I’d like to begin by telling the story of Joy Davidman. Joy Davidman was a well known and prominent person in her own right, but today, most people would know her as the wife of C.S. Lewis. They were married for only 4 years before her death in 1960.
Before meeting CS Lewis, Joy Davidman was a well known American poet and writer in her own right who had often been referred to as a child prodigy.
She came from a Polish Orthodox Jewish background. Although her grandfather was devout, her father was an outspoken atheist. Her father instilled within her not only his own commitment to atheism, but also a self-confidence and a high sense of self-esteem that combined with her great intelligence, enabled her to be become a high achiever in life, earning a Masters Degree from Columbia University at the age of Just twenty. Some suggested in fact that her self-confidence and hi self-esteem bordered on an arrogance and an egotism, something that she herself would have admitted later in her life.
Despite her early success, Joy’s life was however shaken by a series of events in her life revealing that beneath her self-confidence and arrogance was in fact a deep fear of loneliness and failure. Her life came to a crisis point when she discovered that her first husband had been unfaithful to her, after which his life collapsed in an alcoholic breakdown. She was left on her own with two small sons and a very inadequate income. Her own sense of pride prevented her from going back to her parents. Such an act would have been a humiliation for her, because they had advised her against her marriage.
After receiving the news of her husband's breakdown, she found herself alone in her New York apartment with her children asleep in bed, with no-one left to call. In the stillness and quiet of the night, where she was confronted with her own fears and her own aloneness for the first time in her life, she writes that all her defences – the walls of arrogance and cock-sureness and self-love behind which she had hid from God – momentarily went down– and God came in.
She described her experience of God as follows:
“It is infinite, unique; there are no words, there are no comparisons. Can one scoop up the sea in a teacup? Those who have known God will understand me; the others, I find, can neither listen nor understand. There was a Person with me in that room, directly present to my consciousness – a Person so real that all my precious life was by comparison a mere shadow play. And I myself was more alive than I had ever been; it was like waking from sleep. So intense a life cannot be endured long by flesh and blood; we must ordinarily take our life watered down, diluted as it were, by time and space and matter. My perception of God lasted perhaps half a minute.”
During that moment, Joy was stunned to find herself, on her knees, praying. She later wrote how on that day she became world’s most surprised atheist.’ In that moment she later wrote: ‘God came in’,’ and ‘I changed. I have been turning into a different person since that half minute’.”
In Matthew 5:8 We read the words of Jesus “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God”.
I don’t believe that Joy Davidman would have suggested that strictly speaking her heart suddenly became pure, but in that momentary lapse of concentration, when all her egotistical arrogance and cock-sureness slipped for the first time and her defences were down, a crack appeared through which the light of God could enter, and in a metaphorical sense, in that half a minute, she caught a glimpse of God that changed her life forever. It didn't remove the arrogance once and for all, but re-oriented her life in a whole new direction that would have lasting consequences for her, a process she referred to as an ongoing ‘conversion of life’, slowly but surely turning into a different person under the influence of God.
“Blessed are the pure in heart” says Jesus “for they will see God”.
In our passage today, the Greek word for pure in this passage is word ‘katharos’.
The word katharos is the root word of our English word ‘cathartic’ which is a process of purging in order to facilitate healing. It could mean, emptying and cleansing of the bowels, but is also used in a psychological sense of releasing of strong emotions so that inner psychological healing and letting go can take place.
In its ancient usage, it could simply mean to be clean as clothes that have been soiled with dirt have been washed clean. In its ancient meaning, it was also used most especially as referring to a substance like milk, wine or even a metal that was not mixed with another substance or impurity.
And so the basic meaning of Katharos is for something to be unmixed, unadulterated, unalloyed, in its most pristine and untainted state and thereby for something to be clean and pure.
One of the best descriptions that I have read of a pure heart is from Stephen Mitchell’s book “The Gospel of Jesus”
“What is purity of heart? If we compare God to sunlight, we can say that the heart is like a window. Cravings, aversions, fixed judgements, concepts, beliefs – all forms of selfishness or self protection – are, when we cling to them, like dirt on the windowpane. The thicker the dirt, the more opaque the window. When there is no dirt, the window is by it’s own nature perfectly transparent, and the light can stream through it without hindrance.
Or, we can compare a pure heart to a spacious, light filled room. People or possibilities open the door and walk in; the room will receive them, however many they are, for as long as they want to stay, and will let them leave when they want to. Whereas as corrupted heart is like a room cluttered with valuable possessions, in which the owner sits behind a locked door, with a loaded gun.”
And so, Stephen Mitchell describes those with pure hearts as having a radiance about them, a lightness, a brightness and an openness. He goes on to suggest that as we read the Gospel stories about Jesus, we see a radiance in him, and a large hearted openness that was able to welcome and create room for both sinner and saint alike. Those who encountered Jesus whose own hearts were open enough to perceive it found in his presence, a deep peace and a sense of respect and reverence for him that far exceeded what they had seen or experienced in any other human being. In giving up his self-preoccupation, Jesus became filled with the vivid reality of the Unnamable. His personality became like a magnetic field. Those who were drawn to him had a hunger for the real; the closer they approached him, the more they could sense the purity of his heart and the radiance of God shining through him.
Joy Davidman’s experience reveals that the pure heartedness of Jesus, is in fact accessible to all of us. For a moment, her defences were down, and the light of God shone through, and then a moment later her defences went up and the fullness of her experience of the Divine was shrouded again. But for half a minute, she experienced the Reality that Jesus lived in as a permanent state. She had caught a glimpse of God. Jesus lived in that radiance of God’s presence as an ongoing experience, and ongoing reality. And in this 6th Beatitude, Jesus suggests that this is an experience that is open to all of us. It is in fact the birth-right of every human being made in the image of God. We all have a bright and clear window in our soul, which is capable of allowing the fullness of God’s light and radiance to shine through, giving us a new vision of the world as radiant with the Presence of the Divine. The only thing preventing the light from shining through is the dirt and grime of our own egotism, our fixed, rigid beliefs and ideas, our self-preoccupation and self-concern that prevents us from seeing clearly.
One of the theological strands in the Old Testament asserted that it was not possible to see God and yet still to live. In Exodus 33:20, God says to Moses, "You cannot see my face, for a human being shall not see me and live.” There is a great spiritual truth expressed in those words. In order to truly see God, there is a dying to self that needs to happen. A giving up of the self, until all that is left is the clear bright window of the soul, through which God’s light, goodness and love can shine. The dying crucified Jesus is perhaps one of the most profound religious symbol of that process of self-emptying and dying to self, a self-emptying that gives rise to that other great symbol of spiritual transformation: The Resurrection, the unhindered light of God shining through our humanity.
William Barclay suggests that this beatitude invites us into a life-long process of self-examination in which we become more and more aware of our mixed motives. The pure of heart are those who have given up all hidden agenda’s and are motivated only by the purity of God’s Divine love. The more we become aware of our own hidden agenda’s, our self-protectionism, our self-preoccupation, our rigid beliefs and judgements, the more God is able to clean away the dirt from the windows of our souls, helping us to see the Divine Radiance that is shining all around.
There is a line from one of Leonard Cohen’s songs that I quoted on the day of my installation in Dromore: “There is a crack a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.”
For Joy Davidman, the initial crack which let the light in, came when her defences were down and she had become acutely aware of her own emptiness, loneliness and vulnerability. I have come to believe from my own life, that it is often through our failures and our weakness and vulnerability, the cracks of our well defended lives, that the light of God can come through. What God is looking for is not perfection from us. All God needs are a few cracks. When we become increasingly aware of our imperfections, our flaws and our cracks, and we are able to become honest with ourselves and others about those flaws, then God’s light is given space to shine through us. But as long as we deny that there is any dirt on the windows of our souls, and as long as we sit in the crowded room of our own hearts sitting behind a closed door with a weapon trying defend ourselves, to that extent, God’s light is hindered from shining through us and our ability to see God’s shining radiance all around us is blocked.
The first step towards a pure heart, is simply becoming honest about the dirt and grime on the window pain.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, says Jesus, for they shall see God.”