Poverty of Spirit

At yesterday’s Mass at the retreat house, I offered the reflection on the readings.  The Gospel was St. Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes and in my talk I focused on the first of the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

We have a temptation is to treat the Beatitudes as a series of sweet platitudes rather than as a statement of the meaning of discipleship under Christ, that is, a template for the way we should orient our lives. I remember when I was growing up in the 1960s, at the folk Mass I sometimes attended we sang a bouncy song based on the Beatitudes, “Happy is the Man who walks in the way of the Lord and God our King, Blessed is he and Happy are they who put their trust in him.” And we’d bop and sway our way through the verses recounting the Beatitudes without the slightest thought that they actually meant anything.

At least part of that temptation comes from the fact that the way of being the Beatitudes describe is so counter to the standards of the world in which we live. And I think there is nothing that better illustrates the contrast between the way of the world and the way of discipleship under Christ than the first of the Beatitudes; hence my focus on poverty of spirit.

Poverty of spirit has little to do with material poverty and everything to do with our recognition of our absolute dependence on God, of our appreciation that all we are and all we have is gift from our loving God. Macrina Weiderkehr paraphrases the first Beatitude by saying: “Blessed are those who are convinced of their basic dependency on God, whose lives are emptied of all that doesn’t matter. The Kingdom of heaven is theirs.”

In my reflection, I spoke on what I think are the three related elements at play in the first Beatitude.  First, poverty of spirit means I acknowledge and embrace my absolute and utter dependence on God. And not just giving lip service, but feeling in the depth of my soul my need for God’s grace.  Second, poverty of spirit also means that, in acknowledging my dependence on God, I choose guidance over self-determination.  Finally, third, in acknowledging my dependence on God, I recognize that nothing else other than God is sufficient to satisfy me.  I talked a little about each of these elements, including talking about how each is so counter-cultural.

Although I think poverty of spirit highlights in the clearest way the contrast between the way of the world and the way of discipleship in Christ, I encouraged the retreatants to sit with each of the other Beatitudes and reflect on its contrast with the way of the world, considering where the challenge is for them in living in the spirit of the Beatitudes.   And they are challenging, precisely because they are so antithetical to the way of the world. To be poor in spirit, peaceful, merciful, and meek is not easy in a culture grounded in competition, self-promotion, and intolerance of those who don’t fall in line with the prevailing worldview.

So how can we possibly bear the difficulty of orienting our lives in accordance with the Beatitudes? In that beautiful first reading we heard today, Paul answers that question: Our God of encouragement encourages us in every affliction. “As Christ’s suffering overflows to us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow.” As we share in the sufferings, we also share in the encouragement.” And part of that encouragement is Jesus’ promise: choose my way and yours is the Kingdom of Heaven.