I have ignored my blog the past two weeks because I have been preparing for the visit of His Grace Bishop Joseph (which, by the way, went very well) and a young adult retreat coming up in two weeks. The original speaker, Mother Melania, had to cancel suddenly; and after several days of trying to find a good replacement, the bottom of the barrel was reached.
I have been studying the Sermon on the Mount, which I plan to use as the outline for my talks entitled, “Living the Christian Life.” One thing that has struck me as interesting is a certain reading of the Beatitudes at the beginning of the sermon. One way to read these Beatitudes (“Blesseds”) is as a kind of ladder or way to approach the rest of the sayings in the sermon. That is, each of the difficult sayings of Jesus can be “climbed” by beginning with the first rung of the beatitudes (blessed are the poor in spirit) and followed by the rest.
Take for example the commandment to turn the other cheek when someone strikes you. This commandment makes no sense to us who live in a culture in which children are taught martial arts (remember, “martial” means “of war”) and the ability to defend oneself is considered a basic trait of manhood—and nowadays many women take courses in self defense. How do we make our own this commandment which seems to us so contrary to common sense? If we are not careful, we will reject the word outright, claiming either that it is an ideal—something for the heavenly kingdom but not practical on earth—or just for monks (and even then in only the most extreme examples). However, understanding the Beatitudes as a ladder provides us a means to accept and even begin to put into practice the Law of Christ in spite of our first impression that to turn the other cheek is impossible in the “real” world. In fact, the first rung on the ladder requires us to see this apparent impossibility.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” The first step to turning the other cheek is to recognize that I am unable to do so. I lack the spiritual resources. It doesn’t work for me, in my life, in my circumstances, it doesn’t work: I am poor in spirit. The alternative response for most people when faced with the extreme commandments of Christ is to find a way to say, “it doesn’t apply to me.” But the response that Christ teaches us is to say, “I am poor in spirit.” You or I may not be able to turn the other cheek in many circumstances in our life, but instead of ignoring, blaming or postponing Christ and his commandment, the first rung on the ladder to a blessed life and the Kingdom of Heaven is to acknowledge that the problem lies with me, not the commandment. I am poor in spirit; I am somehow unable to do what Christ has asked me to do.
And here is the great irony of the Kingdom of Christ: once we admit our poverty, our weakness, our inability to live the life of the Kingdom of Heaven; then we are already in the Kingdom. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
There are seven more rungs, each a condition led to by the previous, each another step in climbing the commandments of Christ. And of course, the end is Christ himself: the divine image implanted in us at our creation is fulfilled in fully actualizing our calling as the Body of Christ. And the commandments of Christ, like all commandments, are the means to this transformation. Step by step we grow in the image of Christ, but the first step is to recognize where we fail to reflect Christ’s image and there to acknowledge our poverty.