Mother Anna Chiara Meli, OCSO
Prior of Mvanda (DRC)

The Beatitudes,
a Map for Monastic Formation


‘Who can bring us happiness?’ many say.
Lift up the light of your face on us, O Lord.
Psalm 4.7


There is no doubt that this verse of the psalm is an excellent key for us to enter into a meditation on the Beatitudes. In fact it is a question of the pursuit of happiness. This is a universal search, for everyone wants to be happy. But what sort of happiness? The eightfold ‘happiness’ of Matthew’s Beatitudes
lays before us a road to happiness fairly distant from common criteria of happiness. Who today would dare to proclaim happy those who weep, those who hunger, or even the merciful? Our world points us rather to images for happiness diametrically opposed to these: those who laugh, those who are full, the strong and so on. The road indicated by the Beatitudes leads to the same answer as our verse of Psalm 4: the face of Christ. In fact it seems clear enough that the Matthean Beatitudes are above all an interior portrait of Jesus, the poor man par excellence, enabling us to unveil his face.

As M. Dumais points out, ‘Jesus was able to proclaim the Beatitudes because he was the first to live them out. They reflect his experience in his concrete practice of faith and hope, interwoven with suffering and the perspective of death. This makes Jesus the guarantor and model of a happy life.’[1] According to Matthew Jesus begins his proclamation by a call to happiness.

A. Chouraqui sees behind the expression ‘happy’ an Aramaic word which suggests a call to movement, ‘Forwards!’. The happiness to which Jesus calls us is to build with him. It is received from God, but rests also on our choices, our commitment. In this we are in line with the Scriptures. For example in Psalm 1 happiness is promised to anyone who does not associate with murmurers but ‘whose delight is the law of the Lord, and who ponders his law day and night’. One kind of murmuring must give way to another, a change of interior disposition. The vain plotting of the peoples (Ps 2), which so easily finds an echo in ourselves, must be silenced so that we can be rooted in the Torah, like the tree planted beside the flowing waters. Psalm 2 also ends with a beatitude, ‘Blessed are all who trust in God’. It would be possible to resume the Beatitudes by ‘Blessed are those who resemble Jesus. Blessed are those who find their joy simply in being close to the Father’.

Another interesting aspect of the Beatitudes is that the seven last can be seen as a declension of the first. All are in fact aspects of true purity of heart. We must thoroughly understand this first Beatitude. Although the expression ‘poor in spirit’ is unique in the whole of Scripture it has a biblical foundation and is linked to other expressions in the Gospel of Matthew: ‘pure in heart’ (5.8) and Jesus ‘gentle and humble in heart’ (11.29). Purity of heart is a spiritual condition which determines a person’s whole attitude. ‘A spirit which is pure in heart is not self-sufficient but recognises its poverty and its need of others to live and grow.’ Hence the interpretation now commonly accepted, ‘Happy are those who know that they depend totally on God, who leave themselves entirely in his hands’.[2] The anawim are the socially oppressed, those incapable of asserting their rights, obliged to bow before the rich and powerful. The term came to be used to designate those who ‘bow down before the Lord’ and depend upon him for everything because they recognise their poverty. This means that the anaw, the poor in heart, recognises what he is, a creature whose richness lies in God. He is open and welcoming. For such a person salvation is a gift to be received rather than a task to be accomplished. The first Beatitude is the basis of all the others, since it expresses the fundamental attitude required to enter the Kingdom. Without it we cannot be enriched and live and grow in communion with God and other people.’[3]

As we have said, this first Beatitude contains all the others. It is a sort of matrix. Everything which follows explicates some aspect of the person who is truly pure in heart. And we have already said that the truly pure in heart is primarily Jesus himself. This becomes clear across the other three Beatitudes, the gentle, those who are afflicted and the merciful.

‘Blessed are the gentle’, the term used (praus) is not used in the other gospels and occurs only twice elsewhere, in Mt 11.29, ‘I am gentle and humble of heart’ and Mt 21.5 (quoting Zc 9.9), ‘Look, your king is coming, gentle and riding on a donkey.’ Both instances have to do with the humility of Christ. He is THE gentle one. The gentle are those who, like him, find their joy in doing the work of God.

‘The gentle does not try to do violence to God, to snatch from him what he wants. He accepts God’s timing and mode of action. So he is not weak, but on the contrary a believer who possesses great strength of character.’[4]

‘Happy the afflicted’ – of course, if we compare this Beatitude with that of Lk 6.21, which includes all the poor whom life has not spared. But we should add that the word penthos (affliction) occurs only once, in Mt 9.15, ‘Surely the bridegroom’s attendants cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?’

Therefore the afflicted are also those whom the absence or neglect of God profoundly affects. Jesus is so afflicted that his Father’s house should have become a lair of merchants and brigands, that the law of the love of God should be used to load heavy burdens on the backs of the simple, that this same Torah should be used against people rather than for them. In short, he is afflicted at this distortion of the face of his Father.

‘Happy are the merciful’: in the Old Testament mercy is above all an attribute of God. His mercy consists primarily in pardoning faults and acting in favour of people in need. The word translated in the Bible by ‘mercy’ (rehem) designates primarily the uterus, the mother’s womb.

To be merciful is to be ‘gutted’ at a situation of evil or misery. The merciful are those who effectively open their hearts to others and act to soothe their distress. On the basis of Mt 25 it is possible to go further and conclude that the beatitude of mercy includes all the service which one is called to do for a neighbour in distress.[5]

The parable of Mt 18.23-35 shows that forgiveness of others flows from the forgiveness received from God. The experience of being pardoned by God should make us in our turn ready to forgive others who have wronged us. The reception of forgiveness is real and authentic when the one who receives it shows its fruit by pardoning in his turn. One cannot fail to hear an echo of the words of Christ on the cross, ‘Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.’

Unhesitatingly, one can hear an echo of a Christological reading of each of the other beatitudes. These allow us to form some impression of the beauty of ‘the most handsome’ of the children of men, and through him a reflection of the beauty of the Father.


[1] M. Dumais, Le sermon sur la Montagne (Matthieu 5-7), CE 94, Paris, Cerf, 1995, p. 18.

[2] Idem, p. 23. This first beatitude is really the beatitude of impotence, of weakness, of submission to God. It is the daily condition of those whom the Old Testament calls the anawim (from the root ‘to be bowed down’, whence the translation offered by E. de Luca for this beatitude, ‘blessed are those who bow down before the wind’).

[3] M. Dumais, Le sermon sur la Montagne (Matthieu 5-7), CE 94, Paris, Cerf, 1995, p. 18-19.

[4] Idem, p. 20.

[5] Ibidem, p. 23.