I recently read through Mark Scandrette’s book, The Ninefold Path of Jesus: Hidden Wisdom of the Beatitudes. I picked it up partially for the same reason Mark wrote the book, that is, a growing conviction that the Beatitudes should be more central to my life and Christ’s Church.
The title is inspired by an unlikely friendship between the author and a former Christian-turned-Buddhist named Shinko. As they got to know each other, Mark asked Shinko what it means to be a Zen Buddhist.
As Mark describes, “in about four minutes Shinko had succinctly answered my question. First, he named the Four Noble Truths. Then he explained the Eightfold Path.” (p.2). Shinko then asked about Mark’s faith in Jesus: “Mark, you identify as a follower of Jesus. When you wake up each day, what do you seek to do and be?” (p.2) While initially stumped, Scandrette recited the Great Command: Love God and your neighbor. Though initially satisfied, Scandrette had to acknowledge how abstract that sounded in comparison to his Buddhist friend.
What the great command answer didn’t do was answer how we love God or our neighbor. Inspired to search for the “how,” Scandrette believes the Beatitudes can serve the same function as the Eightfold path, that is, to provide a way, or a rule for living.
There are a number of things I find helpful in this book, but none more so than Scandrette’s ability to move seamlessly back and forth between explaining the Beatitudes and then offering illustrations of what living that Beatitude out looks like. Not only does he use stories from his own life to bring the Beatitudes to life, but he also provides practices that enable us to “incarnate” these spiritual truths into our own lives.
Core to his argument is that each of the Beatitudes can be connected back to what we might call the dark side of human behavior. So, when we practice the Beatitudes, we are ultimately confronting pitfalls common to human nature, which while perhaps useful for survival, ultimately hurt our ability to mature into flourishing disciples. In each section, the author shares the human instincts we must overcome in order to manifest the Beatitudes in our lives. This is how he puts it:
“The Beatitudes name nine distinct areas of human struggle that Jesus addresses in his teaching on the hill. Our first instincts are to be anxious, avoidant, competitive, apathetic, judgmental, evasive, divided, retaliatory, and afraid.” (p.7)
I found this part of the argument debatable, to be honest. For example I’ve always understood “Blessed are the poor in Spirit” to be connected to more than just anxiety, but instead the larger idol of self-dependence. Anxiety is one piece of that. However, I still found a lot of value in the stories and practices as reflections of Jesus’ overall teaching in the gospels.
For example, in exploring the first Beatitude (Blessed are the poor in spirit), Scandrette sees the primary virtue here to be trust in God, as opposed to living in our natural state of being anxious and fearful, constantly surveying the world around us for signs of danger. There are many places where Jesus tells his followers, “Do not fear.”
Scandrette vividly describes how it feels to sense danger in a meditation on birth:
We greet the world with a cry and a scream, with clenched fists grasping after what we so desperately need. None of us remember the shock and drama of being born, but have you seen a baby’s birth? I recall the moment when my wife, Lisa, gave birth to our first child, Hailey. Hailey was warm and safe inside her mother’s body. Everything she needed came through a tube into her belly. Then suddenly she was thrust into a cold, harsh world, naked, gasping for breath, and bombarded by bright lights and loud noises. Red-faced and crying, she squeezed her tiny fists in protest.
Our brains are wired to detect danger. Primal anxiety keeps us alive at birth. The fight-or-flight response activates the amygdala, increasing heart rate and blood sugar levels, giving a temporary boost of energy to react.
But when our brains become flooded with adrenaline, we can’t think clearly, and it’s hard to calm down.
Then Scandrette offers this practice in as a means to resist fear, process our worries and move towards trust in God:
I ask people to anonymously write their worries on sticky notes. We post them to a wall and look at them together. Participants are often surprised by the raw honesty of what is shared and the private burdens that people they know carry. Here are a few examples:
► I worry I’ll never find love and that I’ll die alone.
► I worry about having money to buy groceries for my family.
► I worry about whether people like me or just put up with me.
► I worry that I will never overcome my addiction.
► I worry that I am missing God’s path for my life.
► I worry that I’ll never get out of debt or own a home.
► I worry about the climate crisis and the future of the planet.
► I worry that I can’t think of any worries. Am I in complete denial?
We don’t all have the same worries, but there are predictable patterns to the kinds of things we tend to worry about: (1) money, job, and finances; (2) physical and mental health; (3) relationships and the well-being of those we love; (4) esteem, identity, and significance; and (5) anticipating future difficulties, pain, and uncertainty. (p.17)
It’s not difficult to see how valuable doing this exercise can be as we work towards a life defined by trust rather than worry. Often it is in the naming of the stress that we can then begin to process why we worry and what we can do to move towards trusting God with our whole lives.
Another example of Scandrette’s practical style come in his chapter on the seventh Beatitude (blessed are the peacemakers). He makes an important, though often-overlooked observation: the place to begin peacemaking is in our closest relationships. As Jesus said, “If … your brother or sister has something against you, [drop what you are doing] …. [G]o and be reconciled to them.”
Most of us want to change the world but we’re unwilling to be reconciled to our own families. True peacemaking begins with our families and works outward. How do we determine whom we need to forgive? Scandrette provides some practical advice:
How do I know if I need to make peace? One familiar sign is what I like to call the ugh in my stomach. When a certain person walks into the room or their name comes up in a conversation, I instantly feel a tightening in my stomach. Some people feel this in their head or chest. Our bodies alert us to relational tensions. If we ignore these signals, it can lead to further conflict and potential violence. When you sense tension in a relationship but aren’t sure why, you can always ask, “Are we okay? Did I do something to offend you?” (p.100)
Mark Scandrette’s book, The Ninefold Path of Jesus: Hidden Wisdom of the Beatitudes is a valuable resource for those of us wanting to walk in the way of our Savior and teacher Jesus. He provides excellent illustrations from practical life on what it looks like. For a new take on discipleship, I highly recommend you check out this book.
Stu Strachan Jr.
You can get the book from Amazon here.
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