Poverty of Spirit

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On the virtue of Poverty of Spirit

by Gerald Vann, OP

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There is a sort of infinity in man, because of his power not only to become in a manner all things, but even, by the gift of God to become one with the Maker of all things. To have our lives thus infinitely enlarged is to be happy; so it is of this that the beatitudes tell us. But we must start at the beginning. They are grouped in an ascending order: not that as we progress from one to another we leave behind us those that have gone before — all of them are always valid, always necessary—but unless we can succeed in achieving the earlier we shall never achieve the latter. If we cannot be right on our attitudes to things we shall never be right in our attitude to anything.

Man is made to be fulfilled to infinity. But for that he must walk as a child with God, he must be able to receive His life, he must know and love and serve Him; and all this is made difficult, and with out God’s restoring power impossible, because of the fact of sin.

Sin destroys the child. Instead of docility, which makes love and therefore oneness possible, there is pride of attempted autonomy, the will to be one’s own master, which is the state of isolation from God. Isolation from God’s family follows. For the proud man who sets out to be master of the world can never love the world; you have the kingdom not of the God of love but of Mammon; you have, not the oneness of knowing and loving and serving, but the chaos which follows from attempting to treat all things as your own creatures, as utilities merely, and to use all things and animals and men and even God Himself, simply as means to your own profit or pleasure. So you have the man who possesses all things but has nothing; and he has nothing because he is alone, isolated from God, isolated even from God’s creatures. What does it profit man to gain the whole world and yet remain thus estranged, imprisoned, frozen in the husk of his own selfhood? To live the life of Mammon is to be in Hell—for Hell, like Heaven, in the most important sense is not so much where you go as what you become, even in this life it is to be bereft of God.

The first step on the road to happiness is the escape from Mammon. Happy are the poor in spirit. I lose God, I lose the world, I lose myself, if I want only to clutch at things and use them for my own pleasure or profit. So I must, through God’s mercy, repent, turn back again, be re-born. I must be “stripped of all things.”  I must learn the lesson of detachment.

Perhaps few things are more misunderstood than this idea of detachment. People sometimes think that it means not caring: it does but, as we have seen, only if you add that it means caring too. The detached man will care more for things than the avaricious and rapacious man; but he will care in a different way. He will not clutch and cling, in a self-worship; his possessions, his desires, his attachments, will not fetter his freedom and destroy his power of love, will not forever be an anxiety and an agitation of spirit. His is the prayer of the poet, “Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still,” and so he learns to be at peace.

God’s Handiwork

The first thing is to care; it is precisely what the rapacious man does not do. We cannot help wanting things; it is our nature; but what makes the difference is how we want, and how we express our want. Things are not just means; they are God’s handiwork, lovely in themselves, therefore, and to be treated with reverence. And they are one with us in the unity of God’s family; and so they are to be treated with love. And they are His creatures and not ours, and so they are to be used or enjoyed­ — they are to become possessions — only with the framework of His will. You do no harm to God or to things or to yourself if you use them or enjoy them according to their nature and His will for you, provided your attitude is one of love and reverence, provided you have first learned to see and love and serve, provided you have learned to care.

We lose the power to love and enjoy things as we should when we lose the power of vision; and we lose the power of vision when we lose the life of the child. When the visionary gleam fades into the light of common day we go on using things because we understand their utility, but more and more we forget that they are things in themselves, things of beauty; we forget to stop and look. But that is just what we must learn again to do: to stop and look at all the things that God has made that come our way, and say “How lovely you are;” but we must learn to say it as men living not in time only, but in eternal present, nor simply loving the things themselves, but with them praising the God of Whom they tell, conscious of their abidingness in His unchanging eternity, and conscious, too not only that their beauty is a reflection of His infinite Beauty, but that the invisible Beauty is within them and about them, hallowing them: vere locus iste sanctus est, truly this world is a holy place since the Holy has made it His home. It is that constant deep sense of the Presence that, if we can acquire it, will prevent our love of God’s creatures from distracting us from God. But we must learn, too, to see this inward beauty and holiness in the poor things, and ugly, and the things of mean repute, in the waifs and strays of the world, in the dull and colorless moments as well as in the moments of great joy. And we must learn to see each thing, each event, each fleeting moment, as forever abiding in the arms of God in the eternal present if we would learn to see them aright; for it is only thus that, to speak properly, we can learn to care.

But then if you care like this you learn also not to care. If you learn to see God in all things you learn to love them according to His will, not your own self-will. If you see things as in eternity you are less a prey to the pain of their passing, and so you can learn therefore easily not to clutch at them as they pass. If you see God in all things and all things in God you can learn to reverent and not proudly possessive. And where it is a question of legitimate possession and legitimate use—and these are measured by the end that God has set for you, your manner of life and the work you do and the needs of your being—then you will learn the more easily not to sin by excess or superfluity, nor to hold fast at all cost when God would take from you what He has given: you will learn the more easily not to care.

Freedom from Fear

Let’s think a little of the ways in which this caring and not caring is to be expressed. There is, of course, to begin with, the vice of avarice: there is the desire simply to amass as much as one can for one’s own ends, and to let nothing go. That way lies complete to slavery. But in smaller ways the same spirit can be discerned: the grudging lender, the man who covets and envies, the man who is proprietary about such things as he has, and ungenerous to the needs of others. To be poor in spirit is to be large-hearted and open-handed, to be not too much exercised about legitimate worldly purposes, to be, on the contrary, carefree about success or failure, because whichever it is it comes from God. To be poor in spirit is to have a childlike trust in Providence, and so to be freed from fear.

This freedom from fear is indeed the characteristic of those who have learned to care and not to care. To be grasping and possessive is to live always in anxiety and fear of loss: to live in the eternal present is to live in the love that drives out fear. Nihil me separabit—nothing can separate us from love if love is not what we have but what we are. The poet’s paradox ceases to be paradoxical if you see the different sense of the two words. Teach us to care: teach us the meaning of love. Teach us to not care: teach us not to worry, teach us to be free of the fetters of false love, false precisely because it thinks of loving in terms of a fleeting possession instead of an abiding life and oneness.

Saint Dominic on his deathbed said to his followers, “Possess poverty.”  It is not, if you understand it and practice it aright, a privation; but a perfection, the perfection of freedom. It is not, if you understand it aright, a question primarily of much or little: quantity is determined by the end in view. It is a question less of what you possess than of how you possess it. The apostle must be free of possessions in the literal sense because he must be free to be uprooted at a moment’s notice at the call of his work: he must be able to travel light, and light-heartedly; it was that, no doubt, that Saint Dominic had first in mind. But the mere absence of chattels is not enough: you can be lacking in poverty of spirit if you possess nothing more than a cloak or a book; you can be poor even though you posses an empire if, while saying, “all things are mine,” you add, “and I am Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.”

Again, you can have few material possessions, perhaps none, and no avarice of mind about them, and still be lacking in poverty in spirit. You must be carefree about everything that you have, material or otherwise. All the gifts that God gives us are things for which we must care and yet not care; we are only stewards. You have your own particular gifts and talents, of body and mind and heart: you must be open-handed with them, use them in your love and service of the world, and use them as God’s gift to you, so that you do not mind if what He has given the should take away: it is not your business, you are only a steward. You have the gifts He gives you to fill your heart and your worship of Him: the love He gives you for others, and the love He gives others for you; these, too, you must make part of your worship, and part of your love of His family: you are only a steward. You have the gifts He gives you of prayer and virtue, the help He gives you to climb the scale of perfection: and here, too, you must not grasp and worry and keep your eyes fixed always on yourself; you must do what you can at the present moment to make of these gifts a more perfect worship leaving to Him the question of progress or failure: you are only a steward.

You are only a steward of all you have and all that you are; a steward for God and for His family. But you are meant to be more than stewards of God’s things: you are meant to be lovers as well. If you hurt anything of the things that God had made—by lust, or tyranny, or blindness, or by using things in any way as mere means to your pleasure or profit—you hurt yourself and the world, because to that extent you continue to destroy the unity of the family. But if you love, and therefore can serve as well as use, can reverence as well as master; if you are contemplative and have learned to see and love instead of grabbing, and if your love is worship of God and not of yourself, if your love is as deep as the sea but as care-free as the wind, then you return to the integrity of God’s family, and, having nothing, you are at peace, because you have nothing to lose, and at the same time you possess all things, for yours is the kingdom.

Yours is the kingdom of heaven: even in this life it can be true. The desire to have lies deep in us—we are indeed compact of desire—but it is a desire for infinity, which the gaining of the whole world will not fulfill. The desire to have is deep in us: but it is really a misunderstanding if we think of it thus instead of as a desire to be. The heart is an infinite capacity and thirst for being: and we are never at rest until it is filled. And so we try to fill it by drawing many things towards us and making them ours, till the house is cluttered with furniture, and we cannot move, and still we are tormented. Blessed are the poor in spirit because they have seen that this is not the way, and have known that an infinity not of having but of being is the kingdom. See the immensity, even in this life, of the saints who having nothing, having no riches, no worldly power or influence, can yet draw all things to them not by force or fear but in love and homage, and so are filled: theirs is the kingdom which has no boundaries, theirs is the earth and sky and stars, and still more, the uncharted splendors of the light inaccessible; for they have learned what Mary learned, and chosen with her the better part: and it shall not be taken from them.

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