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Poverty of Spirit

As they do every third year, the Beatitudes sneak up upon us as the Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time. And everyone, especially my age, has heard or read the Beatitudes and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount not just once but at least a bazilion times. But have we been very good at understanding, let alone following them?

Several famous early Doctors of the Church saw the Beatitudes as a Stairway of Conversion, eight or nine steps of growing closer to Christ, to becoming the kind of people God wants us to be by grace. The first three steps—poverty of spirit, mourning, and meekness—involve detachment from the world, from sin, and from self. The fourth step, after these emptying steps of detachment, involves filling up the resultant void by hungering and thirsting for righteousness, or attaching oneself to that which is right, true, and beautiful. In the process of these first four steps, we discover how truly merciful God has been to us by grace.

This leads us to the fifth step of being equally as merciful to others. As a result of these steps of detachment, reattachment, and mercy, we reach the sixth step of purity of heart—our inner being grows in perfection. The seventh step involves stepping outside of ourselves to be a messenger of Christ in the world around us, even if (step eight) it brings persecution for standing up for what is true, or (step nine) for standing up specifically in the name of Christ. (If you’re interested in reading a more detailed explanation of this, click here.)

The question arises, though, if this view was so widely held amongst the early Church Doctors, why was it essentially forgotten for centuries, until these early writings became more readily available? Was this interpretation merely a passing theological whim, lost beneath centuries of theological, philosophical, and spiritual debates?

There may be many explanations, but I would suggest that the main reason lies in the difficulty of the very first step: poverty of spirit, or detachment from the world. What does this really mean, and how does one do it, especially in the context of our technological and digital, materialistic and hedonistic twenty-first century? Please allow me to attempt this as simply and cleanly as possible (frankly, any deeper and I’m beyond my pay grade).

With all the definitions of detachment we may have heard (or not heard) throughout our lifetime, I would propose that true detachment involves living out the Two Ways through the discipline of our senses, culminating in the conversion of heart. Allow me to explain.

The simplest way to understand all of Scripture, all of salvation history, and all of our lives from birth to death and judgement, is through the hermeneutic of the Two Ways. If one has “eyes to see and ears to hear”, one can detect it running throughout Scripture, behind every psalm or proverb, covenant, law, statute, or commandment; it’s woven in and through Christ’s Sermon on the Mount and all of His teachings; it’s there in every New Testament epistle; and it’s essentially there from beginning to end in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Basically our loving, merciful Creator God, from the beginning, has said to His created sons and daughters—and put within the conscience of every person who’s ever lived—that there are Two Ways we can follow, most often called the Righteous Way or the Wicked Way. We can turn, by grace through faith, to follow His way, or we can turn away, rejecting grace, to follow our own way, or maybe someone else’s way other than that of our Creator God. To put it crudely, as a frustrated dad might say to a rebellious son, “It’s either my way, or the highway.”

One of the earliest Christian writings outside of the New Testament, called the Didache, described these Two Ways in detail. The author called them the Way of Life and the Way of Death, giving a detailed list of the do’s and don’t’s of either Way. (One can read the Didache here.)

But the most interesting thing one discovers, through careful reflection on Scripture, is that the primary means by which one follows either the Righteous or the Wicked way is through what one does with one’s bodily senses: with one’s eyes, ears, lips, hands, feet, one’s whole body, leading to what fills one’s mind and heart.

For example, here’s just a taste of the hundreds of Scriptures suggesting this:

“for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish” (Psalm 1:6).

“But my eyes are toward thee, O LORD God; in thee I seek refuge; leave me not defenseless!” (Ps. 141:8)

“He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly, who despises the gain of oppressions, who shakes his hands, lest they hold a bribe, who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed and shuts his eyes from looking upon evil” (Isaiah 33:15).

“I said, ‘I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue; I will bridle my mouth, so long as the wicked are in my presence'” (Ps 39:1).

“Take heed to the path of your feet, then all your ways will be sure” (Proverbs 4:26).

“And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell” (James 3:6).

“I the LORD search the mind and try the heart, to give to every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings” (Jeremiah 17:10).

Why did our Lord use such strong hyperbole when he warned that it would be better to have one’s right hand cut off or right eye plucked out than to sin with either of these organs? Because it is through what a person does with his eyes, ears, lips, hands, feet, mind, body, and ultimately heart, that determines whether by grace he has chosen to turn, follow, and attach himself to God’s Righteous Way, or to have turned away—turning his back on God.

The unanimous witness of Scripture, Old and New, is that when we turn away from God, rejecting His Righteous Way for the Wicked Way, we bring upon ourselves His wrath. We hear this from St. Paul in his letter to the Christians in Rome:

“But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.” (Romans 2:5-8)

There are many ways to understand this, but essentially this happens because when we walk in the Righteous Way, we move closer to Him, we walk with Him, beside Him, and in the process, we come to know Him more intimately, and He comes to know us. But when we turn away and walk away from Him, putting distance between us, we grow to know Him less, and He us. When we walk with Him, He can help us; when we turn away, well, in His love for us, He yet respects our freedom. We see this most clearly illustrated in our Lord’s parable of the Prodigal Sons.

Towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount, there’s a troubling passage that many readers just skip over and ignore. But Jesus warned:

“Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.'” (Matthew 7:21-23)

“I never knew you.” A person can appear to be walking the Righteous Way through his good deeds, his endless seemingly selfless acts, even through his diligent practice of the rituals and disciplines of his particular religious tradition, but if otherwise, his eyes, ears, mouth, hands, feet, whole being, mind, and heart are not really on the path towards God, then there is no real relationship; they’re not walking together, and they never really come to know each other. Lord, help us.

“I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault …”

So, what is detachment, but turning our eyes, ears, lips, hands, feet, our whole being, our mind and heart, away from things that are not of God, turning all that we are back into God’s direction, and by grace attaching ourselves to Him: seeing the things He wants us to focus our eyes upon; listening to what He wants us to hear; and the same with all of our senses, so that in time our bodies become, as Paul claimed, “living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1). Paul goes on to describe this detachment from the Wicked Way and turning to the Righteous Way, when he says: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).

What today are our eyes attached to? What do we mostly see day in, day out? Or listen to? Or what are we doing with our hands? There are things we use our hands for that the writers of Scripture and the early Doctors never imagined: remote controls, keyboards, and mice. And what are we doing with our feet? Where do they take us? And again, our feet are being carried along in ways our ancestors never imagined—on bicycles, cars, trains, airplanes, skateboards, Segways, etc.. Where do we choose to go with the time God’s given us?

This is detachment. To some extent, it’s not as crucial whether we live in the largest mansion in America or in a “van down by the river”, because a poor man’s senses and heart can be obsessed with gaining wealth for himself, while a rich man’s senses and heart can be focused on using his wealth for the needs of the world.

What’s most important is to what or to whom our senses, our whole being, and consequently our hearts, are attached. This is why Jesus warned in His Sermon that we cannot serve two masters, God and mammon: we can’t walk along two contradictory paths. It’s either His Way, or none at all.

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