Blessed are the poor in spirit.
– Matthew 5:3
The Gospel of Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus. It next establishes Christ firmly in the ascetic tradition of Judaism as he ventures into the wilderness to meet and be baptized by St. John the Baptist, and then is himself led into the desert. From there he calls his first disciples. And then he gathers a crowd and sits down to convey to them just what it means to follow God. These are the first words out of Christ’s mouth: Blessed are the poor in spirit.
There is no corresponding verse to this in the entire Bible. Over the past two thousand years of Christianity most commentators have variously placed emphasis on poverty – the lack of material goods – relating it analogously to one’s spiritual resources, or to a psychological form of humility. Neither of these are that to which Christ refers.
It is a great comfort to read the words of men and women who in various eras – although not at predictable or consistent times in history – have written words that have broken through the encrustation and re-encrustations of enculturated disbelief that have invariably and insidiously sprouted and grown in the church. Meister Eckhart is one of these voices. And he addresses poverty of the spirit in his 87th sermon…
- As long as you have the will to do the will of God, and longing for eternity and God, you are not poor.
Spiritual poverty is found in the self-emptying of one who wants nothing. Even the will to find the will of God becomes anathema and problematic to them. Rationalism is still a hallmark of the church in the West, even in a post-rational world. My systematics instructor in seminary was fond of the phrase: Of the writing of theology there is no end. He did not speak them as a challenge in invent more, but as an opportunity to be called to one’s senses.
- …they neither know nor recognize nor feel that God lives in them …they are deprived of the knowledge that God is at work in them. Neither do they understand the working of God.
The empirical understanding of God is void. Eckhart’s promotion of this lack of understanding is not at all like the false humility found in some that willfully refuses to discern in hopes of being elevated. Instead it emerges from the realization that genuine spiritual poverty is a genuine self-negation.
- …one who lives free is free of their own will and also free of God’s will.
This is undoubtably the un-reasonable essence of that which Jesus began teaching all those who would follow. The Gospels witness to the utter failure of his disciples to accept this and to so live.
Throughout the New Testament poverty refers to needing the assistance of others in order to survive. And so it is with spiritual poverty, casting our lives fully and unmercifully aside. Eckhart’s treatment of the poverty of spirit are both correct and profound in this. All who call themselves by the name of Christ are called to this. Of more recent note are the writings of Thomas Merton which did not reveal anything new in these regards, but which called the church back to ways that we have and still are forgetting and which amounts to…
…that concern with doing ordinary things quietly and perfectly for the glory of God which is the beauty of the pure Benedictine life.
– Thomas Merton
Therefore it is not surprising that those who remain deaf to Jesus teachings on poverty of the spirit brand Merton a heretic.
We are walled off and isolated this winter. Eight foot drifts of snow already form a narrow, single-lane tunnel towering over either side of our road. Our own equipment on the farm is impotent to respond. Winds howl. Soon access to The Parkland Worker may be closed entirely. The solitude is deep…and welcome. So are Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:3. It would be tempting to ponder what Jesus says as the precipitous height of the Christian life…an Everest to be scaled. But they are not. Lesser poverties are more commonly focused on in the church – money, meekness – because they fit well with the enterprise of the church. But these only amount to a form of tipping God; Christians do not tip God. The straightest poverty was there from the start. In spiritual poverty we become new life-forms, and everything else is simply, inherently called into crisis, which is what Christian faith is all about. Accompanying this annihilation is God, God alone, God who transcends everything we have been enculturated to believe.
An elder said that the only possession of one of the brothers was a gospel. He sold it and gave the proceeds to feed the poor, uttering this memorable statement: I have sold that which taught me, Sell what you have and give it to the poor. [Matthew 19:21]
– Wisdom of the Desert, Thomas Merton, ed.
I did not know Dorothy Day. But she spent many hours in her room reading, and contemplating, and writing, and praying. Her openness to the very real chaotic gyrations of culture and people about her drew her to respond unanimously in sometimes even self-contradictory ways. How else can it be with someone who is fully free? Is this a refection of her living out the poverty of the spirit?
I wonder what this phrase birthed inside of her first in her conversion and then as a Benedictine: Blessed are the poor in spirit.
I will have to remember to ask her…