It’s such a weird turn of phrase, used nowhere else in Jesus’ teaching. And, however central to the overall message of the Beatitudes its initial placement in the poem may make it seem, none of the many writers who rehashed Jesus’ teachings in the letters and accounts that make up the rest of the New Testament ever repeated this expression. What, exactly, does it mean to be poor in spirit?
Not poor in the usual sense, obviously—although that’s how Luke puts what he remembers Jesus teaching. “Blessed are you who are poor,” he has Jesus starting off an analogous sermon—this one preached on “a level place” (Luke 6:17) rather than a mountainside—“for yours is the
” (Luke 6:20).
Luke’s rendering notwithstanding, I don’t think it’s the poor in money
or poor in housing or poor in opportunity who are at issue here, although such poverties
often plague the poor in spirit. Indeed, for many, it is through the related desperations
of socioeconomic poverty—through drug or alcohol addiction, through
imprisonment, through messed up relationships—that they eventually find
themselves in a state of spiritual impoverishment. Poor in spirit. Poor in—to
tap the Greek and Hebrew incarnations of the word spirit—breath. Lacking the breath,
that source of life that comes to us all from God, the spirit necessary to keep on living. kingdom of
On some level, I’ve always felt I knew, intuitively, who the poor in spirit were—perhaps because, not to claim holiness where none is merited, I spent a good part of my adult life spiritually deprived. Having lost my faith as a teenager, I spent the next couple of decades on my own, spiritually speaking. I wanted to believe—I wished I could pray and feel heard as I had as a child and was jealous of those I met who seemed confident of God's existence—but I couldn’t seem to get there, couldn’t convince myself that any of what I had known as a child was true, and thus I perceived myself to have been abandoned by the God I no longer believed in rather than the other way around. I was, in those years, indisputably poor in spirit, and I knew it.
If there was one belief in those years I still carried with me from my childhood faith, though, it was this: Faith itself, if it was real, had to come from God.
This was not something I was ever taught. Indeed, the Church’s and the Bible’s and even Jesus’ own messages about the source of faith often seem to say quite the opposite. People are encouraged to have faith throughout the Bible and in every Christian church, and even Jesus himself complains, again and again, about the miniscule faith of even those who follow him. The belief that faith comes from God came to me, I think, entirely experientially. I never believed in God because I chose to—not as a child and not since. Nor did I believe because I was told to. We never really spoke of matters spiritual in my family, though we were taken to church every Sunday. Even at church, even in the catechism classes of my childhood, I was never commanded or persuaded to believe the good news that God had sent Jesus to us. Or, if I was, I have no memory of it.
Instead, faith just seemed to inhabit me, effortlessly—the way that, later, love for my daughters would. The way genuine thanks does on occasion or deepfelt forgiveness or remorse. Believing was never a choice for me. I just believed. And then I didn’t.
Still, I never perceived the ability to believe as a divine gift until it left me.
Losing my faith was like what I am finding the gradual loss of sight to be like as I grow older, but more sudden, less fixable, more devastating. As with eyesight, I was utterly unappreciative of the gift of faith till I lost it. But by then, I secretly grieved, it was too late. God was gone.
The poor in spirit, I think, are those of us who come to a point of longing, of desperation, for God’s restorative, revitalizing breath—whether as the result of losing track of God, as I did, and misperceiving my inattention as abandonment or as the result of other miseries and poverties, other traumas and terrors.
Once, during one of those many unbelieving years ago when I was teaching English in
, my assigned mentor teacher—unbeknownst
to me a Christian—offered to make me a calligraphy as a going away present. China
“Find a little line of poetry you like and I will translate and paint it,” he told me.
I couldn’t think of a snippet of poetry small or meaningful enough to suit me, so I borrowed a King James Bible from my Mormon neighbors and leafed through it and immediately, having never really read the Bible before, lighted on two that seemed to speak for me: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb and naked shall I return thither” (Job 1:21) and “Bow down thine ear, O Lord, hear me: for I am poor and needy” (Psalms 86:1).
As a foreigner in
days, I was regarded by all I met as amazingly wealthy, and I knew this assessment
to be true. Unlike many I met and heard of—not least the famous calligrapher
father of my mentor teacher, who was taken from his family and made to suffer
unspeakable miseries for having been an intellectual and an artist—I had everything I
needed in life. Not just food and money and opportunities but the freedom to enjoy them. China
And yet, in the most elemental sense, I was poor. Needier than my mentor teacher, certainly. Indeed, utterly bereft, the very breath of me plundered and lost. And, though it would be years before I fully rejected my lot and let God's breath fill me again, somehow—thank God!—I knew it.