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Chapter 26: Modes of Christian Response

Question F: What mode of Christian response corresponds to the third (or second) Beatitude: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Mt 5.4)?

1. The hearts of people whose primary love is charity are fixed upon God. Every other good is pursued only in the context of the basic relationship of friendship with God. Disposed to goodness itself, they are freed from the pursuit of particular goods except insofar as these contribute to the fulfillment of everything in Jesus. Thus the third mode of Christian response is to put aside or avoid everything which is not necessary or useful in the fulfillment of one’s personal vocation. This way of acting is faith’s specification and charity’s fulfillment of the third mode of responsibility: One should not choose to satisfy an emotional desire except as part of one’s pursuit and/or attainment of an intelligible good other than the satisfaction of the desire itself.

In the fallen human condition, the universality of futility conceals the specific futility of acting out of motives which one realizes to be nonrational. When degradation is universal, one might as well do what is degrading. Death is an awesome reality; one might as well live for the moment or gain what satisfaction one can in pursuing particular objectives, even if their attainment will be unsatisfying. If the dead are not raised, eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die (see 1 Cor 15.32). The revelation of the Old Testament provided some help in overcoming this attitude (8‑C). Moreover, by the time of Jesus, many pious Jews believed in the resurrection to come (and many still do today).

However, many people who lack detachment are quite self-disciplined. How do they manage to develop such a disposition? The answer is that the self-control of the person without detachment usually is in the service of one major nonrational motive which is thoroughly rationalized so that its true character is not obvious. For example, many hard-working and tightly controlled people are bent on achieving fame and reputation. These goals, when considered reflectively, clearly are of value neither to the one who attains them nor to anyone else. Also, to some extent, such persons avoid nonrational action out of prudential motives. People avoid excess, follow a healthful regimen, and lead generally orderly lives because they are afraid of the consequences of not doing so.

The light of faith transforms one’s view of this present life. One who accepts Jesus with living faith now has a real purpose in life, and this purpose is adequate to organize the whole of life. In it, integral human fulfillment can be found. Therefore, one should put aside everything else as irrational: not only behavior which has been indulged in without any rational motive but even behavior which could have a rational motive but has no place in one’s personal vocation.

2. Some suggest that those who mourn, referred to in the Beatitude, are contrite sinners comforted by God’s forgiveness. Although “those who mourn” certainly include the contrite, the concept has often been taken far more widely, as embracing the Christian’s entire attitude toward this world.20 As St. Augustine remarks concerning this Beatitude, those who turn to God no longer take pleasure in things which previously pleased them, and “until there comes about in them the love for what is eternal, they feel the sting of sadness over a number of things”; they are comforted by the Holy Spirit so that “disregarding the temporal they may enjoy eternal happiness.”21 One who follows Jesus is a stranger and pilgrim in this world—a world which is passing away. Along with rejoicing in hope of fulfillment in Jesus, Christians mourn the dying world from which they must detach themselves.

3. The virtuous disposition present in this mode of Christian response is referred to as “detachment.” Detachment is the surrender of every good which does not contribute to the carrying out of one’s personal vocation. Habitual self-denial is an aspect of such detachment, and following the counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience is an important means. “Worldliness” and “anxiety” often signify opposed dispositions. One who follows nonrational motives suffers a kind of enslavement; but the fruit of detachment is an important aspect of the liberty of the children of God (see Gal 5.16–24).

4. Detachment is one of the requirements of discipleship indicated when Jesus tells those who propose to follow him that they must take up their crosses. In Matthew and Mark this precept is immediately preceded by his first prediction of his passion and death and by his reproof to Peter, who used human standards rather than God’s. Jesus then insists on the necessity of self-denial for following him and on the uselessness of gaining the whole world while losing one’s soul. He also promises the reward of heaven to those who follow him (see Mt 16.24–28; Mk 8.34–39; Lk 9.23–27).

5. In excoriating the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus condemns their avarice and impurity: “You cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity” (Mt 23.25). The covetousness Jesus condemns in his opponents is the extreme opposite of the detachment he blesses in his disciples. In Luke, a similar woe is complemented by an explicit call for generosity: “But give for alms those things which are within; and behold, everything is clean for you” (Lk 11.41).

6. According to Augustine, the gift of the Holy Spirit corresponding to this Beatitude is knowledge. Christian liberation gives a genuine insight into values in the light of the gospel.22 St. Thomas teaches that by this gift one is enlightened both to discern what belongs to faith and to judge earthly things by its light, in this way knowing where one’s true good lies and how secondary or unimportant everything else is by comparison (see S.t., 2–2, q. 9, aa. 3–4).

While a certain asceticism was commended in the Old Testament—and moderation and self-control were taught—the promises initially were of this-worldly goods. Only in the New Testament can one find the conception that the kingdom is not of this world, that the Messiah is the Suffering Servant. Christian other-worldliness provides a new ground for discipline: “Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul” (1 Pt 2.11).

The detachment Jesus teaches is radical. If one’s eye or hand offends, detach oneself from it (see Mt 5.29–30). One is to be entirely carefree, with no concern even about the necessities of life, since God will provide what is truly necessary (see Mt 6.25–34). Seek the kingdom and everything else will follow: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Lk 12.32–34). The worldly rich man is a fool; his soul will be required of him, and he cannot take with him the goods he has accumulated (see Lk 12.16–21). Jesus teaches that one must be detached from everything, including life itself (see Mt 10.28; Lk 12.4–6). His own death is a necessary condition for his resurrection, and so he gladly lays down his life (see Jn 12.25).

Jesus tells the rich man, who has kept the commandments, to sell all he has and follow him. And he goes on to explain that riches are a burden and an obstacle (see Mt 19.16–24; Mk 10.17–25; Lk 18.18–25). Paul drives home the lesson of detachment with respect to everything one does in this world; from the use of marriage to the use of the world’s goods, one must proceed as if one were not even involved with these things: “For the form of this world is passing away. I want you to be free from anxieties” (1 Cor 7.31–32). Here is what is most characteristic of Christian detachment. It is not so much a negative attitude as a disposition of liberty from impediments to living toward heaven.

20. See Dupont, op. cit., 545–55.

21. St. Augustine, op. cit., 14.

22. Ibid., 19.