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What does “poor in spirit” mean?*

Originally published on Aleteia, republished with their permission

The first beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven,” can be a tough one to understand.

Defining poverty is, sadly, relatively easy. We can think of poverty in terms of lacking a certain amount of either money or possessions, or as a pronounced deprivation in well-being, or as failing to meet a federally defined income threshold. It is clearly a violation of human dignity, as it implies the inability to have choices and opportunities or to acquire the basic goods and services needed for survival with dignity, which translates into powerlessness and exclusion.

So why would poverty be considered one of the three Evangelical Counsels(chastity, poverty, and obedience, also known as “counsels of perfection”)? And why would Jesus praise “poverty of spirit”? Does “poverty of spirit” mean lack of spiritual dignity, the deprivation of a certain spiritual “wealth,” the inability to make spiritual progress?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes it clear that in economic matters, “respect for human dignity requires the practice of the virtue of temperance, so as to moderate attachment to this world’s goods.” This virtue goes in tandem with the practice of the virtue of justice, which preserves “our neighbor’s rights” and teaches us “to render him what is his due” and the practice of solidarity, “in accordance with the golden rule and in keeping with the generosity of the Lord, who ‘though he was rich, yet for your sake (…) became poor so that by his poverty, you might become rich.’”

The counsel of poverty, in a strict biblical sense, surely includes (the Catechism states) “the right to private property, acquired or received in a just way,” but understands this right “does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise” (Cf. Part III of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section 2, Chapter 2, article 7).

Temperance in the accumulation of goods is, then, aligned with the practice of evangelical poverty. Moreover, the disciple of Christ should not be afraid to embrace poverty: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mt.19:21).

However, one thing is clear: in the Beatitudes (that is, the Sermon of the Mount), Jesus is not referring to material poverty. He is clearly not calling the hungry and thirsty “blessed” because of their suffering. The Beatitudes are clearly not praise for misery, starvation, or hardship. The text makes it very clear Jesus is referring to poverty in spirit and hunger and thirst for righteousness. What does this poverty “of” (or “in”) spirit really refer to?

Being poor implies dependence. It is quite evident a poor person depends on either good luck, somebody else’s charity, or the like. But it is also evident we are all dependent beings, and, in that sense, “poor.” To begin with, we didn’t bring ourselves into existence. We were brought into existence by someone else (our parents, that is). From the get-go, our condition is that of plurality: even from a strictly materialist standpoint, it is self-evident we are in this world with others and, more importantly, because of others.

From the standpoint of the faith, the ultimate Other who brought us into existence is, of course, God. “Poverty of Spirit,” then, is the recognition of one’s utter dependence before God, not in a servile, demeaning sense but rather, as Ignatian spirituality describes it, as Principle and Foundation. As creatures, not only does our being depend on the creative act of God — creation, Simone Weil explained, “is an act of love and is perpetual. At each moment our existence is God’s love for us” — but, ultimately, so do our happiness and fulfillment. Spiritual poverty, then, implies an emptying of ourselves (following Christ’s own kenosis, as we read in several Pauline letters). It is a recognition of our need for God that translates into a fundamental “openness,” an acknowledgment of our dependence on what only God can do for us.