St. Augustine on Beatitudes

Thought I would put up a post on one of my favorite units for the juniors: a quick run through St. Augustine’s commentary on the Beatitudes.  It will keep the blog moving while I slash through mid-term exams.

[Ideally this goes up in a chart, but that won’t do for this format.  There’s an easter egg built into this presentation; see if you can catch it before I spoil at the end.]

Before we dive into the beatitudes, we need to get two very simple basics out of the way.  First, what does “blessed” mean?  I can send this question around the room a dozen times before my students give up and make me tell them.  There’s so much religious-y baggage draped all over that word!

The Latin beatus means, very simple, happy.  Take beatus and slap on an abstract noun ending, and you get the noun beatitudo.  It’s the same way you get fortitude, solitude, magnitude, mansuetude, etc.  So the beatitudes are literally the happinesses.  Or, if you prefer your humor low-brow and schlocky, the happytudes.  As ethics is the practical science of happiness, our last end, the beatitudes are an ethical program for living the happy life and attaining happiness.  Naturally this puts an interesting spin on some of the beatitudes–mourning? being persecuted?

The second is like the first: what does “poor in spirit” mean?  I hope my readers will forgive me for asking so elementary a question; I think it would disturb them to know that very, very few of my students–many of them products of long-term Catholic education–know the answer to this.  Every year I ask it, the first answer given is a negative: a character defect, a small-mindedness, a vice or a form of sinfulness.  I have since given up on staring in horror at this answer.  It proceeds, I think, from a simple association: spirit is a good thing to have, poverty is a lack of it, ergo etc.

The answer, in case this horrifying ignorance exists in the adult world as well, is humility.  To be poor in spirit is to be humble.  Never mind that my students don’t really know what that is either–I’ll teach it in context here and again in the spring when we read Pieper’s Four Cardinal Virtues.

[There’s another fun basic to do–how many beatitudes are there?–but I know better than to conduct an aristeia in a blog post.  I’ll save it for another day, when I write about “How Many Commandments are in the Ten Commandments (Srsly)?”]

Now St. Augustine takes the Beatitudes as no random list or set of descriptors.  For the Doctor of Grace, Jesus is presenting an itinerary of moral progress–an 8-step program, if you will.  This is a very common approach to the beatitudes and one that, while perhaps initially surprising, is quite persuasive on review.  Or at least I’ve been teaching it for so long that it seems natural to me now.

First St. Augustine looks at the text:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall  be comforted

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven

The first level of his commentary focuses on the a-clauses, the “Blessed are” phrases.

First in order to become happy, we must be poor in spirit–humble, not puffed up, not certain in our own perfection.  It is a recognition that we possess a counterfeit happiness, that while we have often seemed to be happy we are not really so.  Humility is a cliche about Christianity for a reason: it is literally impossible to do anything to or for the person who is convinced they already have it all.  This is why Aristotle thought that ethics could not be taught to the young–we need to live enough, and fail enough under our own power, to realize that it’s not others (parents, say) stopping us from being happy.  We need to ruin our own lives enough to say, “Enough! I don’t know what I’m doing!”  I sally forth like Don Quixote to prove him wrong about this, but he’s not wrong.

Step Two: Only once I realize I don’t have the answers on being happy can I learn them–I become meek.  Meekness is not weakness (trading in goofy slogans is a hazard of the job), but coachabililty, teachability.  Many students, once they are put on the right track with humility, see meekness as a synonym.  They are not far wrong; here they serve as a kind of negative-positive couple.  By recognizing my lack or need (humility), I become capable of listening to others (meek)–not as a robot or a slave, but as someone who earnestly seeks the answers.  That’s the more general description.  St. Augustine ties this directly to learning from Scripture and not thinking it is a silly waste of time (like most of my students).

Step Three: Having begun to really learn for the first time what happiness is, I mourn.  St. Augustine focuses on mourning over the loss of the highest good, the last end.  I learn that I’m not happy because of the “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll” that I love so much.  But I think it’s not just mourning over losing the highest good; there is also sorrow that I will have to give up those lesser goods.  I don’t want to!  I like my sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll!  But I come to regard them as evils and I must tear myself away from them if I want to be happy.  This is the moment of interior conversion.

Step Four: Now is the stage of labor, when I hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Time to weed the garden of the soul and root out all those attachments which ensnare me in their, as St. Augustine wonderfully puts it, “pestilential sweetness.”  This is the hard part, the sweat equity, the rubber-meets-the-road.  Stages three and four are most eloquently diagnosed and analyzed throughout St. Augustine’s works; the anthropology here is the foundation for all his doctrine of grace.  Read Confessions!

Step Five: Now faced with the impossible task of overcoming our attachments, we come to learn our need for assistance.  By showing mercy, we will receive it–we must assist others where we are strong and they are weak, and we will receive like assistance in return.  Obviously the most important assistance is the divine.  But this is also the realm of mutual assistance–it is the stage of true friendship.  One of St. Augustine’s sobering reflections is how we are bad for each other (especially in childhood).  Consider how often we enable each other in our vices, how we find ourselves slipping back into behavior and attitudes we want to avoid just because the people around us make it easy to do so.  This socialization into sin is depressingly common.  And yet here, at the fifth stage, we must also know that it doesn’t have to be that way!  We can strengthen our brethren; we can make virtue easier.  This is true friendship–the mutual pursuit of virtue.  We are all in this together.

Step Six: After all the previous steps (1-5) we become pure in heart.  Our labor effects an inner purification that allows us to see the goal toward which we are striving.  What we could not see at the beginning, and what we learned about from others along the way, we now see for ourselves.  Like seeing the finish line of a race, this spurs us on the way.  This is the lesson that our society refuses to see: we get better.  Being good and being happy is not always supposed to be hard.  We’re not stuck in a hopeless spin-cycle of self-destruction.  By learning and turning and laboring and helping others, we make progress.  How many of our heroes and heroines on screen or page actually do this?  Why don’t we want to believe that we can make moral progress?

Step Seven: And only now do we become capable of peace.  We make peace with ourselves, with others, and with God.  Peace does not come through superior firepower, superior foreign policy, really high walls or deporting people en masse.  Real peace can only come from the justice that comes from doing steps 1-6.  We must be transformed to be agents of peace, and we must pursue justice with others and render aid and see our last end and pursue it with all our heart.  Then there is the peace the world cannot give, and we live the freedom of the sons of God.

Wait, Where’s Eight?: There are eight beatitudes (at least if you ask St. Augustine).  But the eighth has the same reward, kingdom of heaven, that the first has.  It takes us back to the beginning!  The pursuit of happiness is not like leveling up in a video game.  There is always a need for humility, and being teachable, and turning from our attachments, and doing the hard work of tearing free of them, and rendering assistance to others.  Mother Theresa didn’t suddenly reach a day where she realized she didn’t need to be humble anymore.  So this progress, which is real progress, also has the nature of a cycle.  Call it a spiral.  Returning to the beginning but moving upward all the same.

There is also the grim reality that successfully pursuing this happiness, and becoming virtuous, and a peacemaker, will not make me popular.  We like to think that the world loves such people; sometimes that’s true, but only insofar as such people conform to the world’s expectations.  Plenty of people think Mother Theresa is a scam and a plague and a blight.  The world will not love you for being a peacemaker, unless you happen to profit the world thereby.  Things didn’t turn out so well for the guy who taught us this path.  The world killed Jesus.

Two More Levels: I’m going to wrap this post for length, but St. Augustine has more!  I guess I can save it for a follow-up post.  Level 2: the gifts of the Holy Spirit correspond to these stages.  There are some really nice insights that go along with that.  Level 3: the reward half of each beatitude is a different way of naming the kingdom of heaven.  Next time I need some fast content, watch out!  Although it really does look better as a massive chart on the board.

Easter Egg: Did anyone catch it?  You might have to crack open a New Testament to spot it.  St. Augustine has swapped the second and third beatitudes as they are found in St. Matthew’s Gospel.  As I ask my students each year: does it make a difference?  Will the program not work with the correct ordering of meek and mourn?

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