JUNE 6, 2005 - HOMILY: 2 COR 1:1-7; MATTHEW 5:1-12

BLESSED ARE THE PURE OF HEART, THEY SHALL SEE GOD. Each of the beatitudes merits a homily of its own to bring out the fuller implications of its message. In fact, some of the fathers of the Church, such as Gregory of Nyssa and St Augustine, wrote a series of homilies precisely to elaborate the significance of each one of these sayings that so strikingly sum up the ethical and spiritual teaching of Jesus. I have just cited the sixth in the series of eight: BLESSED ARE THE PURE OF HEART, THEY SHALL SEE GOD. The reason for selecting this one is that it expresses in a more suggestive manner the goal of monastic life: it promises the vision of God. Purity of heart is the first aim of monastic striving in the teaching of John Cassian. While there have been saintly Christians who have emphasized other aims with greater stress- aims such as poverty of spirit, mercy, meekness among other high attainments, the monks and nuns who pursued the hesychastic life of solitude and silence dedicated to prayer, took the vision of God as their aim and set purity of heart as their immediate aim.

If Cassian gave such importance to this theme, it was because he had been shown during his stay in Egypt by the first theologian of monastic spirituality, Evagrius Ponticus, how there is an organic relation, as it were, between purity of heart and knowledge of God. After all, ‘to see God’ is analogous language for a kind of direct knowledge of God. God, in his nature, has no material form; consequently, he is not subject to the kind of sight we are familiar with. Evagrius was able to demonstrate in a plausible manner that many, including Cassian and, later on Maximus the Confessor, found persuasive, that the chief obstacle to a form of pure prayer is the various passions and the images that they cause to arise within us. The work of the monk, he taught, is to study these passions so as to identify them and their causes with sufficient precision as to be in a position to train them in the service of the search for God. Evagrius was a good analyst; he came to see that the passions relate among themselves in a dynamic process. To grasp their causes and mode of functioning renders more effective the effort to integrate them and bring them to serve enlightened reason. Once the passions operate according to this reason they cease to fuel disordered images stored in the memory. This permits a prayer that is free of images, capable of receiving the divine light. When such a state becomes stable by persistent effort under the influence of grace, one is able to perceive in a certain spiritual light the place of God (ho topos tou Theou). Here God himself abides at the center of our being and reveals the light of his glory. This is what Evagrius means by pure prayer. The state that makes it possible is purity of heart, though he uses a different vocabulary than Cassian adopted.

This doctrine has proved to be a helpful way of conceiving the contemplative life. Over the years it was put into practice and elaborated further by various gifted and holy monks and came to be known as Hesychastic spirituality. It was incorporated and adapted by our Cistercian fathers. Some modern writers and men of prayer such as Merton have given it new expression in our own age. This manner of conceiving the spiritual life was worked out in order to carry out the program that Jesus outlines in his beatitude BLESSED ARE THE PURE OF HEART, THEY SHALL SEE GOD. May the grace we receive at this Eucharist enable us to profit from the help this teaching offers as we strive to follow in the ways of the Gospel as lived by our holy Fathers and the saintly monks who lived and taught this way of pure prayer.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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