Material poverty is easy enough to understand, especially when it rises to destitution. Simply defined, it’s a life-crushing condition stemming from a lack of resources to meet basic human needs.
In the last post I touched on the ugly and pervasive sort of spiritual poverty in America and Western culture that Mother Theresa lamented. But there is a kind of spiritual poverty, a good and virtuous poverty, that’s an important part of the faith tradition, even though it defies easy comprehension.
Just as the word Trinity is not found or defined in the Bible, the term “spiritual poverty” is absent and never explicitly explained in scripture. But as with the Trinity, the concept of spiritual poverty is nonetheless present. It finds its highest expression in the Beatitudes of Matthew 5: 1-9, where in verse 3 Jesus says, “Blessed (i.e., “happy”) are those who are poor in spirit, for they shall inherit the kingdom of heaven.”
Spiritual poverty is detachment from corruptive things of the world in order to stay attached to God and His/Her will for love, mercy, justice, peace on earth and good will to all. It involves the continual emptying of our of cravings for money and treasures that rust.
This emptiness makes room for God to fill our inner beings with love and gladness. When the cup of our inner being is filled to overflowing, we naturally want to pour out our love in works of mercy and service to others.
Spiritual poverty is connected to the humility of Jesus as explained by Paul in Philippians 2: 5-8:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (My italics added for emphasis.)
This scriptural call to imitate Christ is a call to spiritual poverty.
Poverty is a word so commonly used to denote lack of money and resources that we lose sight of all its conceptual ambiguity.
A few years ago I went through a period when my spiritual life felt so empty and dry that my daily prayers were a drag. Words that typically poured out to God from my heart in prayer wouldn’t come.
During this time I went on a spiritual retreat at a monastery and confided my condition to the spiritual director who was assigned to me, a witty nun who smiled and said to me, “You’re in a prayer slump and that’s OK — it happens to the best of us!”
This delightful nun said that when she gets in such slumps she prays these words: “Lord, please accept the poverty of my prayers.”
The acknowledgment of such “prayer poverty” unlocked whatever guilt or anxiety I felt about my failure to somehow communicate perfectly with God. Never mind that God isn’t a teacher grading our prayers with A’s or C’s or F’s anyway. The tradition of contemplative spiritually teaches that God hears even our silent prayers.
To abide in a humble state of spiritual poverty — the good kind of poverty — is, in a sense, to abide in weakness. But it’s a desirable kind of weakness, the kind of which Paul spoke in 2 Corinthians 12: 9-10:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
The poverty of spirit that pleases God doesn’t require that we give up all our hard-earned money and possessions, but rather that we don’t try to fill ourselves up to overflowing with money and materials or intangibles like power or prestige.
The materially poor among us aren’t all saints. They can, and many do, crave money and worldly stuff as much as wealthy and powerful people. The sins of envy and covetousness tend to have power over us all.
But it stands to reason that the poor are more pre-disposed to enjoying the rewards of spiritual poverty because they have little or nothing to lose materially. Some of the most joy-filled and well-adjusted people I’ve ever known are some of the poorest in terms of money and possessions.
The way to joy and gladness lies in living a humble, simple life driven not by wants and desires for things of the world, but rather by a constant attitude of gratitude and contentment both with what we have and don’t have.