THE ROYAL ROAD TO JOY: THE BEATITUDES AND THE EUCHARIST. By David Bird, O.S.B. (Hilldebrand Books, University of St. Mary of the Lake/ Mundelein Seminary, 1000 East Maple, Mundelein, IL 60060, 249 pp. PB. $24.00.
A series of informed reflections, Father Bird’s insightful meditations on the seven beatitudes examine these teachings from the Sermon on the Mount not as abstract principles or theoretical ideas but as practical wisdom and time-tested truth. The Beatitudes are “the process by which the Christian moves from being egocentric or at least world-centric, so that he or she may become centered on God.” Living the life of the Beatitudes leads a Christian on a pilgrimage that culminates in joy and in a union with God in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
The commentary on each of the Beatitudes provides fresh ideas into this movement from being ego-centered to becoming God-centered. For example, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” exhorts Christians not to make an idol of wealth, security, or possessions and to abandon themselves to God’s Providence—“to become God’s slave” and “to put nothing before the love of God.” “Blessed are those who mourn” demands that Christians “accept whatever is negative in our circumstances as a sharing in Christ’s passion” and conquer the “Pharisee in all of us” by acknowledging that “only our sins are completely our own” and, like Augustine, by shedding tears of sorrow and contrition for personal sin. The meek are blessed because they “refrain from anger and forsake wrath” in the practice of gentleness as they “wait for the Lord” instead of overreacting and seeking revenge; the meek person “accepts the condition in which he finds himself and all that life throws him, the good and the bad, the pleasant and the unpleasant” and never returns evil for evil. Those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, exalt God above every human authority. They seek His will above their personal ambitions and transcend their natural prejudices and preferences, always rejecting false gods: “Just about anything other than God can become an idol if we want to make it so, even our mental image of God, even Catholicism as an institution, an ideology, or as a tribal loyalty.” In these ways these meditations portray the Beatitudes as sources of Christian wisdom for normal human experience.
“Blessed are the merciful” enjoins Christians to practice a virtue associated with the magnanimity of God and kings—forgiving the offenses of others and caring for the needy with a generous heart performing the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. The merciful resemble Tobit whose deeds of charity and mercy are “carried up by the archangel Raphael into God’s presence,” and they uphold the example of the early Christians in Jerusalem, the sense that “what belongs to each individually belongs to all and what belongs to all belongs to each.” Purity of heart, the goal of Christian asceticism which leads to the contemplation of God (“a habitual, non-discursive awareness of God’s presence in everything”) depends upon the practice of the virtues of the active life: unless a person is poor in spirit and merciful and rich in good works, he does not climb the spiritual ladder to see God; unless a person undergoes “trials and desolations, dark nights or what some Greek fathers call educative desolations,”—love like gold being purified by fire—he does reach not the perfection of purity of heart, the perfect love of God that leads to seeing God in contemplative vision. Father Bird illuminates the clear logic and natural progression of the Beatitudes that integrate the active and the contemplative life.
“Blessed are the peacemakers” does not refer to mediators engaged in political compromises, “the balancing of egos” struggling for power, or to whose who avoid confrontations and deny the existence of problems. The blessed peacemaker, in St. Bernard’s words, is one “who is most solicitous that there is nothing in his conduct that others will have to bear with and at the same time most patiently bears with what is onerous in others.” “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” once applied to the early Christians who suffered martyrdom for their faith, but this beatitude now assumes a similar meaning in the culture of death that rejects The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount: “blessed are those who are prepared to be a rejected minority for Christ’s sake.” In short, the Beatitudes fortify and inspire the human spirit for all the battles and temptations of life.
After demonstrating the practical fruits that follow from the practice of the Beatitudes and the way they shape Christian manners and morals, Father Bird deftly applies the Beatitudes to the lives of two saints who live the Sermon on the Mount: Saint Seraphim of Sarov, an Orthodox monk, and St. John Mary Vianney, the Cure D’Ars. The daily lives and examples of these holy men prove that the Beatitudes lead to the royal road to joy, “a joy we can experience in this life”—the joy of forgiveness, the joy of love and friendship, and the joy of contemplation, and the joy of the Mass.
While the second part of the book devotes itself to an informative commentary and explanation of the Mass, this part does not harmoniously cohere with the first section on the Beatitudes; it seems superadded or imposed rather than integral to the design of the book. The logic of the book makes perfect sense: a life according to the Beatitudes prepares the interior life of the soul for union with Christ in the Eucharist. However, the exposition of the Mass—lucid and thorough as it is—does not perfectly correlate with the earlier argument on the Beatitudes; necessary connections and explicit comparisons are absent. In some places the commentary tends to be prolix and digressive, not as succinct or as unified as it might be. On the whole, however, this book leads to a greater appreciation of the paradoxes of Christ’s teaching and a more intelligent understanding of the beauty and sublimity of the liturgy.
Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D.
Warner, New Hampshire