By Christopher W. Yoder
When I drove to Oklahoma City yesterday from Dallas, I had to rely on Google Maps. I’m not much good at finding my way on my own. I’m directionally challenged, as my wife will readily testify. I need a map, or an app, to show me the way.
In this at least I’m very different from the Australian Aboriginal community of Pormpuraaw. It’s a community I learned about a while back on Radiolab, the NPR show. The Pormpuraawans are extraordinarily good at finding their way. They don’t need a map to orient themselves. They learn their sense of direction as they learn to speak their language.
Pormpuraawans don’t use terms like left or right. Instead they say things like, “Move your cup over to the north-northwest a little bit,” or “The boy standing to the south of Mary is my brother.” Can you imagine? Just to speak the language properly, you’ve got to always stay properly oriented, to always know which way is which. I’d be horrible at it. But the Pormpuraawans are incredibly good at it. Even if you ask a child of 5 which direction is southeast, she will point without hesitation in that direction — even indoors.
Speaking the Pormuraawan language apparently gives you a kind of mental map of the world. Lera Boroditsky, a cognitive scientist who’s studied this community, tells the story of a moment when she had a fleeting experience of just such a map. She had been working in the community for about a week and was constantly trying to stay oriented.
One day she was walking through the desert, when all of a sudden she “noticed that in her head there was an extra window,” like a module in a video game or like a little Google Map, with “a bird’s-eye view of the landscape [she] was walking on and [she] was as a little red dot that was traversing the landscape.”
Later, when she shared her experience with members of the community, she says they “looked at her kind of strangely” and said, “Well, of course. How else would you do it? Of course you have a bird’s-eye view, and keep track of your location from a bird’s-eye view.” Of course you do!
We’ve been given a bird’s-eye view of sorts in today’s Gospel lesson: “Blessed are the poor in spirit … Blessed are they that mourn … Blessed are the meek … Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness … Blessed are the merciful … the pure in heart … the peacemakers … Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”
The Beatitudes give us a bird’s-eye view of life. They mark out what really matters. They are the contour lines in a topographic map of the moral universe. Pope Benedict calls them “a road map for the Church.” The Beatitudes orient us in life. They help us to find the Way. They map out the life of discipleship. They describe the lay of the land, help us to visualize the kingdom of God, display what it looks like to imitate Christ.
As such, they are words of both challenge and promise. They are challenging precisely because they are initially disorienting. They shift our perspective. We thought we knew how the world works, thought we knew the terrain. We had in our minds a picture of success. We thought the way to the good life lay in working hard, saving a little, sending the kids to college so they could do better than us, and enjoying a comfortable retirement.
But with Jesus’ words the perspective shifts. This picture of the good life doesn’t quite line up with ours. What was once east-west becomes north-south. What we thought were valleys are actually hills. Suddenly we hear Jesus calling “blessed” what we had hoped to avoid: poverty, mourning, hunger and thirst, suffering and death. It’s so disorienting that our initial response is to question whether Jesus really means what he says. “Bless your heart, Jesus,” we’re tempted to say. “Those are lovely ideals, but aren’t they just a touch unrealistic?”
But these world-shifting words are also words of promise. They reveal the contours of the good life. They show what is good and true and beautiful. And they do this by painting a portrait of Jesus. In the lines of the Beatitudes, we can discern the lines of his face. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he says — who for our sake became poor, who had no place to lay his head.
“Blessed are the meek,” he says — who also says, “Come unto me … learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart.” The one who blesses them that mourn also wept at the grave of Lazarus his friend and mourned over Jerusalem’s failure to repent. And, as the great theologian Origen asks, “What other man brought as much peace as my Lord Jesus, who ‘is our peace,’ who ‘dissolves enmity,’ and ‘destroys it in his own flesh’?” And who has suffered persecution for righteousness’ sake if not the One who was crucified for us?
All the Beatitudes radiate in the life of the Lord Jesus. He is the blessed One, the source of all blessedness. He is the risen One who makes all things new; he brings joy in the midst of suffering. The Beatitudes are his self-portrait. Looking at them, we see his face, and the vision captivates us. The beautiful lines of his face draw us toward his blessedness.
The Beatitudes show us what Christ looks like, and therefore show us what Christ is making us to be. You see, we were made to reflect the beauty of the Lord in our lives. Our lives are meant to bear the beautiful goodness of Christ, just as a painting bears the image of a living face. But sin has dulled his image in our lives, like centuries of accumulated grime dim the once-vibrant colors of a Renaissance painting. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that Christ is at work in our lives, washing from us the filth of sin. He is like a master art conservator restoring a Michelangelo or Monet to its former brilliance. Christ, says Gregory of Nyssa, is the one “who paints our soul in the likeness of the only Blessed One.” He is restoring our soul into his likeness. And the Beatitudes show us the completed restoration. Don’t you want your life to look like that? I know I do. I want to be like Jesus.
Today’s collect is for All Saints’ Day. We prayed, “Grant us grace so to follow thy blessed Saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those unspeakable joys which thou has prepared for those who unfeignedly love thee.” I want to say something further about the saints, and about those unspeakable joys we hope to share with them.
The saints are the blessed, those whose lives have clearly reflected Christ’s blessedness. They are departed Christians in whom the Church has recognized the light of Christ shining with particular force. Their lives say, clearly and attractively, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). The paradoxical promise of the Beatitudes is their lived experience; it’s the map they carry in their heads. The saints are like the Pormpurawaans of the spiritual life. Their lives show that the picture of reality presented in the Beatitudes is true. Their joys show the Beatitudes are a reliable map to our proper place.
Take St. Paul, for example. His life shines with Christ’s joy in the midst of suffering. He writes, “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8-9). Paul’s life is full of suffering, but he is filled with a deeper joy, with the joy of knowing intimately Christ Jesus his Lord.
And, in the end, can you think of any joy that surpasses this one? After all, what is our reward in heaven other than the Lord himself? As Gregory of Nyssa puts it, “He himself is the Judge of those who fight, and the crown of those who win. He it is who distributes the inheritance, he himself is the goodly inheritance. He is the portion and the giver of the portion. He makes rich and is himself the riches. He shows you the treasure and is himself your treasure.” All that the Beatitudes promise is given in the Lord Jesus. “For all the promises of God in him are yea, and in him Amen” (2 Cor. 1:20): the kingdom, the consolation, the abundance, the peace.
Today, we rejoice in the fellowship of the blessed Saints because they have not got lost. They have found the Way home. Christ has brought them home to joy. “Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat. For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes” (Rev. 7:15-17).
The Rev. Christopher Yoder is rector of All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Oklahoma City.