Satyagraha

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The Beatitudes as Stages of Spiritual Growth

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The Sermon on the Mount (detail), Heinrich Hofmann; German, 1824–1911; date unknown.

By William Pryse

THE Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3−10) are literally and thematically at the center of the Sermon on the Mount.  They mark successive steps of the upward course of the spiritual life to its full and final perfection. Each beatitude grows out of all that precede it, and occupies a necessary place in the progressive series. There is not a grace, excellence, experience or duty of the moral life which does not find its place within this series.

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

Poverty of spirit refers to those who have awakened from their self-righteousness to the fact of their self-poverty. Without this conscious and heartfelt awareness of ones limitations and shortcomings, there can be no start, much less progress, in the spiritual life. And it is gloriously significant that with the first step is promised the end: namely, attainment to the grace-led and blessed manner of life which the Gospels call the Kingdom of Heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Poverty of spirit leads directly to mourning for sin. One who has become sensible of spiritual destitution soon recognizes the cause of ones inward need. One perceives that it is egoism and selfish attachments which deprive one of happiness and spiritual good. Thus one becomes increasingly sensible of the evil of sin, and sensitive to the miseries resulting from it, in ones own life and in the world at large. In other words, one becomes a penitent mourner for sin in oneself, and a sincere mourner over the dreadful reality and destructive work of sin in human life and society.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

Out of conscious poverty and penitent mourning grows the meekness of the third beatitude. This meekness is the modest, self-denying and self-restrained spirit which evinces itself in gentleness and forbearance toward others in one emptied of pride and self-sufficiency.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

These three experiences naturally lead to a supreme valuation of and desire for righteousness — that is, to think, act and live rightly, in right accord with ones own true physical and moral nature, with the Cosmos and Eternal Order, with God, and with ones fellow human beings. And to desire this good above all things else.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

As the next stage of spiritual progress, the heir of the heavenly kingdom becomes merciful toward ones fellow men. All ones previous experiences conspire to awaken in one a clear sense of their lost condition, their trials and sorrows, their need of sympathy and help. Ones consciousness of ones own infirmities teaches one charity toward the infirmities of others. Ones sense of the supreme importance of salvation from unwisdom and unvirtue prompts one to efforts for their spiritual and eternal good. A realization of ones own imperative need of the divine mercy quickens in one the same spirit of mercy toward all others.

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

Purity is a composite of all the previous graces, freedom from all their opposites. Each of the five contributes to it. In it is the love of all things good, the abhorrence of all things evil. As such it carries with it the vision of the true Good. It is the clearing away of the mists from the soul, and the cleansing of the films from the spiritual eyes.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

It is easy to see how such qualities as humility, penitence, meekness, desire after righteousness, mercifulness and purity become elements of peace in the soul and influences for peace in the life. They invest the character with an effective power to prevent strife and allay discord. They are the very elements and conditions of peace, whether internal or external. There can be no peace where they are absent; there can be no strife where they prevail. Their opposite qualities are the direct causes of all strife and dissension, and they who are swayed by them are necessarily strifemakers. But the graces of the beatitudes are, each and all, potent solvents of discord, and they who possess them are necessarily also peacemakers, both through conscious effort and unconscious influence. To seek and promote this peace, inward and outward — peace within oneself, peace with God and Nature and peace among men — becomes a free impulse, urge and ordering principle of their lives.

Based on the writings of Rev. William Stratton Pryse (1849−1928).

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Righteousness (Δικαιοσύνη)

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sir-joshua-reynolds-justice-1779

1. CONFUSION about what ‘Justice’ means is a major source of psychological and social problems today.  The basic argument herein is that the cardinal virtue usually called ‘Justice’ in modern English is more accurately termed Righteousness.

2. It’s vital to understand that Justice itself is something much greater than mere retributive justice (punishment, revenge, etc.) or equity (treating all people equally). While Justice itself — like Truth and Beauty, to which it is related — can be experienced and intuited, it is not easily defined.  We should therefore try to look at it from various angles, hoping to reveal its true moral meaning meaning.

3. First we consider the etymology and cognates of ‘Justice’.  Doing so we notice a variety of words and phrases in which the root, just, has a meaning that refers not to laws, but to exactness and perfect measure.  For example, we routinely use phrases like ‘just in time,’ ‘just right,’ ‘just as I hoped,’ and so on.  Here is our first clue: that what we call justice might be more accurately called just-rightness, arightness, or the like.

4. We should also seek out ancestral wisdom on a matter of such enduring and central importance to human welfare as Justice.  Accordingly let us consult various sources.

5. In Greek mythology we find that Justice and retribution are distinct: the former is represented by the goddess Dike; and the latter by the goddess Nemesis.  These are two separate entities, and separate principles.

6. Justice/Dike is often represented as holding golden scales.  Justice is associated with scales not because ‘the punishment must fit the crime’, as some suppose; rather, a much broader and beautiful meaning is alluded to:  that, for everything in life, indeed for everything in the Universe, there is a perfect mean or measure — neither too much, nor too little — in which amount, it contributes harmoniously to the cosmic symphony.  In Egyptian religion, this cosmic meaning of Justice is even more apparent, where the counterpart of Dike is Ma’at, goddess of Measure and Balance.

7. Justice, as a personal virtue, is a main concern of the New Testament, where it is termed in Greek, dikaiosyne, and commonly translated into English as righteousness. An indication of the central importance of righteousness in the New Testament is that it figures prominently in not one, but two of the nine Beatitudes:

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. (Matt 5:6)

Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:10)

8. A few lines later are these words:

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matt 6:33)

Most Christians are familiar with the phrase, seek ye first the kingdom of God, but perhaps few realize that they are instructed as well to seek his righteousness — which we may understand as meaning to seek to understand and know what divine righteousness is, and to possess this virtue in our own life. This fits exactly with previous comments on the kingdom of God

9. But in equating Justice with righteousness, have we solved anything?  What does righteous mean?  There is some confusion here also, as indicated by the phrase, righteous indignation.  This phrase is internally contradictory: righteousness and indignation have little affinity for each other, and, in fact, are almost diametrically opposed.  A truly righteous person is more characteristically patient, long-suffering, charitable and meek — not indignant.

10. Thayer’s Greek Definitions, a definitive biblical reference, relates the primary meaning of dikaiosyne with “integrity, virtue, purity of life, and rightness and correctness of thinking, feeling and acting.”  It thus means a person who is right (in the sense of ‘just right’, well measured, or harmonized) with God, with him/herself, and with the Universe.

11. We find that dikaiosyne is a principle concern of St. Paul’s epistles as well.  He frequently emphasizes a distinction between legalism (slavish adherence to fixed laws) and righteousness — an ethical orientation in which ones choices are spontaneously guided by Conscience, our innate spiritual sense of rightness.  Seeing this helps us understand one of St. Paul’s most famous doctrines: that one is justified (i.e., made righteous) by faith in Jesus Christ.  This could be understood psychologically to mean that the act of turning ones heart to Jesus re-aligns ones moral apparatus, reconnecting one to ones spiritual Conscience — thereby permitting one to act and think in accord with God’s will, and putting one again in harmony with all creation; one becomes, that is, ‘aright’ again, regaining a state of natural bliss and attunement.

12. Plato devoted his greatest dialogue, the Republic, to the question, what is righteousness?; the ancient subtitle of the Republic, in fact, is ‘On the Righteous Man.’  That Plato wrote a lengthy dialogue on this topic indicates that he considered this question an important one, and that (as today), ordinary notions of what Justice means were confused or mistaken and needed clarification.  In the Republic, Plato explicitly rejects a definition of righteousness as mere equity (‘giving to each man his due’), in favor of a meaning of right measure that contributes to Harmony, Balance, Order and Beauty.

13. Plato also considered Justice (righteousness; dikaiosyne) to be one of the four cardinal virtues, along with Courage, Temperance and Prudence.  Of these,  Justice is the greatest, as it is necessary for the others.  Each of the other cardinal virtues is a rightly measured mean between extremes. Courage, for example, is the right mean between cowardice and rashness.  We need dikaiosune to judge what the right amount of some specific virtue is that a given situation demands.

14. Plato concludes the Republic with Socrates confidently announcing that the righteous person is the most happy — where happiness means a certain divine state of mind.  This agrees with the Beatitudes, where we are told that the righteous person will attain the condition of bliss or blessedness (makarios).

15. Considering all the preceding — what may we infer?  We know that righteousness brings happiness, and that this righteousness is far removed from anything like revenge or retribution.  Likewise is does not consist in mere performance of social duties, including important ones like helping the needy — though these, of course, would usually be part of the life of a truly righteous person.  Specific actions are important —  but not as important as the very means by which we may discern what actions would be most truly beneficial, productive, beautiful, harmonious and ‘just right.’

16. Therefore while it’s clearly important to relieve the oppression, mistreatment, poverty, hunger and sickness of others, we should not, in the process of pursuing these things, whether through anger, indignation, agitation or disturbed thinking, disconnect ourselves from our own righteousness, nor act in ways that oppose Divine Harmony.

17. This true meaning of righteousness is conveyed in the following lines of Orphic Hymn 62, To Dikaiosyne (in Greek mythology, the goddess or spirit Dikaiosyne was righteousness personified, a daughter of Dike):

O Blessed Dikaiosyne, mankind’s delight,
Th’ eternal friend of conduct just and right:
Abundant, venerable, honor’d maid,
To judgments pure, dispensing constant aid,
A stable conscience, and an upright mind;
For men unjust, by thee are undermin’d,
Whose souls perverse thy bondage ne’er desire,
But more untam’d decline thy scourges dire:
Harmonious, friendly power, averse to strife,
In peace rejoicing, and a stable life;
Lovely, loquacious, of a gentle mind,
Hating excess, to equal deeds inclin’d:
Wisdom, and virtue of whate’er degree,
Receive their proper bound alone in thee. (Thomas Taylor, translator)

18. Occupying the deepest level of our moral consciousness, Dikaiosyne is potentially related to the symbols of the angel guarding the gates of Paradise, the Pythogorean Y at the entrance to the Isles of the Blessed, and the ancient mystical allegory called the Choice of Hercules.

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19. Let us not emulate the unvirtue of those who hold up angry signs at public demonstrations that say, “No Justice, No Peace!” or the like — making, in effect, a threat, and expressing a sentiment as far removed from the true meaning of Justice as it is from Peace.   We should, rather, remind ourselves, “No Peace, No Justice!”  Peace removes the mental agitations that distort our thinking and impede our ability to see the right course, and the way of Truth and Beauty.  Conversely, whatever opposes Peace, opposes righteousness, by producing discord, enmity, and disturbed and erroneous thinking.

20. To summarize, what emerges is that Justice/righteousness is a state of mind, a cosmic principle, and an attribute of Deity — one with much in common with Truth and Beauty.  Justice is the joyous and glorious Divine Harmony of an all-good God.  It is something which, the more we understand, the more we love.  Indeed one could easily argue that divine Justice and divine Love are virtually the same thing.

21. Well may we reflect on the words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, where, in speaking of authentic charity (agape), he may just as well be describing the sublime virtue of righteousness:

[1] Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

[2] And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

[3] And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

[4] Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,

[5] Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;

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