The Formation of Saints: The Beatitudes Form Christ within Us
“You have to be different from one another, as the saints in heaven are different, each having his own personal and special characteristics. But also as alike one another as the saints, who would not be saints if each of them had not identified himself with Christ.”
St. Josemaria Escriva
The Way, no. 947
The Gospel of the beatitudes, appointed for the solemnity of All Saints, is God’s prescription for human holiness and happiness (see Mt 5:1-12), but they aren’t things that would naturally be your “first pick.” Yet the Lord solemnly pronounces “blessed” those who accept and even seek many of the conditions that people try to avoid. How can this be? How can a certain kind of hunger lead to wholeness? Or a certain kind of sorrow to joy? Or purity of heart to the vision of God? Even the Scriptures record the complaint of the just man: “Is it in vain that I have kept my heart pure, washed my hands in innocence?” (Ps 73:13).
The beatitudes are the path, not the final goal, of the Christian life. To be perfectly “blessed” is to have unbroken, everlasting union with God—a truth Jesus plainly teaches us: “They shall see God” (cf. Mt 5:8). All other promises attached to the beatitudes—e.g., inheriting the earth, being children of God, obtaining mercy—are all ways of saying how the Blessed—the Saints in heaven—enjoy the vision of God. “One should know that one reward is pointed out by all these beatitudes,” comments St Thomas Aquinas.
The self-denial and privation counseled by our Lord comprise the narrow way to that “one reward,” which is God Himself. The poverty, the hunger, the sorrow—all of the experiences we would naturally rather avoid—put us in a state where nothing can be lost because everything is given, where nothing we possess can be stolen or decay, because God is our only possession: “God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps 73:26).
Correctly identifying the reward and taking the means to attain it, however, are not the same thing. There is a “holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14). The whole scope of the Christian life is to be perfect with the perfection of God, holy with the very holiness of God. The beatitudes initiate us into this righteousness by reproducing the life of the God-Man, Jesus Christ, within our souls.
At first glance, the beatitudes might seem to be simply a Divine benediction given to struggles we already have or evils we already suffer or virtues we already possess. But they take us to a higher plane altogether. They give us an inner experience of what it means to be Christ ourselves. Sinners who strive to imitate Jesus experience the life of Jesus within through the poverty, purity, and humility of the beatitudes. Through them we come to know Christ by experience, as it were.
Just as He took upon Himself our humanity, becoming a slave for us, suffering all things for us, so do we in our own imperfect way “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” by way of the beatitudes, and so learn Christ firsthand (cf. Rm 13:14). We have to live like Jesus in order to know Him truly. Indeed the disciple, St Josemaria maintains, “has to be a soul who has undergone a long, patient and heroic process of formation” (cf. Furrow, no. 419), whose one goal is, as St Paul tells the Galatians, the formation of Christ within: “My little children, with whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you!” (cf. Gal 4:19).
We need to take a difficult road to God—one that regularly contradicts our fallen nature by the demands of purity, poverty, humility, and the other challenges of the beatitudes. Going against ourselves in this world “fleshes out” what it means for us to be “little children” of God and, therefore, saints of God and imitators of Christ. By losing ourselves for Christ we find our true selves in Him—and as both children and aspiring saints, our profile needs to match the outlines drawn by Jesus in the beatitudes, because it is His own “profile.” There is none purer, poorer, more meek and merciful, than the Son of God Himself.
But Jesus is not simply proposing a series of practices to follow. Copying external actions, even those of Christ, will not entirely accomplish the changes that the Gospel demands. The Lord asks that our righteousness surpass that of those who possess an external perfection but who lack the interior devotion. Otherwise we can be as poor and sorrowful as we want on the outside, but not be formed by Christ on the inside, which is where the beatitudes must do their most important work.
When the Lord blesses those who hunger, the poor, the sorrowing, we should understand that He is talking not so much about an empty stomach, empty pockets, or just any kind of sadness that we might experience for whatever reason. Rather, the sometimes difficult and negative experiences that the beatitudes involve have to do mainly one positive thing for us: create within us an environment where Christ can live. To cultivate a spirit in which He can live in us, act through us, love through us is to share, here on earth, the life of the saints in heaven.
When St Paul makes claims such as: “I no longer live, but it is Christ who lives in me,” and “We have the mind of Christ,” (cf. Gal 2:20; Phil 2:16), he is making this very point. He is telling us that the beatitudes are having their intended effect in him, by producing a union with Christ so close that, together, He and the Apostle live one life. The disciple is conformed to his Master.
This conformity to Jesus is the basis for the final judgment that all Christians must undergo before we can see God. Thus, before we face God, we have to face ourselves in the mirror, so to speak, and ask if we are growing into the likeness of that Divine profile. The saint that I must become in imitation of Christ cannot be a shadow of the person He wants me to be or the caricature of a saint. He calls us solemnly by the beatitudes to become the genuine article.
The practical problem we face is not the lack of a definite model after which to pattern our lives. It’s true: I can’t look into the future and see a picture of my perfect self and follow a pre-written “script” to become that person. The problem is that every path of every saint is a new path. We are to become saints unlike any the world has ever seen before, because we are all capable of giving glory to God in unique ways and circumstances, as “star differs from star in glory” (cf. 1 Cor 15:41). Every step on our journey is to blaze a new trail.
Yet the model is one: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever” (Heb 13:8). The fact that we cannot see all of the details of our itinerary is no impediment to arriving at the goal. In fact, that ignorance ensures that we will arrive. Because we learn by experience—and not only by theory—what it means to “live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).
When we have fully identified ourselves with the Lord by becoming poor, pure, and meek, then we have wiped clean the mirror in which the Son’s image can be more perfectly reflected in us. And the gaze of Jesus into each of us is as unique as we are, making of each a new saint, a new and unique reflection of His holiness.
Originally published in 2014
Father John Henry Hanson, O. Praem., is a Norbertine priest of St Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. He entered the community in 1995, earned his STB and Masters in Theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. Currently, he is a formator in his community’s seminary, preaches retreats, is chaplain to several communities of women religious, serves Armenian rite Catholics at the Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator in Glendale, California, and is author of Praying from the Depths of the Psalms (Scepter Publishers 2019). He and his community are cooperators of Opus Dei.