Hearts of Prayer- Lenten Season
"Blessed Are the Pure of
Heart, for They Will See God"
1st Lenten Sermon
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFMCap, Pontifical Household Preacher
March 11, 2007
1. From ritual purity to purity of heart
Continuing our reflection on the evangelical beatitudes that we
began in Advent, in this first Lenten meditation we would like to
reflect on the beatitude of the pure of heart.
Whoever today reads or hears proclaimed, "Blessed are the pure of
heart, for they will see God," instinctively thinks of the virtue of
purity almost as if this beatitude is the positive equivalent of the
Sixth Commandment, "Do not commit impure acts." This interpretation,
sporadically advanced in the course of the history of Christian
spirituality, became predominant beginning in the 19th century.
In reality, purity of heart does not indicate, in Christ's thinking,
a particular virtue, but a quality that should go along with all the
virtues, so that they are truly virtues and not rather "glittering
vices." Its most direct contrary is not impurity, but hypocrisy. A
little exegesis and history will help us to better understand.
What Jesus means by "purity of heart" is made clear by the context
of the Sermon on the Mount. According to the Gospel, what determines
the purity or impurity of an action -- whether it be almsgiving,
fasting or prayer -- is the intention: Is the deed done to be seen
by men or to please God?
"When you give alms sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites
do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by
men. Truly, I say to you: They have already received their reward.
But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your
right hand is doing so that your alms may be secret; and your Father
who sees in secret will reward you" (Matthew 6:2-6).
Hypocrisy is the sin that is most powerfully denounced by God in the
Bible and the reason for this is clear. With his hypocrisy, man
demotes God, he puts him in second place, putting the creature, the
public, in first place. "Man sees the appearance, the Lord sees the
heart" (1 Samuel 16:7): Cultivating our appearance more than our
heart means giving greater importance to man than to God.
Hypocrisy is thus essentially a lack of faith; but it is also a lack
of charity for our neighbor in the sense that it tends to reduce
persons to admirers. It does not recognize their proper dignity, but
sees them only in function of one's own image.
Christ's judgment on hypocrisy is without appeal: "Receperunt
mercedem suam" (They have already received their reward)! A reward
that is, above all, illusory, even on a human level because we know
that glory flees from those that seek it, and seeks those who flee
Jesus' invectives against the scribes and the Pharisees also help us
understand the meaning of purity of heart. Jesus' criticisms focus
on the opposition between the "inside" and the "outside," the
interior and the exterior of man.
"Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like
whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are
full of dead men's bones and filth. So you also outwardly appear
righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity"
The revolution which Jesus brings about here is of incalculable
significance. Before him, except for some rare hint in the prophets
and the Psalms -- "Who will ascend the mountain of the Lord? Those
whose hands are innocent and whose hearts are pure" (Psalm 24:3) --
purity was understood in a ritual and cultural way; it consisted in
keeping one's distance from things, animals, persons or places that
were understood to contaminate one and separate one from God's
holiness. Above all, these were things associated with birth, death,
food and sexuality. In different forms and with different
presuppositions, other religions outside the Bible shared these
Jesus makes a clean sweep of all these taboos and does so first of
all by certain gestures: He eats with sinners, touches lepers, mixes
with pagans. All of these were taken to be highly unsanitary things.
He also sweeps away these taboos with his teachings. The solemnity
with which he introduces his discourse on the pure and the impure
makes apparent how conscious he was of the novelty of his doctrine.
"And he called the people to him again and said to them: 'Hear me
all of you and understand; there is nothing outside a man that by
going into him can defile him. It is the things that come out of a
man that can defile him.... For from within, out of the heart of a
man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery,
coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride,
foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile
a man'" (Mark 7:14-17,21-23).
The Gospel writer, almost stupefied, notes: "Thus he declared all
foods clean" (Mark 7:19). Against the attempt of some Judaeo-Christians
to reinstate the distinction between pure and impure in foods and
other sectors of life, the apostolic Church forcefully repeats:
"Everything is clean for those who are pure" -- "omnia munda mundis"
-- (Titus 1:15; cf. Romans 14:20).
Purity, understood as continence and chastity, is not absent from
the Gospel beatitude (Jesus also mentions fornication, adultery and
licentiousness among those things that defile the heart); they
occupy a limited and "secondary" place. They are one group among
others in an area in which the "heart" has a decisive place, as when
Jesus says: "Whoever looks on a woman with lust has already
committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:28).
In fact, the terms "pure" and "purity" ("katharos," "katharotes")
are never used in the New Testament to indicate what we mean by them
today, namely, the absence of sins of the flesh. For these things
other terms are used: self-control ("enkrateia"), temperance ("sophrosune"),
From what has been said, it is clear that the one who is the pure of
heart par excellence is Jesus himself. His enemies are constrained
to say of him: "We know that you are true and care for no man" (Mark
12:14). Jesus could say of himself: "I do not seek my own glory"
2. A look at history
Early on in the exegesis of the Fathers of the Church we see the
three fundamental directions in which the beatitude of purity of
heart will be received in the history of Christian spirituality
delineate themselves: the moral, the mystical and the ascetic.
The moral interpretation emphasizes rectitude of intention, the
mystical interpretation emphasizes the vision of God, and the
ascetic interpretation emphasizes the struggle against the passions
of the flesh. We see these interpretations exemplified in Augustine,
Gregory of Nyssa and John Chrysostom, respectively.
Faithfully attending to the Gospel context, Augustine interprets the
beatitude in a moral way, as a refusal "to display one's justice
before men so as to be admired by them" (Matthew 6:1), and thus as
simplicity and frankness, which are opposed to hypocrisy. Augustine
writes: "Only he who has shrugged off human praise and in his life
is concerned just to please God, who searches our conscience, has a
simple, that is, pure, heart."
Here the factor that determines purity of heart is one's intention.
"All our actions are honest and pleasing in the presence of God if
they are done with a sincere heart, that is, with love as their
goal.... Thus, it is not so much the action that must be considered
but the intention with which it is done." This interpretive
model, which focuses on intention, will be operative for the whole
subsequent spiritual tradition, especially the Ignatian one.
The mystical interpretation, which has its first proponent in
Gregory of Nyssa, sees the beatitude in relation to contemplation.
We must purify our hearts of every link to the world and to evil; in
this way the heart of man will return to being that pure and limpid
image of God which it was in the beginning when in our own soul, as
in a mirror, we could "see God."
"If in the conduct of your life you are diligent and attentive, you
will wipe away the ugliness that has been deposited in your heart
and the divine beauty will shine forth in you.... Contemplating
yourself you will see him who is the desire of your heart, and you
will be blessed."
Here all the weight is on the "apodosis," the fruit promised to
beatitude; having a pure heart is the means; the goal is "to see
God." Linguistically, the influence of the philosopher Plotinus is
apparent, and this will become even more evident in St. Basil.
This interpretive approach will also have a following in the
subsequent history of Christian spirituality, passing through St.
Bernard, St. Bonaventure and the Rhineland mystics. In some
monastic circles an interesting idea will be added: the idea of
purity as an interior unification that is obtained by willing only
one thing, when this "thing" is God. St. Bernard writes: "Blessed
are the pure of heart, for they will see God. As if to say: Purify
your heart, set yourself apart from everything, be a monk, that is,
alone, seek just one thing from the Lord and follow it (cf. Psalm
27:4), freed from everything, you will see God (cf. Psalm
The ascetic interpretation is fairly isolated in the Fathers and
medieval authors. This interpretation focuses on chastity and will
become predominant, as I said, beginning in the 19th century.
Chrysostom is the clearest example of this approach. The mystic
Ruysbroeck, who distinguishes between chastity of spirit, chastity
of the heart and chastity of the body, is in this same line. He
links the Gospel beatitude to chastity of the heart. This chastity,
he writes, "recollects and reinforces the external senses, while,
within, it curbs and controls the animal instincts.... It closes the
heart to earthly things and deceptive enticements and opens it to
heavenly things and to the truth."
With different degrees of fidelity, each of these orthodox
interpretations remains within the new horizon of the revolution
brought by Jesus, which leads every moral discourse back to the
Paradoxically, those who have betrayed the Gospel beatitude of the
pure ("katharoi") of heart are precisely those who have taken on its
name: the Cathars, with all the similar movements that preceded and
followed them in the history of Christianity. They fall into the
category of those who take purity to consist in being separated,
ritually and socially, from persons and things that are judged to be
impure in themselves. This is a more external than internal purity.
These groups are more the inheritors of the sectarian radicalism of
the Pharisees and of the Essenes than of the Gospel of Christ.
3. Nonreligious hypocrisy
Often emphasis is given to the social and cultural significance of
some beatitudes. It is not unusual to read "Blessed are the
peacemakers" on the banners carried in demonstrations by pacifists.
And the beatitude of the meek who will inherit the earth is rightly
invoked in regard to the principle of nonviolence, to say nothing of
the beatitude of the poor and the persecuted for justice's sake.
But the social relevance of the beatitude of the pure of heart is
never spoken of and seems to be exclusively reserved for the
personal sphere. I am convinced, however, that this beatitude could
have a much needed critical function in our society.
We have seen that in Christ's thinking, purity of heart is not
opposed primarily to impurity but to hypocrisy, and hypocrisy is
perhaps the most widespread human vice, and the least confessed.
There are individual and collective hypocrisies.
Man, Pascal wrote, has two lives: One is his true life and the other
is his imaginary one that he lives in his own opinion or in that of
other people. We work hard to embellish and conserve our imaginary
being and we neglect our true being. If we have some virtue or
merit, we are careful to make it known, in some way or other, so as
to attach these virtues to that imaginary existence. We would rather
separate them from ourselves to join them to it; and we would
willingly be cowards in order to acquire the reputation of being
The tendency brought to light by Pascal has grown enormously in the
present culture, dominated by the mass media, film, television and
the entertainment industry in general. Descartes said: "Cogito ergo
sum" (I think therefore I am); but today this tends to be
substituted with "I appear therefore I am."
Originally the term hypocrisy was reserved for the theater. It
simply meant to act, to represent in a scene. St. Augustine notes
this in his commentary on the beatitude of the pure of heart. "The
hypocrites," he writes, "are the creators of fiction in the sense
that they present the personality of others in plays."
The origin of the term puts us on the way toward discovering the
nature of hypocrisy. It is making one's life a theater in which one
acts for an audience; it is to put on a mask, to cease to be a
person and become a character.
Somewhere I read this explanation of the two things: "The character
is nothing else than the corruption of the person. The person is a
face, the character is a mask. The person is radical nakedness, the
character is only clothing. The person loves authenticity and
essentiality, the character lives by fiction and artifice. The
person obeys his own convictions, the character obeys a script. The
person is humble and light, the character is heavy and cumbersome."
But the fiction of the theater is an innocent hypocrisy because it
always maintains the distinction between the stage and life. No one
who sees a performance of Agamemnon -- this is Augustine's example
-- thinks that the actor is really Agamemnon. The new and
disquieting development is that today there is a tendency even to
annul this division, transforming life itself into a play. This is
what the so-called reality shows are about that are now all over
According to the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, who died just
last week [March 6], it has now become difficult to distinguish real
events -- the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Gulf War -- from their
media portrayal. Reality and virtuality are confused.
The call back to interiority that characterizes our beatitude and
the whole Sermon on the Mount is an invitation to not allow
ourselves to be drawn into this tendency that tends to empty the
person, reducing him to an image, or worse -- using a term dear to
Baudrillard -- a "simulacra."
Kierkegaard drew our attention to the alienation that results from
living in pure exteriority, always and only in the presence of other
people, and never simply in the presence of God and our own "I."
A farmer, he observed, can be an "I" before his cows, if he is
always living with them and has only them as his measure. A king can
be an "I" before his subjects and he will feel like an important
"I." The child grasps himself as an "I" in relation to his parents,
a citizen before the state.
But it will always be an imperfect "I" because it lacks the proper
measure. "But what an infinite reality my 'I' acquires when it
becomes aware of existing before God, becoming a human 'I' whose
measure is God.... What an infinite accent falls on the 'I' in the
moment that God becomes my measure!"
It seems like a commentary on the saying of St. Francis of Assisi:
"That which man is before God, that is what he is and nothing
4. Religious hypocrisy
The worst thing that a hypocrite can do is to take himself as the
standard by which to judge others, society, culture and the world.
These are precisely the ones whom Jesus calls hypocrites:
"Hypocrite, first take the plank from your own eye and then you will
see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye" (Matthew
As believers, we have to remember the saying of a Jewish rabbi who
lived during the time of Christ, and according to whom, 90% of the
hypocrisy of the world was found in Jerusalem. Already the
martyr St. Ignatius of Antioch felt the need to admonish his
brothers in faith: "It is better to be Christians without saying so
than to say so without being so."
Hypocrisy seduces pious and religious persons above all, and the
reason for this is simple: Where there is the strongest esteem of
the values of the spirit, of piety and virtue (and of orthodoxy!),
the temptation to affect these so as not to seem lacking in them is
also the strongest. "Certain official positions in human society,"
writes Augustine, "must of necessity make us loved and honored by
our fellows. On every side the enemy of our true happiness spreads
his snares of 'Well done! Well done!' so that grabbing greedily at
these praises we may be caught by surprise, and abandon our delight
in your truth to look for it, instead in human flattery. So the
affection and honor we receive come to be something we enjoy not for
your sake, but in your place."
The most pernicious hypocrisy would be to hide one's own hypocrisy.
I have never found in any aid to an examination of conscience such
questions as: Am I a hypocrite? Am I more concerned with how other
people see me than with how God sees me? At a certain point in my
life I had to introduce these questions into my examination of
conscience myself, and rarely was I able to pass without a problem
to the questions that followed these.
One day, listening to the parable of the talents read at Mass, I
suddenly understood something. Between bearing fruit with what one
is given and not bearing fruit, there is a third possibility: that
of bearing fruit, not for the one who has given us what we have, but
for our own glory or our own interest, and this is perhaps a graver
sin than bearing no fruit at all. That day at Communion I had to do
as certain thieves do when they are surprised in the act and, full
of shame, empty their pockets and throw what they have stolen at the
feet of the owner.
Jesus has left us a simple and unsurpassable means of rectifying our
intentions at various times throughout the day, the first three
questions of the Our Father: "Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom
come. Thy will be done." These can be said as prayers but they can
also be declarations of intention: All that I do, I want to do it so
that your name will be sanctified, so that your kingdom will come
and your will be done.
It would be a precious contribution to society and the Christian
community if the beatitude of the pure of heart would help us to
maintain alive in us the nostalgia for a world that is clean, true,
without religious hypocrisy or nonreligious hypocrisy; a world in
which actions corresponded to words, words to thoughts, and the
thoughts of man to those of God. This will only fully happen in the
heavenly Jerusalem, the city made of crystal, but we must at least
strive for it.
An author of fables wrote a fable called "The Glass Town." In the
story a young girl ends up by magic in a town made of glass: glass
houses, glass birds, glass trees, people who move like graceful
glass statues. But nothing in this town breaks because everyone has
learned how to move about in it with care so as not to do any
damage. Upon meeting each other, the people answer questions before
they are even asked them because even thoughts are evident and
transparent in this town; no one tries to lie, knowing that everyone
can read what is on his mind.
We shudder to think what would happen if this suddenly occurred here
among us; but it is salutary to at least tend toward such an ideal.
This is the road that will carry us to the beatitude that we have
tried to comment on: "Blessed are the pure of heart for they will
* * *
 St. Augustine, "De sermone Domini in monte," II, 1, 1 (CC 35, p.
 Ibid. II, 13, 45-46.
 Jean-François de Reims, "La vraie perfection de cette vie," Part
2, Paris 1651, Instr. 4, p. 160.
 Gregory of Nyssa, "De beatitudinibus," 6 (PG 44, p. 1272).
 St. Basil, "On the Holy Spirit," IX, 23; XXII, 53 (PG 32,
 Cf. Michel Dupuy, "Pureté," in DSpir. 12, pp. 2637-2645.
 St. Bernard of Clairvaux, "Sententiae," III, 2 (S. Bernardi
Opera, ed. J. Leclerq and H. M. Rochais).
 St. John Chrysostom, "Homiliae in Mattheum," 15, 4.
 John Ruysbroeck, "Lo splendore delle nozze spirituali," Roma,
Città Nuova 1992, pp.72 f.
 Cf. Blaise Pascal, "Pensées," 147 Br.
 St. Augustine, "De sermone Domini in monte," 2, 5 (CC 35, p.
 St. Francis of Assisi, "Ammonizioni," 19 (Fonti Francescane,
 Cf. Strack-Billerbeck, I, 718.
 St. Ignatius of Antioch, "Ephesians" 15:1 ("It is better to say
nothing and to be, than to chatter and not be") and "Magnesians," 4
("It is necessary not only to call ourselves Christians but also to
 Cf. St. Augustine, "Confessions," X, 36, 59.
 Lauretta, "Il bosco dei lillà," Ancora, Milano, 2nd ed. 1994,
Raniero Cantalamessa is a Franciscan
Capuchin Catholic Priest. Born in Ascoli Piceno,
Italy, 22 July 1934, ordained priest in 1958.
Divinity Doctor and Doctor in classical literature.
In 1980 he was appointed by Pope John Paul II
Preacher to the Papal Household in which capacity he
still serves, preaching a weekly sermon in Advent
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