Blessed Are the Pure of Heart, for They Shall See God

transfiguration_of_christIf the goal of our lives as Christians is union with God (theosis), then the means by which we can attain this union is through the acquisition of a pure heart.  It seems     providential that we have reached this beatitude just as we arrive at the first Sunday of Great Lent.  During this season of the holy forty days, which is a microcosm of our entire lives, we are given an opportunity to struggle, arduously, yet joyfully, for the purity of heart of which the Lord Christ speaks in His Sermon on the Mount.  Saint John Cassian has written, “The goal of our vows, as we have said, is the kingdom of God, but their immediate purpose, that is aim (scopos), is purity of heart, for without this we cannot reach our goal.  We should therefore always have this purpose in mind; and, should it happen that for a short time our thoughts wander off from the direct path, we must bring them back again at once, guiding our lives with reference to our purpose as a sure standard” (The Conferences, I, IV, PL 49.486B).

This particular beatitude—“Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God”—can initially strike the believer as perplexing. After all, if the great Moses discovered that “no man shall see God and live” (Exodus 33:20) and if Saint John the Theologian declared that  “no man hath seen God at any time” (1 John 4:12), how then will those blessedly pure in heart see God? Part of the answer to this mystery the church fathers provide in the distinction between the uncreated essence of God that no created being can know and the uncreated divine energies through which the believer can participate in divine life. Even at the most basic level of this physical world and the events of this earthly life, those with eyes to see and ears to hear can marvel at God’s handiwork throughout creation and become aware of His interventions in their lives. This, however, is still a vast distance away from the vision of God that the pure of heart know, for to see God means to have God in the heart, which suggests “eternal life, everlasting incorruption, immortal blessedness, a never-ending kingdom, perpetual gladness, true light, unapproachable glory, continuous rejoicing, and every good” (Saint Gregory of Nyssa, On the Beatitudes, PG 44.1264). Such is the promise Christ gives to the faithful!

Just as birds need healthy wings to soar through the air and fish need functioning gills to breathe underwater, so we need a spiritually healthy heart, meaning a pure heart, to see God. When our heart or “inner man” will be purified of the passions in the form of bad thoughts and harmful desires, it will be illumined with holy thoughts and compassionate emotions that will move us in the direction of virtuous actions. Then, with the obstructing passions removed from our heart, we will be able to see the divine beauty of the image of God engraved within. And in seeing that brilliant image, we will be indeed able to behold the divine archetype of that image, God Himself. In this sense, “no man hath seen God at any time” and “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” are both perfectly true.

Commenting on this beatitude, Saint Augustine writes, “How foolish, therefore, are those who seek God with these outward eyes, since He is seen with the heart! As it is written elsewhere, ‘And in singleness of heart seek Him.’ For that is a pure heart which is a single heart: and just as this light cannot be seen, except with pure eyes; so neither is God seen, unless that by which He can be seen is also pure” (On the Sermon on the Mount, Book 1, chapter 2). Purity of heart as singularity of intention suggests that the heart must not be weighed down by anything other than the desire for God. To attain to such a fiery desire for God that the dross of passions covering up the inner divine image will be consumed by divine love, the soul requires repentance, a change in focus, a change in lifestyle, a change in actions, and a change in thinking. Saint John Climacus describes the effort for such a transformation in this way: “As a snake cannot strip itself of its old skin unless it crawls into a tight hole, neither can we shed our old predispositions, our oldness of soul and the garment of the old man unless we go by the straight and narrow way of fasting” (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 26).

This is why it is so natural to speak of purity of heart in the season of the Church year in which Christians are most dedicated to prayer and fasting that need to be understood both literally and metaphorically. While the outward practice of ascesis prepares the soil of the heart, these practices are not an end unto themselves.  Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos makes mention of this in his work Orthodox Psychotherapy in writing, “The Old Testament is an icon of outward bodily asceticism, while the Gospel, or the New Testament, is an icon of purity of heart…If a person stays in the outward ascetical practices and does not go on to inward as well, he is living in the Old Testament period” (Orthodox Psychotherapy, p. 97).

Purity of heart is thus related to the whole of the Christian life, inward and outward, in body and in soul, through theoria and praxis. What I wrote in an earlier post touches on this: “Prayer is about theoria, which at its root means a way of seeing. But it is also intimately related to praxis, which at its root means a kind of doing. Many who admittedly pray with their minds nevertheless desire to pray with their hearts and from the hearts. And although there is much patristic counsel on how to pray with a humble and contrite heart, we need to realize from the onset that we cannot hope to pray with the heart in Church and at times of prayer alone, if we live outside of the heart during the rest of our daily activities. We cannot hope to keep our attention riveted to the face of God when we pray, if we do not keep our aims attuned to the will of God when we act. To live in the heart, we need to genuinely care for and love others, not for what they can do for us or give us back in return, but for no other reason than that it is good to love and care even as our Lord loved and cared for every soul. Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, being there for the lonely, and visiting those who others cast aside or punish—all help us to think about others with the immediacy with which we experience life’s basic needs. To think about others and to act on those compassionate thoughts softens our hearts not only at that time, but also for those times in which we turn towards God in prayer. In other words, each of these actions that the Lord declares will separate the sheep from the goats, done whole-heartedly and unselfishly, in turn helps us to find our heart. That place in which we genuinely love our brother and our sister is the same place in which we are to love God by prayer. If we find that we do not pray from the heart when alone or in Church, it may be good to ask ourselves if we love from the heart outside of Church. If we have trouble attending to God in prayer, we might want to ask ourselves if we really attend and listen to our brothers and sisters when they speak to us, or are we just thinking about what we will say next. If in this area, we are found wanting, let us take heart for the time of repentance is at hand. Let us make that godly effort to love our neighbor and to attend to our neighbor with whomever is closest at hand.”

All the beatitudes, including this one, present our free will with a choice between the old life we know and the newness of life that our Lord graciously offers us to experience. What Christ suggests is radical, but also a deeply comforting source of joy, light, and sanctification. He calls us to cast off the deformed mask that the devil has cunningly foisted over the image of God placed lovingly in our souls. He calls us to a life of real, radical virtue through which the image of God within will blaze brighter than the sun in the firmaments, then  “when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2). This is the heavenly goal to which we are called during Great Lent.  It is the purpose of our lives on earth.  This is the pearl of great price.  Nothing else matters.  If we see God within us we have everything.

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