The Poor in Spirit; Why are They Blessed?

I’ve been intrigued with the Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 5) all of my adult life. I think my interest comes from the challenge that Jesus is extending to us, to be so counter cultural, so unrealistic, maybe even unhealthy. The three beatitudes that bother me—or perhaps intrigue me—the most are blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who are persecuted for my name’s sake, and the ultimate one, blessed are the poor in spirit. I’ve always wondered about this one. What does it mean to be poor in spirit and how can that be blessed?

After years of experiencing the pilgrimage we call the inner life I have found some kindred spirits throughout history who describe rather profoundly what it is like to be poor in spirit. People like Teresa of Avila, Evelyn Underhill, Macrina Weideker, Ignatius of Loyola, Barbara Brown Taylor and Jean Vanier all speak of the journey of being poor in spirit in words that are simple and yet profound. I find their words best summed up this way: self-emptying.

Macrina Weideker’s description send chills down my spine whenever I hear it. She says, in an excerpt from her poem, Blessed are the Poor in Spirit,
Being poor in spirit means
having nothing to call your own,
except your own poverty.
It is a joyful awareness of your emptiness.
It is the soil of opportunity
for God has space to work
in emptiness that is owned.

Being poor in spirit means
knowing that you are so small
and dependent
needy and powerless
that you live with an open heart
waiting to be blessed.
For only then can you be blessed
If you know
that you need blessing.

Jesus is our ultimate role model for self-emptying. He gave up equality with God, the writer of Philippines tells us (Phil. 2:3-7). He emptied himself, was born in human form and became obedient to the point of giving up his life. It’s hard for me to read these words yet they are so inspiring. I want to let go of the illusion of control in my life. I want to live a smaller, simpler and more meaningful life. I want to live with an open heart and open hands. I long to feel blessed. I know I need blessing. But it is so hard to live into this in a culture that values all of the opposites of what I long for. I need daily reminders and a lot of support from kindred spirits just to stay focused on wanting to live these desires.

Just recently I had a vivid reminder that I am not yet able to take everything in stride because it is not mine to control. I thought I had sold my condo. A woman had been to see it several times, emailing me for more details. She had offered to rent it with a large deposit until she could sell her own home. I thought we were well on the way to closure. Then I got an email saying she had found another condo that fit her needs better. This jarred me and I slipped into fear and dread.

Why was this so upsetting? Well first, it was just plain disappointing. But more than that, I had orchestrated this deal so that I could move when I wanted to and get a particular apartment. So I had it all completed in my mind. This really upset my plans. And beneath that there was also another truth.

I really don’t trust God. In fact, I am afraid of God.

I can see this truth as my cutting edge in life. Can I trust God? Do I believe God is there for me, that God will care for me, find me worthy to be loved? When I calm down and reflect, I have had dozens of examples of ways in which God is there for me, cares for me, seeks me out to show me how cherished I am, whether I feel worthy or not. Yet I still need reminders, especially when the unexpected happens. This condo sale is a way for me to simplify, to get smaller, to move closer to the heart of God, to self-empty; yet some part of me is afraid that I might lose myself completely, so that part of me fights to hold on, to get control.

Only God can help me with this dilemma. Only God can soothe me to the point where self-emptying feels holy and where dependency feels sacred. Only God can bless my emptiness and show me the way to God’s heart and a new way of living my life, a life of love.

Henri Nouwen puts into words what I am longing to experience in my emptiness.
It is very hard to allow emptiness in our lives. Emptiness requires a willingness not to be in control, a willingness to let something new and unexpected happen. It requires trust, surrender, and openness to guidance. God wants to dwell in our emptiness. But as long as we are afraid of God and God’s actions in our lives, it is unlikely that we will offer our emptiness to God. Let’s pray that we can let go of our fear of God and embrace God as the source of all love.

Maybe the secret to moving forward in faith, no matter where we are, is to ask God to help us even to let go of our fear of God. That may seem risky but it also feels like the beginning of a new adventure. After all Jesus did say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Self-emptying brings us into the kingdom. Self-emptying connects us in community at deeper levels than we can describe. Community is the kingdom on earth. When I am open to love, to my poverty, to my need for blessing, I am in that kingdom community which is my deepest hearts desire. I’m not afraid of God when I experience that community– and I’m no longer bothered by that beatitude.

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2009. All rights reserved.
Macrina’s poem excerpt is from Tree Full of Angels and Nouwen’s quote is from his book, Gracias.

Reflections on this essay
What does poor in spirit mean to you?

Which line in Macrina’s poem most resonates with you? Why?

Do you trust God? How do you know that?

Are you afraid of God? How do you know that?

When does self-emptying feel holy and dependence feel sacred for you?

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