Tuesday 23 September 2014

Poverty of Spirit

          What does it mean to be poor in spirit, and what are its advantages? Certainly there are advantages deriving from that state, in terms of potential for spiritual growth and healing which does not need to be tied into religion unless it be so desired. Those questions have lain at the back of my mind for a long time, questions that have been constant companions nudging me towards some denouement that at times I would have preferred to have avoided. But this path I follow is all or nothing, and nothing is now almost unimaginable. And it will be recalled from an earlier essay, "Purity of Heart," that to be poor in spirit is one of the conditions given in the perennial philosophy for the direct apprehension of the one Reality.
          So let me return to the question of what it means to be poor in spirit. For me it represents an ego-state which, when compared with what has been called the Higher Self, is shown to be threadbare of truthful substance. It means to be spiritually beggarly, bankrupt, psycho-spiritually sick, poorly if you will. It is an existence within, not a living of, what I see as my life. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, and I agree. But it requires more than examination to turn the potential offered by poverty of spirit into something of real value. As it has been said, the attainment offered to the poor in spirit is the kingdom of God, a metaphor, perhaps, for the experience of that which is most fundamental to the healthy life of the spirit. What Jesus does not say in the 'beatitudes' is that the attainment of the metaphorical kingdom is not handed out on a plate. Work is required to turn that potential into something real.
          It seems to me that spiritual poverty occurs when the ego, my everyday consciousness, is cut off from my Higher Self. If, as some would claim, the Higher Self and God are one and the same, or at the very least intimately connected, then the loss of contact can deprive one of direct contact with God, the direct apprehension of the one Reality. Prolonged loss will inevitably lead to a form of insanity, a loss of right-mindedness. I find it of interest that the first thing St. John of the Cross talks about in his great spiritual treatise, "Ascent of Mount Carmel," is not a re-ordering of one's morality, and one's personality traits (that comes later) but a coming to terms with inordinate longings or cravings, obsessions and addictions, impulses not rightly ordered to a person's spiritual good. Coming to terms with anything requires both acknowledgement and acceptance.
          I count myself as fortunate in that the only drug to which I was addicted was nicotine. As a result, my "Dark Nights" were dealt with in reverse order from that given by St. John. In the end, what was important was not what order I chose, not what Saints Matthew and Mark said in the New Testament, not what Jesus might or might not have said or meant in that same testament, or elsewhere in the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, but what practical effort I chose to exert on this individual, in today's world, in the here and now. Of course, this presumes a prior knowledge of what those spiritual luminaries said and meant, an understanding which was denied me, until I had lived through the experience of spiritual recovery.
          As I have already said, compared with the life of the Higher Self, the life of the ego will always be one lived in poverty. There appears not to be absolute poverty here, but a growing awareness of comparative psycho-spiritual bankruptcy. Thus no matter how full and satisfying the life of my ego may seem to be, that of my Higher Self is so much more so. And that higher life can be brought down into consciousness, at least in part, through the practice of 'prayer and meditation', as it says in the Twelve Step programmes for spiritual recovery. Some might claim that poverty of spirit may not be a precondition for beginning the spiritual life. It was the case for me, as it has been for millions of people. I needed to be convinced of that poverty, otherwise why bother to change tack?
          Finally, it has been suggested by various commentators on the Bible that the poverty being referred to in the beatitudes was material poverty. Now I was raised in a family in which material poverty was a way of life. I can, therefore, say with absolute confidence that material poverty is not a state that has anything of value to recommend it. Material poverty does not turn the heart and soul towards matters spiritual, but towards ways and means of material survival. Before you can speak philosophy to a person you need first to fill the stomach. Only then is there time to deal with other matters.


  1. Tom, my interpretation of "Blessed are the poor in spirit" is different but I find your slant on it very thought-provoking. I always felt that 'poverty'in this context meant a deliberately chosen way of life in which possessions, wealth, status, fame etc. lose all their attraction and power and that it is a positive, spirit-expanding state - the St.Francis kind of thing, for example. I agree that "poor" is used in a metaphorical sense and not recommending literal poverty as a good thing.

  2. Hi Tom,
    Wealth then was interpreted as evidence of GOD’S blessing so conceivably the poor in sprit could denote simply those who were not wealthy or were unattached to wealth or money which was of no consequence in the yet to be established kingdom.

    This is further emphasized in the Lord’s prayer” Thy kingdom Come”.

    Albert Schweitzer talks about a future messianic kingdom in relation to the beatitudes: “It is present only as a cloud may be said to be present which throws its shadow upon the earth; its nearness that is to say, is recognized by the paralysis of the Kingdom of Satan”.

    The abiding mystery is, of course, that it remains an unrealised eschatology from both a personal and a world view.

    In that context the message I think was to be open to all, including the poor in spirit in the sense they were not wealthy.
    Best wishes

  3. Natalie; It has been my experience that the choosing of the life of the spirit did not mean that I chose to be poor of spirit. Rather, the loss of interest in things material came about as a consequence of the choice of my spiritual path. One might say that the loss of interest in materiel was one of those things that was 'added unto you', if a removal can also be an addition..It is as if the expansion of the spirit leaves no room for anything else, except its own.

  4. Lindsay; Whilst I think that the metaphorical Kingdom of God is open to all, at least in theory, because we are all poor in spirit compared with the, let us say, life of the Holy Spirit, it is likely to be those who are aware of their spiritual poverty who will accept the need for change. So long as one is materially wealthy, and in particular if one is focussed on the pursuit of personal wealth, there remains a real risk that the life of the spirit gets shelved. Saints all down the years have emphasised the value of the focus on God rather than on material wealth.

    Jesus did say, "Blessed are the poor in spirit," not 'blessed is everyone, including the unwealthy.'

    Thank you for your comment. As ever, thought provoking.

  5. If any one is interested in further discussion of matters raised about this post, may I suggest going over to, A wayfarer's notes, and his script on 'Attitude'. (Sorry I cannot reference Vincent's blog properly.)

  6. To be ‘poor in spirit’ is a reference to the heart recognizing its poverty and revealing the need for salvation and the things of God. It isn’t a vow of literal poverty. The blessed who are ‘poor in spirit’ are those who realize their spiritual inadequacy. At least, that's what I think.

  7. I have visited your post 5 times now and have opened the comment box as often but each time I sit in front of the screen with my elbows on my knees and my face in the palm of my hands trying to say something but I can't get my thoughts together.
    To know what is meant to be poor of spirit I need to be poor of spirit and.....??
    Yes, I was here and over there as you suggest, Tom.

  8. I forgot to say that some of my comment making feels like self-flagellation to me but...I keep doing it. It's bearable.

  9. Thank you for this comment, so from the heart. Yes indeed, to know what it means to be poor in spirit one needs to have been there. I know that to visit those places is worthwhile when visited for the right reasons. Take care of yourself my friend. Beating up on ourselves is not a necessary part of the process.

  10. Apologies for making my own comment not here, where it rightly belongs, but over on my blog where you kindly appended your comment in relation to a different but closely kindred topic.

    I'm glad that beating ourselves up is not a necessary part of the process. My hair-shirt has not yet been dispatched from Amazon, so I can still change my order.

    I see from an earlier comment, Tom, that you wanted a link to a post on my blog, so here it is:

  11. Ellena & Tom, please accept this apology for being facetious about self-flagellation in a comment above. In another response to Tom elsewhere, I see a strand of asceticism, perhaps driven by an urge to repentance, shaping much of my own earlier life; but till this moment not recognized as such.

  12. Vincent; For my part, no apology is necessary. No judgement was passed by me on your comment. I do find it of interest, however, that you refer to 'a strand of asceticism' not recognised in yourself, for I also have that strand perhaps driven by the same urge to repentance; except that in making the amends that I have in the past, the need for repentance may only be an imprint remaining in my inner world, or maybe no more than a shadow cast across my soul/