastic circles, is John Cassian. The title of the first of his twenty-four conferences on matters of monastic spirituality is ‘The Goal or The Aim of the Monk’.  As is his usual practice, he puts the teaching contained in this talk in the mouth of a venerable experienced monk, Abba Moses in this case. The Abba begins his talk with a statement that includes the topic of purity of heart. Cassian records him as follows. 

“Every art,” he said, “and every discipline has a particular objective, that is to say, a target and an end peculiarly its own. . .. the aim of our profession is the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven.  But our point of reference , our objective, is a clean heart, without which it is impossible for anyone to reach our target. . . . Everything we do, our every objective, must be undertaken for the sake of this purity of heart. . . . in order to rise step by step to the high point of love.” [‘John Cassian: The Conferences’, Colm Luibheid, tr., The Classics of Western Spirituality, (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press  1985) 37, 39, 41]   

Abba Moses, after discoursing on the nature of contemplation and related matters, then indicates that what he means by purity of heart is a state of tranquility that is had when a man has learned to control his thoughts. Freedom from passionate, disturbing images and ideas are what indicate purity of heart. He realizes that everyone is assailed by distracting thoughts, but also that it is in everyone’s power to admit them into his heart or not. He lists the means of assuring good thoughts that prepare for contemplation and keep the heart pure. 

But the workings of zeal and diligence will decide which of those thoughts may be allowed in and cultivated. And, as I have said already, if we turn to the constant meditation of Scripture, if we life up our memory to the things of the spirit, to the longing for perfection and to the hope of future blessedness, then the thoughts deriving from all this will of necessity be spiritual and they will hold the mind where the thoughts have been Cassian, 52).   

Cassian intended his work to be widely read and so he avoided the more technical terms that had already circulated among certain monastic circles. Thus where his teacher, Evagrius Ponticus, had employed the expression apatheia, Cassian preferred the term ‘purity of heart’. He had other reasons for avoiding the Greek term since it had come under heavy criticism in the Latin west especially by St. Jerome. Rather than defend it, Cassian preferred to sidestep the problem and refer to the state of the soul freed from passionate thoughts and images as ‘puritas cordis’, ‘purity of heart’.  Evagrius wrote that ’”apatheia has a child called ‘agape’(charity) who keeps the door to deep knowledge of the created universe[ Praktikos, Letter to Anatolius, Cisterican Studies Series 4 (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications 1981) 14]”. Cassian went further; he identified the two, writing: “our main objective, purity of heart, that is to say, love”. Puritas cordis is not only the fruit of a loving search, it is already itself love.  

Human experience bears out the fact that love as a lasting, durable relationship is more than a passing passion; it is a deep-seated affection, a disposition of the heart that is a readiness for self-denial, for action ordered to the good of the beloved. Consequently, it is not concerned with self-fulfillment but inclined to sacrifice when that will contribute to the benefit of the loved one. Paradoxical as it appears, such a disposition of  self-sacrificing readiness alone leads to self-fulfillment and so to true happiness. This is the meaning of Jesus’ words in this beatitude.  

BLESSED ARE THE PURE OF HEART FOR THEY SHALL SEE GOD. Actually the literal translation of our Lord’s words is the more suggestive. ‘Happy (makarioi) are of heart’ St. Matthew wrote. All the beatitudes begin with this word. In Matthew’s Gospel it is the very first word Jesus spoke. With the word ’happy’ he begins his public ministry. This is the first word as well of the Psalter: ‘Happy the man (Makarios ho aner) who . . . meditates on the law of God day and night’. Jesus takes up the great theme of the Psalms in his preaching; he comes to teach the way that leads to the happy life. His is the doctrine of the fulfillment that is true happiness. The Incarnation, the mysteries of his preaching, of his Passion, Death and Resurrection, his Ascension and the sending of his Spirit- what are they but revelations of this deifying light which St. Benedict urges his monks to look upon that they might be refashioned in the image of the Son of God. “And having opened our eyes to the deifying light, with ears ringing with astonishment to the divine voice calling out to us daily and saying: ‘If today you hear his voice harden not your heart.’  Our monastic Fathers in working out the way of life they passed on to us kept this teaching before their eyes. They followed it themselves and arrived at their goal. May we follow this way that strives after inward honesty seeking truth. This is the way that will bring us to that purity of heart, which our Lord promises will receive, the reward of the vision of God in glory.  E

  Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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