Beatitudes: A Prison of Mirrors

February 5, 1995


A Prison of Mirrors

They are called the “Beatitudes” — nine blessings pronounced on certain kinds of people, blessings used in Matthew’s gospel to introduce the famous “Sermon on the Mount,” blessings met with pious praise and fervent “Amens!” in church on Sunday but almost totally ignored the rest of the week. In one Texas church I saw them decoupaged and hung in the foyer under the Holman Hunt painting of Jesus — you’ve all seen it, the one where he is thrillingly beautiful: perfect features, Aryan nose and hair…sort of a Brad Pitt with a halo. What do you suppose would happen if in some Israeli archeological site somebody were to dig up a first century clay bust of Jesus … and it looked like Jerry Seinfeld on a bad day? It’s possible, you know. It’s only romantic fiction that makes good people gorgeous and bad people ugly. In real life, Socrates was a homely little man, and for all we know Jesus of Nazareth may have had stringy hair, crooked teeth, and one eye that squinted.
Why would I say such a thing, even if it might have been true? I say it to remind you that when we romanticize the person of Jesus we probably romanticize his preaching as well — and we could hardly make a bigger mistake. “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” the song goes, but his message was so radical, so corrosive at times, so unbearable for the men who ran the religious System that he got himself executed before he got fairly started. So if we look at the Beatitudes, which I plan to do for a while, we must expect some of them to be so topsy-turvy, so contrary to common sense and worldly wisdom, that they will make us feel awkward and embarrassed, at times, at the thought of taking them seriously.
They are, by the way, descriptions rather than commandments. It’s all right to speak a command and say, “You must be merciful,” and there are other places in Scripture that issue such an order, but that isn’t the approach of the Beatitudes. They just say, for example: “People who are merciful are happy … they find life more abundant in blessings than the rest of us do.” So we may have to read the Beatitudes, some of them at least, with the knowledge that they are meant for certain people already in something called the “Kingdom of God,” and that we may be standing on the outside like children looking in at a party going on without us. The truth is that some of the people we see in these Beatitudes are not like us at all, that in fact, we try very hard not to be like them. We are more practical about life than they are: we want the world’s blessing, not God’s — at least not if we have to behave in some of the ways that are praised in these Beatitudes.
Translation may be part of the problem, because the very first one says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” I’m not sure honesty is the most abundant community in either the pulpit or the pew, but let’s be honest about our reaction to that pronouncement. “Poor in spirit”? We’re in trouble from the start, we’ve already fumbled the opening kickoff. “Poor in spirit?” For one thing, it has that awful word “Poor” in it, and we try desperately to avoid poverty, so if we aren’t in church, ready to listen patiently to all sorts of strange things, that word is going to bother us. And if we make it past “poor” and get to “poor in spirit“ it still makes us flinch, because it sounds like somebody with no backbone, like some of those limp, cringing, lickspittles who drive us crazy — especially when they try to make us think their public, handwringing modesty is the mark of a true Christian!
It gets a little better when we look at some other English versions of that sentence, most of which are summed up by the J. B. Phillips’ translation: “How happy are the humble-minded, for the kingdom of Heaven is theirs!” I said “a little better” because humility is not usually No. 1 in a list of the character traits we admire most. But at least we can’t evade the sense of the Beatitude any longer: If we want to be happy, in the highest degree, we have to master the rich and complex art of true humility. That implies, of course, that there is a false humility, the nauseating kind represented in Dickens’ David Copperfield by Uriah Heep, that unforgettable minor character, with his oily smirk and constant handwringing and obsequious bowing to everyone — a disgusting little toady whose very name has become a symbol for the hypocrisy of false humility. Fortunately, we have encountered the beauty of genuine humility, the kind so beautifully exhibited in someone like Albert Einstein, for example, who never quite seemed to realize how much his incredible mind had changed the world.
Or, in the way the man lived who spoke these Beatitudes. He seemed, for example, absolutely sure of himself, yet he could say simply and without embarrassment, “Of my own self, I can do nothing.” An admission of dependency did not make him blush. He knew his own strength, and he knew the weakness of those who followed him, yet he felt no awkwardness in doing the most menial tasks for them. While they quarreled about who was No. 1, he tried patiently to teach them something about the Kingdom of Right Relationships by cooking their breakfast or bathing their hot and dusty feet. It is little people, you must have discovered, who find it hard to stoop. Jesus, believing he had a manifest destiny, conscious of an extraordinary self, felt no loss of dignity at all when he tied a towel around his waist, bent down before first one puzzled disciple and then another, and taught a lesson that I promise you haunted their dreams long after he had vanished from their sight. He had defined humility for them as the unselfconsciousness of a great human being.
By the way, please think about the word “unselfconscious” for a moment. One learns to avoid people who spend a great deal of time talking about their humility. You don’t have to have very keen ears to hear the drumbeat of pride in people who go about running themselves down. Those who are sensibly humble, simply do not talk about it. They are too busy living, doing, serving. It doesn’t occur to them that their levels of pride and humility are exciting topics. I read somewhere once that when Benjamin Franklin drew up his list of the 12 virtues he thought would guarantee a good life, an old Quaker to whom he showed it gently reminded him that he had left out humility — so Franklin tacked it on, last. The difference between his view of life, and Christ’s, is that Christ made it the first prescription for happiness that one not be arrogant Few men have understood this morning’s Beatitude better than C. S. Lewis who called pride a spiritual cancer that “eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.”
When we drive in a car at night, we don’t want the interior light on very long because it changes the windows of the car into mirrors. Everywhere we look, we see our own reflection, and it distorts our vision enough to make driving dangerous. False pride is like that: it dazzles us with so much self-generated , interior light that we are trapped in a prison of mirrors. Everywhere we look we see only ourselves — and it’s impossible to be happy if we stroll around constantly in that museum of art! Fortunately, most of us are not quite so extreme as a certain writer who held center stage at our party for a long time one evening with a running account of his achievements and talents. Finally, to everyone’s relief, he stopped and said with apparent modesty, “Enough about myself. Let’s hear from some of you. What do you think of my latest book?” There was a man caught in a prison of mirrors, with no windows open to the outside, seeing himself everywhere until he was dizzy with the swarming profusion of his own image.
Our first Beatitude says very quietly that there can be no happiness for people that obsessed with themselves. We live on a razor’s edge between too little self-esteem and too much, and happiness depends on not falling off on one side or the other. I came to terms a long time ago with the fact that pride has been responsible for some of my best, and some of my worst, moments. It has driven me to work harder than anyone has ever asked me to work, but on occasion it has made me hypersensitive and too easily bruised. The paradox of pride is that it makes us ridiculous one minute, and keeps us from being ridiculous the next. It’s a tricky, tricky thing…as all of you know who search your own hearts. St. Francis of Assissi had an interesting way of handling that problem. When someone praised his virtues until he felt himself liking it too much, he would ask a fellow monk to sit down and tell him all his faults. It’s not a bad idea, especially if you are lucky enough to have someone who loves you doing that….who can see the weakness mixed with your strength, who will not flatter what is false, and who cares enough to risk your disfavor for being honest.
The catalog of false prides that rob us of happiness is too long to do more than hint at it. Pride of family, in which little birdlike people sit in the branches of their family tree twittering around nests they never built, keeping aloof from people they might have known and liked, leaving undone the service they might have given. Pride of race, which overlooks so many variables in the formation of character that it becomes ludicrous. Pride of person, that shallow form of vanity that turns every store window we pass into a mirror. Pride of achievement, which deludes us into thinking we had no help or luck, that it all came only because we worked so hard and so intelligently.
I think I know why inflated egos like that cannot ultimately be happy. I saw a man about to enter a store the other day who seemed to be pondering whether to risk the revolving door. He was one who eaten well, but not wisely, and he was not easily negotiable through just any passageway…. in fact, quite a bit of him was available for bruising in every direction. But there’s a worse problem than his, although it’s not so quickly visible. Some of us have egos so swollen that we can hardly pass through any social door without being bruised somewhere. At church, in a business conference, in someone’s living room, at a store counter, in a restaurant — always we are having to say “ouch” because somebody bumps into our space-enveloping ego.
The kind of people imagined by the first Beatitude can enter in at all sorts of interesting doors because their egos are not swollen, kept trim by a deep spirit of gratitude….the most essential ingredient of happiness I can think of. People who enjoy life are those who instead of remembering injuries done to them, remember all the sacrifices made for them, and countless gifts of love and friendship, and remind themselves over and over how lucky they have been. The human race, it seems to me, splits into two groups: those who think they are giving more than they get, and feel martyred all the time; and those who think they are getting more than they give, and feel grateful all the time. The first group is miserable; the second group, free from touchiness, inherits the kingdom.
A man of whose life I know something was in a hotel in Norway once where a little girl lived who was fond of playing the piano. The only trouble was that she played just one tune, and she played that with just one finger, so guests who were awakened by her each morning found a variety of ways to let her know what a nuisance she was. One day there was a different reaction. A concert pianist came to the hotel and, sure enough, was awakened the next morning by the mechanical pecking. He dressed quickly and went down to the parlor, where the little girl sat by herself. He introduced himself, told her he knew the song she was playing, and asked if he might play it with her, and although the little girl was poor in technique she was not arrogant or proud in spirit, so she agreed happily. He sat down beside her, and let her pick at notes with him, and drowned out her discord with his own marvelous music. I’ll bet he was an extraordinarily happy man — the kind of person the Beatitude had in mind:
Blessed are those who do not take themselves too seriously, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.

May the thought of all that has been done for us keep us from foolish vanity, we ask in the name of Christ our Lord. Amen.