Poor in Spirit

posted 6/8/20

The gospel reading for today’s Mass is St. Matthew’s account of the Beatitudes.  Everyone is familiar with the Beatitudes, but what actual effect they have on our lives is unclear.  They can seem poetic and obscure – beautiful, but not really helpful in a practical sense.  It’s a lot easier to “get” the 10 Commandments, which seem straightforward.  But rather than mere slogans and nice sentiments, the Beatitudes reveal what it is to live in the blessedness of God and to flourish as His children in a world that suffers the effects of Original Sin.  Over the next several days, I intend to reflect on the different Beatitudes, primarily as a way of deepening my own understanding of what Our Lord is calling us to in response to them. I hope you find it helpful as well.

In St. Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes, the first is: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”  What does it mean to be “poor in spirit?”  We might hear this and liken it to when someone says, “I’ll be with you in spirit.”  As heart-felt that sentiment might be, it is an expression of detached empathy, in the sense of supporting someone from a distance because you can’t be physically present.  If we read it in this sense, Jesus seems to be saying that people are blessed when they express and show concern for the plight of the poor, even if not poor themselves.  But this isn’t really a good understanding of what it means to be “poor in spirit.”  Fr. Simeon Leiva-Merikakis, in his commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew, reminds us that the word “spirit” is related to the word “breath.”  When think of words like “respiration” and “inspiration,” we realize that breath and spirit are connected.  So, he says, we might think of “poor in spirit” as one who is having difficulty catching his breath.  Under normal situations, we take breathing for granted.  But when we experience respiratory problems, or when we climb a bunch of stairs and realize how out of shape we are, we discover how desperately we need air.  In a similar way, when Our Lord speaks of the “poor in spirit” he is referring to those who understand and acknowledge their existential poverty – their nothingness and total dependence on God for everything. 

To those who acknowledge and accept their poverty in spirit, God offers the fulness of existence in His Son, Christ Jesus.  We who are “out of breath” are filled with the Breath of God.  When we recognize our nothingness, He gives us everything.  Consider Jesus hanging on the cross.  The cross was designed to kill by asphyxiation.  Over the course of hours, even days, the crucified would slowly suffocate.  Christ, who emptied Himself of His eternal glory to become man, is emptied of everything else as He hangs there bleeding, gasping for air. St. Matthew describes Our Lord’s last moments on the cross, saying: “And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.”  Thus, He becomes the poorest of the poor in spirit in order to pour forth upon us the Holy Spirit, the breath of grace that fills us with supernatural life. 

Unlike the sentiment, “I’ll be with you in spirit,” there is nothing detached about the Lord’s relationship with us.  Christ did not “social distance” Himself from us, and we are not to live solidarity with each other from afar.  Catholics must not be “do-gooders” that simultaneously fail to acknowledge our own fundamental poverty.  Pope Francis has used the expression: “we are all beggars before God.”  Yet, Our Lord takes those who acknowledge themselves as such and He makes them heirs of the great fortune of the Kingdom of Heaven – not in some distant future, but in the here and now. 

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