Blessed are they who have nothing to lock up.
— Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
The monks of the Egyptian desert in the fourth century described some who came to visit them as “visitors from Jerusalem,” others as “visitors from Babylon.” It was their way of distinguishing pilgrim from tourist. The tourist is seeking new sights, a glimpse of life in another part of the world, sometimes courting adventure, or perhaps just the experience of an exotic location. The pilgrim is seeking God.
Inside Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher (or Church of the Resurrection, as Orthodox Christians call it), my wife once found herself standing on a borderline between tourists and pilgrims while she was waiting in line to enter the tomb in which Christ was buried. Before her was an American couple who had come as part of a tour but whose guide apparently hadn’t made clear why they were being shown a small chapel under a huge dome in an ancient church. “Maybe it’s where he was born,” the wife said. “No,” said her husband, “that was yesterday, in Bethlehem.” “Oh yes. But then what is it?” Her husband didn’t know. Finally it was their turn to go inside. The wife did what she had seen others ahead of her do — kneel by a stone slab inside the narrow enclosure while her husband took a photograph. But in front of what?
Meanwhile behind Nancy were several older Greek women, all in black, each holding a clutch of candles like a bouquet of flowers, none of them saying a word, tears streaming down their faces. They knew exactly where they were. Behind them, on what was then a small hill just outside the city walls, Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, had been crucified, while in front of them was the actual place where his dead body had been put in a sealed tomb and left under Roman guard, the place where he rose from the dead. They were inching their way toward the Resurrection, history’s central event, the axis on which the church’s calendar turns and with it their own lives.
In the Age of Tourism, how do we become pilgrims?
The answer is the day-by-day practice of poverty of spirit, the first rung of the ladder of the beatitudes. Poverty of spirit is the essential beginning, the context of discipleship. Without it we cannot begin to follow Christ.
What does poverty of spirit mean? It is my awareness that I cannot save myself, that I am basically defenseless, that neither money nor power will spare me from suffering and death, and that no matter what I achieve and acquire in this life, it will be far less than I wanted. Poverty of spirit is my awareness that I need God’s help and mercy more than I need anything else. Poverty of spirit is getting free of the rule of fear, fear being the great force which restrains us from acts of love. Being poor in spirit means letting go of the myth that the more I possess, the happier I’ll be. It is an outlook summed up in a French proverb: “When you die, you carry in your clutched hand only what you gave away.” Poverty of spirit is a letting go of self and of all that keeps you locked in yourself.
“The first beatitude,” comments Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, “stands at the threshold of the Kingdom of God . . . Blessed are those who have understood that they are nothing in themselves, possess nothing that they dare call ‘their own’. If they are ‘something’, it is because they are loved of God and because they know for certain that their worth in God’s eyes can be measured by the humiliation of the Son of God.” [From the foreword of The Wisdom of the Desert, Apophthemegmata Patrum, translated by Benedicta Ward; London: Mowbray, revised edition, 1984, p xiv.]
Poverty of any kind is little praised beyond the Bible.
“Poverty is a great enemy to human happiness,” Samuel Johnson warned James Boswell, “for it certainly destroys liberty, and it makes some virtues impracticable, and others extremely difficult.” Johnson only gives a fine polish to advice which has been handed down for countless generations. In one wing of my family it is summed up in a joke — “Rich or poor, it’s best to have money.”
“What this century worships is wealth,” wrote Oscar Wilde in his play, An Ideal Husband. “The God of this century is wealth. To succeed one must have wealth. At all costs one must have wealth.”
“Food, clothing, fuel, rent, taxes, respectability and children,” George Bernard Shaw has Undershaft declare in his play Major Barbara, “nothing can lift those seven millstones from Man’s neck but money; and the spirit cannot soar until the millstones are lifted.” Shaw’s subject was how unbearably tempting money is even to preachers who sing the praises of poverty.
The first beatitude, pointing as it does in the opposite direction, is a permanent thorn in our sides. For twenty centuries men and women, some of them theologians, have been searching for a loophole.
One of the most popular is simply to bracket the beatitudes, along with anything else in the New Testament which seems impractical, as a “counsel of perfection,” advice for monks and nuns, something for the occasional Saint Francis or Mother Theresa rather than the ordinary person. But if one can be a Christian without taking seriously the teachings or example of Christ, the word “Christian” no longer means “a follower of Christ.”
Another approach has been to spiritualize the text: “Jesus of Nazareth was indifferent to material possessions. He didn’t care whether or not his followers were rich or poor. It simply wasn’t important. Only one thing was important — the person’s attitude.”
This approach at least has the virtue of taking the text seriously even if shifting the stress. After all, Christ speaks of “poverty of spirit.” Clearly attitude matters. The poverty Christ calls blessed is useless if it is resented or hated. The person who is poor but is obsessed with what he wishes he owned has become a billionaire in his fantasy life. He may be poor according to economists, but he isn’t poor in spirit.
But is Jesus neutral to wealth itself and only concerned about one’s attitude toward riches? When you look further in the Gospels to see what else he has to say about money, you find Christ never encourages the pursuit of wealth. Elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount, he teaches, “But seek for yourselves treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust corrupt and where thieves do not break in or steal.” (Mt 6:19) On another occasion he warns his disciples that it is “easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven,” only adding the consoling words to his anxious listeners that “anything is possible with God.” (Mt 19:24)
Again and again Saint Matthew, a man who had himself been wealthy, draws attention to those words of Jesus which saved him from devoting his life to acquiring and protecting money.
The Greek word used for “poor” in the first beatitude — ptochos — refers not just to a person who possesses very little but someone who is destitute. There is a different word — penes — for a person who has the basic necessities: no luxuries, no savings, nothing superfluous, but is not in debt. He lives from the honest work of his hands and enjoys the respect of his neighbors, while a destitute person has been reduced to begging and has, as Jesus said of himself, “no place to lay his head.” (Mt 8:20)
The state of need Christ describes is urgent and absolute, the desperate condition of need of someone at the very bottom. A good translation of the first beatitude into modern English is, “Blessed are the beggars in spirit…”
Does the first beatitude mean that to follow Christ one has to dispossess himself of everything and become voluntarily destitute?
That depends on what God requires. It is a life-by-life question. There is no one-size-fits-all Christian vocation.
Among the saints, one easily finds those who owned close to nothing and would without hesitation give away what little they still possessed.
One of the Egyptian Desert Fathers sold his most precious possession, his Bible, in order to have alms for the poor, explaining, “I have sold the book which told me ‘sell what you have and give it to the poor'” (Mt 19:21). Among the saints there are those who gave away the last stitch of clothing, becoming as naked as Adam and Eve — like Saint Basil, a Holy Fool of Moscow after whom Russia’s most famous cathedral is named. [See chapter on Holy Fools in
Praying With Icons by Jim Forest (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997)]
But sanctity is not the sum of the would-be saint’s empty pockets. There have been many whose feats of asceticism were displays more of pride than of poverty of spirit. Early in his monastic life, John the Dwarf announced to a brother that he was going deeper into the Egyptian desert, declaring that from now on he would live like an angel. Several days later, close to starvation, John knocked again on the brother’s door. “Who is there?” asked the brother. “John.” “No, it can’t be John,” said the brother. “John is now an angel — he no longer needs food and shelter.” Only then did he open his door to the chagrined and hungry John. The chastened monk embraced a humbler, more ordinary poverty. [Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (New York: New Directions, 1961), pp 41-2]
The exterior forms of poverty vary from person to person and even from year to year in a particular life. Neither Christ nor the Apostles went naked — we find Christ without clothing in public only on two occasions in his adult life: his baptism and his crucifixion.
Other than Christ himself, Christ’s mother is the paradigm of poverty of spirit. Her unconditional assent to the will of God is a model for every Christian: “Be it done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). She is quietly present at every step along the way and with the Apostles after Pentecost. At the marriage feast at Cana, after drawing her son’s attention to the fact that there was no more wine, she instructs the servants of the feast, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5) This is her advice to all who follow her son. Whenever we defer our will to the will of God, we open ourselves to God’s transforming power, just as she did.
Dorothy Day, a saint of hospitality and a writer who often recommended voluntary poverty to readers of The Catholic Worker, wore hand-me-down suits and struggled to own as little as possible. “Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor are atheists indeed,” she often said. She was distressed about the irritation she felt when her books were borrowed and not returned — “I am too attached to my library,” she confessed to me more than once. The impressive thing is that this attachment did not cause her to live a life in which her books would have been less likely to disappear.
Another saint of recent times was the Russian Orthodox nun, Mother Maria Skobtsova, whose house of hospitality in Paris opened its door to anyone in need. Her assistance to Jews during the time of the Nazi occupation led to her arrest and later to death in the gas chamber at the Ravensbrück. She saw each person as “the very icon of God incarnate in the world” and sought “to accept this awesome revelation of God unconditionally, to venerate the image of God” in everyone in need. Her personal possessions fit into one suitcase; her bedroom was a corner in the basement.
Saint Francis of Assisi spoke of having “Sister Poverty” as his bride. “Holy Poverty,” he wrote in his Salutation of the Virtues, “destroys the desire of riches and avarice and the cares of this world.” [Francis and Clare: The Complete Works, translation and introduction by Regis J. Armstrong, O.F.M. Cap., and Ignatius C. Brady, O.F.M. (Ramsey, NJ: Paulist Press, 1982), p 152.] He was convinced that voluntary poverty was the only way to overcome war and give witness to the peace of Christ. His robe — a patchwork quilt of rags — is still preserved at the basilica in Assisi.
Henry David Thoreau was no Christian missionary, but he had a Franciscan sensibility about the problem of wealth. As he wrote in Walden in the chapter on economy: “How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and wood-lot! The portionless, who struggle with no such unnecessary inherited encumbrances, find it labor enough to subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh.”
Mother Theresa of Calcutta owned two saris, a rosary, a Bible and a few prayer books. We know her not for what she possessed but what she did — the many years she spent creating communities to care for dying people abandoned by others and to give assistance to pregnant women under pressure to abort their unborn children. She regarded the greatest poverty not as something material but as lack of faith and being closed in on oneself.
Far more often than not, saints had little personal property and what they possessed, they held lightly. Yet there are also other saints who, at least for a substantial part of their lives, possessed a great deal and lived in comfort, rarely worrying about a roof over their heads or a pillow under it. As Saint Leo the Great observed: “While it cannot be doubted that poverty of spirit is more easily acquired by the poor than the rich, for submissiveness is the companion of those in want, even in many of the rich is found that spirit which uses its abundance not for the increasing of its pride but on works of mercy, regarding as the highest profit that which it expends in the relief of others’ hardships.” [St. Leo the Great, Homily XCV, “On the Beatitudes.”]
Saint Thomas More, a chancellor of England during the reign of Henry VIII, owned a large and handsome house and was waited on by servants until he was made a prisoner in the Tower of London. Finally he was beheaded for his opposition to the king’s divorce of his first wife. He had been a generous man but not a poor one until poverty and confinement were forced upon him. More’s lively spirit and inner freedom even while a prisoner is revealed in an exchange when More was being tried. Lord Rich said to him, “You know that if you won’t take an oath to the King, then you are going to have to leave behind your lovely home in Chelsea and your wife and your children and it’s only a question of taking an oath, otherwise you will die.” More replied: “I die today, my Lord, and you die tomorrow.”
One of the widely revered saints of the Orthodox Church, Prince Vladimir of Kiev, led the people of early Russia to baptism in the year 988. Before his conversion Vladimir was far from saintly; Saint Nestor, in his Chronicle, described him as a man who had been “insatiable in vice.” The Slavic people regard him as a saint not only for bringing the people of Kiev to the Dnieper River for baptism but because, following his conversion, he himself gave a heroic example of what it meant to follow Christ. He became renowned for his care of the poor, of orphans and the sick. The palace gates were opened to the hungry. He built hospices for the aged. He banned torture and executions. Yet he lived in a palace and dressed like the royalty he was.
Two of his sons, rather than shed the blood of an ambitious brother, chose to die without defending themselves. The young princes, Boris and Gleb, were the first Russians to be recognized as saints. Yet they too had been finely dressed and had known royal comforts.
One could fill a library with books about saints who lived in fine houses and had wine with their meals, and a still larger library with the lives of saints who counted it wealth to sleep on a straw-filled mattress and eat a piece of stale bread from time to time. Their superficial differences are stunning, yet when you look closely at the life of any saint, you discover what they had or didn’t have was part of their particular obedience to Christ. All the saints are linked by poverty of spirit. All the saints lived an ascetic life. All of them approached God in a state of destitution, seeking as a matter of life or death to know God’s will in their lives and to live it, for God not only creates us but gives each of us a unique identity, a unique responsibility, a unique path to follow on the way to heaven. Poverty of spirit — the condition of being a spiritual beggar — is seeking to live God’s will rather than one’s own.
For most of us, our vocational obedience involves responsibility for material objects as well as earning and spending money. The vocation of parenthood involves many years of caring for the lives of children, trying to provide both for their physical and spiritual needs. Few people do not require certain tools, a place to live, and a variety of possessions. If you are a plumber or mechanic, there are tools which are essential to your work. If you are a scholar, you will need a substantial library or access to one. Nor are the possessions we need only connected to our work; they may also be connected to spiritual and intellectual growth.
What is crucial is the way we possess what we possess, the care we take not to let possessions take ownership of our souls, and how we use what we have to express God’s mercy.
The underlying questions are: What is of ultimate significance in our lives? Our own comfort and reputation? Our own importance? Or the love of God and caring for those around us? One way or another, how we relate to material objects reveals who we are, the condition of our soul, and whether we are citizens of heaven or hell.
One of the great saints of the Egyptian desert, Abba Dorotheos, told a story which reveals poverty of spirit in such a way that an Alexandrian of great importance was able to grasp it:
I remember once we had a conversation about humility. One of the notable citizens of the city was amazed on hearing our words that the nearer one draws to God, the more he sees himself to be a sinner. Not understanding, he asked, “How can this be?” I said to him: “Notable citizen, tell me how do you rank yourself in your own city?” He answered: “I regard myself as first in the city.” I say to him, “If you should go to Caesarea, how would you regard yourself there? He answered, “As the least of the civic leaders there.” Then I asked, “And if you should travel to Antioch, how would you regard yourself there?” “There,” he answered, “I would consider myself as one of the common people.” “And if,” I asked, “you should go to Constantinople and approach the Emperor, how would you see yourself there?” And he answered: “Almost as nothing.” Then I answered him, “So it is also with the saints. The nearer they draw to God, the more they see themselves to be sinners.”
…for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
We are joined to one another and to Christ like flour in a loaf.
— Saint John Chrysostom, “On I Corinthians,” XXI, 4
Notice that Christ uses the present tense, not the future — it isn’t “theirs will be the kingdom of heaven” but “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Because of the Jewish aversion to speaking directly of the Creator as God, Saint Matthew consistently uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven.” The other three Gospel authors speak of the “kingdom of God.” The meaning in all four Gospels is the same.)
The cartoon image of heaven — a domain in the clouds whose residents, having retired from earthly existence and having lived more-or-less virtuous lives, are rewarded with white robes, angel wings and golden harps — is almost as uninviting as the usual stereotype of hell: a cavern in a volcano occupied by naked people being tormented by demons. At least this image of hell has a biblical basis: Christ speaks of hell as “an unquenchable fire.” (Mk 9:42) But a heaven of clouds, harps and bathrobes has no connection to the Gospel.
This past summer Nancy and I found vivid imagery of heaven and hell when we camped near the town of Autun in the countryside southwest of Dijon in France. Here, in the 12th century Cathedral of Saint Lazarus, are some of the finest carvings made in the Romanesque era, the work of a man named Giselbertus who left us nothing but his vision of the Gospel. The most impressive carving of all is the large tympanum over the church entrance in which, within a wide half-circle, Giselbertus offers a deeply insightful vision of the Last Judgment.
At the center, far larger than any other figure, is Christ enthroned within an angel-borne oval which gives a symbolic shape to eternity and the kingdom of heaven. His arms are opened in a simple gesture of greeting, as if saying, “Welcome, you blessed of my Father, into the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world…” (Mt 25:34)
The sun and moon are to the right and left of his face, Mary, his mother, is enthroned to one side, while beneath her is a group of Apostles. On the other side there is a large scale on which a man is being weighed while a hideous devil struggles to tilt the scale in hell’s favor. Meanwhile a lithe angel in fluted robes, with the lightest touch, overcomes Satan’s effort.
At the lowest level of the tympanum, beneath Christ’s feet and stretching the full width of the church’s central doors, is a long row of people standing on their coffins, freshly raised from the dead. A sword-bearing angel at the center of the figures looks with sorrow rather than outrage toward the wretched figures on the right whose lives have brought them damnation. Each of the damned seems closed in on himself, fascinated with his own misery. The remarkable thing is that not one of them notices Christ. They didn’t see him in life and don’t see him in the afterlife either.
In contrast, all the saved but one are looking in enraptured amazement toward Christ; the one exception, a child, points at Christ with one hand while telling a guardian angel what he has seen.
The Gospel according to Giselbertus is that we are in heaven whenever we see Christ or are aware of his presence. Heaven is participation in God’s being. It is seeing what has always been close at hand, what was always at the heart of reality, but somehow was barely recognized, glimpsed “as through a glass darkly.” (I Cor 13:12)
We learn from the first beatitude that those whose treasure is God are already within the borders of the kingdom of heaven. “All the way to heaven is heaven,” said the great mystic Saint Catherine of Siena, “because he said, ‘I am the way.'” It is similar to the medieval proverb of pilgrims walking to holy places: “If you do not travel with him whom you seek, you will not find him at the end of your journey.”
“What do you mean when you speak about the kingdom of heaven?” The disciples must often have asked this question because the Gospel is so full of his answers.
Christ responds with parables, one of the longest being about forgiveness. He says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.” The story centers on a slave who owed the king a fortune, ten thousand talents — a way of saying he owed an unpayable amount; one talent was worth more than a laborer earned in 15 years. The king says he is going to sell the slave along with all his family and possessions, but the slave falls to his knees, begs the king’s patience, and is forgiven his debt. Immediately afterward, the slave encounters a man who owes him a hundred denarii (one denarius was the wage a laborer received for day’s work). The man with the smaller debt begs patience, promising he will repay, but the appeal is refused and the man is sent to prison. Hearing what happened, the king chastises the debtor he had forgiven: “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” The enraged king orders the unforgiving man punished until his own debt is paid. Christ concludes the parable saying, “So my heavenly Father will do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Mt 18:21-35)
It is impossible to miss the point. The kingdom of heaven exists wherever one person forgives another, and not superficially, but “from the heart.” The kingdom of heaven is wherever mercy rules rather than vengeance.
Elsewhere in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven with a mustard seed. From the smallest of seeds springs up a shrub so big that “birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Mt 13:31-32) Then comes a similar image: the kingdom of heaven it is “like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” (Mt 13:33)
A tiny seed, a small measure of yeast, a pinch of salt, a spark of light in the darkness — tiny things are capable of vast expansion and a transforming effect.
Christ says the kingdom of heaven is like “a treasure hidden in a field” for which the joyful finder sells everything in order to own that field.” (Mt 13:43) Or it is like “a pearl of great value” for which one would sell everything in order to obtain it. (Mt 13:44) The awareness of God’s presence is “the buried treasure” and “the pearl of great price.” We enter the kingdom of heaven when nothing is more important than the absolute beauty of God.
In another parable from Saint Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus teaches that the “kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seeds in his field, but while everyone was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat.” The owner of the field orders his workers to leave the weeds alone so that they will not accidentally uproot any of the wheat, instructing them to wait until the harvest, then separate the weeds and burn them. (Mt 13:24-30) Later he uses a similar metaphor — the kingdom of heaven is like “a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.” Only after catching them are those worth keeping separated from those which are worthless. (Mt 13:34) Both metaphors focus on God’s patience, letting weeds grow with wheat in the field and gathering every sort of fish in the same net. We are living in the kingdom of God when we respect the lives of those around us no matter what they are like.
Drawing on a range of simple images, Jesus teaches his disciples that we enter the kingdom of heaven when we allow God’s forgiveness, patience and mercy to shape our response to others. The kingdom of heaven exists when we refuse to destroy or punish, leaving punishment to God at the Last Judgment.
In Saint Luke’s Gospel, a group of Pharisees asks Jesus when the kingdom of God is coming. He responds, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For in fact the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:20-21) Saint Paul says something similar in his letter the Colossian Church: “The Father has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” (Col 1:13) The kingdom of God is simply life in Christ — not a concept of Christ or trying to live according to principles we think of as Christian, but living in his presence, being aware of him in the things and people which surround us, no matter where we are. We understand that our obedience is to Christ and that all other demands made on our lives and resources are to be respected only if they are not in conflict with the commandments of Christ.
There is a story told by the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko that gives us a glimpse of a sudden experience of the kingdom of heaven — in Russia, in the midst of war, with Stalin ruling from the Kremlin, and Hitler’s armies pushing eastward.
In 1944, Yevtushenko’s mother took him from Siberia to Moscow. They were in the huge crowd which witnessed a procession of twenty-thousand German prisoners of war being marched across Red Square.
Yevtushenko recalls in his autobiography:
The pavements swarmed with onlookers, cordoned off by soldiers and police. The crowd was mostly women — Russian women with hands roughened by hard work, lips untouched by lipstick, and with thin hunched shoulders which had borne half of the burden of the war. Every one of them must have had a father or a husband, a brother or a son killed by the Germans. They gazed with hatred in the direction from which the column was to appear.
At last we saw it. The generals marched at the head, massive chins stuck out, lips folded disdainfully, their whole demeanor meant to show superiority over their plebeian victors. “They smell of perfume, the bastards,” someone in the crowd said with hatred. The women were clenching their fists. The soldiers and policemen had all they could do to hold them back.
All at once something happened to them. They saw German soldiers, thin, unshaven, wearing dirty blood-stained bandages, hobbling on crutches or leaning on the shoulders of their comrades; the soldiers walked with their heads down. The street became dead silent — the only sound was the shuffling of boots and the thumping of crutches.
Then I saw an elderly woman in broken-down boots push herself forward and touch a policeman’s shoulder, saying, “Let me through.” There must have been something about her which made him step aside. She went up to the column, took from inside her coat something wrapped in a colored handkerchief and unfolded it. It was a crust of black bread. She pushed it awkwardly into the pocket of a soldier, so exhausted that he was tottering on his feet. And now from every side women were running toward the soldiers, pushing into their hands bread, cigarettes, whatever they had. The soldiers were no longer enemies. They were people.”
[Yevgeny Yevtushenko, A Precocious Autobiography (New York: Dutton, 1963).]
This is the sort of story most history books pass over — miraculous moments when enmity is replaced by mercy, compassion opens the way to actions of healing and forgiveness, and plain poverty becomes poverty of spirit. The gesture of a single old woman broke through what Saint Paul describes as “the dividing wall of enmity.” (Eph 2:14) Her eyes had been opened to see suffering German boys rather than murderous Nazi soldiers. Her response was to give away what little she had, a carefully saved piece of black bread. Afterward was she surprised by what she did and the flood of gifts others had made in the wake of her small gesture of love? It was a moment when the kingdom of heaven flooded across Red Square.