Last week we began taking a look at the Beatitudes and how they serve as a roadmap for finding happiness in this life and in the next. It’s now time to turn to each of the individual Beatitudes in order to consider how we are called to live our lives in such a radical way. The first Beatitude is:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.”
Upon reading this passage, it becomes readily apparent that God is asking us to live counter to our Fallen nature. Immediately we are startled by such a call. It is foreign to the human condition to desire poverty of any kind. There are many forms of poverty and none of them are particularly attractive. The first type of poverty that comes to mind is material poverty.
In the West, we tend to romanticize poverty or discuss it in strictly political terms. This allows distance between us and those people who live in bone-crushing, abject poverty. It is something we do not experience on a daily basis. It is hard to find children living in trash heaps in the United States or Western Europe. Unlike St. Teresa of Calcutta, most of us have not seen people dying on the sidewalks from disease and hunger. There is material poverty within our nations, but it is something largely considered to be an urban problem, and we may largely ignore it in our own backyards.
Material poverty is not strictly a poverty of things. The person who struggles to make a just wage in order to provide food, shelter, water, and basic necessities for their family is tormented by the psychological, emotion, spiritual, and physical demands of poverty. They are not free. Instead, they spend their lives doing grueling work in order to provide a meager meal—or no meal– for their children. This is the reason poverty is spoken of frequently in Scripture and in Catholic Social Teaching. It is not just a privation of goods, it is a privation of true freedom to live as a person made imago Dei. Poverty is a form of slavery, and yet, wealth can also be a cruel taskmaster.
Wealth comes with its own poverty, when the individual uses their wealth to worship themselves rather than to be a good steward of their gifts. The body may be provided for among the wealthy, but often the soul is in great peril or dead because of the idolatry of money. The wealthy suffer from other forms of poverty. These may be emotional, spiritual, or intellectual. Many of the wealthy are lonely because true friendships are difficult to form since their money lends them to use by others.
There are many forms of poverty. One of the greatest poverties within the West is loneliness. There are countless people right now who are battling the poverty of loneliness. We are not made to live in isolation. The Triune God is a relation of Divine Persons. We are made in the image and likeness of God, which means that we are meant to live in communion with others.
The Western world has fallen for the lies of utilitarianism and nihilism. These two systems teach human beings to lord over one another and to use one another. Nihilism is the system that says the will is meant to be used to gain power; while utilitarianism tells us, happiness is our ultimate end so all things and people should be used to achieve that goal.
The “hook up” culture is a prime example of emotional poverty. Individuals engage in casual sex in order to use one another for a brief moment. At times, they may not even know the name of the person they choose to engage in sexual relations with on a given night. The holy act reserved for marriage is inverted into a temporary selfish gain that leaves both people empty. We are made for God, not to be used by one another.
This emotional poverty is not just among the young. Utilitarianism and nihilism are on full display in the way we treat the elderly. If a person is not deemed “useful” then they should do us all a favor and kill themselves. This type of mentality is growing in Europe and the United States. We no longer look to the elderly for wisdom, instead we lock them away and wait for them to die. This may sound harsh, but it is reality. Many lonely people waste away in nursing homes or other facilities without anyone to visit or care for them at an emotional level. Is it any wonder why euthanasia is gaining so much traction? Like those living in abject poverty, we forget about the lonely in our own backyards.
What is Christ’s answer?
What then does Christ mean when he tells us the poor in spirit are blessed? Poverty is a part of the human condition. I’ve only covered two major forms of poverty, but there are countless others: Illness, death, loss of faith, etc. Christ is telling us that we will experience poverty in this life. At the end of our lives we will experience the great poverty of death. We will go where we don’t want to go. We have no control over the timing of our death or how we die. Every single one of us will experience some form of poverty at one time or another in our lives. Christ wants us to embrace this poverty.
Poverty is a way for Christ to draw us close to Himself. It is one of the ways we learn to relinquish ourselves over to God. Christ calls us to accept this poverty, so that we can follow Him and give everything over to him.
The choice is difficult, for poverty runs counter to the instinctive possessiveness which is so deeply rooted in us. Urged on by a kind of fear of emptiness and by the anxiety which springs from our neediness, we try to acquire all sorts of goods and accumulate things endlessly. We even attempt to possess people, so that we can use them for our own personal designs or simply for the pleasure of power. We are grudging about our time, our efforts, even our smiles. Above all we want to possess ourselves, to be our own masters and to do as we wish. This is self-love, pride speaking.
Poverty places us at a crossroads. We can rebel and choose refusal and self-reliance—and this will harden us—or we can accept the suffering and let ourselves be shaped by poverty as we open ourselves to God and others. The decision is crucial.
(Servias Pinckaers, The Pursuit of Happiness—God’s Way: Living the Beatitudes, 47.)
There it is. The paradoxical answer that we struggle to accept. We constantly wonder: How can poverty make us happy? The Cross stands at the center of our faith. Try as we might, there is no way of getting around the Cross. Each one of us has to carry the Cross given to us by God. It is through carrying this Cross that we are shaped, molded, and refined so that we can become saints. The purpose of our lives is to be saints. Holiness can only be achieved through the Cross, through suffering. None of us will get out of this life alive. All of us must die. The question is: How are we going to live? Do we set our eyes on our eternal home and embrace the Cross or do we rebel, fight, stomp our feet, and throw temper tantrums when suffering and poverty come our way, which they will? Blessedness—happiness—is the Cross. Christ meets us in our poverty and walks beside us. He enters into the depths of our poverty on the Cross.
Christ, therefore, chose to experience and espouse poverty, so that He might be one with the destitute and to all who are poor, including ourselves. This was the only road on which He could truly meet us, with no obstacle barring the way.
The Beatitudes teach us to live as Christ lives; all the way to Calvary. Even though we live in some form of poverty, we always live in the hope of the Resurrection. This is why we can be truly blessed in poverty.