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Blessed Are They Which Do Hunger and Thirst After Righteousness For They Shall Be Filled

February 23, 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Beatitudes can be likened to the rungs on a ladder that we are invited to mount in the journey from earth to heaven. Those rungs comprise both virtuous actions and holy states of being associated with the deepest inclinations of the heart. In order to attain the fortunate condition associated with mourning for our sins and for our distance from God, we must have some acquaintance with genuine self-knowledge, the start of humility exhibited by those with poverty of spirit.  To complete the repentance associated with mourning for our sins, we need to hunger and thirst for the exact opposite of everything sinful and selfish, we need to hunger for the righteousness of God that puts all things right.

Referring to hunger and thirst is significant, for there are no motivational states more powerful or more painful than those visceral cravings of an empty stomach or a parched palate. They impel God’s creatures to move about purposefully seeking ways in which to sate their hunger and quench their thirst. In our case, we are to let that hunger and thirst energize our minds so that  “we avoid sin as wild beasts shun poison and always hunt for righteousness as they seek vegetation that is good for food” (Basil the Great, Homily 3). Saint Cyprian of Carthage further notes that when hunger and thirst are present one eats vigorously, one drinks plentifully (Epistle 62), suggesting that when we encounter moments of holiness and righteousness that we cling to them and try to gain everything we possibly can from them. In commenting on this Beatitude, Saint Athanasios the Great taught that Christ was referring to psalm 42, “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?” The thirst for righteousness is ultimately the thirst for the God of righteousness as the God of our heart.

There is a difference, however, between the hunger and thirst for food experienced by all creatures, and the hunger and thirst for righteousness experienced by God’s rational sheep. As Saint Basil the Great writes, “what is performed by the beasts unwittingly may be done by us through careful attention and constant exercise of our reasoning faculty” (Basil the Great, Homily 3). The hunger and thirst for righteousness, though present by nature, must be cultivated by free choice, and this can take place only by collecting the mind. Thus, Saint Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “as long as the human mind… is dispersed in any direction to whatever happens to please the senses, it will never keep along the genuinely good path, but when it turns inward and collects itself, it then moves in a natural way without straying, ascending to higher realities much like water can rise up a pipe because of the constraining walls and in spite of gravity. In the same way, the human mind when enclosed by abstinence (ἐγκράτεια), not being concerned with extraneous issues, will be raised by the natural power of motion to exalted love” (On Virginity, Chapter 7).

Thus, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, it is necessary to collect one’s mind, to restrict the senses, and to focus on the one thing needful. When this happens, the soul begins to thirst for God, to be hungry for God, and to love God. The hesychastic tradition of the Church that encourages the faithful to keep their minds within their hearts united to Christ is ultimately about gaining hunger and thirst for righteousness. All the asceticism of the ascetics, all the fasting of the fasters, all the prayers of those who pray serve to increase this blessed hunger and holy thirst. Ultimately, it becomes a hunger for Christ Himself, a desire for communion with Him and union with Him alone. This singular hunger for righteousness is what made the psalmist exclaim, “O taste and see that the Lord is good!”  (Psalm 34:8). And if we but follow that path of abstinence for the love of God, if we but choose to fast in body and spirit,  He Who “has filled the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:53) will also fill us with “rivers of living water” (John 7:38) and “satisfy us with the bread of heaven” (Psalm 105:40). Then, we will become like that for which we hunger and thirst, righteous before God, because the righteous God will be within us.

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