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The Beatitudes: Generosity and Happiness

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

We might remind ourselves that there are two sides to the Gospel ethic. On the one hand, there are many obstacles that we have to remove, temptations we must overcome. On the other hand, despite having constantly to war against our native impulses, the evil spirit and the machinations of the world, we are also bidden to give ourselves to God.

Both elements of our spiritual life are essential. We have native tendencies in us—the passions—that tend to tyrannize us. What we talk about as the Seven Capital Sins, I like to call our seven basic tendencies as fallen human beings. We also know that to ignore the fact that we must war against ourselves and against the seductions of evil all around us would be folly. On the other hand, we are also to practice virtue. Our focus here is on that aspect—what we sometimes call the positive side of the Gospel ethic.

This second side of our Christian responsibility is synthesized in the Beatitudes, which our Savior gave us. There are certain classic passages in Christ’s teaching that remain the cornerstones of our lives. Such, for example, is the Lord’s Prayer; such is Christ’s discourse in the sixth chapter of John when He promised the Eucharist; such is His long homily at the Last Supper before He died; such are the Beatitudes.

There are two versions of the Beatitudes in the Gospels; one of four and the other of eight. Over the centuries, Christian wisdom has speculated on how the four are really the eight, and how the eight can be synthesized into four. We shall concentrate on the eight Beatitudes by first looking briefly at their significance in themselves, and how what we call the Beatitudes are in many ways the Magna Carta of Christian perfection. So much so that the Second Vatican Council, which spoke more than all the other councils put together on the religious life, describes religious life as a “lifetime commitment to practicing the Beatitudes.”

Why are they significant? Because they are uniquely Christian principles of human conduct. Winston Churchill, on one occasion (you know he was capable of summarizing a lot in a few words), observed sagely how the British Empire could not survive for one week if it were based on the Beatitudes. Right he was! Secular society is not expected to, nor does it, operate on the Beatitudes.

The norms set down in the Beatitudes go far beyond the dialogue in which Christ confirmed the Decalogue. The Beatitudes are its fulfillment. The Ten Commandments given on Mt. Sinai summarize pre-Christian morality. The Beatitudes assume the Decalogue and they go beyond it. One reason the Beatitudes are able, humanly speaking, to make such heavy demands on human nature is because God, when He became man, gave man the grace to go beyond the Decalogue.

The Beatitudes are a perfect synthesis of Christ’s own life; they are, if you wish, a summary of Christ’s own practice of virtue. When we say that perfection consists in following Christ and ask what that means, we can answer that it means practicing the Beatitudes, which Christ first practiced and then preached.

The Beatitudes exemplify the paradoxical character of Christianity. We speak of Christian mysteries, and so they are. They are not fully comprehensible to the human mind. We are told, “He that loses his life will find it” and “Those who are great, but become small, will inherit the kingdom.” We are told that God has chosen the “little things,” the “foolish things,” to confound the strong and the wise. These are all paradoxes. But what is a paradox? It is an apparent contradiction. I like to identify mystery with paradox, and say that our faith is full of paradoxes.

In the Beatitudes, the paradox is happiness, which Christ promises if a person does certain things that naturally—or humanly speaking—are the very opposite of what we would expect to bring happiness. In short, He tells us to do things that we don’t naturally enjoy and then tells us we are going to have joy. “Come, come,” we say, “Lord, now what do you mean?” “What?” He tells us, “You have heard the word supernatural haven’t you?” “Yes, of course, Lord.” “Well, that is what I mean. The super part of supernatural is that which I give unexpectedly by your giving up certain things. You sacrifice pleasure and I will give you joy.”

There are many translations of the Beatitudes. One begins with, “How happy . . .” Why? Because it implies how unexpectedly happy “are the poor in spirit.” One difficulty in speaking on the foundations of our faith is that, in the nature of things, we have heard such things so often, we have read so much about them, we have prayed about these things so many times, we are tempted to think they are like relearning a multiplication table. No! Every time we direct our faith-inspired minds to these mysteries we learn more about them.

How happy are the poor in spirit, theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.

This Beatitude assumes that someone either already has certain possessions or gifts and is nevertheless poor in spirit, or that he does not have certain things but is detached from what he doesn’t have. Do you know we can be attached to things we don’t have? Talk about being strange creatures! Are we ever odd! In either case, poverty of spirit is “detachment of spirit.”

I am not sure which class of people finds it harder to practice this Beatitude. I suppose, though, that it is those who have more, de facto, and are nevertheless bidden by Christ to be poor in spirit; they had better be, otherwise they won’t be happy. They must be detached from what they have.

Like what? Like a good mind. Having taught some very intelligent men over the years, I tell them, especially those who have troubles with their cerebration, “Look, maybe you have never thought of it this way. Do you know the heaviest cross you have?” They are not sure. “It is your very good mind. You have such a sharp intellect, it is causing you all kinds of pain. You see problems where other people don’t even notice any reason for a problem.”

We must be detached even from such things as intelligence—skills of any kind. These include social abilities like affability or ability in speech. Some, as I have discovered, have good minds but they just go into a tangle when they face an audience. They get tongue-tied. In my younger days, before my ordination, I taught speech. What a pathetic sight to see a first-class mind looking at its shoes in addressing an audience. But some can talk, write, pray. We all must pray, but some of us do it easier than others.

We are required, then, to be detached in spirit so that we use the gifts we have as God wants us to use them, and to enjoy them only insofar as the Lord wants us to enjoy them, but never to take complacency in any creature. And, of course, we tend to take complacency in the creature that we most enjoy.

We are, therefore, not to dwell on what we have. Not to think ourselves better than somebody else because we have more than someone else has. Why? Because whatever we have is a gift. We are not to parade our gifts. Oh, is that ever hard! As my fourth grade teacher told me—(God bless her) she is still living and tells me she is praying for me. I tell her, “Sister Georgine, keep praying!” She took me aside one day after class and she said, “John, don’t be a showoff.”

First then, “poor in spirit” means not taking complacency (and this is not easy), so that we don’t dwell on what we’ve got or what we have done; it is often the last citadel that virtue will conquer.

Happy are the gentle, they shall have the earth for their heritage.

As you read this, you are probably tempted to say, “Lord, thanks, but I am not particularly interested in the earth for my heritage.” Before we address that, let us consider what “gentleness” means. The word is not easily defined because gentleness is not much respected in today’s world. It is the aggressive personality who gets all he can out of life. He is the hero of our literature.

Gentleness is strength restrained by love. Only strong people can be gentle. Others can seem to be, but they are not. I don’t know much about art criticism, but I have read some volumes in the field. One world-famous art critic said that if you want to depict strength of power or energy, always picture it poised. And he compared two images. In on picture, a huge many-ton boulder lies at the bottom of a canyon. In the other picture, the boulder is just on the edge at the top of the canyon, and you are almost afraid it is going to fall even as you look at the picture. The second image is strength, power held back.

Gentleness, therefore, is not weakness; it is just the opposite. It means that someone has hurt me but I don’t hurt back. How many times in public I have been told things when everything in me cries out to tear a person to shreds. Especially when you recognize a mediocre mind. But you don’t, not because you can’t, but because love keeps you from doing that which nature urges you to do.

Now to the promise of having the earth for our heritage, or whatever expressions other translators use. According to the Fathers of the Church, who comment very much on the Beatitudes, this means the ability, through God’s grace, to prevail over others. Gentleness conquers, gentleness wins, gentleness overcomes, gentleness prevails over the hardest hearts, over the most humanly impossible situations (and, as you know, all the impossible situations are human situations). To prevail over human wills; there is no more difficult conquest on earth. The secret is restraint, gentleness.

Happy are those who mourn; they shall be comforted.

Now as you know, there is trouble with our English language. Did you know that English is not a Catholic language? And by now it is getting to be a very secularized language. Because, while the labels remain quite constant, the meaning of what’s behind the label is determined by the persons who use the language. If the culture that uses the language is a believing culture, the words or the labels will have the corresponding meaning. As the culture becomes less and less believing, or believing in things that are not Christian, the labels may remain the same but the meaning changes. As you discover in conversation with intelligent secularists, although we use the same words, we are not saying the same things.

Of all the paradoxes, “Happy those who mourn, they shall be comforted” is, humanly speaking, the nearest to a contradiction that we can conceive. It is like saying, “Happy are those who are unhappy.” Clearly, we have to distinguish, and even in distinguishing, we are stuck with the same lexicon. We have to keep using these same words. We must cut off, trim here and add there, and say we don’t quite mean this but something a little different.

It may help to distinguish between sorrow and sadness. Christ does not mean “happy those who are sad.” Sadness is mourning, but it is either mourning over things that don’t deserve to be mourned over, or it is going beyond the extent to which they were supposed to be mourned. It is either mourning over the wrong object or excessive mourning.

Sorrow, on the other hand, is grief over what deserves to be mourned (and mourned in the right way). The Gospels give us a fine description of what is to be mourned in the two episodes where we are told that Our Lord wept. He wept over Jerusalem and at Lazarus’ tomb. Why did Christ weep over Jerusalem? Because Jerusalem was sinning! What, then, is a correct object for mourning? Sin. Christ Himself, the Son of God, not only mourned over Jerusalem, but what happened in Gethsemane? He was in positive agony. We say, with some justification, this was in anticipating His sufferings, but mainly it was due to sin—our sin.

At Lazarus’ tomb, Christ sorrowed over Lazarus’ death. We, too, sorrow over the loss of people we love. God does some uncanny things. He puts lovable people into our lives. And, leave it up to God, you know what He always does? He takes them away.

What are we promised? Not comfort in some cheap sense. But comfort that brings strength or fortitude to bear patiently with the sorrows God puts into our lives. It is, therefore, not wrong to mourn. Is that news? I hope it isn’t. There are times we should give in to our sorrow. But we should also know when to turn away from it.

Happy are those who hunger and thirst for what is right, for they shall be satisfied.

As you know, you can re-read the Gospels by just accenting the different words. You can practically write ten Gospels for each one of the four. I like this accent: they shall be satisfied. 

We have all sorts of desires. “Hunger and thirst” is simply symbolic language for desires. You name the desires and we’ve got them. And it is just as well that most people don’t know what we desire—we would lose a lot of friends. Being honest with ourselves, we know that not all of our desires—these hungers and thirsts—are for what is right. Consequently, truth in the following of Christ consists in desiring and then choosing what is right. And what is the beauty of that? Ah, how sweet this is: we will get rid of all our frustrations. Honest! Do you know why? Because all of our desires will be satisfied. Isn’t that wonderful?

Frustration is unfulfilled desires. Frequently, the trouble is not with having desires—that is what life this side of Heaven is—desires, as Heaven is their fulfillment. The trouble is in what we desire. Heaven is the fulfillment of desires, provided we desire what is right. And that is not easy because there a lot of things that clamor for satisfaction, and so seductively present themselves as appealing. “Won’t you choose me?” Then a smile, then a little tinkle of a bell, then a fragrance. We are torn. Whereas the only question that should ever be on our minds is not how appealing a thing is, or how sweet, or fragrant, or melodious, to use symbolic terms, but how right it is. Having right desires, we can relax; they will all be satisfied.

What is the “right” for which we are to hunger and thirst? The word has many possible translations; let me suggest a few. That is “right” which leads me to my destiny. That is “right” which leads me to where I am going directly. “Right,” in the sense of direct, straight. It is “right” because it is correct.

The assurance we have, then, is of satisfaction (a sense of achievement). Oh, how we all need that. Here in this life, what is the secret? To desire what is right. And the promise, remember, this is all in this world yet. Do you hear it? It is not just that eschatological future, but here and now. Provided we choose the right things, then, when we desire we shall be satisfied.

Happy are the merciful; they shall have mercy shown to them. 

Some words drop out of common usage when people cease to believe in what they stand for. Mercy is not a popular word outside of Christianity. What is it? Mercy is love that overcomes resistance. I love in spite of the fact that I am not loved. I love those things which cause me difficulty and trouble. I love even those who not only don’t love me, but who may oppose me, who may hate me. This is what God’s mercy is towards us. It is His love overcoming resistance. And you know who offers resistance to God’s love—we do. Yet in spite of us, God loves us. That is mercy.

How happy are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.

There are many meanings to the expression “pure of heart” or “purity of heart.” But the one that we cannot omit is the internal chastity of mind, symbolized by the biblical word “heart.” Whenever the Scriptures want to interiorize a virtue, they speak of having it in one’s heart.

We usually think of chastity in the external order, because quite obviously it deals with the senses and the control of the venereal pleasures natural to us. “Purity of heart” is internal chastity of mind or what I like to call it, “chastity of the imagination.” This is more than chastity of body, or chastity of the senses. It means that kind of custody over the internal movements of my spirit in which I sacrifice the very laudable, and beautiful and sacred satisfaction which God permits only to those who are married and only within the marital embrace. Furthermore, “purity of heart” is required of all Christ’s followers. It is not only priests or religious, who vow to celibacy, who are called to practice chastity of heart; married people outside of their own marital relations are too. Not easy!

For millions of youth in our society, chastity before marriage is extremely difficult. This is clear from the lives in shambles of the by-now millions of young men and women who have tasted, as they thought, the “pleasures of sex,” and found themselves betrayed by a tyrant.

Those of us who are vowed to chastity must cultivate the virtue of chastity, which is deeply interior, in order to give the kind of witness—oh, how the world needs the witness—of consecrated chastity today.

The promise is they shall see God. Chastity confers clarity of vision. It enables a person to see God in a way that those who do not practice chastity, or even those who have not vowed themselves to a life of chastity, are privileged to enjoy. And no one cheats here! That perspicacious capacity which partakes of mysticism—to be able to see God even in this life, His beauty and His goodness, even in the most impossible situations of life —is reserved for those who have learned the secret of purity of heart.

How happy are the peacemakers, they shall be called the children of God.

There is so much disorder in the world that God wants peacemakers. Peacemaking means reconciliation: first with God, the highest kind of peacemaking; with themselves, and within themselves. What is the promise? A special affection from God, even as a mother or father has for a child. In the apostolate, we are to labor to reconcile sinners with God: people we love, people we want only the best for, who are estranged from God, or who are estranged among themselves.

Finally as a kind of capstone, there is the most unexpected kind of happiness.

Happy are those who suffer persecution for justice sake, they shall possess the kingdom of God.

Christ knew He couldn’t let this Beatitude stand alone. He had to explain it. “Happy,” He tells us, “are you when men reproach you, persecute you, and speaking falsely, say all manner of evil against you for my sake.” “Lord, do you mean it?” Yes, He does.

“Rejoice!” He already said “happy”! Now He says, “rejoice.” And then He adds (He really wanted to get this one across) “and be very glad, your reward in Heaven is very great.” They persecuted the prophets and, as He intimated, that is what they were doing to Him. “If you want to be like Me,” He says, “rejoice!” I cannot tell you how much this Beatitude has meant to me. Sometimes it is the only thing that keeps me sane.

What is persecution all about? It is about the things we used to read about. We used to shake our heads, saying how terrible those times used to be. How hard it was in those early centuries of persecution, as we call them. How difficult it must have been for the people, say, in the sixteenth-century at the time of the so-called Reformation.

Well, we used to read history. We never dreamt this would happen. It did. We in this generation are being called upon to make history. And the only ones who will make history—meaning those whose names will be remembered—not only in the Book of God, but the annals of men in the Church of the future, are those who in these day have learned to stand up for the Truth. But in doing so, you must expect to be opposed. If you are not persecuted, if you are not opposed, if you are not spoken falsely about, if people don’t say all manner of evil against you for Christ’s sake; suspect today your loyalty to the Master.

This is one of those not too frequent ages in history called an “age of persecution.” Did you know that, statistically, there have been more martyrs who have died for the name of Christ since 1900 than in all the centuries of Christianity put together? That is right! My first prayer book was in Russian print. Most of my blood-relatives were behind the Iron Curtain. Some have died for their faith.

Let us pray and sacrifice so that God might strengthen our fellow Christians, fellow members of the same Mystical Body who are suffering for Jesus. Let us pray that God will send them the grace so that they might persevere, as He said, to the end.

And let us pray for ourselves that we too, individually and corporately—the Church, our bishops, our priests, religious, and the laity— might have the strength not only to be called faithful, but to be faithful. Because we are being persecuted, in our country, not with fire and sword, but with what is often even more successful: seduction, blandishment and the sad example of those who still call themselves Christians, but who have betrayed the Name of Christ.

Let’s ask our Savior who gave us the Beatitudes to help us live them. They are the promise of joy on earth, as an anticipation of joy in Heaven, for those who have lived out what they have learned, what Christ told them they must do to be like Him.

Copyright © 2001 Inter Mirifica

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