“The poor” have become a topic of wide discussion lately, publicly and online. In a recent email exchange with a church-going Protestant conservative friend, he speculated about God’s proclamation in the Beautitudes:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”
“Why would God single out the poor for special attention? This thought has always puzzled me,” he wrote. He listed 8 possible reasons why God would show special favor to a class of people identified by their lack of material wealth, concluding that the poor are basically those who are desperate.
But “poor in spirit” does not refer to people who lack material wealth. “Poor is spirit” refers to those who attain an attitude of humility, a way of walking with the recognition that all things come from God and not from self. It is an attitude of emptiness of material concern, being devoid of all pride and reliance on own’s own ideas, opinions and desires. It is attaining a deliberate lack of trust in one’s own individual spirit. It is diminishing one’s ego, getting one’s self out of the way, and becoming an empty vessel. It is only by being empty of worldly, material spirits that one can then be filled with God’s divine spirit.
As it says in Jeremiah 23:17 and Romans 1:21, to be poor in spirit is to be liberated from “vain imaginations” of one’s own heart.
The violation of this spiritual attitude is in fact original sin, and the source of all sorrow. We Orthodox uphold and honor as the best model of poverty in spirit the Theotokos, the bearer of God, as the most perfect human being to have ever lived. For her choice, her attitude of poverty, emptying herself and becoming a living and loving chamber of God incarnate, she redeemed all mankind. By giving away her self, Christ was able to manifest on earth, and ultimately die to set free from death Adam and Eve and all of us.
And, of course, Jesus himself was poor in spirit, as well as physically. As He said:
“If anyone loves this world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.” (I John 2:15-17)
This is why the monastic life is so vital. The monastics give up this world, empty themselves and become filled with God’s spirit. The life of a monastic is very very difficult; yet the holy elders acknowledge the even more difficult is the life of a worldly person, with a family, who can attain such spiritual poverty and become filled with God’s spirit. Saints, whether monastic or in the world, link us to the heavenly realm for our benefit. Whereas our distracted prayers are like raindrops and trickles of water in a dry desert, their prayers are like firehoses.
Fr. John Hainsworth gives insight into the original Greek that has been translated into “the poor.” It is common to envision “the poor” as a beggar, as my friend has done. But more accurate is the image of a child.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit”
From the beginning of the beatitudes, we have a challenging claim. Sometimes this beatitude is read as meaning that we will be blessed and truly full of joy if we are fully aware of how insignificant we are, how truly meaningless our state is before God, if we cower in our state of spiritual poverty. But is this so?
The word used for poor is ptokos, and it describes an emphatic state of poverty: not that of a low-income wage earner, but that of someone who is without a wage at all, and indeed must ask for everything he receives. Commentators often use the image of a beggar to describe ptokos, but this is misleading. Disciples of Christ are not beggars; they are children, and beloved children as well, ones sought out by God even to death on the Cross. The more appropriate image of one “poor in spirit” is a child.
My little daughters are utterly dependent on me for everything. If I did not feed them, they would starve; if I did not clothe them, they would freeze; if I did not give them a house to live in, they would be totally exposed to the elements. A child, at least in circumstance, is ptokos. An adult is too, at every level of his or her existence. We forget our total dependence on God, the degree to which God permeates our reality. We forget this, or we just don’t know it. So, if we want to understand what poverty truly means, the first beatitude demands that we acknowledge from the beginning God as Creator of heaven and earth.
So, to inherit God’s kingdom, be like a child or like a beloved dog, who depend upon us, who look to us with humility, submission, and unconditional love. Our beloved children and pets remind us of the way that we are to look to God, and to find Him.