In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
‘Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God’.
Of all the Beatitudes I think this is the most attractive but possibly the least attainable of them all. Sadly all of us will mourn the death of someone we hold dear, most of us will at some point be filled with righteous anger and compassion for the situation and of those around us, and some of us from time to time will reflect that meekness and humility which is so highly prized, but how many of us will ever be pure?
We don’t need St Augustine, or any other theologian for that matter, to tell us what the true state of the human heart is like. We know for ourselves that it is a battleground of conflicting thoughts and emotions, desires and duties, goodness and evil. I remember having to go and see Bishop of London in a final interview before I was put forward for ordination. I don’t know if you have seen or know him, but he is the most formidable and intimidating of men. I have blanked out most of that terrifying ordeal, but I do remember his weighty words of caution: ‘Be careful, for the heart is very deceitful.’ Perhaps not the most encouraging things to say but it was memorable and made me stop and think about my motivations and desires and not to put my whole trust in them. For the heart, the core of our being, our deepest, truest selves made in the image and likeness of God, is warped and disfigured by sin.
I was going to go on and preach a sermon about how we can purify ourselves, redirect and reorder our destructive passions through a life of virtue in accordance with the other Beatitudes, and our reward for this enormous effort would be to see God. But while I was writing this I was suddenly struck by the fact that even in my own experience seeing God is not governed by the state of our hearts, it is not a reward for the spiritual elite who have toiled up the mountains of virtue and made their hearts pure, but is a gift offered to us all.
There are greater people to attest to this, not least Paul and Moses, but emboldened by the Bishop of Reading’s eloquent testimony the other week at St Aldates I want to tell you my story. For when I was nineteen, at university in Exeter, I did see God, not in any literal or visionary sense, but in the sense that a door was opened in my heart and I knew who the ground of my being, the end of all my desire was and I fell in love with Love himself. I had done nothing to deserve this. I was no ascetic and living the life of a hedonistic student in the fullest sense (there was no way you cold have called me pure). And yet I saw God, and that sight did not leave me for a long time, but was a physical feeling and a spiritual desire. Ironically, this did not make me feel pure in any sense, but on the contrary, much more aware of my impurity. A door had been opened and a light had been switched on, but whilst wonderful, its glare showed up so many blemishes and disfigurements, which the darkness had previously hidden. Since then I would say that the hardest part of my life is to look at that disfigured heart, illuminated by God’s light, and try to live with the reality that God loves that person, and not the one I would like him to see.
It would be so much easier to stand before God, to see God knowing that we were pure, holy, that all our dreadful thoughts and ideas did not exist, that we had trodden them down by the habit of virtue and we stood before God as our reward and our right. But the truth is far more harrowing. We stand before God naked, for he sees past all our attempts to hide what we really are, to trick him into thinking we are good and virtuous people. He sees all this and more. For whilst God Looks on our disfigured faces it is with the light of love that he sees, and this light pierces through our outer image and into the heart, which he created in his own image, which he knows and loves, and which, like him, is pure.
Those great mystics, like St John of the Cross, describe such an encounter as being set on fire. The fire of God’s love is ignited in the soul and slowly radiates out, purging the soul of all its sin until it becomes all flame. For no one who encounters God, be it through music, liturgy, scripture, academic study, nature or the words of others, is ever left unchanged by the experience. The flame of Christ’s presence in our lives, in our hearts, warms and illuminates us in a very real and tangible way. For the mystics of the Eastern Church, like Evagrius and Gregory of Nyssa, this is revealed in the life of virtue, which is not only the response to the love of God within our hearts, but is also the means of redirecting our passions to fulfill our truest and purest desires. The Beatitude is thereby turned on its head ~ blessed are they that see God for they shall be pure.
Unfortunately, from my own experience, I know too well that we cannot live on the mountain top, that the vision, the sight of God fades and the flame within us, is not so easily felt. But the mystics encourage us by their words, both hard and reassuring, that it is now, when the first flush of love is over, when we dwell in the dark night of the soul, that God begins his real work of stripping and burning and changing to reveal our true selves. It is now that our faith, our hope and our love of God are our anchor; that whilst we may at times see and feel nothing of his presence, we know that he dwells in our hearts. It is now that, against all the odds, despite the sin within ourselves and in the world, we live with the expectation of seeing him, glimpsing him wherever he shows himself. It is now that we can say: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.’
18th February 2007