Circular Letter: January 2000
Education in Holy Poverty
My Lord and my God, take everything from me that separates me from Thee.
My Lord and my God, give everything to me that brings me nearer to Thee.
My Lord and my God, take me from myself, and give me completely to Thee.
St. Nicholas of Flueli, Switzerland
Jesus enjoins his disciples to prefer him to everything and everyone, and bids them “renounce all that [they have]” for his sake and that of the Gospel. … The precept of detachment from riches is obligatory for entrance into the Kingdom of heaven. (CCC 2544)
Jesus began his Sermon on the Mount with the first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Here is where He chose to begin, and therefore, it seems to be the most fitting place for us to begin our formation letters. In this first conference we will treat the questions: what does it mean to be poor in spirit? and how can we practice this virtue in our daily life?
We will do this by first considering the five dangers involved in the possession of riches as is found in Sacred Scripture. From there we will consider seven dimensions of the virtue of poverty of spirit.
I. The Danger of Riches
“Woe to you rich, you have received your consolation”(Lk 6:24)
In reviewing the testimony of Sacred Scripture, we find that the treatment of poverty of spirit comes very often in the form of a warning against the dangers of riches. One of the most memorable statements of Christ is that which shocked his disciples, and has challenged generations since apostolic times: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 19:23)
Why is it so difficult for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven? In the Gospel according to St. Luke our Lord gives one indication as to why the rich are given such severe a warning: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” (Lk 6:24) This statement corresponds to the parable of our Lord which speaks of the rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day, while at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores. When the poor man died, he was carried to Abraham’s bosom. (An indication of the doctrine of the Limbo of the Just, where the righteous of the Old Testament awaited the coming of the Savior.) The rich man also died and was buried in Hades in torment. In explanation of why this occurred Abraham says to the rich man: “Son, remember that you in your lifetime received good things, and Lazarus in like manner received evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.” (Lk 16:19-31) These statements of our Lord indicate that the rich are in danger “because they have received their consolation already”. This agrees with what our Lord said in another place where he warns about praying, fasting, and doing charitable actions for the sake of receiving praise from men. He says: Truly I say to you, you have your reward, and you will not receive reward from your Heavenly Father. (Cf. Mt 6:1-6) This presents an important principle in the spiritual life. You can not have the best of both worlds. This truth is explained in a medieval English poem called Piers the Plowman:
For those servants who take their wages in advance are continually in need, and the man who eats before he has earned his food seldom dies out of debt. He should first do his duty, and complete his day’s work; for until a workman has finished his job, no one can see what he deserves for it. If he takes money in advance, how can he be sure that his work will not be rejected? And so I say to you rich men: it is wrong to expect heaven in your present life, and another heaven hereafter, like a servant who first takes his payment in advance, and then claims it again afterwards as though he had never received it before. Such a thing cannot be.
As it was said in the Book of Sirach in the Old Testament: “A man may become rich through his diligence and self-denial, and this is his allotted reward: when he says ‘I have found rest, now I will feast on my possessions,’ he does not know how long it will be till he dies and leaves them to another.” (Sir 11:18-19) “This is his allotted reward.” Because he has “found rest” in material goods, he does not “enter into the rest” prepared by the Lord. His reward is already possessed, and it is uncertain how long he will be able to enjoy it. Jesus makes reference to this same situation in the parable of the rich man who feels secure in his large harvest. But God says: “You fool, this very night your soul is required of you and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward the Lord.” (Lk 12:16-21)
This is the first caution put forth by Sacred Scripture with regard to the possession of wealth: beware of it’s being the ultimate end in which the soul rests and finds its delight. For in such a case, you have received your reward and can expect no other. We will speak of this point again when we come to the discussion of poverty of spirit.
“You cannot serve two masters” (Mt 6:24)
The second reason why the Scriptures warn of the danger of riches is related to the first. It follows from the opposition between laying up treasures for oneself rather than being rich toward the Lord as was said in the last parable mentioned. The heart of man is small, and limited in its capacity. The One Who knows the heart and examines our motives has told us, “No man can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You can not serve both God and riches.” This is illustrated in the parable of our Lord in which He tells of the man who goes out into the field to sow the seed. The seed that is sown among the thorns is said to represent: “he who hears the word of God, but the cares of the world and the delight of riches choke the Word and it proves unfruitful.”(Mt 13:22) Here we see that the concern for wealth can so occupy a man’s thoughts that the concern for the things of God is choked out. On this point, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that all Christ’s faithful are to “direct their affections rightly, lest they be hindered in their pursuit of perfect charity by the use of worldly things and by an adherence to riches which is contrary to the spirit of evangelical poverty.” (CCC 2545 (LG 42,3))
There is a good analogy of this truth found in the early history of the conquest of Mexico. In the year 1520, Cortez and his men experienced a serious setback while they were in what is present day Mexico City. His little army of a few hundred Spaniards and some friendly Indians had to make a quick retreat from the city. To do this, they had to make use of a causeway that lead across the lake. Cortez warned his men to be careful not to load themselves down by taking from the huge amounts of gold and jewels that were available there in the city. But some did not listen. They greedily filled their bags and wallets and boxes with gold. In the retreat there were a number of breaks in the causeway which ended up being filled by the wagons, boxes, and the bodies of those who were loaded down with gold. Only a comparative few from the Spaniards escaped. One historian recorded: “Those fared best who traveled lightest; and many were the unfortunate wretches who, weighted down by the fatal gold which they loved so well, were buried with it in the salt waters of the lake.”
This story seems to be a fulfillment of St. Paul’s warning against riches in his letter to St. Timothy: “There is great gain in godliness with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs” (1 Tim 6:7-10).
St. Paul taught that every Christian is the Temple of God (1 Cor 3:16). The one time in which Christ revealed most dramatically His just anger was when the Temple was desecrated by the negotiators and money changers. “If anyone defiles the temple of God, him God will destroy; for the temple of God is holy, and that temple you are.” (1 Cor 3:17) We must then beware of defiling the temple of the Lord by our giving our heart and mind to the concern for wealth. Blessed Padre Pio once said: “Let us bear in mind that at our baptism we become temples of the living God and that every time we turn our mind to worldly things, to the devil and the flesh which we renounce at baptism, we are profaning this sacred Temple of God.”
This is the second caution presented in Sacred Scripture with regard to riches: beware of allowing the riches to become the master of our thoughts and lives.
Concupiscence of the Eyes (1 Jn 2:16)
The Book of Genesis tells us: “And God saw all that He created, behold, it was very good.” (Gen 1:31) The problem that the goods of creation pose is not that they are evil, but that they are very good. It is because they are so very good that they can seduce our minds and hearts away from that which is better and away from Him Who is Best. St. John the Evangelist speaks of the seductive power of goods of creation, calling it: concupiscence of the eyes. This concupiscence leads to a slavery of the soul, a type of bondage not altogether unlike that of concupiscence of the flesh (lust). “Sheol and Adadon are never satisfied, and never satisfied are the eyes of man.” (Prov 27:20)
The English Poet Francis Thompson describes the fleeing of the soul from God, and the consequent inquietude of the soul:
Nigh and nigh draws the chase
With unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
And past those noised Feet
A Voice comes yet more fleet —
“Lo! Naught contents thee, who contents not Me!”
A perfect example of concupiscence of the eyes is found in modern advertisements and commercials. The art of advertisement involves the use of every method of manipulation possible in order to arouse a false sense of need, or to try to convince that happiness will be found in the possession of such and such a product. There follows in those who yield to this seduction an inquietude of soul until it possesses the desired object. This is particularly evident in children. They see something on TV and then pester their parents until they can get it.
I have been approached about the recent Pokémon craze in America. Concerned parents have shown lists of names of the Pokémon monsters and asked whether they are names of demons. Not a bad question, but it is important not to miss the more obvious while searching out the more esoteric. The most blaring perversity of this craze, as is the case with all similar phenomena that has occurred in recent years, lies in the simple fact that it presents the perfect formation in the concupiscence of the eyes. It is formation in greed, the disordered desire to possess things. To allow oneself to be seduced repeatedly by the notion that happiness in some way is to be found in the possession of some thing. The Pokémon theme is: “You’ve got to catch them all!” This is just one example among millions. The child’s thought that if he can only get that new pair of tennis shoes, then he will be happy. The adults’ thought that once he can get the new swimming pool, then he will be happy. Etc. Etc. The concupiscence of the eyes is the seduction of the heart in the hope of finding happiness in material goods. This is the third danger of material goods.
“For you say, I am rich, I have prospered…” (Rev 3:17)
The Book of Revelation also describes the status of the rich in the eyes of God in very stark terms. This is found in the Letter to Laodicea: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore, I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, that you may be rich, and white garments to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see.”
Similarly, St. Paul in his letter to St. Timothy gives the practical exhortation: “As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed.” (1 Tim 6:17-19)
Both of these Scripture passages point to the fourth danger of riches: haughtiness, and the false sense of autonomy and security. They are blinded to their real misery, and their complete dependence on God for everything that has lasting value. Such is the fourth danger of wealth.
“Behold, the wages of the laborers cry out” (Jas 5:3)
In the poem already mentioned, Piers the Plowman, there is raised the question: “Is patient poverty more pleasing to our Lord than wealth honestly earned and put to good use?” What is more pleasing to the Lord, that we should be poor, or that we should be rich, and use our riches well? To this question the poem responds “Well, show me such a rich and just man, and I will be the first to praise him. But I think that you can read until Doomsday and never find one who was not in terror at the approach of death, and who did not fall into debt at the last reckoning.” This brings up the next danger of wealth: the real difficulty involved in the just acquisition and the just use of riches.
It is this problem that St. James is addressing when he writes:
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Behold the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in the day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have killed the righteous man; he does not resist you. (Jas 5:1-6)
The first obvious danger is when wealth is gained by any form of injustice: oppression, fraud, unjust wages, etc. This is described in some of the Psalms: “The poor man is devoured by the pride of the wicked; he is caught in the schemes that others have made.” (Ps 10:2) “Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I myself will arise, says the Lord; I will grant them the salvation for which they long.” (Ps 12:5)
But there is also the difficulty involved in the just use of wealth. In this we are challenged by the social principle of the Church called the “universal destination of goods”. While the Church has always defended the right to private property, it has also upheld the “primordial” principle which states that the goods of creation are destined for the whole human race. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that this means that: “In his use of things man should regard the external goods he legitimately owns not merely as exclusive to himself but common to others also, in the sense that they can benefit others as well as himself.” (CCC 2404) The Catechism further specifies: people who own the goods of production (for example: land, factories, practical or artistic skills) are morally obliged to use these things in ways that will benefit the greatest number of people. Contrary to the prevalent notion that those who are rich can simply use their goods to get richer for their own benefit, they are rather obligated to use these things for the benefit of others. In addition to this, the Catechism adds to this that people who possess goods for use and consumption should use them with moderation, and they should reserve the better part of them for guests, for the sick and the poor. (Cf. CCC 2405)
This obligation to provide for the poor out of our abundance is so binding that St. John Chrysostom wrote: ” Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.” St. Gregory the Great also once said: “when we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.” The corollary to what these Fathers of the Church are saying is that if we do not attend to the needs of the poor when we can, we are committing an act of injustice. This is the teaching of the Church: it is an obligation in justice, and not simply a voluntary option, to provide for the needs of the poor. So, the person who acquires wealth through perfectly honest means, is not thereby exempt from the danger of committing an injustice. In this case he is sinning not by commission but rather by omission. It is here that riches present the most difficult challenge, and perhaps the greatest danger because it is so hidden and subtle: how, practically speaking, are they to be used without compromising the demands of justice towards the poor.
II. What is True Poverty of Spirit?
Now, having considered the five Scriptural cautions with regard to riches we can now consider the seven facets of the virtue of poverty of spirit.
“The Lord is my portion and my cup” (Ps 16:5)
A serious question should have arisen in your minds as we were speaking about the first danger of riches. It was there that we said you could not have the best of both worlds, and that if you try, you will already have your reward. How are we to understand that? Is that to say that we can only hope to be happy in heaven if we are miserable in this life? Monsignor Clifford Sawher, a great priest who took delight in the service of the Lord, would often pray: “O Lord, do not deduct this from my reward in heaven.” He found such joy in his priestly work that he expressed his concern about “having his reward already.” Was this a true concern? By no means. Jesus said to his disciples “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”(Jn 15:11) Jesus desires our happiness not only in the life to come, but also in this life. But the joy in this life is always, necessarily imperfect. As St. Thomas teaches: “The will rests absolutely only in what is ultimate, because so long as one expects something else the will remains in suspense even though one has now arrived at some end.”
The danger lies in the heart’s “resting” in the goods of this world, as though they were the ultimate end. St. John of the Cross taught the principle: “The will should rejoice only in what is for the honor and glory of God, and the greatest honor we can give him is to serve Him according to evangelical perfection; anything not included in such service is without value to human beings.” From this principle he maintained: “If it is in some way tolerable to rejoice in riches, it is when they are spent and employed in the service of God. This is the only way profit will be drawn from them.” The joy then, that we experience in the good things that are presented in this life, must therefore be somehow directed to the ultimate joy of heaven. This is the first element to be observed in the practice of the virtue of poverty of spirit: the looking beyond the things of this world so as not to be entangled in them.
“Store up treasures for yourself in heaven”(Mt 6:19)
We mentioned that the second danger of riches follows from the fact that you can not serve two masters. There is an opposition between laying up treasures for oneself on earth, and being rich toward the Lord. The prophet Elijah taunted the Israelites in the Old Testament: “How long will you all go limping with two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him! But if Baal, then follow him!” (1 Kg 18:21) This perfectly expresses the second element of poverty of spirit: the need to make a clear decision as to our goal. We must be like Joshua of old who said: “but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Jos 24:15)
This second element of the virtue of poverty of spirit entails a certain purity of intention. We must consider, and examine ourselves frequently as to whether we do things to truly serve God, and store up treasures in heaven by means of working hiddenly and silently, or whether we do things for our temporal advantage. Here is where we must clearly strive to imitate the holy angels, who work continually in silence and hiddenness.
In 1922 the world famous Passion Play of Oberammegau, which is only performed once every ten years, was to be performed. An American film company offered the villagers of that small German town a million dollars if they would make a cinema version for them to distribute. The people regarded this as a temptation, because it seemed incompatible with their real object in performing the play, which has always been purely for the glory of God. They refused the offer firmly. And to make sure that they would not change their mind some of the performers cut off their long hair that had been allowed to grow for their parts in the play. This is a beautiful example of the desire to serve only one master, to store up treasure in heaven.
Jesus Christ said to the rich young man: “If you would be perfect, go sell what you own and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me.” (Mt 19:21) In this he taught the blessing of poverty of spirit: it is a guarantee of treasure in heaven. Every soul who passes from this life becomes a “poor soul”, regardless of how rich, or beautiful, or famous, or powerful they were in this world. The answer to the question: “How much money did Rockefeller leave behind?” is really quite easy: “Every penny of it.”
We can not take anything with us, but we can ship it on ahead of ourselves. We do this by exercising this second element of poverty of spirit by serving our One True Master in all things.
“Do not be anxious, little flock” (Lk 12:32)
“The third element of poverty of spirit is contentment without anxiety: “…if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content.” (1 Tim 6:8) This is to counteract the third danger of riches: the concupiscence of the eyes, which “pierces the heart with many pangs.” (1 Tim 6:10) The need to be content with what we have does not mean that we do not eagerly desire something far more. It is indeed a narrow, miserable and wretched heart that is completely content with what is to be had in this life. True poverty of spirit experiences a certain contentment in its relation to the goods of the earth. At the same time however it is restless with regard to the possession of God.
The Book of the Revelation says: “Let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price.” (Rev 22:17) We must thirst for the possession of the things of God. We are never content until we have them, and we will take no substitute for them.
Psalm 137 expresses this truth with force: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept when we remembered Zion … If I should forget you Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!” (Ps 137:1, 5-6) This is a perfect expression of true poverty of spirit. “If I should not set Jerusalem above my highest joy, then let a curse come upon me immediately! Let my hand wither so that I can no longer act, let my tongue cleave, so that I can no longer speak.” For there is no use working, or speaking, if it does not have as its goal the “one thing that is necessary”. Jerusalem, of course, refers to the heavenly Jerusalem which will come out of the heavens like a bride adorned to meet her husband. It is the dwelling place of God with man. This truth is explained by St. John of the Cross where he wrote: “…since that which is hoped for is that which is not possessed, and since, the less we possess of other things, the greater scope and the greater capacity we have for hoping, and consequently the greater (perfection of) hope, therefore, the more things we possess, the less scope and capacity is there for hoping, and consequently the less (perfection of) hope we have.”
A prayer that can be very efficacious toward the arriving at this third element of poverty of spirit is the prayer of St. Nicholas of Flueli with which we began this conference. If sincerely prayed, it hands everything over to God’s judgment for disposal. It goes: “My Lord and my God, take everything from me that separates me from you. (Whether it be family, friends, health, possessions, good name, whatever, take it away if it is an obstacle to coming closer to You). My Lord and my God, give everything to me (be it health or sickness, praise or persecution, consolations or suffering, everything give it to me!) if it brings me nearer to you. My Lord and my God, take me from myself, and give me completely to you.”
The blessing that follows from this third element of poverty of spirit is peace and freedom from anxiety. As the ancient saying goes: “A thousand armed bandits on horseback can not rob a naked man.” And so, if we are truly poor, we need not fear, for nothing can separate us from the One we Love.
“There also my servant shall be” (Jn 12:26)
In response to the fourth danger of riches, that of haughtiness and a false sense of independence from God is the next dimension of poverty of spirit: humility. We must strive to live up to St. Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians: “Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” (Phil 2:5-7)
It is in the life of St. Francis of Assisi, perhaps more than any other saint, that we can readily find the example of a soul who ardently desired to be like his Lord in His “emptying” of Himself. The oldest writing about the life of St. Francis is in the form of an allegory, which presents St. Francis’ pursuit and encounter with Lady Poverty. The writing is called the Sacrum Commercium of St. Francis with Lady Poverty. It tells of how St. Francis began like a “persistent hunter” relentlessly seeking the one whom his heart loved (Lady Poverty). He searched through the streets, and asked everyone he met where she was. Everyone he met hated her bitterly, and would not speak to him about her. So he went to the great and wise men. They answered even more harshly, accusing him of teaching some new doctrine. So, he left the city and found two old men who were able to tell him that Lady Poverty could be found on a certain holy mountain. They told him he could not climb the mountain unless he removed every encumbrance and he be stripped of all things. Otherwise it would not be possible to find her who lives so high. Hearing this Francis gathered some friends, and together they ascended the mountain with astonishing speed and ease. When they finally found the fair Lady Poverty she asked them why they came to her. To this they responded by begging Lady Poverty to remain with them. To explain why they were so desirous of her company they indicated that the same desire was clearly found in God Himself. They said:
He, the King of kings and Lord of lords, the Creator of heaven and earth, desired your splendor and your majesty. While the king was at his repose, rich and glorious in his kingdom, he forsook his house and left his inheritance; for wealth and riches were in his house. And coming thus from heaven’s royal throne, he very fittingly sought you out. Your dignity therefore is great and your sublimity incomparable, since, leaving behind all the delights of the angels and the boundless excellences of which there is a great abundance in heaven, he came to seek you in the lower parts of the world, you who were lying in the mud of the swamp, in the dark places and in the shadow of death. You were [greatly hated] by all creatures and all fled from you; and; in so far as they could, they drove you away from them… But after the Lord of hosts came and took you for his own, he exalted you among the tribes of peoples and he adorned you as a bride with a crown, raising you above the height of the clouds.
They then go on to speak more specifically of how Jesus pursued the companionship of Lady Poverty from his birth in the stable, through His public ministry during which time he had no place to lay his head, even to his death on the cross. From this they conclude that if Jesus our Lord and our God so loved and united Himself to Lady Poverty, we too must have some desire to do the same. This perfectly illustrates the fourth element in the practice of poverty of spirit: the ardent desire to be like Christ in all things. For Jesus said to His disciples: “If anyone serves me, he must follow me, and where I am, there shall my servant be also.” (Jn 12:26)
“When I was hungry you gave me to eat” (Mt 25:35)
The fifth element in the practice of holy poverty addresses the issue of the just use of the goods of this world. “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor 4:7) Everything is a grace, everything is a gift freely given. We are called to be responsible stewards of the possessions entrusted us by God. The practice of poverty of spirit frees man from the false notion that he is absolute lord of his own possessions. People may think that because they own certain things they can dispose of them according to their whims. So many people from poor countries would long to have the scraps that fall from our tables, or more accurately, use the things we put out by the curb on Monday morning for the garbage pick-up. The “disposable” mentality is so contrary to poverty of spirit. Everything is disposable, even if it still works, and does the job, but now there is something faster, better, shinier, so we need to get that. Any such wasteful treatment of the goods of creation is contrary to the spirit of stewardship, and poverty of spirit. We must ask ourselves, would a poor man so readily dispose of this to get a new one?
But what is more common than wastefulness, is practice of extravagance and prodigality. The thought: “this is my money, I earned it, therefore, I can use it as I please.” The thought that we have the right to enjoy whatever luxuries we can afford without putting ourselves into debt is an error. What do you have that you did not receive? The ability to work, the opportunity to earn money, the physical and mental capacities to have a good paying job: everything is a gift from God. Every talent entrusted to us must be invested, not only for one’s own good pleasure, but for the service of others. So, again, there must be a careful consideration of not only what we can afford, but also what is truly needed and truly useful for growth in poverty of spirit.
Beyond this, poverty of spirit should make man look toward the needs of others: to recognize that since we were entrusted with certain goods, we must consider how best to use them to benefit the greatest number of people. It should make us clear-sighted, and swift like the angels to see and respond to the needs of others. It breaks away from self-centered concern, and leads to watchfulness, and vigilance in the service of others. Whereas the miser is narrow and closed in on himself, the man who practices true poverty is wide enough to embrace all who come near. The practice of mercy in this way is what makes the possession of wealth the means of sanctification, and eternal reward. Pier the Plowman offers some encouraging words to the wealthy along this line:
But if you rich folk have pity on the poor and reward them well, and live by the law of God and act justly to all men, then Christ in His courtesy will comfort you in the end, rewarding with double riches all who have pitying hearts. A just servant who has received his wages beforehand is sometimes given a further reward for doing his duty well, so Christ gives Heaven both to rich and poor, if they lead lives of mercy. And all who do their duty well shall have double pay for their labors, the forgiveness of their sins and the bliss of heaven.
“Simplex fac cor meum (Make my heart simple)” (Ps 86:11)
Beyond regulating our relation to the material goods of this world, poverty of spirit should lead to a deeper dimension: that of guilelessness. “Behold, a true Israelite, in whom there is no guile.” (Jn 1:47) Jesus spoke these words about Nathaniel the apostle who then received the promise that he would see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of man. In its fuller sense, poverty of spirit consists in guilelessness, or in simplicity of thoughts, which mirrors the simplicity of God and the holy angels. Such poverty does away with duplicity, deceit, the putting on of airs, artificiality, the acting as though we know more than we really do, and the acting as though we are someone who we are not. The soul is rid of suspicions and harsh judgments of other, because it thinks simply about others. This is the quality needed in order to “see” the angels; not with the eyes of the body, but in faith to work with them. It is a human quality that put us “in tune” with them. For this reason, this sixth quality of poverty of spirit is of great importance in the Work of the Holy Angels.
“Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 5:3)
The ultimate goal of poverty of spirit is to possess the Kingdom of Heaven. It must never be forgotten, however, that the Kingdom of Heaven is not a “thing”. It is not an impersonal object. “This is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” (Jn 17:3) The Kingdom of Heaven is the possession of the only true God and Jesus Christ His Son. It is a personal relationship of knowing and being known; loving and being loved; possessing and being possessed by the Divine Persons. This blessed relationship is enjoyed in union with, and in the company of all the angels and saints. That is the Kingdom of Heaven. True poverty forms us in our relations to persons, especially to the Divine Persons, and the angels and the saints. It does this in such a way that we can already begin to possess the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth by enjoying an ordered relationship with the persons whom we see, and those whom we can not see.
The difficulty arises when we find that certain personal relations present oppositions. Our will is confronted with the unmoving will of another person. We find that we can not make the other persons to conform to us and to our ideas about how they should be, and how they should serve our needs. We are frustrated, and so we flee from them, and we find consolation in things over which we can exercise greater control: such as the television, computer, work, sports, car, house, truck, drinking, etc. Here is where the seventh element of poverty of spirit must be practiced. Poverty of spirit does not allow impersonal “things” to occupy the center of our heart. True poverty of spirit does not lead us away from persons, but rather teaches us to find our greatest joy not so much in the good “things” that God gives, but rather sees in all things the love of the Giver. We learn to rejoice in God as did Mary, who sang: “my spirit exalts in God my Savior.” (Lk 1:47) St. John of the Cross taught that we can know that we are properly detached from creatures when we find greater joy in the reminder of God’s goodness and love to us than in the joy that the creature itself gives. For example, when I take delight in listening to beautiful music, the principal cause of my delight is not the beauty of music itself but the beauty of the love of God which has created this music, and which has given me the capacity and opportunity to hear and enjoy it. So, I am not rejoicing in some “thing”, but in God, Who is manifesting His love for me. This is applied to every good gift and perfect endowment which is coming down to us from the Father of Lights (Jas 1:17) continually throughout the day. We enjoy the warmth of the sun, the loveliness of the sunset, the company of friends, as well as the sufferings and crosses we must endure, because we can see beyond them the true love of God Who has given them to us. This is the poverty of spirit which experiences the pure joy of the Kingdom of heaven already.
So, we can conclude with a prayer of praise to God with the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of the Poor that she show us the way to true poverty of spirit and so obtain the kingdom of heaven.
My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
For he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden,
For henceforth all generations will call me blessed:
For he who is mighty has done great things for me,
And holy is his name.
And his mercy is on those who fear him From generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm,
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
And exalted those of low degree;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich he has sent empty away.
He has helped his servant Israel In remembrance of his mercy,
As he spoke to our fathers,To Abraham and to his posterity for ever. (Lk 1:46-55)
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