In his most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus starts off by listing the eight beatitudes:
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’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.1
That word “blessed” (Gk. makarioi) also means “happy.” Jesus is giving his basic plan for how to attain happiness; although, his plan for our happiness is actually a little counter intuitive. Pope Benedict XVI wrote,
The Beatitudes, spoken with the community of Jesus’ disciples in view, are paradoxes—the standards of the world are turned upside down as soon as things are seen in the right perspective.2
Once we see life properly, we will find that the goods of this life (pleasure, comfort, wealth, power, fame, etc.) aren’t what really make us happy. Poverty of Spirit, meekness, justice and the other beatitudes are the true way to happiness. It seems like a total paradox, but its the gospel truth!
The reason the beatitudes will make us happy is because they will make us more like Christ. Being unified with God through Jesus is the ultimate happiness human beings could possibly hope for. The beatitudes describe what kind of person we should be by describing what kind of person Jesus Christ is. Pope Benedict calls the beatitudes, “a sort of veiled interior biography of Jesus, a kind of portrait of his figure.”3
St. Paul tells us how much we should be like Christ in Galatians 2:20: “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” As Christians, we are all called to this sort of life. We are all called by God to live like Christ; to allow Christ to live through us; to live out the Beatitudes.
This is no small feat, however. We have to entirely change our understanding of the world, life, and our goals in order to do this. St. Augustine teaches us how we can do that. He understands how difficult it is to flip our priorities, so his interpretation of the beatitudes is one which guides us along in life so that we can gradually begin to live out these principles. Rather than a simple list, Augustine presents the beatitudes as a step-by-step process.
First, we must focus on being “poor in spirit.” What does this mean? Augustine says, “‘the poor in spirit’ are rightly understood here, as meaning the humble and God-fearing.”4 To be “poor in spirit” is to be humble.
Being humble (or having humility) is the state in which a person properly understands God as the ultimate authority and giver of all that is good. The humble person quite simply has a correct understanding of where he stands in relation to God. Like other virtues, humility is the middle point between two extremes.
Humility is the middle point between pride and false humility. Pride is the idea that we are our own gods. We decide good and evil. We acquire good things by our own efforts. Pride is the ultimate root of all sin. False humility is the opposite. Someone with false humility thinks too little of themselves.
To be humble is to joyfully recognize God’s authority over our lives. St. Augustine says that once people have gained the virtue of humility, then they will look to the Holy Scriptures to learn from what God has to tell them. As we open the Scriptures, we need the next beatitude in order to progress.
Meekness is a sort of docility. To be meek is to allow oneself to be affected by something. St. Augustine describes the meek person as one who “yields to acts of wickedness, and does not resist evil, but overcomes evil with good.”5
To be meek is to “turn the other cheek.” Jesus displayed meekness when in his passion he allowed himself to be tortured and killed. One way we are meek is if we allow ourselves to learn from Scripture and Holy Mother Church. We must be docile in the presence of God’s teaching if it is to change us.
If we are not meek, then we may read the Bible, but it won’t change us. We may go to mass, but we won’t grow from the teachings of our pastor at the homily. In humility, we recognize that God has authority over our lives, but without meekness we won’t obey him.
One of the things that we find in Scripture is that we must give up some earthly goods in order to follow Christ. We must embrace some forms of suffering in order to be conformed to Jesus. This is a difficult thing to accept. If we are meek, then we will accept it, though. We will be docile and submissive in the face of God’s teaching.
If we are humble, then we will seek God’s teachings. If we are meek, then we will allow those teachings to change us. When that happens, we’ll need to give up our sinful ways. We’ll need to give up our attachment to earthly goods. This is not easy.
St. Augustine says that those who mourn, are sorrowful because they “lose those things which they were accustomed to embrace as dear in this world.”6 Those who mourn are those who have read passages like, “take up your cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24), and allow that to penetrate their soul. They recognize the pain of abandoning earthly goods, and mourn the loss of those goods.
The paradox here is that Jesus says those who mourn are happy (“blessed”). If we mourn the loss of earthly goods and follow our Lord, then we will be comforted; because there is no greater happiness than having God himself.
Beginning with humility (poor in spirit), we recognize our position in relation to God: God gives us all that is good, he is our perfect happiness, and his will for us is what’s best for our lives. The meek will then search out his will and obey it. That will necessitate that they make painful changes to their lives, and they’ll mourn the comforts and pleasures of this world which they give up for love of God.
Then they must actually make those changes. They must actually put the work in to give up that which they love more than God. According to St. Augustine, this hard work (and it is very hard) is hungering and thirsting for righteousness.
Here, St. Augustine quotes Jesus, saying, “my food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34).7 Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are those who will work to put into practice what they learned from Holy Scripture. They will “labor for the food which endures to eternal life” (John 6:27).
Unfortunately, we tend to fail when we try to do this. Often, the goods of this world from which we must abstain are too delightful for us to resist. The cross we must bear in following Christ is often too heavy for us. So we fall.
But Jesus tells us that if we forgive others’ failings, then we’ll be forgiven as well. St. Augustine tells us that we must help others on this path to holiness, as much as we are able. If we do so, then we can trust in God’s help for us. We will fail, but we must not quit, and we must not depend solely upon our own efforts. “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
The above beatitudes are the primary steps to holiness. Once we have accomplished those, the next ones will follow.
Once we have gone through the above steps of building virtue, we then will regain our innocence, which we lost by sin. St. Augustine says that we are “able from a good conscience of good works to contemplate that highest good.”8
We “see God” not with our eyes, but rather with our heart. Having built virtue, we are then able to contemplate the truth; not just true things, but Truth himself. In John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Contemplating this truth is our ultimate happiness. It is how we are able to “see God.” We cannot see God without a pure heart.
Here, “peacemaker” is not the same thing as a pacifist. Jesus, according to Augustine, is not merely talking about someone who doesn’t fight. He is talking about someone who has inner peace. This kind of inner peace is achieved by a proper ordering of our emotions.
Often, we get pleasure from something which is evil. We know it is evil, but we like it anyway. When that is the case, we lack virtue. Building virtue helps us to feel emotions properly. Once we’ve gone through the above steps, we build virtue, and then we become repulsed by evil, and we enjoy what is good. This is the proper ordering of our soul. This is inner peace. This is what it means to be a peacemaker.
Only those people, can properly achieve outward peace. We must have our own soul in order before we can be successful in achieving peace in society. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that when we order ourselves to be moral human beings, then we’ll be able to “impregnate culture” with “moral value” (CCC 909). Personal inner peace leads to peace in society.
We are truly happy when we become holy. Beginning with humility, we subject ourselves to God’s will for our lives. This inspires us to search the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church for how to live our lives in conformity to God’s will. Those who are meek will then allow that teaching to transform their lives. They will then be sorrowful to lose the pleasures of this life which prevent them from being Christ-like. It will take great effort to reform their lives to match Jesus: they hunger and thirst for that time when they will allow Christ to live in and through them. They fail, but they ask God for forgiveness and then begin to move forward.
Persevering in this process, we regain our innocence and build virtue. This opens the eyes of our hearts to be able to see God. We have inner peace because our emotions are subject to reason. This process will make us holy. It will make us happy. It will make us like Christ.
This brings us to the final beatitude. The more we are like Christ, the more we will be rejected by this world. You will be hated, spat upon, and cast aside because you will more perfectly image our savior. Paradoxically, it is in this persecution that we find happiness.
“Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you”
“If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.”
1. The order given here is slightly different than what appears in the biblical text. The second and third beatitudes are reversed. I’m following St. Augustine’s ordering of the beatitudes, which is also attested in some ancient manuscripts and other Church Fathers.
2. Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (trans. Adrian Walker; New York: Doubleday, 2007), 71.
3. Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, 74.
4. St. Augustine of Hippo, Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount According to Matthew, I.1.3.
5. Augustine, Sermon on the Mount, I.2.4.
6. Augustine, Sermon on the Mount, I.2.5.
7. Augustine, Sermon on the Mount, I.2.6.
8. Augustine, Sermon on the Mount, I.3.10.