“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.”
The beatitude above, which is found in Chapter Five of Matthew’s Gospel, is the first of the beatitudes that Jesus declares on the mountain top surrounded by his followers. It also happens to be my favorite beatitude, and I want to reflect here on why that is so.
In our culture today, to be poor bears negative connotations. We want to be rich and successful; we want a comfortable life with fancy luxuries that will fuel our pursuit of pleasure. This is apparent in the way that we chase after the latest fashion, the latest foods, the latest cars, etc. However, I would dare say that most of us are not happy. We are not happy chasing after all of these pleasures that should, by societal standards, fulfill us. We are overworked, tired, and burdened by the anxieties surrounding our rise to the top.
I visited the Conventual Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in the Bronx about two years ago. When I first arrived, I was not sure what to expect. I had known the friars for a while because of my work in the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS). The Franciscan Friars were formed in 1209 by St. Francis of Assisi, a man who was passionately in love with the Lord and passionately in love with poverty, affectionately known to him as Lady Poverty. He gathered a group of men and eventually women who lived out the three evangelical counsels: chastity, obedience, and poverty. The Franciscans, living in community, taking after their founder, have an intense love for poverty, believing that poverty frees them to give fully of themselves to those around them. They could sympathize with their fellow man, especially with those who were poor. They maintain a rigid life of prayer and service, praying at least 2-3 hours a day and serving the poorest of the poor. I had known all of this about them but was not prepared for the lifestyle I was about to experience.
I was shown my room, which was sparsely furnished with a mattress, a desk and chair, and a crucifix. The brothers lived in community and shared a bathroom. Even though they lived in poverty, they were very clean and hospitable to the men who were coming to visit them. The entire week was filled with prayer, community, and service. We got to visit their homeless shelter, to mingle and serve the homeless population who came to lunch at the friary, and to walk with them through the Bronx. I was blown away by the joy that I encountered from these men who had nothing: all they had was a few articles of clothing, a few books, and each other. Most importantly, they had the love of Christ, which was unhindered by any material possession. The less they had, the more they were able to devote to Christ, dwelling within them and within the poor. The things that mattered so much to me: fashion, books, fancy foods, and luxurious bedding, they had given up in order to give themselves fully over to the Other. Coming back from that trip, I found myself desiring that simplicity and poverty.
For the brothers, the material poverty that they experienced and lived led to a greater spiritual poverty that I think our generation desperately needs: a poverty so deep that it is dependent on the Lord and on the Lord alone. When our hearts are free and poor, there is space for the Holy Spirit to work more abundantly. If we are filled to the brim with our own amusements, our own desires, and are rich in our own ambitions, Christ cannot work as abundantly as He desires to. There is no space for him to do so. We have too many attachments, whether it be to Netflix, Facebook, Instagram, our clothes, that hinder our attachment to what really matters: our relationship with Christ.
Being poor in spirit is the first of the beatitudes because it creates the space and the conditions for the rest of the beatitudes to be lived out. It helps us to submit ourselves to God in utter poverty, realizing that we have nothing apart from Him who gives us all. Until we realize that we are utterly dependent on Him, there is no real growth in the spiritual life. At the end of the day, everything is grace, and the challenge is for us to submit ourselves to Christ, admit our poverty, and rejoice in the work that He will do and continues to do through our cooperation.
Peter Nguyen is the FOCUS Team Director at the Harvard Catholic Center.