And Jesus said, "Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God."
The word "heart" occurs about a thousand times in the works of Shakespeare. The Bible uses the word "heart" 865 times, but that is the unmodified noun. There are separate listings for "brokenhearted," "faint hearted," "hard hearted," "merry hearted," "stiff hearted," "stout hearted," and "tender hearted."
The word "heart" occurs frequently in our literature because our hearts are important things. They represent what is most valuable in us, and they tell us what we value most in the world. Where we find our treasure, Jesus says, there we will find our hearts. This may sound commonplace, but it can be a rather frightening thought when we consider some of the things that make our hearts beat faster.
We have done two things with our hearts, and neither is particularly helpful for our spiritual life. On the one hand, the advances and sharing of scientific knowledge have allowed even the least medically-minded of us to become quite technical. In many ways, we have schooled ourselves to view the heart as the all-important source of our physical health. On the other hand, we have sentimentalized the heart and localized it as the site of our emotional life.
Each of these views is imperfect – not in the sense that it is bad, but in the sense that it is incomplete. In the Scripture, the heart is much more than we commonly acknowledge. The Scriptural writers may or may not have thought of the heart as a physical organ without which we cannot live. There is no question, though, that they believed it to be the place where we find our will, our thought, and our emotions. To be pure "in heart," then, is to be pure in every important aspect of our being. Not surprisingly, God promises a blessing to the pure in heart because they seek to be faithful in all ways. Jesus began His Sermon on the Mount by promising a reward to the poor in spirit. This part of his sermon draws to a close with a reward for purity of heart.
As we reflect on the beatitudes, we must be very careful when we consider Jesus’ use of the words poverty, purity, spirit and heart. We must not take Jesus so literally that we think of the heart as nothing but a physical organ, and poverty no more than economic disadvantage.
On the other hand, we must avoid making our hearts and our spirits no more than isolated symbols, arguing that so long as we keep our spirits poor and our hearts pure the rest of us will take care of itself. It is not easy to keep our hearts pure if that is the only part of our lives where purity counts, and from the prophet Zephaniah on, the Scripture is very clear that those who are materially poor have a special claim on God’s attention.
Our faith is a "both - and" proposition, so the beatitudes call us to remember those who are disadvantaged and to value at their true worth all those gifts and qualities that make us who we are and have such a profound effect on our happiness. At some point, we must allow the beatitudes to call us to humility - which is not slinking along walls and beating ourselves up - but acknowledging God as the source of everything we have and everything we are.
The new Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that purity of heart
It goes on to say that Baptism purifies us by washing away sin. But Baptism does not immunize us from life in a world that quantifies individuals, and determines a person’s worth based on physical appearance.
Purity of heart prompts the chastity that allows us to see one another as "neighbors," not as prey. Without calling us to ignore or deny any of our physical charm, purity of heart also inspires us to regard and value ourselves at our true worth, as God’s creation, and - to borrow a word from our youth - as temples of His spirit.
In this regard, purity of heart is closely allied with the virtue of Temperance. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that
Purity of heart denies none of the legitimate attractions that draw us toward one another, or the pleasures God provides in food and drink. Purity of heart enables us to distinguish between the gift and the giver, and to see the things God has given us as something more than momentary delights.
But purity of heart is more than chastity or temperance. It is also allied with the virtue of charity. In his first epistle, the evangelist John reminds us that true love does not mean "that we loved God, but that he loved us" (1 Jn. 3:10). The motion of charity begins and ends with God.
God loves us, and this enables us to love God in return. Once we love God, His love more and more enables us to love creation as He Himself loves it. This begins with an authentic love for ourselves, as God’s creatures. As we grow in God’s love, we are able to love other individuals - and the world itself - disinterestedly. This means we love them benevolently, not for the benefit they confer on us, but for the good we can do them simply because they (like all God’s creatures) are lovable.
And Jesus promises us still more. At the Last Supper he tells his disciples, "no longer do I call you servants, but friends" (Jn. 15:15). Charity is an invitation to bridge the infinite gap between us and God, and to share God’s own happiness - not remotely and impersonally, but with the same unaffected, natural ease that characterizes our other friendships.
This is an overwhelming gift, but it in no way diminishes us. Rather, Charity perfects us and enables us to grow into the heroic beings we desire to be. Charity enlightens our eyes and refines our hearts, but we continue to see with our own eyes, and to love with our own hearts. Our love for God will be reflected in our love for God’s creatures, but although we touch the world with God’s love, we continue to leave behind our own fingerprints.
Purity of heart is also aligned with a love of truth by which, St. Augustine tells us, we come to understand what we profess in faith.
The faithful must believe the articles of the Creed "so that by believing they may obey God, by obeying may live well, by living well may purify their hearts, and with pure hearts may understand what they believe."
Faith challenges us to believe something simply because God commands us to do so. This may be a trial, and we may have a world of reasons for wanting to believe otherwise, but St. Augustine assures us that faith becomes easier - and our motives purer - the more willing we are to surrender, in faith, to God.
If we were to choose one sense to describe what purity of heart is all about, it would unquestionably be the sense of sight. Purity of heart is a clarity of moral vision that allows us to see God and the world as God Himself sees them. The reward for purity of heart, appropriately, is "to see God." But the reward doesn’t stop with seeing God - although that alone would be quite a reward.
In the prayers of the Funeral Mass we say,
To see God as He is will be no small gift, but the words that come next are astounding. "We shall become like you and praise you forever through Christ our Lord…." In heaven, we shall become like God because we shall see God. Jesus’ words will come true: we shall find our hearts where we have found our treasure, and the magnificence of the treasure will transform our hearts.
This is one of those truths we learn as children, but may forget or ignore as we grow older. In the fairy tales we hear in our youth, the heroes and heroines are frequently cautioned against looking at something that will turn them to stone or otherwise harm them. The Scripture tells us our First Parents faced a similar challenge in the Garden. They looked away from their true treasure for just a moment, and the appearance of the human heart was changed forever.
The late Pontiff, John Paul II, wrote a magnificent reflection on the Rosary, and in this encyclical letter (Rosarium Virginis Mariae) he calls us to follow the example of Mary by fixing our gaze on Christ.
In his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 11: 23-25), St. Paul gives us what is probably the earliest description of the Last Supper. He describes Jesus’ actions and words, and says, "…as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes" (11:26). This tells us that our sacramental life now connects us to the saving events of the past and prepares us for something we look forward to in the future.
When we approach the altar for communion we stand at the foot of the cross, with all its awe, all its terror, and all its power. At the same time, the food and drink we share at the Mass commands us to look forward to another meal, the everlasting banquet Jesus has prepared for us in heaven. The Eucharist we share today readies us for the union with Christ we hope to enjoy tomorrow.
In the same way, cultivating purity of heart prepares us for the day when we will possess all our heart longs for. In heaven we look forward to seeing God. Purity of heart enables us to see "according to God," and to find Him wherever we turn. The world, our bodies, and the many qualities we find attractive in the individuals who surround us are all manifestations of God’s infinite love and imagination. The more we cultivate a purity of heart in our relations with God’s creatures, the more clearly we come to see God in them. Increasing the clarity of our vision on earth prepares us to enjoy the everlasting vision of His glory that God promises we will enjoy in heaven.
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