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'The poor in spirit'

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Sep 18, 2009

 This morning at Mass, the Responsorial Psalm prompted me to reflect-- not for the first time-- on that intriguing phrase: "Blessed are the poor in spirit."

Those last two words, "in spirit," give the Lord's words an extra dimension. Jesus is speaking about the virtue of poverty, not the economic condition. A wealthy man who maintains detachment from his material possessions might be an exemplar of that virtue-- although, to be sure, the Lord also emphasized how difficult it is for the rich to be detached. And a poor man might cling to his few possessions, becoming a miser. 

The key, we are taught, is to be poor in spirit. In no way do I want to question the accuracy of that common interpretation, nor the importance of the lesson. But I wonder whether the Lord's phrase allows for another layer of meaning-- not contradictory, but perhaps complementary. 

To illustrate what I mean, let me rework the familiar sentence in a couple of different ways. As we ordinarily understand it, we might say: "The poor in spirit are blessed"-- that is, those who cultivate the spirit of poverty receive blessings from God. I wonder whether it's also possible to understand the sentence this way: "The poor are blessed in spirit"-- that is, God gives special blessings to those who live in poverty. 

Let me illustrate the point a different way. Imagine saying the sentence twice, with a slight pause in different places. Thus:

  • Blessed are [pause] the poor in spirit.
  • Blessed are the poor [pause] in spirit.

In the first instance the sentence conveys the idea that the virtue of poverty brings spiritual rewards-- which we know to be true. It's the potential meaning of the second sentence that intrigues me. Does material poverty give people a special sort of freedom, that allows for spiritual vigor? 

I don't want to romanticize poverty. Material poverty-- genuine need-- is an evil. No sane person would prefer to go without basic human needs, and no sincere Christian can be indifferent to the needs of those around him who suffer from a lack of food or clothing or shelter. Real poverty is degrading. Still I have noticed that some people who live in poverty show a remarkable resilience: an ability to maintain their dignity and even their joy despite that degradation. 

Some years ago, I traveled to Haiti as the guest of a relief organization, and spent many hours in Citi Soleil, the sprawling slum outside Port-au-Prince. The level of poverty that I encountered there was shocking. The hovels of Citi Soleil lack electricity and plumbing; waste runs in open sewers through the dirt paths that pass for streets. Food is scarce; clean water is rare. Disease is ubiquitous; children routinely die of diarrhea; many residents will never see a doctor in the course of their lives. Life seems-- and is-- miserable for these people.

Yet when we attended Mass at a little church on the edge of the slum, I saw people who prayed not only with zeal but with unmistakable joy. Maybe because they had nothing else to lean on, maybe because they were vividly aware that God was their only hope, these people poured out their hearts with a simplicity and naturalness that I could only envy. I found myself thinking: These people are tapping into spiritual riches that we affluent Americans might never understand. That's when it hit me: Blessed are the poor-- in spirit.

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