Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God. – Matthew 5:8
What does it mean to be clean of heart, or pure of heart in other translations, and why do they get to see God? I think some passages from the Old Testament can help us to see how people at the time would have understood the Lord’s words, then we’ll see how Christians have understood them.
God said to Moses, “You cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live” (Ex 33:20). Therefore, Moses has to hide his face while the Lord passes by. Similarly, no one is allowed to touch the Ark of the Covenant. While the Ark was being moved to Jerusalem, the Oxen stumbled and the Ark was in danger of tipping, so Uzzah steadied the Ark with his hand, and he was struck dead on the spot. The Ark of the Covenant, which represented God’s presence with His people, was kept in the Holy of Holies in the Temple. The only person who was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies was the High Priest, and he only entered it once a year, on the Day of Atonement. Before entering the Holy of Holies he has to offer atonement for his own sins. The Lord told Moses, “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at all times into the holy place within the veil, before the mercy seat which is upon the ark, lest he die; for I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat…And Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house” (Lev 16:2 & 6).
Seeing the Lord face to face, touching the Ark of the Covenant, or entering the Holy Place meant death. The only way for the High Priest to enter the Holy Place safely was to make atonement for his own sins first. It is only through the forgiveness of sins that someone can safely approach the Lord. So, cleanness of heart has to do with forgiveness of sins. Jesus Christ, our High Priest, has entered the true Holy Place, heaven, and offered His own blood for the forgiveness of our sins. St. Jerome says, “The pure is known by purity of heart, for the temple of God cannot be impure.” Nothing that is impure can approach God, and Jesus Christ is the only one who is pure. He is the only one who is fully committed to God, because He is the Son of God. We can only be pure by uniting ourselves to Him. Therefore, we must be “cleansed” by the waters of baptism.
The grace of Christ allows us to have a clean heart and to seek God in purity of heart, without any ulterior motives. St. Ambrose said, “The merciful loses the benefit of his mercy, unless he shows it from a pure heart; for if he seeks to have whereof he boast, he loses the fruit of his deeds.” When we do something good, like be merciful, for an impure motive, we don’t benefit from it. If I’m merciful in order to boast of my mercy, or humble to brag of my humility, or generous to benefit from my generosity, then the words of Christ apply to me, “Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do… that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward” (Mt 6:2).
Of course, that is the goal of the spiritual life, but we don’t start there. We start off by avoiding sin because we fear punishment, as a child dreads to hear, “Wait ‘till you father gets home.” Soon, however, children do what is right not out of fear of punishment, but out of love and respect for their parents. So, through prayer, the sacraments, and discipline we also grow in faith and love for God. Those who are clean of heart shall see God and seeing is possessing. The clean of heart shall see God because He is already present in the hearts. As St. Paul writes, “ When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:11-13).
Blessed are the Merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. – Matthew 5:7
Although we often think of justice and mercy as being incompatible with each other, the Bible teaches us to see them as being inseparable. Therefore, after telling us that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, or justice, or blessed, the Lord tells us that the merciful are also blessed. Righteousness really means to follow the law of God, but the law of God requires us to be merciful to one another. We must be both just and merciful because our Lord is both just and merciful. In the Catena Aurea, St. Thomas Aquinas writes, “Justice and mercy are so united, that the one ought to be mingled with the other; justice without mercy is cruelty; mercy without justice, profusion—hence he goes on to the one from the other.”
Mercy is not the same thing as excusing other people’s actions or ignoring their wrongdoing. If that were the case, then mercy shown to the evildoer would be unmerciful to their victims, and so mercy wouldn’t really mean anything at all. Instead, mercy means loving one another as Christ has loved us, working for the true good of one another, and having compassion on the suffering. It’s not actually merciful to leave someone in a state of sin, because sin leads to death, and mortal sin leads to final death. The Lord gives us an example of true mercy when he speaks to the woman caught in adultery in John 8. The Mosaic Law says that she ought to be stoned for her sin, so they bring her to Jesus to see what he will say. First, he says, “Let whoever is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone at her” (Jn 8:7). Before accusing someone else, we should be aware of our own sins. We wouldn’t want to be judged solely on our worst moments, so we shouldn’t judge others on their worst moments, and we would want others to bring us to conversion, so we should work to convert others. After the men have gone away, Jesus says to the woman, “Has no one condemned you?... Neither will I condemn you. Go, and now do not choose to sin anymore” (Jn 8:10-11). The Lord is the one without sin, so He could, by His own words, cast the first stone, but He doesn’t, and neither does He excuse her actions. In the very next verse, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me does not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (Jn 8:12). When we encounter Jesus, the light of the world, His light overcomes our darkness. The most merciful thing we can do for one another is to bring them to Jesus, so that He might shine His light in their lives. As St. Jerome said, “Mercy here is not said only of alms, but is in every sin of a brother, if we bear one another’s burdens.”
St. John Chrysostom says, “The reward here seems at first to be only an equal return; but indeed it is much more; for human mercy and divine mercy are not to be put on an equality.” We show mercy by doing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, visit the prisoners, bury the dead, give alms to the poor, counseling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant, admonishing the sinner, comforting the sorrowful, forgiving injuries, bearing wrongs patiently, and praying for the living and the dead. That is, we try to relieve the suffering others, because we are motivated by the love of Christ, who came to be among us in order to save us by His Cross and Resurrection. Jesus Christ saved us by entering into our suffering, so we are moved to enter into the suffering of others. As St. Augustine said, “He pronounces those blessed who succour the wretched, because they are rewarded in themselves being delivered from all misery; as it follows, for they shall obtain mercy.”
May 13 is the 105th anniversary of the appearance of the Blessed Virgin Mary to three children, Lucia, Jacinta, and Francisco, at the Cova da Iria in Fatima, Portugal. Sr. Lucia died on February 13, 2005. St. Jacinta and St. Francisco died during the Spanish Influenza Epidemic and were canonized on May 13, 2017. The visions were formally approved by the bishop of Leiria, Portugal, as “worthy of credence,” however, as private revelations, none of the Christian faithful are required to believe in these apparitions.
On May 13, 1917, while tending sheep, the three children had a vision. Sr. Lucia described it like this, “We beheld a Lady all dressed in white. She was more brilliant than the sun and radiated a light more clear and intense than a crystal glass filled with sparkling water, when the ways of the burning sun shine through it.” She requested that the children return to that spot every month for six months. She told them that they would go to heaven and asked if they were willing to bear sufferings in reparation for sin and the conversion of sinners. She told them, “Pray the rosary every day, in order to obtain peace for the world and the end of the war” (World War I was going on at this time).
In June, Lucia asked her to take the children to heaven, and the Blessed Mother said, “I will take Jacinta and Francisco soon. But you are to stay here some time longer. Jesus wishes to make use of you to make me known and loved. He wants to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart.” In July, the Lady promised that she would reveal her identity in October and perform a miracle, and she also told them something that they weren’t yet allowed to share. Sr. Lucia revealed the first two parts of the secret in her memoirs, written between 1935 and 1944, and the final part in a sealed letter that was eventually passed to the Holy Father. Pope St. John Paul II had the letter brought to Sr. Lucia in April of 2000 to confirm that it was the same letter. In May, Pope St. John Paul II revealed the final part of the secret.
The first part was a vision of hell, and then she told them that God wishes to save poor sinners from hell through devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. She said that the war (World War I) would end, but that another war would start, and that Russia would spread her errors throughout the world. She asked for Russia to be consecrated to her Immaculate Heart so that it could be converted and there could be a time of peace. There would be much suffering, but “in the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph.”
On March 25, 1984, Pope St. John Paul II, united with the bishops of the world, consecrated all men and women to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, while specifically mentioning Russia, and Sr. Lucia personally confirmed, in a letter to the Holy Father, that “it has been done just as Our Lady asked.” The third part of the secret was a vision of the suffering and deaths of many clergy, religious, and faithful. As Archbishop Bertone said, “She (Lucia) repeated her conviction that the vision of Fatima concerns above all the struggle of atheistic Communism against the Church and against Christians, and describes the terrible sufferings of the victims of the faith in the twentieth century.”
To conclude our story of Fatima, however, the children were arrested and weren’t allowed to come to the site on August 13th, but the Lady appeared to them a few days later. She asked that a chapel be built there. In September, a large crowd gathered with the children, and our Lady said that she would appear with St. Joseph and with the Lord in October.
On October 13, she said, “I am the Lady of the Rosary. Continue always to pray the rosary ever day. The war is going to end, and the soldiers will soon return to their homes.” Lucia told everyone to look at the sun, and many people present, though not everyone, reported seeing the sun change colors, spin, and dance in the sky, and the children saw a vision of St. Joseph, the Child Jesus, and our Lady. For more information, see Jimmy Akin’s articles, “Getting Fatima Right,” and “Secret No More,” and Sr. Lucia’s memoirs, Fatima in Lucia’s Own Words.
In 1925, our Lady appeared to Sr. Lucia again and asked her to promote the Five First Saturdays devotion. Our Lady asked that people go to confession, receive Holy Communion, say a rosary while meditating on the mysteries and with the intention of making reparation for sins, for five first Saturdays in a row. To those who do this, she promised to assist them at the hour of death with all the graces necessary for the salvation of their souls.
Currently, there’s a lot of fear about war and the end of the world. Some doubt that Our Lady’s requests have been fulfilled because there are still wars in the world, and some connect Fatima to reports about a coming “three days of darkness” and “the Illumination of Conscience.” Whether these other reports are true or not, and they haven’t been approved by the Church, the message of Fatima stands. We ought to pray for conversion, offer ourselves to the Lord through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and stay close to the Eucharist and the sacrament of Confession. The Lord “will not leave you orphans” (Jn 14:18), and He “is with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill. – Matthew 5:6
If the “mourning” in the previous beatitude refers spiritually to mourning over sin and the harm that sin causes to our relationship with God and to our neighbors, then it naturally follows that we should desire the opposite of sin. Sin means choosing to do something that is against the will of God, so righteousness means doing the will of God. Mourning for our sins causes us to hunger and thirst for righteousness.
St. Ambrose said, “As soon as I have wept for my sins, I begin to hunger and thirst after righteousness. He who is afflicted with any sore disease, hath no hunger.” St. Ambrose is using the analogy of catching a cold or getting sick to explain the affect of sin. Some diseases cause us to lose our appetite, and sin causes us to lose our appetite, our desire, for righteousness. Every time we sin we increase our hunger for that sin. Many people think that temptation to sin builds up within us until it overflows, so we have to indulge our desires a little bit every once in a while or we’ll end up binging when we can’t stand it any more. This idea is explored in the movie, The Purge, where there’s one day a year where nothing is illegal, which is supposed to make things safer the rest of the year by allowing people to indulge themselves. However, indulging our desires doesn’t lesson them, it strengthens them. When we indulge ourselves we get an immediate reward, pleasure, which incentivizes that behavior and makes us more likely to do it again. The best way to fight sin is not to indulge it at all, but instead to build up virtues that will leads us to what is truly good. As St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “Let us walk honestly, as in the daylight, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and sexual immorality, not in contention and envy. Instead, be clothed with the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in its desires” (emphasis mine, Rm 13:13-14).
St. Jerome said, “It is not enough that we desire righteousness, unless we also suffer hunger for it, by which expression we may understand that we are never righteousness enough, but always hunger after works of righteousness.” When we sin we increase our desire for sin and risk falling more and more into sin. However, the opposite can also be true. We should never be satisfied with the level of righteousness or holiness that we have, but we should always hunger and thirst for more. When I get hungry, I can satisfy that desire by eating, but I don’t stay satisfied; I will get hungry again. We should not become satisfied with where we are, so that we are constantly hungering and thirsting for righteousness. In other words, it’s not an on/off switch where we choose sin or righteousness. It’s more like a dimmer switch, where the light continues to increase, as St. John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was the Word. He was with God in the beginning... Life was in Him, and Life was the light of men...The true Light, which illuminates every man, was coming into this world” (Jn 1:1-2, 4, & 9).
St. Augustine said, “He speaks of food with which they shall be filled at this present; to wit, that food of which the Lord spake, ‘My food is to do the will of my Father, that is, righteousness, and that water of which whoever drinks it shall be in him a well of water springing up to life eternal.” We hunger and thirst for it because we know that we don’t have it, but we need it. What we truly hunger and thirst for is communion with God Himself, because that is what we’re made for. So let us turn to the One who can satisfy that longing.
Fr. Bryan became pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes on July 3, 2017. Read his bio here.