Purity of Heart: A Few Thoughts

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).  Of all the incredibly enigmatic, mysterious, seemingly impossible statements in the so-called Sermon on the Mount, this one is the “most” everything!  We are so used to hearing these words in church services and homilies that we are mostly numb to the mystery, even the shock value of ALL  the mysterious, paradoxical,  statements of the Sermon.  And, sadly, often what preachers and spiritual writers have to say does not help at all.  As if the purpose of religious discourse is to “take the air” out of the Mystery.  Let’s ponder this fragment of the Sermon a bit.

What in the world does “purity of heart” mean anyway?  Too often this has focused narrowly on one’s sexual integrity.  Or just keeping “bad thoughts” out whatever they might be.  The Christian tradition, as a whole, is a mixed bag in this regard.  We find bits and pieces of deep insight that at least point us in the right direction, but also we find so much of impoverished spirituality.   Then there is the other half of the statement:  how in the world can anyone “see” God?  This one is a real mind-bender!   Whatever this word “see” means in this context, it cannot be “see” in our usual sense.  God is not an object out there among the world of objects in front of our eyes.  We are not in a subject-object relationship to God.  Also, it should not be reduced to some metaphorical status as it often has been in Christianity.  Now think of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, the context for the Gospel.  We are told that no one can “see God and live”(Exodus 33:20).  Also consider this pericope from the Gospel of John (14:8-9):

 “Philip said to him, “Master, show us the Father,* and that will be enough for us.”d

Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?e

One implication of these words is a confirmation of the Old Testament understanding that one cannot “see” God directly….you can see God’s “glory”….you can “see His ‘back’” (Exodus 33:23)….you can encounter the Mystery of God in those mysterious angelic encounters of the Bible…., so by “seeing” Jesus we can “see” the Father so to speak, the Absolute Mystery of God, another kind of “indirect” seeing but one that opens for us otherwise unfathomable depths.  But maybe “purity of heart” is even needed to truly “see” Jesus.   A lot could be said here, but I would like to push on in another way.  However, there is one question  that is very important which I will leave unanswered.  Do Jesus’s words here refer to the historical Jesus or to the Risen Christ?

Words from Thomas Merton:

“No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything  that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees.  These pages seek nothing more than to echo the silence and peace that is ‘heard’ when the rain wanders freely among the hills and forests.  But what can the wind say where there is no hearer?  There is then a deeper silence: the silence in which the Hearer is No-Hearer.  That deeper silence must be heard before one can speak truly of solitude.”

Words from an Introduction to a Japanese translation of Thoughts in Solitude.  In my opinion, this Introduction may be one of the most beautiful and deepest reflections in Merton’s writings, and it certainly shows Zen’s influence on him.  In any case, we might want to say the same thing about “purity of heart” and leave it at that.  “Purity of heart” is not just a cipher for a bushel of virtues or a pretext for moral legalism or even the result of spiritual methods and practices.   Rather, however we want to explain purity of heart, it is what opens us to an intimate awareness of the Mystery of God…and so we ‘begin to see” God.  And here silence is best.   On the other hand, a bit of verbal-reflection might still be helpful in pointing us in the right direction.   We shall explore some aspects of  purity of heart through a three-pronged approach.

The first will be Scriptural.  The expression, “purity of heart,” or some variant of it, can be found in both old and modern works of spirituality, especially contemplative spirituality.   We can see it being used even in interreligious dialogue with folks trying to equate that expression with some expression from another tradition.  We’ll come back to that later.  But for now  we cannot get a sense of what this “purity of heart” is by ignoring its scriptural roots.  When I was in the seminary and we had our scripture class, it was interesting to discover how Jesus was presented differently in each of the Gospels, so you could see in each Gospel, and sometimes in various parts of each Gospel, something different and new about who Jesus was and what he was about.  The Sermon on the Mount is one of those moments.  And it is very interesting why this moment is totally absent from Mark and John and very differently presented in Luke; but we will stay with Matthew’s famous version.  Jesus, it is said, goes “up a mountain” and begins to teach the people.  He is presented as the “New Moses” establishing a “New Law.”   Moses came down from the “mountain of the encounter” with the Ten Commandments, which then delineated all of Israel’s relationships, both horizontal and vertical.  Jesus now opens up for us something new and radically different.  From Matthew 5 through Matthew 6 there is a collection of separate statements of truly enormous consequence.  Yes, the statements could be lined up as a series of “laws,” but they are not of that character. (They are also not what one wit called them, “suggestions or guidelines.”)   You have very little of “do not do this,” but rather much more of “do this.”  Take all the statements as a whole rather than isolate each one to figure out what it is saying; and you begin to sense that a whole new way of life, a whole new identity, a whole new level of awareness is  opened up for us.  And it seems that this is, to borrow a Buddhist expression, our “original face,” “our original nature.”

So my first proposal is to consider  the sayings as a whole; and how their revelatory function, all together, point at a radically new reality which is at the same time the oldest reality.  “Blessed are pure in heart” contains whatever else all the other expressions say; and all the other expressions contain, imply, and  exhibit whatever it is that “purity of heart” means.

For the second prong let’s look at the Desert Fathers, the origins of Christian monasticism.  These folks definitely took the Sermon on the Mount as more than just “suggestions or guidelines”!  But first we need to make a distinction between Cassian (and Evagrius) and the grand old monks, especially of that 1st generation.  Among the latter there was hardly a mention of “purity of heart” in direct terms; but for Cassian “purity of heart” was the foundation for his monastic spirituality.  (By the way, it’s interesting to see how someone like Meister Eckhart, by contrast, takes “poverty of spirit”  from the Sermon as the linchpin for developing his mystical spirituality).  In his Conferences, a classic of monastic spirituality, Cassian systematizes what in fact is more mysterious and much more vast in scope.  So he says that the ultimate goal of all monks is the “kingdom of God,” but the immediate goal and the means by which one “gets there” is “purity of heart.” And purity of heart is associated with what today we would call contemplative prayer, and finally it leads to agape, that totally selfless love.   I was taught this when I was a novice, and this sounds reasonable and it is basically ok.  But I found it a bit too pat and structured, like Cassian was trying to coral and tame something much more dynamic and wild and mysterious.  When you start out on the spiritual journey, the “scaffolding” of structures and systems and methods may be a real good, but as you go on you may discover yourself without any “ladder” underneath you!  Incidentally, that is one of the values of engaging the Old Testament:  the encounter with God is never the result of some method or system or “school of spirituality.”  It is good to have a home, but then there is the moment when you find yourself truly “homeless” no matter where you are, and that holy ground might not look like what the books described.

In any case, Cassian supposedly presents the teachings of the grand old monks of Scete; it’s as if he and we are listening to them as they teach.  That’s an effective literary technique, but it doesn’t mesh with the actual sayings and stories from the Alphabetical Collection, for example (translated by Benedicta Ward).  As Merton mentions more than once, the actual sayings for the most part are simple, humble, concrete, existential examples of a certain kind of struggle and journey, not a presentation of a system, and definitely no attempt to “map out” purity of heart.  (By the way, later writers like Palladius, really get carried away at times with fascination for the “odd.”)

Now Evagrius is not quite the systematizer that Cassian is.  He is a true intellectual, well-educated in the Platonic tradition, who has ardently taken up the desert life of the first monks.  He makes some important contributions in the early development of the Christian contemplative prayer tradition.  What Evagrius does is connect purity of heart with Platonic/Stoic apatheia….our word “apathy” comes from it, and sometimes apatheia gets translated as “indifference,” without feeling, etc.  That is a mistake.  Apatheia really means a kind of integration of all our faculties to be working in a harmonious way.  Evagrius pushes this into the depths of our minds and consciousness in the pursuit of what he terms, “pure prayer.”  Once you are no longer driven by chaotic thoughts and feelings, you are laying the foundation for pure prayer; and for Evagrius this is somehow what purity of heart is all about.  Not bad, in fact quite good but very inadequate for getting a fuller sense of what purity of heart is as it impacts all levels of human existence.  And just as with Cassian, the actual sayings and stories of the grand old monks seem to have a different feel and a different optic.

So, let me make two proposals at this point:  First of all, I propose that we do not look for a “definition” or a “map” or some schematic explaining what purity of heart is/means for these pioneers of Christian monastic/contemplative life.  Rather, among the grand old monks, especially of that 1st generation, what you get in most of their sayings (certainly not all) are what I would call “markers” or “signposts,” or, to change metaphors, a “fragrant scent” indicating the presence of something transcending the boundaries of what we usually call “life.”

Consider this story:

“Three brothers were in the habit of going to see the blessed Anthony every year. The first two would ask him questions about their thoughts and the salvation of the soul. But the third would keep silence without asking anything. Eventually Abba Anthony said to him, ‘You have been coming here to see me for a long time now and you never ask me any questions.’ The other replied, ‘One thing is enough for me, Father… to see you.’”

This beautiful story is at the same time one of those “markers” of the presence of purity of heart but without naming it or explaining it.  Also it illustrates how someone encounters that reality—not in words, a system of spirituality, etc.—but in a very concrete person.  No words, no explanations are then needed.  And this story is also very important and very exceptional in that it comes from a subculture that pulsates with the expression, “Give me a word, Abba, that I may live, that I may be saved….”  In other words, give me, in my existential predicament, my now need, that particular path for me that leads to…and this expression is never explicitly used…that leads to purity of heart.  Here this third brother no longer needs that word or any words….here is a person already well on the way….  In Anthony he finds his affirmation.  As that old pop saying goes: it takes like to know like.

And here consider this story, quite the opposite of the above, the marker here is for absence of purity of heart:

“The brothers praised a monk before Abba Anthony. When the monk came to see him, Anthony wanted to know how he would bear insults; and seeing that he could not bear them at all, he said to him, ‘You are like a village magnificently decorated on the outside, but destroyed from within by robbers.’”

This story illustrates quite well that these early desert monks understood the nature of a “counterfeit spirituality” and its consequences.  What it doesn’t show and which is illustrated in some other stories is the moment of awakening when the monk realizes the false ground of his spirituality and then begins the journey from the unreal to the Real.  And this brings us to the second proposal.

The second proposal I would like to make is more difficult to express, but it goes like this:  Lets not look at purity of heart as a “something you possess,” a state of mind or heart, a state of being, a condition, etc.  Rather, it is more like a dynamic process, a journey….   To borrow from the Upanishads, purity of heart is really the journey from the unreal to the Real, it is the very dynamism of this journey, involving the whole complex of human life, mind, heart, body, emotions, desires,….  And purity of heart in this sense is not restricted to being a monk; rather it characterizes the most fundamental call of every human being.  

However, it also touches most intimately the monastic identity.  Recall those amazing words of the great Macarius:  “I am not yet a monk, but I have seen monks.”  You are not yet a monk; you are always becoming a monk.  You are engaged in an incredible process of which you could never foresee its true dimensions.  Becoming a monk means that you declare yourself formally and openly to wanting to give yourself totally to this journey.  (I only wish that in our formal monastic institutions when a young person is professing to be a monk, they would ceremonially tell him/her, “you are not yet a monk, but you are becoming one.”  It is not a status  or a state of life but a journey with a particular external modality.)

To see the seriousness and depths of this process/journey let us refer to Gregory of Nyssa.  Gregory emphasized the infinity of God.   Just think what this means.  For Gregory this infinitude means that a limited being, a created being, can never reach a grasp or understanding of God.  For Gregory, however, this is the whole point of existence, our life, and the “afterlife”—from the very beginning and for all eternity we have this constant progression, an ἐπέκτασις in Greek (epektasis), toward a knowledge and vision of the infinite God.  We will for all eternity increase in our knowledge of God, in this movement “into God.”  And this means for all eternity our joy, our happiness, our bliss, our fulfillment will be increasing.  But this journey/process starts right here and right now, and we can call it purity of heart.  We find hints of all this in the New Testament, as in 1 John 3:2:

“Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.”

And another hint of this even from an old work by Jean Danielou:

“There is at once for the soul an aspect of stability and possession, which is her participation in God, and an aspect of movement, which is the ever infinite gap between what she possesses of God and what He is…Spiritual life is thus an everlasting transformation of the soul in Christ Jesus in the form of a growing ardour, thirst for God growing as participation in Him increases, which is accompanied by a growing stability, the soul becoming simple, and fixed ever more firmly in God. J. Danielou: Platonisme et theologie mystique, Paris, 1944, pp. 305-307.

Returning to the Sayings of the Desert Monks, my proposal is, then, that many of the sayings are markers or signposts of this  incredible process/journey; and if we want to get a sense of what purity of heart entails, it would help to ponder these sayings in a way that doesn’t make of them simplistic or moralistic or superficial exhortations.  Consider a few of the sayings/stories: 

“Two hermits lived together for many years without a quarrel. One said to the other, ‘Let’s have a quarrel with each other, as is the way of men.’ The other answered, ‘I don’t know how a quarrel happens.’ The first said, ‘Look here, I put a brick between us, and I say, That’s mine. Then you say, No, it’s mine. That is how you begin a quarrel.’ So they put a brick between them, and one of them said, ‘That’s mine.’ The other said, ‘No; it’s mine.’ He answered, ‘Yes, it’s yours. Take it away.’ They were unable to argue with each other.”

“The devil appeared to a monk disguised as an angel of light, and said to him, ‘I am the angel Gabriel, and I have been sent to you.’ But the monk said, ‘Are you sure you weren’t sent to someone else? I am not worthy to have an angel sent to me.’ At that the devil vanished.”

[This monk has “no credentials,” a “no-monk” in Zen terms.]

“One day Abba John the Dwarf was sitting down in Scetis, and the brethren came to him to ask him about their thoughts. One of the elders said, ‘John, you are like a courtesan who shows her beauty to increase the number of her lovers.’ Abba John kissed him and said, ‘You are quite right, Father.’ One of his disciples said to him, ‘Do you not mind that in your heart?’ But he said, ‘No, I am the same inside as I am outside.’ “

“Abba Poemen said of Abba John the Dwarf that he had prayed God to take his passions away from him so that he might become free from care. He went and told an old man this; ‘I find myself in peace, without an enemy,’ he said. The old man said to him, ‘Go beseech God to stir up warfare so that you may regain the affliction and humility that you used to have, for it is by warfare that the soul makes progress.’ So he besought God and when warfare came, he no longer prayed that it might be taken away, but said, ‘Lord, give me strength for the fight.”

[An interesting story which first of all shows a monk recovering from a counterfeit spirituality (what some in this case might call apatheia!).  More importantly, if you don’t get thrown by the “war, struggle” language, you will notice that he moves from a static position, having this “possession” of a credential, “peace,” to a true engagement with his condition so that he can make “progress.”  The essence of a spiritual life is not something static, least of all an “identity,” but more like a journey; and at times it can get very difficult.]

“Abba Lot came one day to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Father, I keep my little rule to the best of my ability. I observe my modest fast and my contemplative silence. I say my prayers and do my meditation. I endeavour as far as I can to drive useless thoughts out of my heart. What more can I do?’  The elder rose to answer and lifted his hands to heaven. His fingers looked like lighted candles and he said, ‘Why not become wholly fire?’”

[An incredibly marvelous story!  So much could be said here, but I will refrain!]

Now we will move to the third prong of our reflection: the interreligious context.  Here you might think there is nothing for us; after all we are dealing with a scriptural term from the Christian tradition.  Partially that may be correct.  It would be a mistake to simply equate “purity of heart” with something in Buddhism or Taoism that looks similar.  On the level of language and concepts there are many possibilities for a spiritual mirage—things seem to be there when they are not really there.  A lot of good people have been fooled this way by being too hasty and overeager to reach out to another tradition.  Merton admitted making this mistake in his dialogue with D.T. Suzuki.  This is from Zen and the Birds of Appetite:

“At this point I may take occasion to say clearly that, in my dialog with Dr, Suzuki, my choice of Cassian’s “purity of heart” as a Christian expression of Zen-consciousness was an unfortunate example.  No doubt there are passages in Cassian and Evagrius…which suggest some tendency toward the “emptiness” of Zen.  But Cassian’s idea of “purity of heart,”…while it may or may not be mystical, is not yet Zen because it still maintains that the supreme consciousness resides in a distinct heart which is pure and which is therefore ready and even worthy to receive a vision of God.  It is still very aware of a “pure,” distinct  and separate self-consciosness.”

(Incidentally, this means that Cassian’s purity of heart is not compatible with a nondualistic spirituality.)

However, given such cautions, we may still find some of the previously mentioned “markers” for what is purity of heart when it begins to be grasped in its depths and in its mystery.  My basic premise is that purity of heart is not just for the Christian monk, but it is an essential dynamic for every human being.  To steal from Cassian:  the immediate goal of being human is purity of heart!  (But understood in a much deeper way.)

Consider Gandhi.  Consider this story about him:

One day a mother brought her young boy to Gandhi’s ashram.  When she met him she asked Gandhi, “Please tell my son not to eat sugar.  It’s not good for him.”  Gandhi looked at them, and then told her, “Come back tomorrow and bring the boy.”  When she came back the next day, Gandhi told the boy not to eat sugar.  The perplexed mother asked him, “Why didn’t you just say that yesterday?”  Gandhi said, “Yesterday I was eating sugar myself!  Today I stopped.”

Gandhi was trying to be “the same inside and outside” like Abba John the Dwarf.  There were truly many moments in Gandhi’s life that illustrated markers for purity of heart, but there is one word that encapsulates everything Gandhi was about and how he, as a modern person, showed a human being fully engaged in that process which can be called purity of heart and that word is:  satyagraha.  It is often translated as “nonviolence,” but literally means “holding on to truth.”  You will not find one clearer marker of purity of heart, not even among the grand old desert monks, than in the practice of nonviolence when it is authentically a defining part of someone’s life.

Then there are the great Zen masters.  A lovely way to end our reflection on purity of heart is with two Zen storys.  The first is about the great Japanese Rinzai master, Hakuin:

“A beautiful girl in the village was pregnant. Her angry parents demanded to know who was the father. At first resistant to confess, the anxious and embarrassed girl finally pointed to Hakuin, the Zen master whom everyone previously revered for living such a pure life. When the outraged parents confronted Hakuin with their daughter’s accusation, he simply replied ‘Is that so?’

When the child was born, the parents brought it to the Hakuin, who now was viewed as a pariah by the whole village. They demanded that he take care of the child since it was his responsibility. ‘Is that so?’ Hakuin said calmly as he accepted the child.

For many months he took very good care of the child until the daughter could no longer withstand the lie she had told. She confessed that the real father was a young man in the village whom she had tried to protect. The parents immediately went to Hakuin to see if he would return the baby. With profuse apologies they explained what had happened. ‘Is that so?’ Hakuin said as he handed them the child.”

[Two comments:  There is a very similar story from the Desert Fathers concerning Abba Macarius.  Secondly, I saw some people’s comments about this story and it was pretty sad.]

The next Zen story is from ancient China:

“A monk once asked Master Chao Chou, ‘Who is Chao Chou?’  Chao Chou replied: ‘East Gate, West Gate, South Gate, North Gate.’”

Commentary by the Japanese philosopher of religion, Toshihiko Izutsu.

“That is to say, Chao Chou is completely open.  All the gates of the city are open, and nothing is concealed.  Chao Chou stands right in the middle of the City, i.e., the middle of the Universe.  One can come to see him from any and every direction.  The Gates that have once been artificially established to separate the ‘interior’ from the‘exterior’ are now wide open.  There is no ‘interior.’  There is no ‘exterior.’  There is just Chao Chou, and he is all-transparent.”