St Gregory of Nyssa, Beatitudes, Blog 4, Blessed are the clean of heart and the merciful

The next rung on the ladder of the Beatitudes as we climb towards salvation, toward the improvement of our souls, instructs us: “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after justice, for they shall have their fill.”

Many translations render this as “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness,” which is similar to justice.

These sermons by St Gregory of Nyssa are cited twice in the Catholic Catechism in its discussion of the Commandment, DO NOT COVET, DO NOT ENVY.  St Gregory of Nyssa mentions envy in this Beatitude as well: “Some people covet glory, or wealth, or prominence.  Others lap up envy like some noxious food, and there are others (more holy) who desire things whose nature is good.”  He continues, “the Word calls blessed those who hunger not without qualification, but those whose desire is directed toward true justice.”

Those who hunger and thirst for justice need never be filled, the possession of virtue “always offers its disciples the fulness of its delights.  Therefore, God the Word promises to those who hunger for these things that they shall be filled, and in being filled their desire for virtue will not be dulled but rather kindled anew.”[1]

BLESSED ARE THE MERCIFUL

Then we climb up to the next rung, where we are assured: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”   St Gregory of Nyssa compares this climb of the Beatitudes to the ladder in Jacob’s vision, “a ladder stretching from earth to the heights of heaven, with God standing on it,” a climb representing “an unceasing desire for higher things.”

When we climb this ladder of the Beatitudes, we need to remember that as God is merciful to us, so we should be merciful to our neighbor.  This is illustrated in the parable of the king and his wicked servant, where the king forgives a debt of thousands of dollars to his servant, yet that same servant throttles another servant because he cannot repay a debt of only a few dollars.

Without mercy we cannot love our neighbor as ourselves.  As St Gregory of Nyssa teaches us, “unless mercy soften the soul, man cannot heal the ills of his neighbor, since mercy is the opposite of cruelty.”  The hard and cruel man ignores those needing help, whereas the merciful man by his attitude is predisposed to show sympathy to those who suffer or are needy.  “Mercy is the loving disposition towards those who suffer distress.  For as unkindness and cruelty have their origin in hate, so mercy springs from love, without which it could not exist.”

“Mercy is the loving disposition towards those who suffer distress… For as unkindness and cruelty have their origin in hate, so mercy springs from love, without which it could not exist.  In mercy you will find an intense loving disposition combined with sorrow.  Everyone, friends and foes alike, seek a share in a man’s good luck, but those whose hearts are ruled by charity want to share his misfortunes.”

“Mercy is intensified charity.”  Charity and love in Scriptures are interchangeable.  “A man of merciful disposition is truly blessed, since he has reached the summit of virtue.”  “Mercy is a voluntary sorrow that joins itself to the sufferings of others,” just as we should rejoice the successes of our neighbor, so we should also grieve at his losses.”

St Gregory of Nyssa again mentions envy as being counter this Beatitude as well.  If all men were merciful, if all men were generous, if all men were kind, there would be not hatefulness.  “Envy would be futile, hate would die out, remembrance of injuries would be banished along with lies, fraud, and war, all of which are the offspring of covetousness.”  “Wrath is a bitter despot, and so is envy,” and “greed surpasses all tyrannies in venom.”

The rich should treat the poor with mercy.  “The rich man who fritters away his life in luxuries and does not show mercy to the poor in distress before his gate has cut himself off from mercy.  When he asks for mercy he is not heard, not because a drop of mercy would diminish the great fountain of Paradise, but because the drop of mercy cannot mix with cruelty.”

“Mercy is the parent of kindness and the pledge of charity, mercy is the bond of all loving disposition.”[2]

BLESSED ARE THE CLEAN OF HEART FOR THEY SHALL SEE GOD

Moses is warned by God on the holy mountain when he asks to see God’s face, “No man can see the Lord and live.”  Yet, as St Gregory of Nyssa observes, “to see the Lord is eternal life,” “the man who does not see God does not see life, and “God is promised to the vision of those whose heart has been purified.”  Having climbed to the Beatitude that proclaims, “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God”, St Gregory looks down the slopes of the holy mountain: “When from the sublime words of the Lord resembling the summit of a mountain I looked down into the ineffable depths of His thoughts, my mind had the experience of a man who gazes from a high ridge into the immense sea below him.”[3]

This sermon of St Gregory of Nyssa is quoted in the following section of the Catholic Catechism on the commandment, Do Not Covet.  “Desire for true happiness frees man from his immoderate attachment to the goods of this world so that he can find his fulfillment in the vision and beatitude of God. ‘The promise [of seeing God] surpasses all beatitude…. In Scripture, to see is to possess…. Whoever sees God has obtained all the goods of which he can conceive.’ “[4]

Our translation differs.  “Now this promise of seeing God is so great that it transcends the utmost limits of beatitude.  For what else could one desire after such a good, since he possesses all things in the One he contemplates? . . . The man who sees God possesses in this act of seeing all there is of the things that are good.”  St Gregory of Nyssa continues, “With these we shall enjoy the everlasting Kingdom of unceasing happiness,” now we are to pray without ceasing, then we will praise without ceasing.  “We shall see the true light and hear the sweet voice of the Spirit, we shall exult perpetually in all that is good in the inaccessible glory.”

St Gregory of Nyssa teaches us that just as we seek bodily health, so we should seek spiritual health by seeking purity of heart.  What good would it do for us to “sing praises of health” while ruining our health by eating and drinking junk food and soda pop?   As we need to show discipline in our diet, so too we should show self-discipline in our spiritual life.  “The Lord does not say it is blessed to know something about God, but to have God present within oneself.”  “If you wash off by living a good life the filth of sin that has been stuck on your heart like plaster, the Divine Beauty will again shine forth in you.”

There is much more poetry of the soul in this sermon of St Gregory of Nyssa, we encourage you to read this book for yourself, you will read of visions of “purity, sanctity, simplicity, and other such luminous reflections of the Divine Nature in which we can contemplate God.”  St Gregory ends this sermon with a prayer, “Let us become clean of heart, so we may become blessed when the Divine Image is formed in us through purity of life, in Christ Jesus Our Lord, to whom be glory for ever and ever.  Amen.”[5]

[1] St Gregory of Nyssa, “On Beatitudes,” Sermon 4, in The Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes, translated by Hilda C Graff, (New York: Paulist Press, 1954), pp. 117-129.

[2] St Gregory of Nyssa, “On Beatitudes,” Sermon 5, pp. 130-134.

[3] St Gregory of Nyssa, “On Beatitudes,” Sermon 6, pp. 143-144.

[4] http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_P8X.HTM , section 2548.

[5] St Gregory of Nyssa, “On Beatitudes,” Sermon 6, pp. 145-153.

About Bruce Strom 154 Articles
I was born and baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. I made the mistake of reading works written by Luther, he has a bad habit of writing seemingly brilliant theology, but then every few pages he stops and calls the Pope often very vulgar names, what sort of Christian does that? Currently I am a seeker, studying church history and the writings of the Church Fathers. I am involved in the Catholic divorce ministries in our diocese, and have finished the diocese two-year Catholic Lay Ministry program. Also I took a year of Orthodox off-campus seminary courses. This blog explores the beauty of the Early Church and the writings and history of the Church through the centuries. I am a member of a faith community, for as St Augustine notes in his Confessions, you cannot truly be a Christian unless you worship God in the walls of the Church, unless persecution prevents this. This blog is non-polemical, so I really would rather not reveal my denomination here.

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