In the Beatitudes, Jesus explains the conditions for ultimate happiness. One of these prescriptions includes, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Matthew 5:8).
This teaching by our Lord should prompt us to reflect, "What does the condition of my heart have to do with my ability to see?"
Our hope as Catholic Christians is to live in the presence of God for all eternity. We hope to "see him as he is" (1 John 3:2).
Heaven is living forever in love and communion with the Holy Trinity. It is the final end for which we were created and the fulfillment of our deepest longings.
Seeing God in his heavenly glory is called the "beatific vision." The words "beatific" and "beatitude" come from the same root, meaning "happiness." We find true happiness by living in the presence of God.
In contrast, hell is the deprivation of this eternal vision of God. If we reject God's invitation to love and communion through grave sin from which we refuse to repent and seek his mercy, God will honor our choice to be separated from him forever. "This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called 'hell'" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1033).
While seeing the fullness of God's glory is only possible upon entrance into heaven, we can catch a glimpse of this eternal joy here on earth. With a pure heart, we are able to see God now, although in a limited way. "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face" (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Purity of heart allows us to see things according to God. It helps us recognize God's design and purpose in creation. It leads us to desire God's will and to fervently pray, "Thy kingdom come" (cf. CCC 2819).
A pure heart helps us see the image of God in ourselves and in our neighbor. It also helps us recognize the presence of Jesus Christ in the world.
I recently read a reflection on the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Simeon, who was a "righteous and devout" man, recognized the infant Jesus as the Messiah. "My eyes have seen thy salvation," Simeon proclaimed (Luke 2:30). The author of the reflection, Archbishop Alban Goodier, S.J., notes that Simeon "was a contemplative, with a clean heart," and these qualities allowed him to recognize our Lord when he saw him ("The Prince of Peace," p. 104).
With a pure heart, we, too, can recognize Jesus in our midst. We will know his presence in the Holy Eucharist, and we will see him in the poor and little ones. For Jesus tells us, "Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me" (Matthew 25:40).
A pure heart can be compared to a clean window. Just as dirt and debris on a window prevent us from seeing clearly, the debris of sin and vice create barriers to our vision of God.
Purity of heart comes from attuning our "intellects and wills to the demands of God's holiness" (CCC 2518). It requires listening to God, believing what he has revealed and making the decision to live accordingly. In doing so, we become free from our attachment to sin and open our hearts to seeing God. "So shun youthful passions and aim at righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call upon the Lord from a pure heart" (2 Timothy 2:22).
St. Augustine beautifully explains the connection between purity of heart, purity of body and purity of faith. He states that the faithful must believe what God has revealed "so that by believing they may obey God, by obeying may live well, by living well may purify their hearts, and with pure hearts may understand what they believe" (CCC 2518).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church acknowledges that the attainment of a pure heart is not easy, even calling the effort a "battle." This is because we must struggle against "concupiscence of the flesh and disordered desires," the effects of original sin (2520).
However, with God's grace and our effort, it is possible.
There are many ways in which we can work to purify our hearts. We can purify our intentions by striving to know and fulfill God's will in all things. The desire to carry out God's will is a first step in purifying our hearts. We can come to know God's will through the reading of the Bible and the study of God's revelation, as preserved in the teachings of the church.
Our hearts become purified through exercising the virtue of chastity. This virtue helps us properly integrate our sexuality, to "love with upright and undivided heart" (CCC 2520). With the help of God's grace, we can strive to be pure in thought, word and action.
Attaining a pure heart also requires prayer. Purity is not something we are able to attain on our own. We can ask God for the grace to be pure, chaste, humble and obedient. We can pray with a sincere heart, "Thy will be done."
The call to be pure of heart directs our interior disposition by placing our desire for God above all things. It guides our moral choices to be in conformity with God's will, and it helps us properly use the goods of this world. Purity of heart leads to true happiness, which is found only in seeing God.
Liz Hoefferle is director of religious education for the Diocese of Duluth.