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Blessings and Meetings, Part One

Based on a paper I read at the All Souls Club in London on June 5.

This article grew out of two long silent retreats at St. Beuno’s Jesuit Spirituality Centre in North Wales. My wife, Alison, and I usually go there in August, every two years.

I sometimes feel that entering into, and emerging from, deep silence with God for eight days resembles diving into a pool and swimming underwater for a length and then surfacing again.

We both keep notes in our spiritual journals and, during a few days of holiday afterwards, catch up with each other about our meetings with God in the silence.

In August 2019, two of the passages my spiritual director asked me to contemplate for the week were the Beatitudes in Matthew chapter 5 and the surprising meetings with Christ in “the least of these my brothers” in Matthew chapter 25.

In August 2023, in the silence, I wrote some poems and I will be interspersing my reflections on “Blessings” and “Meetings” with four of those poems. Today we shall focus on the blessings, turning tomorrow to the meetings.

As an introduction to “Blessings,” I begin with the poem “Christ the Oboe,” which I hope has positive echoes for ecumenism.

Christ the Oboe

For an orchestra tuning up,
The oboe plays the note of A.
Instruments, in their variegation,
Tune themselves to Alpha.

In tune with each other,
They are ready and waiting,
Attentive, well-tempered,
A consort for concert.

In Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 four-part TV film, Jesus of Nazareth, Robert Powell played the part of Jesus. Powell reported that when it came to the scene of the Beatitudes, they had to do several takes. He said this was because he kept breaking down and crying as he pronounced these extraordinarily simple but powerful words.

We shall be looking at each of the eight beatitudes, at my suggested synonyms and antonyms, at the instruments in an orchestra that seems to me to resonate with them, at how they are resolved, at a one-word focus of resolution, and finally at an illustration in one of the parables of Jesus.

We hear the indicative mood at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount before the imperative mood in the rest of chapters 5-7. “This is who you are,” before “this is then how you should live,” comes out even more dramatically in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes in Luke chapter 6. Grace and justification come before ethics. We notice a similar order in Paul’s letters.

Joachim Jeremias, a scholar of Aramaic, discovered a particular way of speaking preferred by Jesus and outlined these in his New Testament Theology, Volume 1. He translated many of Jesus’ words in the Greek New Testament back into his mother tongue and found that many of the memorable passages, including the Beatitudes, had a particular rhythm or beat.

One of my favorite commentaries on Matthew is by H. Benedict Green, The Gospel According to Matthew. In his Introduction, he discussed the importance of Matthew’s use of chaismus (a “sandwich arrangement of his material ABBA”), and on the Beatitudes he commented:

These are arranged in pairs, not in simple juxtaposition but dovetailed: the poor and the meek, the mourners and the hungry, the merciful and the peacemakers, the single-hearted and the sufferers for righteousness.

The result is a rhythmical hymn in eight lines, ABABCDCD, tied together by the use of righteousness in the last line of each quatrain, and by the repetition of for theirs is the kingdom of heaven from the first line to the last (Green, p. 76).

  1. Poor in Spirit

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

My suggested synonym is humble and antonym is proud. My orchestral instrument is the double bass. The blessing is resolved in the kingdom and a one-word focus of resolution is harmony. The parable is the Seed Growing Secretly in Mark 4:26-29.

  1. Sorrowful

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

My synonym is bereaved and antonym is all is fine. My instrument is the cello. The blessing is resolved in consolation and a one-word focus is comfort. The parable is of Dives and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31.

  1. Gentle

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

I like the graffiti that was added to a church poster headlining this beatitude: “If that’s OK with the rest of you.”

My synonyms are reverent, pliable, and absorbing and antonyms are reactive, hard, and harsh. My instrument is the viola. The blessing is resolved in the earth and a one-word focus is home. The parable is the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32.

  1. Hunger for Justice

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

My synonyms include focused, determined, and persevering and antonym is laissez-faire. My instrument is the violin. The blessing is resolved in satisfied and the focus word is full. The parable is the Importunate Widow in Luke 18:1-8.

  1. Show Mercy

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

My synonym is compassionate and antonym is strict. My instrument is the clarinet.

This choice was influenced by the first chapter of Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic, in which he describes being in a café and in a state of despair. He heard, as background music, the slow movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and felt the mercy of God. Spufford then quotes another writer:

The novelist Richard Powers has written that the Clarinet Concerto sounds the way mercy would sound, and that’s exactly how I experienced it in 1997.

The blessing is resolved in receiving mercy and the focus word is relieved. The obvious parable is the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37, when Jesus, typically at the end, reverses the lawyer’s question “And who is my neighbor?” with his own question: “Who acted as a neighbor?”

  1. Hearts Pure

Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.

My synonyms are integrated and unalloyed and of a bell giving off a pure note of clarity. My antonyms are fake and split. My instrument is the French horn. The blessing is resolved in seeing God and the focus word is delight. The parable is The Sower in Mark 4:1-9: “… and other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”

  1. Peacemakers

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

My synonym is reconcilers and antonym is warmongers. My instrument is the flute. The blessing is resolved in being called children of God and the focus word is belonging. The parable is the Laborers in the Vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16, the generosity of which is bracketed at the beginning and the end with Jesus’ summary of the gospel. We do not usually notice this clever bracketing by Matthew, because of the chapter division.

Matthew 19:30, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” Matthew 20:16, “So, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

  1. Persecuted

Blessed are those who are persecuted for rightousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

My synonym is stressed and antonym is attacker. In the Anglican Communion book that I edited, Out of the Depths: Hope in Times of Suffering (2016), we suggested the following spectrum of persecution, which may be delineated from “squeeze” to “smash”:

‘Harassment’, where people have subtle consistent pressure put upon them. ‘Subjugation’, where they are kept down, as a lower class in law. ‘Persecution’, where they are physically and violently attacked, by individuals or the State. ‘Martyrdom’, where they are killed for their faith or for standing for justice. ‘Annihilation’, where whole peoples are wiped out. ‘Obliteration’, where the original existence of the annihilated peoples is denied, or they are ‘airbrushed’ out of the picture, such as the destruction of Armenian churches and artefacts in Turkey, holocaust denial and the destruction of churches by the so-called Islamic State.

The instrument is the tympani drum. The last blessing is resolved, as in the first blessing, in the kingdom and the one-word focus of resolution is the same as the first blessing, harmony. The parable is of the Wicked Tenants in the Vineyard, Matthew 21:33-44, “But the tenants seized his slaves, and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.”

As we conclude this installment on “Blessings,” with “Meetings” to follow tomorrow, I offer a second poem as a bridge between the two.

Have you noticed that the Beatitudes actually describe the character of Jesus?

Herbert’s Hilary” emanated from noticing the confluence between the reticence portrayed in George Herbert’s poem “Love (III),” which begins, “Love bade me welcome,” and the subtle gift of Hilary — a friend of mine for 40 years — of drawing people out. I published it on my site, and quote it here, with her permission.

Helen Vendler, the Harvard scholar of English literature, who died earlier this year, concludes her book The Poetry of George Herbert with comments on Love (III):

The observant “quick-ey’d”, courteous, conversational, and smiling Love is himself at first a mysterious creation, quite unlike any other literary version of God … Like some decorous minuet, the poem leads its character through steps in a delicate hovering: a pace forward, a hanging back, a slackening, a drawing nearer, a lack, a fullness, a dropping of the eyes, a glance, a touch, a reluctance, a proffer, a refusal, a demurrer, an insistence— and the final seating at the feast … To think that such a poem could be constructed on a “source” of only nine words— “He shall make them sit down to meat” (Luke 12:37)— is to stand astonished at Herbert’s powers.

Love

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d any thing.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, you shall be he.
I, the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah, my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, Who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, ‘and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

Herbert’s Hilary

In her psychotherapy, I imagine,
Hilary performs the role
She typically plays at parties.

“Quick-ey’d Love,”
Noticing the unnoticed,
Gently welcoming,
Releases the reticent.

Loved by Love, she loves.

Simone Weil, in her spiritual autobiography Waiting for God, describes how Herbert’s Love (III) helped her come to faith in Christ. Here are excerpts from a letter written in Marseilles, France, about May 15, 1942, to Weil’s close friend, Father Perrin:

In 1938 I spent ten days at Solesmes, from Palm Sunday to Easter Tuesday, following all the liturgical services. I was suffering from splitting headaches …

There was a young English Catholic there from whom I gained my first idea of the supernatural power of the sacraments because of the truly angelic radiance with which he seemed to be clothed after going to communion. Chance — for I always prefer saying chance rather than Providence — made of him a messenger to me. For he told me of the existence of those English poets of the seventeenth century who are named metaphysical. In reading them later on, I discovered the poem of which I read you what is unfortunately a very inadequate translation. It is called “Love”. I learned it by heart. Often, at the culminating point of a violent headache, I make myself say it over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines. I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer. It was during one of these recitations that, as I told you, Christ himself came down and took possession of me…Moreover, in this sudden possession of me by Christ, neither my senses nor my imagination had any part; I only felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of a love, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face.

Tomorrow we shall resume with “Meetings.”

1 COMMENT

  1. Well done, as always, Graham. I particularly appreciated three moments:

    1) The mention of Francis Spufford. I have recently consumed two of his novels, and I look forward to experiencing everything else he has written.

    2) The reference to the slow movement of the Mozart clarinet concerto, which I think is sublime, and which I will always associate with its use in the film “Out of Africa.”

    3) The Herbert poem is dear to me, through RVW’s setting in “Five Mystical Songs,” which Brenda and I had sung at our wedding.

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