Sunday, November 1, 2015

Poverty In Spirit: A Sunday Rumination

     Perhaps the most famous of all Jesus’s words:

     And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him:
     And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,
     Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
     Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
     Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
     Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
     Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
     Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
     Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
     Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
     Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
     Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

     [Matthew 5:1-12]

     The very first of the Beatitudes is for many the most troubling. What can it mean to be “poor in spirit?” If we can’t figure it out, how can we achieve it? and if we can’t achieve it, is there a path to heaven open to us?

     It had me baffled for a while. I had to reflect on the nature of poverty and the nature of the soul before I could make any sense of it – and I don’t guarantee that I’ve got it right. As I’ve said before, I write these Ruminations principally for my own benefit, but in the hope that others might glean something of value from them, too.


     To be poor in the material sense is to lack; in extreme cases, to lack one or more necessities. But there are instances – today, many instances – of persons deemed “poor” who enjoy material comforts beyond what a middle-class European enjoys, or a middle-class American of a few generations ago would have enjoyed. Genuine poverty is vanishingly rare in America. To find the real McCoy, one must go into the Third World, many of whose denizens can’t even secure food enough, clothing enough, or a shelter from predators and the elements. Those are people who genuinely lack.

     What does the human soul lack? It’s immaterial; it has no survival needs, at least as long as it’s bound to a working body. So the material conception of poverty is irrelevant to it. But to lack and be aware of it has other implications.

     In the material realm, he who lacks something that he truly needs feels a hunger for it. In the spiritual realm, there is only one need: grace, the acceptance of God and His gifts.

     Thus, to be “poor in spirit” would suggest an awareness of the importance of grace and a desire for it. That has its own implication, for grace is available only from one Source. That Source has made His requirements explicit:

     Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? [Matthew 7:7-11]

     Prayer – the humble admission of spiritual need to Him Who can fill it – is the engine. The hunger for grace – spiritual poverty – is the fuel. Combine those ingredients, and all else follows.

     But there's a trap to be avoided as well.


     I’ve harped so often on the critical importance of humility that no doubt many Gentle Readers have tired of hearing about it. Indeed, I’m sure a few among you, reading this essay, have just said to yourself, “Oh boy, here he goes again,” and have tuned out. But there is no venue in which humility is so great a need as in this matter of grace.

     Christ made a powerful statement about it:

     Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.
     I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

     [Luke 18:10-14]

     He who is confident of his place in God’s eyes is in a greater degree of spiritual danger than any other living man. He who doubts his spiritual standing and is willing to abase himself before God, pleading for His love and mercy, is the one who will receive the gift of grace. The Redeemer said it as plainly as it can be said.


     A few words on prayer and its objects, and I’ll close for today.

     Among the faults our Protestant brethren attribute to us is that we “pray to saints,” when prayer is properly directed only to God. The accusation would have a great deal of force if it were true – and I cannot doubt that in some cases, it is. The object of prayer is to secure God’s grace for oneself, and no mere saint can grant that. However, several of the saints, designated as patrons of some special occupation, context, or need, may be asked to prayfor us as intercessors.

     Prayer must always have God as its ultimate destination. However, it does no ham to ask a saint associated with our particular need to “put in a good word.” The Blessed Virgin is paramount in this regard, as the Queen of Heaven among all the saints has the greatest influence on her Son. Note that though the Hail Mary seems to address her rather than God, it asks her to pray for us: indirectly identifying God as the true Source from Whom we hope for a benison.


     If the above is well reasoned, then perhaps poverty in spirit is attainable by any sincere Christian. After all, we claim to love God and desire His acceptance. We claim to believe in the bifurcated afterlife, and to prefer – I should hope! – one fork over the other. How much greater could the contrast between two paths be? What could possibly elicit a greater sense of need?

     May God bless and keep you all. (And happy All Saints Day! Perhaps you might pause to thank your name saint for sharing his appellation with you.)

4 comments:

Wraith said...

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
When one realizes that they are 'poor in spirit,' it is the beginning of their journey towards God in Christ. They understand that they are lacking, and need to change that.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
The next step is to mourn their unworthiness, but then they realize that there is a solution--Jesus.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
The foundation of accepting Jesus is realizing that we are not worthy, and it is only by His sacrifice that we are saved.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Once saved, the new Christian understands the Truth, and cannot get enough of it.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
The Christian realizes that none are without sin, and follows Jesus' command to forgive others as we would have the Father forgive us.

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
When the Christian becomes 'pure in heart(ie; not enslaved to sin),' even though this can only be a temporary state as long as we remain in our fallen human condition, he sees God within himself, as He made us in His image.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
'Peacemakers' refers to those who attempt to bring others to Christ, who make peace not between men, but between man and God.

Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Given that man is fallen, and many will not only refuse to see the Truth but actively oppose it...well, this is kind of a foregone conclusion.

So this teaching actually chronicles the journey of man from his base nature to full acceptance and love of our Lord. Interesting interpretation, no?

gleefullysubmissive said...

My husband, who is an "amiable atheist," sent me your blog page this morning, as I believe he saw words my parents might speak to me, were they still living. After 12 years of Catholic school in the Northeast, where everyone I knew was Catholic, I currently reside in the South, where religion is of a more fundamental ilk. I don't fit in. At all. The biggest "accusation" I get is, "Catholics are wrong because Jesus tells us to pray to the Father and you Catholics pray to the pope and to Mary!"

Finding out we prayed to the pope was a new one on me and just laughable. Explaining the rosary was not as simple, but certainly clear. Mary is the Great Intercessor. Many things happened at the Wedding Feast at Cana: the first miracle performed by Jesus, but, also, the first time someone went to Mary and asked her to intercede, on their part, to her son. Thus, the concept of praying the rosary. Trying to explain praying a decade of the rosary while meditating on one of the 15, oops!, 20 mysteries, was just impossible! How do you say one prayer while thinking of something else? Never mind.

In closing, thank you for a wonderful start to my day. I felt a great sense of peace after reading the Beatitudes. To be scrupulously honest, I am neither gleeful nor submissive. This came about after the Southern Baptist Convention some years ago admonished women to be submissive to their husbands. My husband of 20 years, bless his heart, thought this was the funniest thing he had ever heard! Thus, the moniker, "Gleefully Submissive."

pdwalker said...

If you decide to only write about one topic in the future, let it be these sermons.

Phelan Kell said...

Thank you for this one. I've read this several times this week and each time I pull something from it. I agree with pdwalker. I fear America is irretrievably walking down a dark path and my faith is as important as any of my other preps.

As a father of two teenagers these 'ruminations' are wonderful tools of introspection for myself and conversation starters with my children about faith. Jesus is the only path to salvation, but as I get older I believe there are many ways to Jesus.