Blessed are the clean of heart

Published: August 17, 2017

This is the seventh column in a 10-part series.

By Clifford Yeary
Associate Director, Little Rock Scripture Study

En Español

"Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God." — Matthew 5:8

Cleanness, or purity, of heart speaks of our motivation, our desires that move us to act and seek a place and purpose in the world. The 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard famously stated that purity of heart is to desire one thing. This disturbs me deeply, for I desire many things.

For Jesus, there truly was only one thing to desire: the kingdom of heaven. If we follow Jesus’ teachings closely, we realize that seeking the kingdom of heaven is not the desire to go to heaven.

It is, rather, the desire to see that the will of the one who reigns in heaven would also hold sway on earth. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” For that desire to be realized, as seekers we must start with ourselves. But what can we do to instill that desire within ourselves?

It might help to examine the roots of human desire.

One of the great Catholic minds of our time, the late Rene Girard, devoted himself to studying the cultural and anthropological contexts for human desire. He came to the startling conclusion that we borrow all but our most instinctual desires from other people.

We want what we want because we have witnessed important people in our lives wanting those things. Many of us have witnessed toddlers, surrounded with toys, fighting over just one of them because one toddler has made it look more desirable than all the other toys.

Once we realize the importance of what others desire, and join them in pursuit of what is desired, we can swiftly move from being close allies to archrivals. We compete with them to obtain what they modeled for us as desirable. When it becomes impossible for both of us to have whatever it is we desire, our rivalry can turn murderous.

In the case of an entire society desiring what is too limited for all of us to possess, chaos can ensue. The chaos can threaten the very stability of society and in order to restore order, a leader will name a scapegoat, someone that can be blamed for the chaos. Think of the rise of Hitler and the scapegoating of the Jews. It’s a story as old as original sin.

One of the key, foundational stories illustrating Girard’s assertion is found in the Genesis account of the Fall, where the serpent awakens Eve’s desire for the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and Eve in turn awakens Adam’s desire for the same. Just a few passages later we read of the first murder, resulting from Cain’s envy of his brother Able for winning the blessing from God that Cain also desired.

Girard, who began exploring his theory as an atheist, became desperate to find a solution to the human propensity to create scapegoats, and came to the awareness that in Christ God became the ultimate victim, the ultimate scapegoat. This led to Girard’s realization that Christianity, and the Catholic faith in particular, offered a way to free ourselves from being chained to the desires that lead to social chaos and murder.

We can find freedom by embracing Jesus Christ as the ultimate victim, and in embracing him, embracing all others who suffer as victims. Jesus was put to death by the religious and political leaders of his time because of his relentless pursuit of his one desire, to do the will of his Father.

And it was his Father’s will that the poor, the meek, the suffering and the persecuted encounter God’s blessing through Jesus, a blessing Jesus proclaimed in the beatitudes. In pronouncing these blessings, Jesus was also calling all who receive his teaching to be agents of those blessings, and to do so, we must learn to be clean of heart.

How do we learn to desire the one, true thing? We learn it by truly embracing Jesus Christ and his mission to offer a real foretaste of the kingdom of heaven to those most in need of its blessings. The antidote to desires that take our attention away from the kingdom of heaven is compassion — the desire to make the love of God tangible to those who can only look to God for their needs.

Study Questions

  • What most influenced the formation of your deepest desires?
  • Why do our desires sometimes put us into conflict with others?
  • How might a selfless desire to make known the kingdom of heaven bring about resistance where you live?
  • What relationship do you see between compassion and being clean of heart?

This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic Aug. 19, 2017. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved. This article may be copied or redistributed with acknowledgement and permission of the publisher.