by Father Robert Lauder
Third in a Series
Earlier in this series based on Johannes Metz’s little gem “Poverty of Spirit,” I revealed that I find the expression “poverty of spirit” more meaningful than the expression “spirit of poverty.” The latter means that we shouldn’t be too dependent on material things or on wealth. We should have a detachment that enables us to emphasize in our lives what is most important.
Obviously the spirit of poverty is important, but I think that poverty of spirit is more important and suggests some central and profound truths about what it means to be a person.
At the risk of oversimplifying, I suggest that the spirit of poverty belongs in the psychological realm, while poverty of spirit refers to the metaphysical realm. The spirit of poverty refers to a mental attitude that we should have toward material things, that we should not be slaves to them. Poverty of spirit tells us something about our being, something about what it means to be a human person.
I have no idea how successful multi-millionaires are in practicing the spirit of poverty. I suspect that the more money and possessions a person has, the more tempting it is for that person to think he or she is completely independent and needs no one. To think this would be a disastrous mistake.
The so-called “self-made man” does not exist. Multi-millionaires, whether they have the spirit of poverty or not, are as poor in spirit as the rest of us, and if they don’t at least have some awareness of this, however vague that awareness might be, their personal relationships with other persons, both human and divine, will suffer. Every sin from Adam and Eve’s to ours is a kind of denial of poverty of spirit.
An illuminating section of Metz’s book is the section in which the theologian discusses the poverty of spirit that characterized Jesus’ existence. I am finite, limited in many ways, fragile, temporal and dependent. Jesus, the Son of God, chose to be finite, limited in many ways, fragile, temporal and dependent. Metz is working off St. Paul’s wonderful declaration that the Son of God did not think being equal to God was something to be clung to but emptied himself. (Phil. 2, 6.) Metz writes:
“To become man means to become ‘poor,’ to have nothing which one might brag about before God. To become man means to have no support and no power, save the enthusiasm and commitment of one’s own heart. Becoming man involves proclaiming the poverty of the human spirit in the face of the total claims of a transcendent God.”
And also, “God’s fidelity to man is what gives man the courage to be true to himself. And the legacy of his total commitment to mankind, the proof of his fidelity to our poverty, is the cross. The cross is the sacrament of poverty of spirit, the sacrament of authentic humanness in a sinful world. It is the sign that one man remained true to his humanity, that he accepted it in full obedience.”
Except for sin, Jesus accepted humanity completely. Everything we can say about being human, except for sinfulness, we can say about Jesus. There is no part or dimension of being human that Jesus did not assume and hence redeem.
There are several aspects of being human that make especially clear to me how dependent we are. I suppose the most obvious is our physical needs from the moment we begin existence in our mother’s womb to the moment we die. But when I think of poverty of spirit, I think of the most important human activity that we can do: loving.
In order to be loving persons, we first must be loved. This great capacity that we have to love has to be activated by someone reaching out to us, calling us, affirming us, loving us. I have heard that babies, who are washed, fed and clothed but not loved, die. I believe that if we are not loved, even if we were to survive physically, we would be so crippled emotionally that we would be unable to love.
The great sign of Jesus’ poverty of spirit is the cross, and it is also the great sign of Jesus’ love for the Father and his love for us. On the cross, Jesus made a total self-gift. Loving is always a free self-gift. That free self-gift may take the form of saying “Thank you” to someone, forgiving someone or making a life commitment to someone. Jesus’ self-gift led to his dying on the cross. That death is the ultimate, most profound sign of love and of poverty of spirit.