We present our bodies and natural selves to God as all we have, empty of personal merit and helpless without God’s blessing. Like King David, admitting that he was conceived in sins and born in iniquities1, the humble soul relinquishes all claim to autonomous merit or individual sovereignty, giving up all pretense to divinity or royalty in any realm but God’s; thereby he becomes eligible for citizenship in the kingdom of God. Like the prodigal son, he acknowledges that he has forfeited the right to be considered a son and inheritor of the heavenly Father, and begging to become a hired servant, he finds himself by grace a member of the family of the heavenly King. Humility is the threshold of repentance. The reward or blessing assigned to this good beginning is significantly the same as that for the decisive final act of martyrdom; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The beginning and the end of repentance are the inception and completion of the same thing, the rule of the heavenly King in our lives.
Blessed are they that mourn
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted (Mt. 5:4). The sorrowing shall be supported and strengthened; for mourning for their sins and their subjection to passions, the humble are able to receive counsel and learn from their failures and transgressions. This is that genuine compunction that enables the sorrowing to reform habits and learn to act; humility enables compunction.2 This is the sorrow most commonly associated with repentance in our common understanding. The Holy Fathers place great emphasis on the spiritual pain of recognizing our sad condition of self-induced corruption. This is a crucially important step in the process of spiritual learning and reformation. It must not be mistaken for the pain of being wrong, which is not saving compunction, but mere hurt pride. Self-hatred and dejection are reflexes of pride; whereas true mourning is impartial, gentle, and responsible. Those who mourn truly mourn for the sins of their people and the world, as did David, Paul, Moses, and even our sinless Lord.3 When we can receive and profit from correction, we begin to mourn genuinely in the sense of the Gospel. Defensiveness is a sign of unreadiness to mourn. Adam failed to say why he was hiding in the garden and excused himself by blaming Eve, not yet mourning, but indulging in worldly sorrow until the mercy of God expelled him from the garden.4
Blessed are the Meek
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth (Mt. 5:5). The meek are οἱ πραεῖς, the gentle; a near synonym to humble, it connotes an unassuming and kindly spirit. Unlike Adam, and still worse Satan, whose pride lifted them up in their imaginations to godlikeness5 and made them indignant when challenged or humbled, the meek are free of anger and resentment, gentle to critics and kindly disposed to correction.6 Meekness completes the first three of the blessed states; these are clearly connected. All are counter-effective for humility, sorrow, and gentleness mitigate self-assertive passions. Vanity, pride, and anger feed off each other and are counteracted in order by the cognitions perceiving our dependent created condition, responsibility for error, and fellowship with fallen, suffering mankind. The affection of sorrowful compunction we commonly associate with repentance is most evident here, but it is not repentance itself, which is the return of sinful humanity from subjection to the passions to active fulfillment of our nature and destiny. This is to become truly like the Holy Trinity in freedom, activity, and mutual love.
Blessed are They that Hunger and Thirst After Righteousness
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled (Mt. 5:6). The need for righteousness attests to its absence in the life of the world; the longing for it is natural but suppressed by immersion in the envious, parasitic way of life into which the human social world has fallen. Righteousness itself is the order of mutual love; though it observes a natural proportionality, it is neither a mathematical function, as Aristotle thought, nor retributive justice as Anselm supposed. The unconditional law of love for God and universal love for neighbor named by our Lord is Righteousness, for this is the sum of the law. St John says, “He means either the whole of virtue, or that particular virtue which is opposed to covetousness.”7 Having begun to come to ourselves like the prodigal son, we see that hunger for love and the need to share its energy is incongruous with this world; it impels us to return to the Father and one another. St Symeon says, “It is God who is righteousness, just as you hear him called ‘the sun of righteousness.’ So he who hungers and thirsts for Him counts the whole world and the things in it as refuse.”8 For St Paul says, …Christ Jesus is made for us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption from God (I Cor. 1:30). We seem to be approaching the highest blessedness, but this is not quite yet the summit.
Blessed are the Merciful
We must go on from longing, however high and holy, to action as co-workers with God — in keeping with Christ’s prophecy to the disciples, that as they went forth to do His work, He would be co-acting with them.9
Next we find that, Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy (Mt. 5:7). Chrysostom says these are merciful not only in charity, but in their actions. St Symeon adds the truly merciful are:
…those who have become poor for the sake of Him who became poor for our sakes. They have nothing to give, yet they are constantly spiritually mindful of the poor, the widows, the orphans, and those who are sick. As they see them frequently, they have compassion on them and weep warm tears over them.10
They are blessed in that the blessing wherewith they bless others from their very hearts is at the same time God’s blessing to them. As the forgiving are in so doing forgiven by God, so the merciful are merciful with God’s mercy, which they experience even as they pass it on. As purification works in the lives of the humble, sorrowing, meek, righteous, and merciful, removing the vestiges of vanity, resentment, egoism, and selfishness, they approach a state so open to the divine mercy that they are free of the passions and isolating obstructions to that love of God which generates love of neighbor.
Blessed are the Pure of Heart
Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God (Mt. 5:8). As the righteousness with which they are fed and the mercy which they show are God’s righteousness and mercy, the hearts of the blessed begin to reflect the heart of God. Though no creature can comprehend or penetrate the essence of the Creator of all, those who love and savor His goodness and compassion come to know Him ever more clearly as the source of the virtues they manifest — which, as they know from experience, have come to them by His Grace through repentance. In purity derived from humility, mourning, and meekness through love and mercy, St John says:
…There is nothing which we need so much in order to see God, as this last virtue [purity]. Wherefore Paul also said, “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.” (Heb. 12:14) He is here speaking of such sight as it is possible for man to have.11
This qualification opens the great question, how it is possible to see God, given the many passages (e.g., Jn. 1:18, I Tim. 6:16, Exd. 33:20) that deny that God can ever be seen by any human being. This question bears on the final fruit of repentance.
St Gregory of Nyssa tells us that no creature can know the divine essence, but that the purified human intellect of one such as Moses or St John the Theologian may by the grace of God be initiated into the mystery of the luminous darkness in which God is said to dwell.12 In order to enter that darkness, Moses had to be free of earthly ambition, attachment to all things profane, and of the illusion that God could be likened to any created thing or comprehended by Moses’ understanding. Beyond that he had to love the beauty of God above all else and approach Him with trembling obedience, accepting that he could know only what God enabled him to see, and survive it only by God’s protection.13 Thus he was enabled, following God, to enter the protection of the rock, symbolizing Christ, and participate in the divine life, following his Lord, whose back he was thus said to see. The notion of the divine darkness beyond the most brilliant light is one which St Gregory clearly shares with St Dionysius, who urges his addressee to abandon all else and strive purely and beyond knowing to be united with Him who is “beyond all being and knowing, in the supernatural ray of divine darkness.”14
Blessed are the Peacemakers
St Symeon the New Theologian, writing later in the tradition, says:
The soul, however, who has attained to this sees God from every [side] and is reconciled to Him…Peace is established between our Maker and God on the one hand and the soul that was hostile to him on the other, and it is thus called blessed by God for having made peace, for He says, Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God (Mt. 5:9).* 15
The Greek is emphatic: “They themselves shall be called sons of God.” They are united to God in what St Paul calls the peace of God which surpasses every mind [and] will keep your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:7). 16 The peace which St Symeon sees made is inner stillness or hesychia. St Dionysius, using them as synonyms, says that the divine peace and stillness are ineffable and immovable with respect to any known process, yet they give name to how God makes peace and remains still both in Himself and in relation to His vast range of expressions and transcendent resolutions of multifarious processions into unity.17 Nevertheless, though we can neither express nor comprehend it rationally, we witness and are taught to reenact it in coöperation with the providential philanthropy of Christ who reconciles us in the Spirit to Himself and through Himself to the Father, making us His co-workers with the gift of eternal peace in reconciling all things.18 The coöperation of which he speaks is a genuine participation in the Divine activity, in which hesychia names the condition enabling us to participate in the unifying works in harmony with God’s will. The “sons of God” of which St Matthew speaks are named after Christ Jesus, whom they have come to resemble; they are indeed “children of God,” as some translations have it, but matured into heirs in the likeness of the Only Begotten Son.