St. Augustine on Beatitudes (II)

I threatened a cheap follow-up to finish talking about St. Augustine’s approach to the beatitudes.  Here it is!

Recall that St. Augustine took the Beatitudes as an 8-stage program for the moral life: the itinerary to happiness.

  1. Become Poor in Spirit (Humble)
  2. Become Meek (Teachable)
  3. Mourn over the attachments holding us back from happiness
  4. Labor to tear away from those attachments
  5. Be merciful to others on the same journey
  6. Become pure of heart
  7. Become a peacemaker
  8. Return to the beginning (and face persecution)

To really get St. Augustine (and Christianity), you have to understand that he thinks all this is impossible.  We have too much blindness and an invincibly stubborn will; the flesh is weak and the spirit really isn’t all that willing.  Throw out Pelagius and read more St. Paul.

Luckily, God is invested in our success, and gives us divine assistance.  Each stage of progress is enabled by a specific gift of the Holy Spirit.  The gifts are listed by the prophet Isaiah starting with Wisdom and ending with Fear of the Lord.  St. Augustine takes this as their order of excellence and, since he is charting a course from here to heaven, reverses the order to match the beatitudes.  The correspondence is striking.

To become humble–to recognize that we are not actually happy right now–requires the break-through grace of fear of the Lord.  It is the only antidote to thinking we have all the answers.  There is nothing I can do as a teacher, or that parents can do, or that anybody can do, to break through that blindness.  God has to start it.

To become teachable requires the gift of piety.  Even after we shake off the initial blindness in stage one, we still scoff at Christianity as having the answers we need.  St. Augustine, quite autobiographically, links this to scoffing at Scripture.  As a teacher I think of it in more general terms.

Cool aside on piety: while we do often use it in a religious sense, its core meaning is the proper attitude toward our parents.  From there it takes on its religious meaning: to relate to God the way we should relate to our parents.  Fourth commandment stuff again–neat-o.

To mourn over our attachments requires the gift of knowledge.  It’s not enough to employ human reason at this stage.  There are many attachments that we are so blind to, we don’t even realize they are attachments.  These aren’t the ones we fight, they are the ones we rationalize.  How could you convince or reason with an adolescent boy that video games are stopping him from being happy?  It’s not just that he refuses to let them go (that comes later); it’s that he genuinely does not see they are a problem.  And in a way, they are not–it’s the attachment that is.  The attachment could be anything–writing, painting, playing football, whatever.  Sometimes we need God to shout through our deafness and burn brightly to take away our blindness.

To accomplish the labor of rooting out our attachments requires the gift of fortitude.  Even knowing they stop us from being happy, our wills are so sick that we cling to our attachments.  We can’t let go by human effort alone; only God could do such a thing.  Anyone who has ever actually tried to change a deep-rooted vice knows that it is impossible.  Failure can seem perpetual.

And that brings us to the stage of mercy, for we know we cannot do this.  Here St. Augustine assigns the gift of counsel.  I used to think this was a bit of a stretch, but it makes a surprising amount of sense to me now.  Counsel is a deliberation on how to reach an end.  Well, our end is happiness–how do we get there?  Or, more specific to this program, how do we get through this stage of impossible labor?  We require a divine intervention on our deliberation here, because the solution to our problem is to go outside of ourselves and try to secure the happiness of others.  We will receive the divine assistance we need by giving assistance to others.

The inner purification that is effected by stages 1-5 makes us pure in heart, but to see God requires more than just our successes.  We need the gift of understanding, by which we can see directly that end, happiness, toward which we strive.  Until now that has been a matter of faith; by a divine gift it starts to become a matter of sight.

And at last we come to the peacemaker stage, which requires the gift of wisdom.  Wisdom is that virtue by which we order life rightly.  If we ordered our life according to human wisdom alone we would create a special kind of hell for ourselves.  In order to reach happiness we have to achieve a right ordering internally, with others, and most importantly with God.  God shares His wisdom with us so that this can be done.

But wait!  There’s more!

St. Augustine now rolls back through the second half of each beatitude, and exhorts us to see that each is a name for the same thing: heaven, salvation, eternal life, happiness.


Eternal life is…

  1. a kingdom of heaven
  2. an inheritance from a Father who promises us good things
  3. comfort for all our sorrows
  4. a banquet of justice (yay Eucharist!)
  5. mercy (rest from all our labors)
  6. the vision of God
  7. transformation into children of God
  8. a kingdom of heaven

You can do some neat stuff by rolling in the insights of the other layers of interpretation to elaborate on these aspects of heaven, but I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.  Besides, this was supposed to be a cheap follow-up, not a new Big Project.

And that’s, in a nutshell, St. Augustine on the beatitudes.  I’ve greatly profited from teaching it over the last few years.  It’s a compact little masterpiece.

As an appendix, I’ll compress and distort a sprawling chart:

1st Stage – Humility – Fear of the Lord – Kingdom of Heaven

2nd Stage – Meekness – Piety – Inheritance

3rd Stage – Mourn – Knowledge – Comfort

4th Stage – Labor – Fortitude – Satisfaction

5th Stage – Mercy – Counsel – Mercy

6th Stage – Purity – Understanding – Vision of God

7th Stage – Peace – Wisdom – Children of God

8th Stage – Begin again to obtain the Kingdom of Heaven

The end?

Aha! you say.  I remember the easter egg from the last post!  St. Augustine flipped some beatitudes around.  Without doing that, he can’t make the gifts of the Holy Spirit line up so beautifully.  What now?

I don’t know, you tell me.  Does it matter?

2 thoughts on “St. Augustine on Beatitudes (II)

  1. “To become humble–to recognize that we are not actually happy right now–requires the break-through grace of fear of the Lord. It is the only antidote to thinking we have all the answers. There is nothing I can do as a teacher, or that parents can do, or that anybody can do, to break through that blindness. God has to start it.”

    100% true, and especially so of boys of a certain transitional age, who, even at their most benign, are simply steeped in self-absorption. Breaking through this very natural (and naturally infuriating) inability to see the effects of one’s actions on anyone is very much the work of the Holy Spirit. On days when I am not giving the teaching in religion class, I sit behind the back row of boys and implore the Holy Spirit to make up for our deficiencies and break through to the minds and hearts of these guys. Grace is necessary, because nature is really stupid and pretty tone-deaf at this age. God bless ’em.


    1. It’s an extremely liberating realization as a teacher. It’s also a neat moment when you tell them this and, at a certain age, they can see that it is true. There are not many BOOM powerful moments but that’s one of em.


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