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Purity of Heart

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”—St MATTHEW 5:8.

You will remember that in speaking of Christian pity we noted that it was a test which men could and would easily apply to the professed followers of Christ, and that therefore it needed the detailed attention which we have given to it. The Beatitude which we have now reached we shall all feel deserves special attention for another reason, because of the greatness of the reward attached to it, the Vision of God. In other respects it presents an absolute contrast to the last, in that it can afford no test which can be applied by others. Of the presence or absence of pity society can take cognizance, and form its judgment; it may even offer its rewards to the pitiful; but of purity of heart it can take no cognizance, it can offer no rewards, it cannot even, except in extreme cases, detect its absence. The effort to cleanse and purify the heart, to ennoble the motives, to seek the higher thoughts and to act on the nobler impulses, may be the work going on under calm and uninviting exteriors which give no hint of the profound struggles that are waged in moments of loneliness, that fear to disclose their inward devotion lest it lose its bloom.

“Se sub serenis vultibus

Austera Virtus occulit

Timens videri, ne suum,

Dum prodit, amittat decus.”

Too often the idea, both of purity of heart and of the reward, is limited. Purity of heart is viewed as though it were absence of moral contamination, and the vision of God as if it were something reserved for the hereafter. Both views are inadequate. Purity of heart is something positive; it is a Divine elevation of aim, a positive endowment which walks through the wilderness with its eyes unaverted, and yet sees God; not only God in One perfect Being, but God in nature, and God in man. This was the power that Christ possessed because of His elevation of aim. Wherever there was a shred of goodness, a spark of the Divine in man, He saw God: wherever the natural world bore witness and spoke anything of God, He saw God at the centre of things. There is no loveliness of character greater than this. If you would gain it, if you would see God here and now, be pure in heart, have high aims, look for the nobler sides of things; remember that the way to cast out Satan is not by Satan, but by Christ. Dwell in Christ in thought, and evil will flee away; for the Divine life is positive and not negative; not absence of sin but presence of virtue is its token.

Purity of heart in its widest sense includes elevation of the general aim. It does not breathe a common atmosphere, nor pursue ordinary aims. It seeks something above these. Its aim is at something higher, better, truer, nobler than anything which man can give, or the world can take away. It is pure unmixed idealism. It does not say that wealth, position, pleasure, popularity and influence matter nothing at all; it only says that there is something higher—a truer aim of life, a more worthy mark, a nobler prize than any of these. It says in effect that there is that which will fill when all these things prove unsatisfying, and that for that alone it will live. Other things may come; other things it may use and they fall into their places, but there is no mistake about its aim. Whether it uses the lower things or renounces them, the desire of the heart is not towards them. Purity of heart aches, and longs, and pants for something that is not here, something transcendental and yet real, the archetype as Plato the truest of prophets called it—the archetype of which all things here are at best shadows—the Source and Fountain of all goodness.

And with its aim thus consciously fixed, it grows day by day, grows in clearness of sight and vision. The faculties of seeing advance from germ to perfection; the powers intensify, the motives grow more elevated, the aim becomes more fixed. And as it grows it becomes conscious of the end; it does more than see, it visualizes, i.e., sees into the real meanings of things. At first this consciousness may be very dimly realized. But there are always objects of desire which demand elevation of aim, and the end of which is God. Let us think of two or three briefly.

I. It is not every man who sets out on the quest after the Holy Grail who expects at last to find God. The heart of man at first often yearns only for the beautiful. Men will take long journeys, endure privations, spend their substance to study any of the forms of beauty. They will sit for hours listening to the beauty of music, longing to seize and possess those evanescent yet enthralling strains as they float by; or they will search far and wide to find fresh beauties of nature to copy. The souls who are touched by the flame that kindles the artist or the poet or the musician long for beauty as a sacred thing, they consecrate their lives to the pursuit of it, desire it often long before they see the vision that tells them that beauty is at once the revelation and the veil of God. But the pure love of beauty for its own sake, of beauty in art or nature, in sound or form, has only one end—the Vision of God; to see God is to get to the source of the beautiful.

II. Or, again, purity of heart, devotion of aim, is shown in the pursuit of knowledge. For this it lays aside all lower inducements, all other employments; it seeks and longs for that wisdom which is the attribute in its fulness of the Divine Mind, which is a shadow of God. And for a while it seeks knowledge as though knowledge were in itself the final satisfaction; it traces effects to causes; it lives laborious days; it gives up much; it will traverse a continent to find the source of a river, or endure frozen seas to find a channel, not for gain, not for fame, but for knowledge. To know is its high and holy passion. Often we do not let ourselves think how much the pure desire of knowledge will do to elevate, to raise human nature, and to disentangle it from the dross. Surely it is a heaven-born inspiration that bids men sacrifice wealth and health and all else to knowledge, that sends them on the quest to add to the world’s wisdom. Surely in the pursuit of knowledge we have the corrective of that morbid sentimentalism about pain, of which we have lately spoken. Surely, too, every pure desire of knowledge, however it may seem to fail here, must be found in the end to be the desire of Him Who is the source of all knowledge, must be satisfied with the Vision of God.

III. Must I not claim for purity of heart one other empire, one other means of allying itself with the best hopes of the world, in the passion for justice, in the longing to see things made better here and now, in the untiring zeal that prompts men to lead hard days and to sacrifice health and rest, that others may live healthier, happier, better ordered, cleaner, purer lives, that others may be delivered from oppressions, and have the opportunity of living their best lives? Surely purity of heart was shown in Turgot’s passion for just and righteous government; surely it is shown in every strong effort after more equal laws and better conditions of life among ourselves. And can we doubt that those whose aims are purely devoted, who seek to gain for others better surroundings—those who, out of no party strife or mere vain glory, but out of real passion for the better ordering of the lives of their countrymen, are devoting themselves to social reform, will find that in seeking justice they have been seeking Him of Whom justice and righteousness are the embodiment in human laws; that, as they have been ‘pure in heart,’ so ‘they shall see God’?

Surely all this leads us nearer to Christ’s words, and makes us see in them a truer and wider meaning. Surely they are meant to tell us that any keen and intense search for the highest thing that is known, such as beauty, or knowledge, or justice, any heart-whole quest which is either unsullied by the lower desire of gain and fame, or which is even striving to rid itself of these, must gain the end, must rise to the one and only satisfaction, to the Vision of God, to the sight of the King in His beauty.

And our own experience will confirm, perhaps only too bitterly, the necessary connection between high moral aims and the Vision of goodness. *Have you never felt that, just so far as you dropped below your own standard in your endeavors, just so far as you let some desire of wealth, or fame, or place color your efforts, to that extent your vision of God and of goodness has been clouded, the scales have thickened, you have not seen God, the Eternal Presence has withdrawn Himself as it were into a mist, your greatest comfort has vanished? And on the other hand, can you not bear testimony from your own experience that just in proportion as you put away the accursed thing, just in proportion as you renew your effort to cleanse your heart and purify your aims, at the very moment of making the new resolution to live up to your highest standard, to seek goodness, the mists begin to clear, a film falls from your eye, and a burden from your spirit, and you find yourself again in joy and lightness of heart, nearer to God, with a fresh view of Him, and therefore of all things around you?

Is not the truth again and again brought home to us—“If any man wills to do His will, he shall know.” If any man will disentangle himself, he shall see. All approach to God is moral. Live morally, live according to the voice of conscience, seek God in prayer and Sacrament, and you will find Him; brace yourself by self-discipline, and you will see Him. You may tire your brain with speculation, you may study till the flesh is weary, you may cultivate yourself for the sake of fame, or gain, or praise, and you will be no nearer to knowing God. But if you seek first to purify your aims, if by honest self-discipline you force your thoughts to rise, if you put away the promptings of self-love and the wiles of self-deceit, you will rise to the highest knowledge, you will see God as He is, and all things in Him; like Christ you will see God even in the Divine spark that is still left in sinners.

And surely if Lent has any meaning for us, it may well have this. Lent is a time of self-discipline; and self-discipline means real moral effort to raise our aims and purify our life. A little extra church-going, and a few alterations in diet will not by themselves bring this about, though even these things may help if they are done on principle. We must put away the lower that the higher may come to us. We must put away even the lawful amusement if we would gain self-command, if we would be masters and not slaves of our enjoyments. Above all, we must get rid of the sense of littleness, which always seems to haunt small self-denials, by uniting them with the service of others. If we deny ourselves only to spend more on ourselves we are not keeping the “fast which the Lord has chosen.” It would be a great thing if we could school ourselves in Lent to adopt some regular method of almsgiving, so as to give to God and His causes some fixed portion of our income. The Jews gave one-tenth by God’s command, and surely that represents something of an adequate recognition of His claim. We live in the midst of luxury, even if we do not ourselves mean to be luxurious; we get so into the habit of spending on ourselves that we do not notice it. It would be a salutary Lenten exercise to add up and see how much in the year we have spent on ourselves, and how little we have given to God.

These are matters which it is well to face in Lent. Every moral habit, every attempt at self-discipline, every self-denial in giving, purifies the spiritual vision—“Give alms, and behold all things are clean unto you.” The law of nature holds good; expansion follows contraction. So we grow by our self-denials. Fasting and almsgiving are correlative, and if practiced together make the inward vision clearer.

And once more, cultivate your spiritual nature by prayer and meditation. The need here is not length of time, but intensity. The danger is lest our spiritual faculties become numbed by disuse, by neglect. Do you not know how, if you neglect to say your prayers and to read your Bible, a torpor creeps over you, your church-going becomes heartless, perfunctory? You easily leave it out and go to the ice or on the river, and very soon your whole view of life changes; you begin to ignore the importance of trying to be good, you catch at any skeptical argument, you persuade yourself that religion is a mere delusion, an idle fancy. I have the deepest sympathy with men who lose their way, who are honestly perplexed by the difficulties of religion, but my experience is that they are just the men who often make the greatest efforts to be good and to do good, who are most often to be found in churches, and most grateful for any help that they get there. I have always felt that there is more ‘faith in honest doubt,’ in sincere struggle to come to the truth, than in the patterings of all the formalists in Christendom. But where it is hard to feel any sympathy is when men, who have never thought enough about anything to have an honest intellectual difficulty, suffer themselves to grow slack, and then catch at any intellectual weapon and use it to justify their own moral deterioration; or where they give up all that they know is best for them at the bidding of someone else’s difficulty. It is hard to conceive of a deeper and more piteous degradation. God’s service is too sacred a thing to be trifled with; and for the trifler, the insincere, the mere purveyor of other men’s difficulties, the mere self-deceiver, no condemnation can be too strong.

Ah, brethren, what are we doing with these immeasurable, these priceless opportunities before us—how are we letting them slip? What are we doing to brace ourselves so as to see the Vision ever clearer? What are we doing to help and serve our fellow-men? Are we merely wrapped up in our own pursuits and pleasures? God only knows. At any rate, Lent ought to mean something to us of real self-discipline, lest of us, too, the sentence be written, the heaviest sentence of all, that, when we come to the Vision, we shall have so relaxed our moral fiber that we shall have neither “eyes to see nor ears to hear” the Uncreated Beauty, so that there would seem to be even ‘in Him no beauty that we should desire Him’!

* Lightfoot, supra.

Eyton, R. (1896). The Benediction on the Pure in Heart (I). In The Beatitudes (Second Edition, pp. 123–133). Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. Ltd. (Public Domain)

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