Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Beatitudes and the Three Ways

Thursday, September 15, 2011 -- Week of Proper 19, Year One
Cyprian, Bishop and Martyr of Carthage, 258
James Chisholm, Priest, 1855

Today's Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 984)
Psalms [70], 71 (morning)      74 (evening)
1 Kings 22:29-45
1 Corinthians 2:14 - 3:15
Matthew 5:1-10

Since this past Sunday was the tenth anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2001, there was much thought, conversation, and prayer around that topic all weekend.  Among the things I spoke of in my sermon was a story about former Arkansan Stewart Hoke, who was serving at Trinity Church next door to the World Trade Center.  He was inside the old church as the first tower went down.  In the dust, after the noise and the shaking had subsided, Stewart spoke to those who had gathered there, and he recited the Beatitudes, our reading from Matthew this morning.  An observer said, "“It was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever encountered.  That was the response of faith.  It wasn’t the reaction to run, it wasn’t the reaction to react violently, or panic.  It was very meaningful.” 

Hearing the Beatitudes within that poignant context brings the words alive in a new and vital way.  The poor in spirit, those who mourn, and the meek sense the presence of blessing and hope.  In the darkness of violence, our deepest values speak. 

A few years ago there was much agitation in the news cycle over the public placement of the Ten Commandments in courtrooms and schools.  Some Christians seemed to vest much energy into their desire to see the Commandments in public buildings.  To me it seemed to be an inappropriate expression of state establishment of a particular religious tradition, giving privilege to one (or two) religions over others in a country founded on freedom of religion.  But another part of me wanted to argue with the impassioned Christian commandment-promoters.  Wouldn't the Beatitudes be a far more compelling inscription than the Ten Commandments? 

The Beatitudes are so engaging and captivating.  Could there be a better expression of the ethos of Christianity as we seek to challenge the arrogant, competitive and acquisitive spirit of contemporary America?

There is an old map of the spiritual journey that speaks of the three states of the soul on the path toward maturity.  Many traditional spiritual directors tell of the journey as a passage through the purgative way, the illuminative way, and the unitive way. 

The first part of the spiritual journey is the via negativa, when we detach -- from the attractions of our passions of the senses, from our shrinking away from suffering, and from our resistance to God's will:  the purgative way. 

In the illuminative way we more fully attend our minds to the thoughts of God and our hearts to the heart of God with more interior recollection of the divine presence.  In this stage we experience periods of desolation as well as consolation, as we are drawn more and more to depend upon God alone.

In the unitive way we are for the most part fixed upon God, united to the divine in charity, and open to the inner prompting of the spirit to act in ways consistent with the work and will of God. 

According to the traditional teaching of this spiritual map, we may participate in aspects of all three ways even while we dwell predominately in one of them.

I bring this old teaching up because there is a way of reading the Beatitudes as a picture of the three stages.  The nine Beatitudes (adding verses 11 and 12 to today's reading) can be divided into thirds in a way that somewhat resembles the purgative, illuminative, and unitive way.

The Purgative Way:  "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth."

The Illuminative Way:  "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God."

The Unitive Way:  "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when people 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 in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

I remember when I first studied the spirituality of the three ways, I imagined myself well along the path into the Illuminative Way.  I seem less confident of that now.  Progress, if there is such, is slow.  I find myself dealing with most of the same issues of the purgative state that I've dealt with all of my life.  But from time to time, one of the Beatitudes seems to speak to my condition.  Every once in a while in my life, as in the chapel of Trinity Church on 9-11, the words of the Beatitudes speak deep meaning and truth.  They do present a map, a path and direction for faithfulness and growth into Christ, the Way.

Audio podcast:  Listen to an audio podcast of the most recent Morning Reflections from today and the past week.  Click the following link:
Morning Reflection Podcasts

About Morning Reflections
"Morning Reflections" is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.

Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117
An online resource for praying the Daily Office is found at -- Click for online Daily Office
Another form of the office from Phyllis Tickle's "Divine Hours" is available on our partner web site at this location -- --  Click for Divine Hours

The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church
is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance, and love.

See our Web site at

Our Rule of Life: 
We aspire to...
    worship weekly
    pray daily
    learn constantly
    serve joyfully 
    live generously.

Lowell Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Fayetteville, Arkansas


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