*This material is taken from a chapter in Marcus Grodi’s book Life From Our Land.
(Click here for the Staircase of Continual Conversion diagram PDF)
Looking at the present beauty of our fairly large, or, should I say, ambitious, garden, knowing the effort it will take every day for months to come, I’m reminded of the new Gospel that our Lord gave to those who desired to grow close to Him and thereby enter the Kingdom. He gave this in a sermon on a mount of grass, out in a field, to people gathered around Him, enjoying the wind and the sun, the songs of birds and the camaraderie of family and friends. Jesus talked about being blessed, about the qualities that this requires, and about rewards. We’ve all heard these Beatitudes, and usually they’re interpreted as separate promises referring, possibly, to separate groups of individuals:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.
St. Chromatius of Aquileia (ad 340–408), preached something about these Beatitudes that I had never heard, but which was understood by many of the early Doctors of the Church. In a sermon on Matthew, Chromatius wrote:
Our Lord, our savior, establishes extremely solid steps of precious stones, by which saintly souls and faithful can climb, can rise to this supreme good, which is the kingdom of heaven…. Brethren, before your eyes are the eight rungs of the gospel, constructed, as I have said, with precious stones. Behold Jacob’s ladder which starts on earth and whose top touches heaven. He who climbs it finds the gate of heaven, and having entered it, will have endless joy in the presence of the Lord, eternally praising Him with the holy angels.
Another contemporary of St. Chromatius, St. Gregory of Nyssa (ad 335-386), the brother of St. Basil the Great, also promoted this view. Whereas St. Chromatius wrote as a western Latin Catholic bishop, St. Gregory, however, was an eastern Greek bishop. There is no evidence that they ever communicated, and St. Gregory’s sermons on the Beatitudes may even have predated those of St. Chromatius. Here is how he introduces this concept:
When one climbs up by a ladder, he sets foot on the first step, and from there goes on to the one above. Again the second step carries the climber up to the third, and this to the following, and hence to the next. Thus the person who goes up always ascends from where he is to the step above until he reaches the top of his ascent. Now why do I begin like this? It seems to me that the Beatitudes are arranged in order like so many steps, so as to facilitate the ascent from one to the other. For if a man’s mind has ascended to the first Beatitude, he will accept what follows as a necessary result of thought, even though the next clause seems to say something new beyond what had been said in the first.
Pope St. Leo the Great (d. 461) confirmed this idea of the Beatitudes as a staircase of conversion in his own sermon on the Beatitudes: “Thus whoever longs to attain eternal blessedness can now recognize the steps that lead to that high happiness.”
From the perspective of Sts. Chromatius, Gregory of Nyssa, and Leo the Great, Jesus was telling His followers that each Beatitude was a step or “rung” that leads to the next and therefore becomes a foundation for the next. Each step yields a reward, yet also entails a crisis (either an obstacle to moving forward or a temptation to fall back), for each step requires sacrifice, perseverance, and choosing to actualize the grace available.
The first step (“Blessed are the poor in spirit”) refers to detachment from the world, and therefore choosing an attachment to Jesus Christ. Here is a poverty that we choose, regardless of material wealth or condition in life. This poverty of spirit involves seeing life from the perspective of God the Father: material things are good in themselves, but not as ends; they are only fleeting, and of no eternal value.
This first step involves, essentially what the first disciples did: “Immediately they left their nets and followed him” (Mk 1:18). All of Jesus’ instructions on discipleship begin here, and one must not turn back: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:62).
The reward for detachment from the kingdom of this world is “the kingdom of heaven.” A crisis can arise, however, when a person starts to “mourn” for the things they’ve left behind or could have had. We can fall back, through our choices, to our old attachments, or we can willingly, by grace, choose to move to the next step.
Step two (“Blessed are those who mourn”) involves detachment from sin in obedience to Jesus Christ: mourning how the sins to which we have become attached have separated us from God and from becoming the people He created us to be. The reward for remorse and repentance is being “comforted,” or having an inner affirmation of being forgiven, cleansed by grace — new creations by grace. A crisis can arise from our pride, when we second-guess the need to change and, instead, regress back into sin.
After one has detached from this world and from sin, step three (“Blessed are the meek”) involves detachment from self: choosing humbly to be like Jesus. When we let go of ourselves as the center of our own universes, and trust in God’s providence, He literally promises us the world (“for they shall inherit the earth”). But a crisis can arise through the temptation to once again “hunger and thirst” for the attention we once had when we were the center and focus of our lives. We can fall back, seeking the attention and praise of others, or we can willingly, by grace, choose to put others first — seeking their good, for the sake of Christ — and by grace move to the next step.
Being detached from the world, sin, and ourselves, we can attain the fourth step where, by grace, we “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” And Jesus promises that if we respond to and attach ourselves to this inner longing for holiness, we “will be satisfied”; we will be changed by grace. A crisis can arise, though, when we discover that this requires more sacrifice — that we are to forgive and show mercy, even to those who hate us. We can fall back by refusing to love and forgive, by returning to love of self over others, by returning to sinful behavior rather than listening to anyone else, by attaching ourselves again to things of this world. Or we can ask God for the grace necessary to help us choose to love, to forgive, regardless of how we feel, which leads to the next step.
Step five (“Blessed are the merciful”) involves willingly obeying and living out righteousness: loving as Christ has loved us. The reward is that we in turn receive and experience God’s mercy. A crisis can arise when we are tempted to feel bitterness for letting go of what we consider justice: when we regret letting go of punishing someone who has hurt us. We can harbor within our hearts bitterness because we have shown love, forgiveness, and mercy towards those whom we feel deserve rejection, punishment, and justice! This bitterness can build within our hearts until we quench the Spirit, stepping backwards into self, sin, and away from God. Or, we can repent of this sinfulness of heart, asking God to cleanse our hearts of whatever turns us away from Him, praying as David once did, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (Ps 51:10), leading us, then, to the next step.
As a result of willingly detaching ourselves, aided by grace, from the world, from sin, and from ourselves, hungering and thirsting instead for righteousness, and living this out in mercy toward others, our hearts are changed and purified (“Blessed are the pure in heart”). The reward for this is the gift of “seeing God.” The great Christian spiritual writers, of both East and West, have understood the gift of “seeing God” as the intimacy of contemplation. A pure heart is one that has been cleansed of the distractions of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and by grace is able to experience the journey of the Three Ways of the Spiritual Life, particularly the passive purgation of the senses and the spirit, leading to an intimate union with Christ.
A crisis can arise here in the potential of isolation. As a result of our efforts to detach ourselves from the world, sin, and self, followed by a concentrated hunger and thirst for righteousness, and then a desire to be loving and merciful to whomever crosses our path, we may in actuality have cornered ourselves into an exodus from the world, an inward focusing upon ourselves; even a resentful privatization of our spiritual lives, leading to bitterness whenever anyone has the “insensitive gall” to interfere, to intrude upon our “superior” efforts at holiness! Or, we can respond malleably to the implications and call of the first six steps, following in obedience their trajectory out from ourselves, following the example of Christ, out into the world, leading to the next step.
Beatitude seven involves imitating Christ in the world by being a peacemaker (“Blessed are the peacemakers”). This does not mean so much becoming a skilled negotiator or arbiter between warring peoples, but rather being a willing messenger of Jesus into the lives of others. The reward for stepping out in obedience to live out the implications of these steps in the relationships that God has given us is that people may recognize us as indeed “sons of God.” They may be moved to “see our good works and give glory to God the Father.”
However, they may not, and this could bring about a crisis. They may react negatively to our efforts, maybe even turn against us in ridicule or persecution. We can respond by backing off. We can return to the safety of our self-focused corner to seek holiness in isolation. Or worse, we can begin doubting, even rejecting the previous stages, giving in to the criticism of the crowd by joining their ranks. We can begin desiring their acceptance over the desire for righteousness, until we have stepped so far backward, that we are once again attached to seeking what is “best” for ourselves, to sin, and the world.
Or, by grace, we can accept the suffering that comes from standing up for what is right and good, pure and true, which leads to the next step.
Here, by grace, we have become willing to accept the persecution that comes from defending truth (“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake”). Those who react in ridicule may not realize why you are doing this (or in whose Name you are doing this); they may merely be reacting against our pointing out, even if done in love, their failure to do what is true, good, and pure. Our reward? At this stage, we might expect by now an exalted, glorious reward, but in fact we receive what we were promised in step one: membership in the Kingdom. In other words, being persecuted for doing what is right is par for the course: this is our duty as members of the Body of Christ. But then again, what is greater than eternal membership in the Family of God?
This can bring on a crisis, however, when others reject, ridicule, or persecute, not just the moral or ethical imperatives of our efforts, but our religious convictions and motives: they may ridicule our Lord and cast aspersions on our Catholic Faith. We can respond by backing off and, like Simon Peter, denying our Lord and our faith. But Jesus said, “He who denies me, denies the Father,” and warned that when we do this we force Him to deny us. In time, this can lead to a cascading spiritual tumble backwards.
Or, by grace, we can accept this rejection as nothing more than what is to be expected and accepted as a follower of Jesus Christ, and move to step nine, when, by grace, we accept whatever persecution comes because we stand with Jesus (“Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account”). Our reward, for which we are to “rejoice and be glad” is eternal union with Christ in heaven. But until then, we can still fall back, when we realize that these steps have not led to a comfortable plateau; that we haven’t reached an end where we can rest in peace knowing that we’ve arrived. Rather, we have merely reached the stage of discovering our lifelong mission, the “obedience of faith” in which we are called to live by grace until He calls us home.
We can become complacent in our presumptions, assuming that, through our efforts in obedience to Christ, we have arrived, and as a result blindly fall backwards, glorying in our successes, even arrogantly wallowing in the external symbols of our spiritual progress.
Or, by grace, we can continue living the steps, which must be revisited and renewed every day, following St. Paul’s example, mentioned many times throughout this book:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature be thus minded; and if in anything you are otherwise minded, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained. (Phil 3:12–16)
Admittedly, these steps as presented are intimidating; each alone can seem out of reach, let alone a step to the next. Their impossibility, in fact, is why so many of Jesus’ hearers refused to follow Him. Yet, Jesus did not back down from the importance of these challenges, for in the sermon, He said: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). He also said, though, that this radical living was to be augmented with prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (Mt 6:1–18), and that if we asked, sought, and knocked, He would help us (Mt 7:7–12). Just realizing the significance and promise of these Beatitudes, is a start, for any effort we make to begin detaching ourselves from the world, sin, and self initiates a hunger and thirst in our hearts for righteousness. This in turn can strengthen us to show at least some mercy, which gives us a glimmer of the presence of God, which by grace can give us the courage to begin stepping out in His Name. This whole process involves little steps, day by day, inch by inch, until, by grace, these steps become habitual, virtues. So said Thomas à Kempis: “Each day we should renew our resolution, and bestir ourselves to fervour, as though it were the first day of our conversion, and say, ‘Help me, O Lord God, in my good resolve and in your holy service: grant me this day to begin perfectly, for hitherto I have accomplished nothing.’”
- St. Chromatius of Aquileia, “Sermon on the Beatitudes,” quoted in Glimpses of the Church Fathers, by Claire Russell (London: Sceptor Press, 1996), p. 215, 219.
- Quoted in The Liturgy of the Hours, vol. 4, 22nd Week, Thursday, Office of Readings, p. 207.
- We often hear of the Eight Beatitudes, but there are those who speak of nine. I chose nine here because it seems like Jesus was prophetically pointing to what has too often happened historically: believers step out into the world to do good deeds for righteousness’ sake but are hesitant to do so in the name of Christ. Acknowledging these as two intentions allows for a recognition of the necessary progress in courage and conviction.
- Thomas à Kempis, Imitation of Christ (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), p. 48.