Holy Preaching continued: From Rags to Riches: the blessedness of a poor spirit.
Sr Rose Rolling o.p.
This is our second series of the Holy Preaching. For those of you who joined us for our first series, you hopefully remember that we looked at the Eight Evil Thoughts. Our new series is dedicated to the Eight Beatitudes given in St Matthew’s Gospel. The change from the evil thoughts to the Beatitudes is a fundamental shift in focus, and I want to begin by briefly unpacking the foundations of the vices versus the Beatitudes. There are four key points I want to make:
- Our human nature:
Everybody has a brain and mental processes; it’s an integral part of being human. The Church teaches that Original Sin affects every part of our humanity, including our minds, which are now darkened and fragmented. Despite this, She also teaches that there remains a Natural Law written into the heart of each person, by which the basic principles of right and wrong can be known through reason.
Spiritual and supernatural values:
In contrast to the Natural Law, the Beatitudes are supernatural qualities. They are supernatural because it is only through Christ, with Christ and in Christ that these states can be called ‘blessed’, otherwise we risk just becoming Stoics or masochists. Our reason alone cannot get us to the place of believing that a poor spirit and persecution for Christ’s name are human goods. These qualities require the gift of faith.
- The thought-action connection:
The vices look at what we do - our thoughts, imagination and corresponding actions - or who we are, our moral character in relation to what we do - they are doing-focused.
The Beatitudes on the other hand look primarily at our being - they are less about what we do than who we are inside and our interior attitude before God. This state of being is deeper than our emotions, deeper than our psychic drives. It is found deep inside the heart, the place of union with God. If you break the word down in a very literal sense, you can break it into: “BE” (ontology) and ATTITUDE (interior disposition).
- Awareness of my own state and that of others:
As a conscious person, I have thoughts all the time. I can become more aware of these thoughts through intentional focus and meditation, and other people can become aware of them if I communicate them.
While it is true that our moral state is only truly known by God, the natural light of human reason, the illumination of the Holy Spirit and my own growth in psychological self-awareness can all help me penetrate the areas of my moral defects. Similarly, I can become aware of it in other people.
Mystery of my state and of others:
With the Beatitudes however, the hiddenness of one’s interior state is much greater. I cannot know whether I or another person has truly attained humility before God, or purity of heart, or forgiven their neighbour from their heart. There may be little indications, we are not totally in the dark, but because Beatitude operates at the deepest level of my being, there is a large part which is enveloped in the cloud of unknowing.
- Our efforts:
The basic moral law is incumbent on all people as a matter of simple justice, and the good moral life requires the synthesis of God’s grace and our efforts. Evagrius and other Desert Fathers believed that intentional conscious awareness of our mental state was the first step in rooting out vices and cultivating virtues.
The Beatitudes are rather the signs, gifts, of my willing discipleship with Christ and transformation in Christ. The meaning of Beatitude is being blessed (‘made holy’) by God and being in a state of bliss (happiness) both now and in the future.
The First Principle.
Christ was pre-eminently poor. It was the first condition of His human existence as He adopted human nature at the Incarnation, the Divine Godhead limited in human form and born into poverty and obscurity on the earth He created. The radical humility of His Incarnation and human life culminated in His total self-emptying at His Passion, the outpouring of His body and blood for sinful mankind.
The Hymn of Christ in Philippians 2: 6-8 depicts Christ’s perfect poverty in these verses. It says, Jesus
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Hence the first beatitude Christ utters on the Mount is the one that reflects His own original condition: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3).
What is a ‘poor spirit’?
A poor spirit is characterised by recognising our absolute dependence on God. This dependence can be broken down in two ways:
- Poverty of spirit is a state of being in fact. It is the metaphysical reality that is also the deepest truth of our humanity - we are wholly dependent on God as a creature to its Creator. He can withdraw our very life from us at any moment - and we are dependent on Him for every material and spiritual thing thereafter.
This reality becomes a state of blessedness when it is an attitude or state of conscious and joyous awareness. This poverty of spirit is an attitude which recognises:
- The primacy of God in my life above every other thing - material or spiritual. As alluded to at the beginning, it is the first principle and foundation on which we choose to build our lives.
- My own sinfulness.
This means recognising that it is Christ’s Passion which has won my salvation - it is not something I can earn or merit by my own actions alone. By this we recognise that it is by His wounds we are healed, and by His grace that we are able to do any good action thereafter.
- My own limitations as a finite being.
This is the remedy for hubris, that state of mind which tries to substitute man for God and makes idols out of knowledge and power for the sake of transcending or outrightly rejecting our creatureliness.
- My giftedness as gift.
This is the realisation that all my talents, spiritual gifts, achievements, good works and so on are the gifts of God to me, gifts which I surrender back to Him and serve Him with as a steward.
A poor spirit is therefore when I come, or I try to come, lovingly before God the Creator in an attitude which is humble, detached, empty of self and spirit, standing in the truth of my utter dependence. It also means being convicted that God alone is enough for me, He is good for me and I am fully loved by Him - no coverups, dressing up, pretence required. And this is the beginning of our spiritual freedom.
An example of such an attitude is demonstrated by St Therese of Lisieux and her teaching on spiritual childhood, dubbed by her as the ‘little way’. St Therese brought the reality of her ‘littleness’ before God in an attitude of trust, joy, hope, surrender, receptivity, vulnerability and wonder. She could do this because above all she believed God was a good Father. It is the child - naked and dependent at its birth - that most readily illustrates the meaning of a poor spirit and the blessing of the Kingdom - the newborn baby is utterly helpless and utterly loved. We must be little and light to enter into the Kingdom through the narrow door. In the Gospels, Jesus twice indicates a childlike spirit as the model for us to imitate. We hear:
Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:4),
“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14).
This recognition of a poor spirit as the birth of our spiritual life explains why the concept has incarnated itself in spiritualities inside and outside the Catholic Church. The primary charisms within the major religious Orders of the Catholic Church are all a variation on this theme. For example, poverty for the Franciscans, detachment for the Carmelites, humility/obedience for the Benedictines (which are understood almost synonymously by the Order), holy indifference for the Jesuits (termed the ‘first principle and foundation’) and truth for the Dominicans (truth being synonymous with humility in the OP tradition) are given a preeminent place in the life of each Order.
Moving outside the Catholic tradition, Orthodox Christians emphasise apatheia, which means detachment leading to equanimity, as the highest state of being, a principle also shared by the Greek Stoics. If we turn to the Eastern spiritualities of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, the concept of sunyata, meaning ‘emptiness’, is highlighted as absolutely necessary for the process of liberation, which for them is the ultimate goal of all human life.
All the above words - humility, detachment, holy indifference, emptiness - emphasised in the different traditions are ways of describing poverty in spirit.
Poor in fact.
I made the point at the beginning that the Beatitudes were spiritual values. Does this mean then that the Beatitudes have nothing to say about actual material poverty? To the contrary, Jesus taught a great deal on wealth and stewardship in the Gospels. Further to that, human beings are a unity of body and spirit which exist in an interrelated relationship. They cannot be divorced one from another. This means that our spiritual values interlock with material values and have material consequences.
Let’s return to the Scriptures. There are two sets of Beatitudes recorded in the Gospels: Matthew chapter 5 and Luke chapter 6. There is a difference in emphasis and in length between the two sets. In Luke’s version of the first Beatitude, we hear the words: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). There are two things to notice here.
- The first is that Luke’s account does not add the words ‘in spirit’ after the word poor.
- The second is that in the original Greek Jesus uses the second person (“you”) rather than the third person (“those”) used in St Matthew’s Gospel.
This subtle distinction in language seems to indicate three things.
- First, it may be read literally as Jesus’ blessing for those who are materially poor. Remember what I said in the beginning - these states are blessed because they are lived through, with and in Christ. This is not about spiritualising dehumanising situations. It is about recognising the spiritual transformation possible by Christ’s supernatural power. This indicates that Christ can turn all things to good.
- Secondly, it indicates that there will be a material cost to our discipleship. There is, for example, a Gospel call to simple living and sharing for every Christian.
- Thirdly, this scene blessed the poverty of the people who were hearing Jesus’ preaching in the moment, on the plain: it was a blessing for the ‘you’ people (the people Jesus was talking to in the present tense) rather than the ‘those’ people (the people like us) of the future tense. St Luke’s Gospel has a particular emphasis on those who were poor and downtrodden in society, which makes the literal meaning seem more likely.
The poor are already blessed because they often have eyes to see spiritual truth more clearly. Consider, for example, the low rates of religiosity in a wealthy and indifferent West versus the frequent fervour of Christians in places that are poor and persecuted. This reflects exactly Jesus’ beatitude promise.
Why is it that the materially poor may be called blessed? It is because the poor know - acutely, experientially, sometimes daily - their absolute dependence. The poor must concentrate on the necessities of life, they know the value and the cost of everything that matters. This material simplicity makes easier, and reinforces, a poor spirit.
Scripture scholars seem to be of one mind that most New Testament texts that deal with poverty as an ideal are meant to be applied to all who follow Christ”. Therefore all Christians are called to some form of living Gospel simplicity in fact and not just in spirit. The degree and way in which you are called to live this out will depend on:
- Your state of life (consecrated religious life witnesses to the most radical form of poverty) 2. Your charism (some Christians have a personal charismatic gifting of poverty and /or giving for the sake of the kingdom).
Consider, that “in the liturgy throughout the year, weekdays and Sundays alike, one hears over and over again that the poor are blessed, that we must renounce all that we possess to be a disciple of Christ”. This ‘universal radicality’ is heard, but are we moved to conversion, or do we brush it aside as poetic language, or only for monks and nuns?
Rich in God
So far, I have emphasised spiritual, and to a lesser extent material, dependence as the first expression of our life in Christ. At this stage, we have been emptied. But this is only one half of the process - God does not leave us there. The Scriptures tell us: "for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich" (2 Cor 8:9). This section brings us to part two, in which God blesses our poverty by making us rich in Him.
When we use the world detachment in the Catholic tradition, we mean letting go, or offering up. This is not an end in itself, it is not the final destination (as we will see with the latter Beatitudes), it is only the beginning. We detach for the sake of holy attachment - attachment to God. We are emptied, in order to be filled - filled with the full stature of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This is a key distinction between the Christian understanding of detachment against that of Eastern spiritualities such as Hinduism or Buddhism.
In contrast to the East, Jesus warns us of the danger of emptiness in isolation in the lesson on the Return of the Unclean Spirit given in Luke 11:24-26, which says:
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but not finding any, it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first.”
An interior life (or heart) which is just empty is not the call of Christ. Jesus calls us to fullness. What does this fullness look like?
For our part, it means a heart fully given to God. The Greatest Commandment given by Jesus says: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind (Matthew 22:37). We must love God with ALL our heart, ALL our soul and ALL our mind. This is a call to totality. This means that we must lay before Him all our possessions, human talents, spiritual gifts, relationships, desires and dreams. Everything. The fullness of who we are, offered freely and fully to God. The fruit of this is the inheritance of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is God’s full gift to us in response.
Kingdom of Heaven.
The promise of our poverty in spirit is inheriting the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is the reign of God. It exists in three ways:
- In the heart of every disciple of Christ. This is the kingdom that is within us as believers, the kingdom that is ‘now’.
- It is the kingdom that is created amongst us when we gather together as a community of disciples - St Paul tells us that the sign of the kingdom is “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).
- The establishment of God’s reign in a new heaven and a new earth. This is the kingdom ‘to come’ in the future.
The blessedness of the poor in spirit is that they begin to experience their eternal destiny with God now on earth.
The Dominican theologian Gerald Vann linked the first Beatitude with the sacrament of baptism. It is baptism which is our spiritual birth as God’s children. The kingdom of Heaven is God’s birthday gift to us - His first and greatest gift. In response to God’s blessing, Jesus counsels us to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).
Finally, I want to turn now to some of the obstacles which can prevent the full blessing of God being released in our lives.
The first thing is our wounded identity. The first and deepest identity we have in God is either as a beloved son or daughter. The necessary building blocks to becoming rooted and established in this identity is to trust (which means learning how to depend) and to receive (which means to take into oneself, to be vulnerable). You will notice that these are also the qualities of a poor spirit.
How many of us have the fear - or have had the experience of - not having our needs met? How many of us dislike admitting we even have needs in the first place? How many of us strive for self-sufficiency and fear dependence? And yet, the deepest truth of our human condition is that we did not create ourselves, we are dependent creatures. In terms of our human development, learning how to establish trust and receptivity in relationships is our first primary task, which begins at birth and lasts until about age 3. If these tasks are not successfully completed, we will be left deficient. The degree to which we struggle with the questions posed above is related to our level of acceptance - the acceptance of ourselves and the reality of the world - and the extent of our wounds. In a broken world, we all get hurt, and hurts which are not healed simply perpetuate.
We need to invite God to come with His fullness into these places of deficiency, to heal the doubt and woundedness experienced in our early relationships. By admitting our empty spaces and letting down our defences, we are already demonstrating a poor spirit - we are lacking, we are in need - and we are already blessed by acknowledging the truth of our condition because that is where healing begins. God will bless our attitude, and He will respond by releasing His blessing and restoring us to trust and receptivity which are the foundations of our being. Our hearts will be set free to inhabit a poor spirit willingly and joyfully. The life of Beatitude will have begun in us.
Since poverty in spirit is essentially about detachment, one of the things that may help is to start pondering over what it is you are attached to, and then bring these things into your prayer.
- What is it that I am afraid of losing?
- What do I get defensive about? [those subjects or personal qualities I cannot stand to be challenged on]
- What are the areas of my life I try to exclude God from and keep for myself? [God’s call is to totality - the whole self]
- Who or what do I depend on for my emotional happiness? [chocolate? being acknowledged by my boss?]
- What do I take in excess of my needs? [the call to poverty is to what is sufficient not superfluous]
- How am I handling the areas of poverty in my life - the places of emptiness, limitation, sin and woundedness? Am I envious of others or angry at God for these deficits? Am I striving to fill them or deny them?
St John of the Cross - dubbed the ‘doctor of detachment’ - is an excellent spiritual writer on the subject of detachment. He gives the metaphor that “a bird is tethered to the earth whether with a small string or with a large rope” (Ascent, Chapter 11, #4), meaning that it does not matter how significant the attachment, as any attachment will hinder our flight to God, our full emptying for Christ.
 Thomas Dubay, Happy Are You Poor, pg. 13
 Ibid pg. 12