“[T]he ultimate goal of our life is the kingdom of heaven. But we have to ask what the immediate goal is: for if we do not find it we shall exhaust ourselves in futile efforts. Travellers who miss their way are still tiring themselves though they are walking no nearer to their destination.”
At this remark we stood and gaped. The old man [Abba Moses] went on:
“The ultimate goal of our way of life is, as I said, the kingdom of God, or kingdom of heaven. The immediate aim is purity of heart. For without purity of heart none can enter into that kingdom. We should fix our gaze on this target, and walk towards it in as straight a line as possible. If our thoughts wander away from it even a little, we should bring back our gaze towards it, and use it as a kind of test, which at once brings all our efforts back onto the one path.
~ Conferences of Cassian 1.4
This story, from the first conference with St. Moses the Ethiopian in the Conferences of St. John Cassian, is perhaps my favorite. Today, September 1, is the beginning of the ecclesiastical year. Abba Moses so vividly gets to the heart of what the Christian life ought to be about and how easily and perilously we can veer from that goal if we do not truly know where to begin and how to proceed.
The ultimate goal (telos) is the kingdom of heaven; the immediate goal (scopos) is purity of heart. “If our thoughts wander away from it even a little,” says Abba Moses, “we should bring back our gaze towards it, and use it as a kind of test, which at once brings all our efforts back onto the one path.” Christ himself said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).
Indeed, on this liturgical New Year’s Day, Orthodox Christians commemorate Jesus reading from the book of Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth (see Luke 4:16-30). In particular, he read Isaiah 61:1-2 (from the Greek, or an older Hebrew or Aramaic variant that accords with it):
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because of which he anointed me.
He sent me to proclaim good news to the poor,
to heal the brokenhearted,
to preach liberty to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind;
to declare the acceptable year of the Lord….
After this, Jesus closed the scroll and said, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 21). The reason that he is called “the Christ” is because the “Spirit of the Lord” had anointed him (Gk. echrisen, from which we get “Christ”) for the purpose of proclaiming the “good news” (or “Gospel,” as it was rendered in Anglo-Saxon) to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, preach freedom to captives and—what I intend to focus on—“recovery of sight to the blind.”
Jesus is well known for literally opening the eyes of the blind, but I would submit that this prophecy and the beatitude (“blessed are the pure in heart”) also go together. He came not simply to make the blind see—though that would be amazing enough—but to make the spiritually blind see. This, arguably, was the point of those miracles in the first place (see John 9, especially). He came in order that we might see God, in order that we might learn to purify our hearts.
Elsewhere, Christ speaks of the Christian life, the Gospel of the kingdom of heaven, as a narrow road with a narrow gate (see Matthew 7:13-14). It is at this point that Abba Moses’s metaphor becomes so weighty: “Travellers who miss their way are still tiring themselves though they are walking no nearer to their destination.” If we do not struggle to maintain purity of heart, we will never “see God”—whatever that precisely means—and, even worse we will still tire ourselves, groping about in the dark never to find rest from our labors. For Christians, who believe that Christ is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), this means always looking to him and ever steering our minds and hearts back to him. He is the gate (John 10:7-10) and the road (John 14:6). And in contemplating Jesus Christ, we purify our hearts, fix our eyes upon God, and find our way to the kingdom of heaven.
Happy new year.