Blessed are the Poor in Spirit
Many of you may already be familiar with Lough Derg in Co. Donegal – the site of a renowned three-day pilgrimage involving bare feet, strict fasting, and no sleep for 24 hours. Some of you, like me, may even have worked there for a time. I would observe people undertaking the pilgrimage day in day out, while a silent war waged wildly within me: ‘No, doing the pilgrimage would be a really bad idea, no question about it’ I would obstinately say. You could nearly imagine the saints of heaven (especially St. Patrick!) – raising their eyebrows at this – and directing my attention to the little old ladies in their eighties who had been doing the pilgrimage every year for decades and had remarkably emerged unscathed.
One day during my second summer working there, I finally conceded. But I plaintively prayed beforehand, ‘Lord, you have to help me.’ Every time I felt my energy waning due to lack of sleep and food, I called on Him. Anytime I felt remotely discouraged, I called on Him. For possibly the first time since I started walking intentionally with Him, I relied on Him completely.
I entirely expected that the pilgrimage would make me miserable. Instead, it filled me with incredible joy, deeper than anything I had ever experienced before. By its conclusion, I knew unwaveringly that God was teaching me deeply important about the spiritual life: poverty of spirit is invaluable.
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt 5:3). Such were Jesus’ words in His famous Sermon on the Mount. Out of nine Beatitudes, this was the first.
Let us be clear: Poverty of spirit does not mean being downtrodden or lacking in courage; it does not mean a state of material poverty; neither does it allude to a spiritual life that is somehow inadequate or lacking. What it DOES mean is that in our hearts, we recognise – and live from – our utter dependence on God. We recognise that every good thing we have comes from Him and is ultimately for His glory; that not even a moment passes where we are not in need of His love and mercy; and that even the reality of our existence flows from Him. We recognise that the source of our strength is never us – never our talents, abilities, achievements or status – but God alone. ‘The joy of the Lord is my strength’ (Neh 8:10). Poverty of spirit opens our hearts to God. Prayer imbued with poverty of spirit burns with great love and charity. Poverty of spirit is inherently transformative.
Admittedly, there is certainly a sense that having poverty of spirit means emptying ourselves of self. On Lough Derg, you certainly deny yourself good things – sleep, food, shoes, comfort – but I, for one, was amazed at how liberating that was. We ‘empty’ ourselves not in a bid to demean or degrade our wonderful humanity, but to rid ourselves of anything in us that acts as a barrier to love – and freedom. I feared the impact of going without sleep, food and comfort, yet for those three days, I was blissfully free of that fear. I became like a little child – and God delighted in it.
Back in the world, it is much more challenging to preserve and maintain true poverty of spirit. Self-sufficiency is highly prized in today’s world, to the extent that precious few – even the most stalwart of disciples – manage to evade its lure. We like to think we have everything under control. We like believing we have what it takes to get us through. But only God is our true source of strength; and in that realisation is great joy. It takes the pressure off, for one: So what if I’m not in control? God’s got this -way better than I ever could: ‘The Lord will fight for you…you have only to be still’ (Ex 14:14).
You are our rock, our strength, our stronghold.
By Your grace, may we practise true poverty of spirit,
So that in entrusting everything to You,
We may find great joy and peace.
Through Christ Jesus our Lord,