The great feast of All Saints offers us the chance to dwell on two striking passages from Sacred Scripture - the Epistle being taken from the Apocalypse, and the Gospel being the sermon on the mount, regarding the beatitudes. The Church calls on Her members in the Church Militant, to set aside this particular day, to honour all those souls who have attained the crown of glory but are yet unknown to us by name. It is also a day on which to dwell on the goal of all men, namely, to attain heaven.
The French author, Abbe Tanqueray, offers an explanation of the beatitudes in relation to the spiritual life. He divides them between each of the three ways, or stages, of perfection, noting which are proper to each state in the spiritual life. The great spiritual writers and doctors of the Church denote three specific stages or degrees in the spiritual life, the purgative, illuminative and unitive. These are not three contradictory or even different ways, but merely stages of progression in the same spiritual life. Tanqueray thus bases these three ages upon the beatitudes, as a guide for all souls who wish to advance in the spiritual life and achieve the prize which Christ offers.
Whilst this piece is not devoted to an explanation of the three ways, we can nevertheless avail of Tanqueray’s words regarding the beatitudes, since they are originally presented as a guide to holiness.
He notes the first three beatitudes in relation to the purgative way, or way of beginners. This way is akin to a spiritual childhood, which is the necessary preparation for any advancement in the spiritual life. It is focussed on purification of oneself and mortification, in order to subdue our passions and desires. Such a purification entails that we purify the senses, the passions, the will and intellect. This is effected by further mortifications and prayer, for all means must be made use of in order to purge the soul from its attachment to sin and to strengthen it against temptations.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”: this beatitude calls us to be poor in all manner of riches or honour, and instead seek only God who is the greatest treasure of all. It even counsels against being desirous of great virtue, in case we begin to seek virtue due to a form of spiritual pride. We should instead humbly resign ourselves to seeking the level of perfection which God has ordained for us, firm in the knowledge that any pursuit of perfection will entail great hardship.
“Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land”: here we are called to practice a spiritual meekness, to control our own desires and outbursts of selfish passions and to unite ourselves to the meek and humble heart of Christ. “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted”: it is better to suffer the ills of the world and endure these sorrows for the love of God, than to be filled with the joys and comforts of the world. The spiritual life is marked by suffering, both through personal mortification and through abnegation of the world. It is this persecution from the world which Christ warned of: “the servant is not greater than his master. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you”.(John 15:20)
Moving forward, Tanqueray denotes the next two beatitudes to the illuminative way. The souls in the illuminative way, having gained mastery of the passions, seek to practice the virtues more fully, in order to imitate Christ. The prayers and virtues which they practice are clearly those which stem from a deeper union with God. “Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill”: justice demands that man give to God the honour which is properly His due, hence those who are filled with the desire for justice are called to love God for His own sake more perfectly. “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy”: the fathers teach that justice and mercy must always be united, that man should forgive his fellow man, just as God pardons the repentant sinner.
Abbe Tanqueray then uses the final three beatitudes with particular reference to the unitive way, the highest degree of perfection. It is a way of contemplation, eminent charity and the practice of virtue to a heroic degree. “Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God”: the temple of God cannot be impure, and only the clean of heart are those who can see God, for they have proved themselves worthy despite the temptations of life. “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called children of God”: it is the peacemakers who have subdued all earthly desires and made themselves into the dwelling place of God, since God moves in peace and order. “Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”: just as Christ suffered death, taking on Him the sins of man, so we are called to suffer likewise.
This feast of All Saints presents us with the opportunity to properly dwell on this exposition of the beatitudes as they pertain to the spiritual life, for today we honour all saints, but especially those unknown souls who practiced these very beatitudes and virtues to a saintly degree. The Church offers this Gospel for such a reason, providing Her children with the prompts on how to attain heaven whilst pointing them to the intercession of those who have already done so.
In fact, All Saints represents in a special manner, the true Catholicity of the Church. That is to say, that often the path to sainthood can seem untenable, and reserved only for the great saints, whom are well known and loved, and serve as models of heroic virtue. Yet, on this day, we are called to contemplate on the fact that Christ calls all, has given the means to answer to this call, and assists countless souls to do so, even if they are not known by name. The path to sanctity is not reserved for a special few, but is offered to all.
It should be a feast day of great pomp and circumstance, but also of great hope - hope because we can call upon the many unknown saints in heaven to be our guide on the path to sanctity. Those men and women who were perhaps but ‘normal’ in the eyes of the world, and possibly even the Church, but who cultivated the practice of the virtues and the beatitudes to a high degree, can be our guides and intercessors and exemplars.
In the very first lessons in studying the Catechism, we learned the answer to the question of why God made us. He did so out of pure love and “to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next”. The language seems somewhat simplistic, but it captures the essence of the call to perfection, which the saints grasped so well.
The more we know God, the more we love Him, and the greater our love for Him then the more we will wish to follow Him in all things. This love is manifested by serving Him in our daily actions and prayers, which will ultimately lead to being united with God in heavenly beatitude should we remain faithful to Him. This is our final end, the goal which must be ever present in our mind throughout our life, orienting our choices so that we may one day achieve union with the Divine.
Consequently, on this great feast of All Saints, may it be an occasion for Catholics everywhere to renew the practice of the virtues and to take the beatitudes especially to heart, emulating the saints, both known and unknown.
Related posts: The Practice of the Spiritual Life.