Feast of St Nicodemus the Righteous of Mount Athos
IF A PERSON will devoutly and calmly consider the sermon which our Lord Jesus Christ spoke on the mount, as we read it in the Gospel according to Matthew, I think he will find in it, as measured by the highest norms of morality, the perfect pattern of the Christian life. [. . .]
His maxims are eight in all. [. . .] Therefore we are to give good heed to the number of those maxims. For blessedness starts with humility: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” that is, those who are not puffed up, whose soul is submissive to divine authority, who stand in dread of punishment after this life despite the seeming blessedness of their earthly life. The soul next makes itself acquainted with Sacred Scripture according to which it must show itself meek through piety, so that it may not make bold to censure what appears a stumbling block to the uninstructed and become intractable by obstinate argumentation. The soul now begins to realize what a hold the world has on it through the habits and sins of the flesh. In this third step, then, wherein is knowledge, there is grief for the loss of the highest good through clinging to the lowest.
In the fourth step there is hard work. The soul puts forth a tremendous effort to wrench itself from the pernicious delights which bind it. Here there must be hunger and thirst for righteousness, and there is great need for fortitude, for not without pain is the heart severed from its delights.
At the fifth step it suggests to those who are continuing their energetic efforts so they may be helped to master their situation. For unless one is helped by a superior power, he is incapable of freeing himself by his own efforts from the bonds of misery which encompass him. The suggestion given is a just proposition: If one wishes to be helped by a more powerful person, let him help someone who is weaker in a field wherein he himself holds an advantage. Hence, “Blessed are the merciful, for mercy will be shown them.”
The sixth step is cleanness of heart form a good consciousness of works well done, enabling the soul to contemplate that supreme good which can be seen only by a mind that is pure and serene.
Finally, the seventh step is wisdom itself, that is, contemplation of the truth, bringing peace to the whole man and effecting a likeness to God; and of this the sum is, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”
The eighth maxim returns, as it were, to the beginning, because it shows and commends what is perfect and complete. Thus, in the first and the eighth the kingdom of heaven is mentioned: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”; and, “Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”—when now it is said: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation? Or distress? Or persecution? Or hunger? Or nakedness? Or danger? Or the sword?” (Rom. 8.35).
Seven in number, therefore, are the things which lead to perfection. The eighth maxim throws light upon perfection and shows what it consists of, so that, with this maxim beginning again, so to speak, from the first, the two together may serve as steps toward the perfection of the others also. [. . .]
And these things can be realized even in this life, as we believe the Apostles realized them. And certainly no words can express that complete transformation into the likeness of angels which is promised for the afterlife.
“Blessed,” therefore, “are they that suffer persecution for justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This eighth maxim, which harks back to the first, and announces the perfected man, is perhaps expressed in type in the Old Testament by circumcision on the eighth day and by the resurrection of the Lord after the Sabbath which is at once the eighth day of the week and the first; also by the celebration of the octave which we keep on occasion of the rebirth of the renewed man; and by the very name Pentecost. For to the number seven multiplied seven times—making forty-nine—an eighth is added, as it were, so that we have fifty and in a way return to the beginning. It was on this day that the Holy Spirit was sent by whom we are brought into the kingdom of heaven and receive our inheritance and are consoled, are fed, and obtain mercy, and are cleansed, and made at peace; and, thus made perfect, we bear for truth and righteousness whatever annoyances we have to endure from without.
—St Augustine of Hippo, The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount