“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. . . . Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.”The New Testament: Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20
Spring begins to warm our lives like hope returning as we march through March. The cycle of nature promises renewal. The sun warms our bodies and hearts just as it awakens the ground from its death-like slumber. The somber landscapes of winter (not lacking in austere beauty at times) will soon give way to the bursting out of new things, new life.
The physical reminds us that the spiritual, mystical life also has its cycle – joy and sorrow, advance and withdrawal, activity and reflection, peace and upheaval, harmony and disarray. Human psychology marches in tune with these things just as nature does.
The timing of Lent corresponds with the winter-spring transition. It is a time to step back and take stock of what has become sterile, barren, and dead in our lives and to find paths back into life and renewal – first with our Creator, but equally with our fellow human travellers, and finally with the natural world in which we all live and move and have our being. For the Creator made it and made us to be in it and tend and nurture it.
As we consider this, we cannot avoid the climate change debate. It has become an obsession which so polarizes people that we seem incapable of admitting that, whether we put ourselves on its “left” or the “right”, the creation is groaning in great travail, as the Apostle Paul comments in Chapter 8 of his Letter to the Romans. Whether you accept that the world is warming dangerously or not, we must all see that we, the human species, have recklessly pillaged Earth’s resources and polluted our whole nest from top to bottom, stem to stern.
It began many generations ago, and we have not stopped doing it. Now, however, we are without the excuse of ignorance. Our rape and pillage is deliberate and totally devoted to present comfort and convenience with no regard for what is to come in a few decades. It is of little use to point fingers at the parties we choose to hold (most) guilty – we all participate to greater or lesser degree.
We are told that prosperity depends on this exploitation, that fundamental rights and freedoms are involved in allowing it to continue, that a free and democratic and liberal society holding out the promise of life without poverty depends on it. Free enterprise demands that we leave things run their course.
A reflection on Lent is not the place to debate whether Capitalism or Socialism is most compassionate and appropriate. The key problem is deeper than a vehement debate full of vituperation against the evils of one or the other. It is a problem of the brokenness of the human heart and our emptiness of the soul.
Poverty is the lack of the most basic and essential things that make a decent life possible. We lose sight of its terrible effects on real people when we turn it into a statistical exercise by reducing it to a question of income. Talking about it as a question of money eases our conscience because we can then advocate remedies such as offering more money and more services to the poor with a measurable, impersonal price-tag. Those of us who are not poor can regain some perspective by volunteering to help at the Food Bank or the Soup Kitchen or the Goodwill or the Street Ministry. All good things to do, of course. And they need to be done. And getting out of our comfort zones may lead to where we really need to go- to get in touch with our own poverty of spirit.
The deepest poverty is referred to by Jesus as “poverty of spirit” – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven [God].” (Matthew 5:3) Luke has him saying, “Blessed are you who are poor, for your is the Kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20) It is good that we have both, for we must not lose sight that both forms of poverty exist. Someone might suggest that the Luke verse is saying that actual material poverty is somehow good. That is certainly not what he is saying!
But let us begin with poverty of spirit, and why Jesus says it’s a blessing. First, it is the opposite of self-sufficient pride and confidence in our ability to get along without the Creator. It is not an automatic posture, especially in the 21st Century West (if it has ever been automatic). It is actually a rather rare revelation. Few humans attain it for very long. It takes a lot of counter-intuitive cultivation to “arrive” there and abide in it. (I make no claim to abiding there!) To the extent that we do and can, Jesus assures us that we actually begin to experience God’s real presence – for by getting our self-sufficiency out of the way, we make room for the Spirit of the Creator to break in.
We discover humility: humility as a dependent creature acknowledging my personal emptiness; the hole in my soul which only knowing my Creator can fill. Humility is knowing that I cannot earn my way into this; I cannot perform a bunch of good deeds and sacrifices to enter this fundamental relationship. Until I humble myself before the One who made me and seeks for me that I might come to know Him/Her, I remain locked in my pride and arrogance, my illusion that I am, in effect, a god unto myself.
If I can begin to live in poverty of spirit before God, I can begin to see my fellow humans as other lost souls desperately trying to fill that inner void. They may well be unaware of it themselves, but, knowing my own poverty, I can relate to them in real compassion and humility and offer to come alongside them. Not by preaching or cajoling or showing off my advanced spirituality, but by offering to walk humbly and openly with them and bring what is needful where they are.
The materially poor are often already aware of their spiritual poverty and may well be beyond me in that understanding. To those who are deluded by the illusion of control over their own lives, I can offer relationship when the illusion begins to dissipate amid the inevitable tribulations of life. But no one can (re)enter or discover their true identity as a son/daughter of the Creator without first coming to poverty of spirit.
Finally we must come to the creation with that poverty of spirit. It teaches us that we do not own it and it is not mere “stuff” for me, for us, to use, abuse, chew up, and trash when we’re done with it. I understand that, like my loaned (lent) life, the creation has been loaned to us, that we do not own it, that we are responsible to care for it, to steward it, to bring it into its best state. We are meant to appreciate it for what it really is, the Creator’s amazing gift, where He/She has placed us for whatever short span of years we have. He/She has also given us the potential to enjoy and glorify it in gratitude for allowing us to love all He/She has made in all its incredible wonder and beauty. And we too are part of the incredible wonder and beauty to be enjoyed and brought to be the best we can be.
Lent is a good opportunity to deliberately choose one or two small ways to cultivate poverty – first, of spirit – but perhaps also alongside the materially poor. Perhaps I will find myself actually meeting the Creator more intimately as I move this way. If you ask, He/She will doubtless show you.