The Blessings of Poverty

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Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:3

Strictly speaking, poverty—a lack of goods—is not good. As with each of the beatitudes, our Lord’s blessing of those who are “poor” (Lk. 6:20), or even “poor in spirit,” contains a paradox.

Come to think of it, a paradox—an apparent contradiction, under which is veiled a vital truth—is a kind of poverty: poverty in understanding. Confronting this particular paradox may help us to understand why poverty of spirit is the first of Christianity’s foundational blessings.

Socrates taught that the beginning of wisdom is the knowledge of our own ignorance. As those struggling with addictions are likely to hear, it is only when we know we are lacking something—and know the goodness of what we lack—that we become disposed to seek it with all of our heart, soul and mind.

This paradox, like others, is a reminder that we lack something essential, and a pointer as to where we might find it.

Poverty of spirit, Fr. Jeffrey Kirby explains, means “surrendering to our need for God.” This surrender has two facets, each of which is crucial to the blessings this beatitude holds in store.

First, we must recognize that without God we can do nothing. Every attempt to find happiness by micromanaging our own lives—not to mention the lives of others—is doomed to fail. If we are scandalized by these failures, wisdom begins by recognizing that the very formula by which we thought we could save ourselves was faulty from the start.

Second, we must recognize that God himself is the one thing we truly need. As Christians, we cannot expect to find happiness in “leisure or comfort.” Though material and social advantages are not intrinsically bad, and though suffering is not a blessing in itself, suffering is a reminder that the other goods which we crave, or to which we cling, are nothing in comparison with the Giver of all gifts, who is himself the greatest gift of all.

When we recognize that God is the only essential good, we become capable of practicing detachment from all other goods. In some cases, we may simply abandon them. In others, we may acquire and possess them, but with a constant will to use them as God desires us to use them, for his glory and the salvation of souls.

Among other fruits of the spirit of poverty, Fr. Kirby notes that this beatitude empowers us “to speak the truth in love and to undergo any persecution for the sake of goodness and beauty.”

For nothing we can lose by speaking (and doing) truth is anything in comparison to “the kingdom of heaven,” whose gates are wide open to those whom Truth himself has blessed.

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