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The First Beatitude: Poverty of Spirit

February 28, AD2017 2 Comments

This is the first of a series of columns on the beatitudes. Each will consider what one beatitude means, how it applies to the life of Our Lord, how it applies to us, and how we can live it out better.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

What Does This Beatitude Mean?

The poor need help because they are in economic distress. They don’t have enough food for today, let alone tomorrow. They have little or no money in their pockets, no savings, and debt. In addition, they are generally defenceless against injustice. They can’t hire a lawyer to speak for them.

Yet it is not quite correct to divide the world between the rich and the poor.

All of us are “poor” in that we are dependent beings. We didn’t bring ourselves into existence and at some time we will die. We don’t hold the universe together. We cannot grant ourselves eternal life. When we sin, we can’t give ourselves forgiveness. In all these things, we are dependent on God.

So, poverty of spirit means knowing your need for God. It means being open to what God can do for you.

Did This Beatitude Apply to Christ When He Walked the Earth?

Jesus Christ was poor in spirit. Remember what he said about taking on his yoke? “Learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart” (Matt 11:29). Christ emptied himself of his divinity in becoming man. Consider Paul’s hymn in the Letter to the Philippians:

Though he was in the form of God, [Christ] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself . . . (Phil 2:6-8).

Our Lord lived in material poverty, working as a lowly carpenter. In his public life, he only had the clothing on his back and no home. In his passion, he completely emptied himself. He placed himself at the mercy of the unjust religious and political leaders. He let them do whatever they wanted to do to him.

 How Can We Imitate Christ’s Poverty of Spirit?

One way the follower of Christ can imitate Christ’s humble heart is through detachment. To be poor in spirit means not being attached to worldly goods. Material possessions, popularity, status, learning, health, fitness, physical attractiveness, comfort, and security are useful and enjoyable in this life, but they can be abused and become our “gods.”

Does detachment mean we should abandon all material goods? It may if you have a vocation to the religious life and take a vow of poverty. But the laity needs worldly goods. The ditch digger needs his shovel and strong back and the baker her stove, recipes, pans, and ingredients. These things are “baptized” by our detachment from them. If we can do without them when necessary and use them to love God and our neighbor, we are detached and have poverty of spirit.

How Does Poverty of Spirit Affect How We Treat Others?

Our “things” belong to God. Detachment means we can put the goods we possess at the service of others. The hole digging is so people can have clean water to drink. The croissant baking is to put a simile on people’s faces in the morning. Whether it is our money, our work, our friendship, our popularity—we can serve others by means of them.

And if people reject us and what we have to offer, poverty of spirit means we don’t have to lash back out at them in defense. We can turn the other cheek.

If everyone was detached from material goods, would we even need the seventh and tenth commandment forbidding stealing and coveting others’ goods?

If we are truly “poor in spirit,” our reward will be great, as Christ promised: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Mt 6:33).

Recently, in an essay called, “The Catholic Church in De Facto Schism: What’s to Be Done?” Christian Brugge, Professor and Dean of the School of Philosophy and Theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia, Sydney, wrote something which sums up the poverty of spirit very well. All who resolve to be saints,

do their best to discern and follow Jesus’s will every day, turning from wrongful self-love, spurning ambition, accepting humiliations serenely, repenting of every sin they become aware of, saying no to every inclination to think about or act upon non-marital sexual desires, turning from immoderate anger, and denying, denying, denying the godless social constructivist narrative on sex, gender, and marriage promoted by the modern secular mind.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Kevin and his wife have seven children. He has a MA in English literature from San Francisco State University and a MA in Theology with an emphasis on Sacred Scripture from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He teaches English and theology in a Catholic high school in Central Illinois. He has an extensive background in teaching, school administration, character education, and curriculum development. He also writes screenplays, TV pilots, novels, and non-fiction books and articles. His weekly homiletic lectionary-based blog is Doctrinal Homily Outlines.

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