“Blessed are the Poor in Spirit”
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
January 27, 2019 Third Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 55:1-13; Matthew 5:1-12
What did Jesus teach? Jesus taught that there is a divine reality, a level of being where God is all in all – which he called the ‘Realm of God’ in Mark’s and Luke’s Gospels, and ‘The Realm of Heaven’, or ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’ in Matthew’s Gospel, depending on how you translate the Greek. Jesus taught that this Realm of Heaven is both ‘At hand’, meaning it is available right in this present place, and that ‘Now is the acceptable time’, meaning that it is accessible right now, eternally present. The Realm of Heaven is everywhere, and in all times, and Jesus’ primary teaching in the canonical Gospels is about how to enter into this Reality in this lifetime. Jesus teaches also that the key to enter into this Realm of Heaven is a change or transformation of heart, ‘metanoia’, an opening beyond our ordinary perception to the deeper spiritual reality of God.
Within this context, we can begin to understand the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew not as prescriptions as to how to live a good and virtuous life, but as a template for the transformation of the heart. They are, as it were, Jesus’ roadmap of the unfolding of the progressive transformation or ‘divinization’ of a human being.
‘Divinization’, by the way, was understood by the early church as the goal of human life and the central purpose of Christianity. To be ‘divinized’, is to enter progressively more deeply into the divine life of God, to partake of the life and spirit of God. It is what the ancient church understood as salvation – not a mere escape from punishment in hell, but as an elevation into life shared in intimacy and union with God, and the restoration of our original nature as children (or ‘manifestations’, or ‘expressions’) of God. This is what Christianity was originally about – becoming like God through sharing in the life of the God-man, Christ.
So then, the Beatitudes describe what happens when God’s spirit is activated in a person, and what happens when a person wholeheartedly takes up the Way of Christ and follows Jesus as teacher, example and as a living presence in their lives.They are progressive, meaning that each Beatitude described a move advanced stage of spiritual development or awakening, one following upon the next. If a person hasn’t yet experienced the inner state a particular Beatitude is describing, they won’t understand what that Beatitude is talking about. Lacking experiential understanding, we tend to diminish the spiritual potency of the Beatitude, and turn it into a moral aspiration or a ‘how to’ teaching about living a good and holy life.
The first Beatitude is often translated as “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Let’s unpack this phrase a bit:
The Realm of Heaven – ‘Heaven’ in Matthew’s Gospel is simply a synonym for ‘God’. In first century Judea people would use the word ‘Heaven’, aka ‘where God dwells’, as a way of speaking about God without profaning the Divine name, which was considered too holy to be spoken directly. As I alluded to earlier, the Realm of Heaven is the level of Reality where God is intimately known and experienced as the fullness of life – where we and all things abide in God, and God abides in all. It is a realm of intimacy, perfect love, and union. Salvation, according to Jesus, means to enter into this realm or level of reality, or, so to speak, the ‘state of consciousness’ where we experience the Realm of Heaven as reality.
However, as soon as I use a term like ‘state of consciousness’, I must immediately qualify this by emphasizing that union with God in the Realm of Heaven is NOT an altered state of consciousness. It is precisely the opposite – it is the true, unaltered state of the human heart. When we enter the Realm of Heaven/God, we finally experience reality as it actually is. This base reality, which is Divine Love, is what remains when we let go of all our false ideas, concepts, addictions, attachments and aversions, and simply exist in the naked reality of Truth, which is God, and which is Love. It is, really, the only unaltered state of consciousness there is! All other states are the product of some degree of manipulation by the human psyche.
This persistent, pernicious capacity of the human psyche to manipulate reality – to create a perception of reality that is not what is, but rather a mirror of how we are, lies at the heart of Jesus teaching ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’. Because to have our inner world broken open, to experience directly our interior poverty and in that brokenness to cease, if even for a moment, to manipulate the reality around us, can be a doorway into the Realm of Heaven.
Who inhabits the Realm of Heaven? Jesus says that it is the poor in spirit. The word translated ‘poor,’ ptochos, might also be translated as ‘destitute’, it carries the image of a beggar cowering in his nothingness. It means to really be emptied out, to have nothing. The term is also a likely reference to the Old Testament term the ‘anawim’. The anawim where those people who were so poor, uneducated and unimportant that the Babylonians didn’t bother to deport them when the destroyed Jerusalem and took its inhabitants exile in Babylon. They were left behind because they were useless and without value in the eyes of the world. So, Jesus term ‘poor’ here means to be destitute, worthless, useless, emptied-out and without substance.
Jesus refers to being ‘poor in spirit’ – what does this mean? I believe this means to be ‘destitute’ on the level of our psyche. Now to have an empty, crushed psyche while simultaneously lacking any access to your spirit – that is, the aspect of your inmost being where God dwells – is a devastating experience. It is enough to drive a person to complete despair, perhaps to suicide. Our psyche is a sort of early ‘operating system’ that we develop as we grow into conscious self-awareness, from early childhood into later childhood and adulthood. This ‘operating system’ is somewhat binary – it learns to make sense of the world by differentiation. In this system, our mental faculties combine with our emotional faculties to develop a world of likes and dislikes, and of attractions and aversions. We learn who we are and what we like primarily in contrast to who we are not and what we dislike. When fully formed, our psyche helps us to have a sense of ‘self’, of who we are as separate from all other beings and objects in our world. It is a necessary stage in human development, but I am certain it was never meant to be the place we live out the majority of our adult lives. The great tragedy is that this ‘self’ is not who we truly are as Sons and Daughters of God. It’s not even close! We are God-bearers, in our true and original nature, and yet we spend our days thinking something far too small – thinking ‘I am a man’, or ‘I am a woman’, ‘I’m a Democrat’, ‘I’m a Republican’, ‘I’m young’, ‘I’m old’, ‘I’m a Vermonter’, ‘I’m a Red Sox fan’, or whatever stories we tell ourselves about who we think we are. It’s way too small, and this limited sense is what and who we are keeps us from realizing the reality of the divine ‘I AM’ that is our true and only eternal identity.
So, to be ‘poor in spirit’ is to experience the break-down and breaking-open of this finite, limited identity. When our psychic identity falls or fades into the background of our being, that is, when it becomes poor and destitute, it may feel like we’re dying. But if we have any experience of a larger divine identity, a life that abides in God and shares in God’s own life, or even a faith that this life is possible, then something very beautiful happens. Instead of being destroyed by the impoverishment of our psyche, we find ourselves entering into the Realm of Heaven. Just as Jesus promises, we realize that the poor in spirit are the ones who possess the Realm of Heaven. Instead of living from the psyche, we experience a subtle, yet immensely powerful presence of Infinite, Unconditional Love that becomes the new basis of our identity. In this new identity, we are already One with the Source of all Light, Life, and Love, and so find ourselves in a relationship of loving intimacy with every human being, and indeed with every living being and every aspect of creation.
This, we discover, is true happiness. We become ‘Blessed’ in the Gospel sense. The word used in the Beatitudes implies not merely human happiness, but a sense of divinely aligned bliss and well-being. It is a sense of wholeness, freedom, abundance and goodness. This is the reality that Jesus describes as the state of those who have become ‘Poor in Spirit’ – indeed, he says, theirs is the Realm of Heaven.
How do we become ‘Poor in Spirit’? More often than not, it is a gift that we receive alongside a crushing defeat for our binary psychic system. Often this is a profound human tragedy. It might be developing a life-threatening illness, losing a loved one in a tragic accident, a bitter betrayal or divorce, or any other such loss that is beyond the ability of our psyche to cope with and ‘hold together’. In the face of this loss, we are simply not able to ‘hold it all together’ or ‘buck up’ and keep on going. Now, without some tiny seed of faith in God, such a loss can crush us – we might end up in a psychiatric ward or even suicidal. Or, in our supposedly more ‘enlightened’, materialist system we will end up on psychotropic drugs designed to prop up the psyche and keep it running the show at all costs.
However, if we have already developed that ‘seed’ of trust in God as a living Reality, in the face of great loss we can throw ourselves into the mystery of God. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the ‘seed’ of God’s indwelling spirit will grow within us and become our new inner world. The impoverished psyche need never regain its place of dominance. It remains, but in a subsidiary role to the greatly expanded role of the Divine Indwelling Spirit. Our healing comes, thus, when we accept both our poverty in spirit and the abiding reality of the Realm of Heaven that is within and among us. The Realm of Heaven becomes our new psychic home. There is no longer any use or need for our psyche to direct our lives. This transformation takes great trust, patience, and considerable spiritual practice in addition to the initiating ‘defeat’ or life circumstance. The defeat starts the journey, but one needs the strong tools of spiritual practice and a community of fellow disciples to complete the journey into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Of course, it is not necessary to suffer a great loss in order to open to the diminishment of our psyche and the expansion of the Spirit of God within us. The way of disciplined spiritual practice can and will lead to the same transformation if it is undertaken with genuine humility, adequate guidance, and fervent desire for God. In theory, all human beings could enter into Divine Life through the voluntary giving up of identification with psyche, simply out of love and desire for God. But there are very few in our society who will take up such a life and practice until their interior house is already beginning to burn to the ground through life’s circumstances. To consent to the dismantling of your psyche, from the perspective of a person identified with their psyche, is equivalent to lighting a match and gathering tinder to ignite your own house! In every generation there are a few souls whose attraction to God is so great that they will, of their own initiative, undertake the dismantling of their own psyche and surrender to the work of the Spirit of Christ, laboring to die to self simply out of love for God. The end result is the same, whether the journey is initiated by unresolvable psychic crisis or by self-initiated spiritual practice.
One final comment: Just as a profound existential crisis coupled with a seed of trust in God can become the foundation to dying to self and entering the Realm of Heaven for an individual, this same process can take place in groups or in a society as a whole. There is potential in great societal loss for the birth of a new, more spiritually wakened culture. This, I believe, is perhaps the greatest hope and potential of our age and the decades to come, where a great social and even ecological unraveling is already beginning. The critical question remains: do we have the seed of faith that can make this crisis fruitful? When the ‘psyche’ of our society crumbles (and this crumbling is already beginning), will we have even a tiny speck of faith and trust in God and spiritual reality to catalyze the birth of a transformed culture? This is why I consider supporting spiritual practice to be the most profound and necessary activism of our age.
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.’ This is the first beatitude, stage one of Jesus’ template for the transformation of a human being. The next time I stand in this pulpit, God willing, we will turn our inquiry to the second beatitude, the promise of comfort to those who mourn. Until then, may we all throw ourselves with trust and self-forgetfulness into the infinite mercy and love of God.