This Sunday we will hear in the Gospel the wonderful account of our Lord's Sermon on the Mount, the pinnacle of which is certainly the Beatitudes. This passage used to be at the center of the Church's moral tradition, though it is generally ignored today by most textbooks of moral theology. St. Augustine, quite representative here of the later patristic tradition, wrote an entire book of twenty-three chapters devoted exclusively to this sermon, with an extensive treatment of the Beatitudes. I offer a few observations of my own:
First, Augustine inaugurates (or perhaps solidifies - I cannot find an earlier Father who teaches this as clearly) an ecclesial tradition of seeing in the Beatitudes the quintessence of the Christian moral life, 'a perfect standard of the Christian life.' Even more, it is all-comprehensive, containing 'perfect in all the precepts by which the Christian life is moulded' (emphasis mine). Augustine's ethic is teleologically oriented towards the end of happiness, or beatitude, which for him lies in possession of God - hence, Our Lord's direct revelation of the way to beatitude unsurpassable as a moral code.
Secondly, Augustine departs on what one might call a 'spiritualization', or to put it better, an 'interiorization' of the beatitudes. More modern scholars are tempted by the very 'social' language of the sermon to interpret it primarily in terms of social reform - the exaltation of the poor and persecuted, the value of peacemaking, the language of human comfort, etc. Augustine, on the contrary, is intent on redirecting these values inward, into the seat of the human soul in its quest for the vision of God. The 'poor' are the humble and God-fearing. The 'possession of the earth' which belongs to the meek is in fact the 'certain firmness and stability of the perpetual inheritance,' viz. the 'very rest and life of the saints.' The 'comfort' that belongs to the mourners is that of the Holy Spirit, which is given in the midst of temporal suffering. The 'food' of the hungry is the same food which nourished Christ - doing the will of His Father. The 'peacemakers' are those who possess peace of soul, when passions are rightly subjugated to the rulership of God. This is consistent with Augustine's theological formula of the relativization of temporal values vis-a-vis the absoluteness of the eternal (the programme of the City of God).
Thirdly, inasmuch as Augustine sees the beatitudes as a perfect compendium of the moral life, he also views them as an ordered hierarchy of mystical ascent. Accordingly, he lops off the eighth beatitude (regarding persecution, which he sees as an off-hand remark directed specifically and exclusively to the present audience) to make the perfect number, seven: 'Seven in number, therefore, are the things which bring perfection'. And it is, for Augustine, a hierarchy of progressive stages, beginning with the elementary value of humility, and reaching its culmination in the seventh and perfect beatitude, divine sonship ('. . . for they shall be called the sons of God' - note that sonship, here at least, surpasses even the vision of God, which constitutes the sixth and penultimate beatitude). Fourthly, Augustine cannot help but notice a certain correlation between the sevenfold Beatitude and the sevenfold operation of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah 11:1-3, traditionally known as the 'gifts of the Spirit' in the Catholic tradition. Although he has to reverse the order of the latter to make them fit, Augustine sees the parallelism as follows:
Poor in Spirit: Fear of God
Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness: Fortitude
Pure in Heart: Understanding
His reasoning behind each comparison is rather clever at many points, although perhaps somewhat forced at others. But the unity between them is essential, as it demonstrates the unity of all Scripture, especially between the Old and New Covenants.
Lastly, it is essential for Augustine that the seven beatitudes, or seven gifts, do not correspond to seven disctinct rewards, but rather, constitute one reward. Thus, he says, it is 'the one reward, which is the kingdom of heaven, [which] is variously named according to these stages'. This same regal reward is titled diversely: 'an inheritance', 'comfort', 'a full supply', 'mercy', 'the sight of God', and 'divine sonship'. All, in the end, amount to the same thing, the eternal possession of God Himself.