Godtalk: The Poor in Spirit


Jan Brueghel the Elder, The Sermon on the Mount

The Beatitudes begin with ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the kingdom of God.’

Poverty of spirit does not take away joy in life. Quite the contrary, it is the gateway to joy, because it enables us to surrender to ultimate reliance on God, which leads to freedom.        

Paradoxically, then, we are truly rich.  Reliance on God may sound like a recipe for laziness, as if we needed to do nothing on our own.  But the reality is the opposite; it is a practical stance that reminds us that we can't do everything.

Many things are not within our power to change. Some things, outside of our control, need to be left to God. Spiritual poverty frees us from the despair that comes when we believe that we can rely only on our own efforts.

This insight can free us from a popular temptation, workahol-ism. It's easy to imagine that we are indispensable, that everything depends on us, that we must do everything. I need to remind myself that there is a Messiah, and it's not me! 

Diligence can degenerate into a subtle form of pride. "Look how busy I am - I'm so important!" or "Everything depends on me!" Poverty of spirit reminds us that there is only so much that we can do.

Poverty of spirit is a reflection on reality: we are often powerless to change things.

Spiritual poverty also means freedom from the need for constant motion, constant work, and constant activity.  It encourages us to say ‘no’ from time to time, since we know that we can’t do everything, please everyone, show up at every gathering, telephone every friend, and counsel every person in need.

It means accepting that we can’t do everything at home, at work or in our church. It saves us from being a ‘human doing’ instead of a human being.

Ironically, our generous desire to do everything, and make everyone happy can lead to our becoming less attentive and more distracted, which does no one any good.  Saying ‘no’ to one thing means saying ’yes’ to something else.  Saying  ‘no’ to one more responsibility we can’t possibly assume means saying ‘yes’ to greater attentiveness to what is already before us.

Poverty of spirit, then, is not a road to sadness but a path to freedom. It’s not some mystical dogma that only the saints can follow, it is the simple acceptance of reality. Reminding us of our fundamental reliance on God, it is a stance that enables us to be more grateful for the blessings that come from God because we know how precious they are.  This is why Jesus calls the poor in spirit blessed. 

Peter Knott SJ