alright…here it goes:
I have had this one thought that has sort of plagued me over the last eight months-ish, maybe more. The gist of this idea is the poverty of spirit, but it also and necessarily includes the ideas of need and absence.
I was reading Elizabeth Fox Genovese’s conversion story in the journal First Things from April of 2000 when it all sort of made sense. First, Genovese states that “our highest realization of self results from the gift–or loss–of self”. Next she notes Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis’ exegesis of Matthew. From reading his exegesis of Matthew she finally understood “that the poor in spirit are those who literally ‘beg for their life’s very breath’–those who depend upon God the way we all depend upon air to breathe. Poverty of spirit is the grace of those who have emptied themselves of everything but the desire for God’s presence…”
Stick with me, this could get tedious, but will hopefully all make some sense in the end.
I have most recently been confronted with this idea in my spirit and have thus seen it play out in everything I read and do. I saw it first when reading The Brothers K by James Duncan. Duncan sets up characters who seem to do wildly irrational things due to being at their wit’s end. They are in desperate need and only aware of their great need. Because of this great need, and unaware or unconcerned with what it all means, these characters do great things that ordinary life would not usually call for.
Next, I read Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Here is a few short lines on what Robinson says on absence and need. “For need can blossom into all the compensation it requires. To crave and to have are as like a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it?…So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smoothes our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.”
Next, I took a class on Henri Nouwen at Fuller Seminary (I kind of went back to school…p.s.). Nouwen wrote a lot about the “ministry of absence”. There are about 1 million things here, but I will limit this to just a few, short sentences. Nouwen talks about absence in relation to Christ. He says in The Living Reminder “In Jesus’ absence a new and more intimate presence became possible” – the Holy Spirit. Nouwen also notes that the Eucharist is a manifestation of the ministry of absence, as we celebrate God’s absence we engage with His presence. Lastly, Nouwen ties in the ideas of memory and absence. Our memories create the present. Or put another way, the absence of a certain reality paves the way for our present reality. He says “we become our memories”.
Okay last one. For the past four months or so I have walked down to the local Catholic church on Tuesdays to pray during their Adoration time. I have not engaged much with Catholicism over the years and so I am seeing a lot of simple Catholic rituals for the first time and with clear eyes.
One ritual in particular is very gripping. I don’t know anything about this, except that I have seen women get on their knees and shuffle all the way from the back of the church building to the altar, praying the entire time. Every time I see this, I am reminded of all that I have written above. This women so understands her great need that she is willing to cast off all care and concern of self. This is the poverty of spirit that Genovese noted in Leiva-Merikakis’ article. It is one of Duncan’s characters. It is Robinson’s stunning remarks on absence and is Nouwen’s Eucharist celebration and thoughts on memory.
I am enthralled with this idea, and moreover find myself here. I literally find language to define myself in these words. This is what it means (at least in part) to be poor in spirit, and that’s why the poor in spirit get the kingdom of heaven – in the present tense no less! (as opposed to the other Beatitudes, whose rewards are not given in the present tense).
Oh boy, this got so so long, and I feel I could write so so much more. I really hope that this all made sense. I only recently tied all of this to being Jesus’ “poor in spirit”, but hopefully all the connections here are accurate and meaningful to someone else. Moreover, I hope this is who I am.
Thanks for reading (if you got this far!).