Exposing My Poor Spirit
Years ago, early in my Orthodox journey, I purchased Nicholas Cabasilas’ The Life in Christ. I remember enjoying it and being helped by it, but the details escape me. Recently, upon recommendation by a friend, I decided to pick it back up.
Cabasilas spends the bulk of his work discussing the sacraments and how they allow us to unite with Christ, and toward the end, he talks about how we live in between those sacramental acts. How do we retain and cultivate this life of Christ, this union we experience through the mysteries of the church, as we walk through our families, and jobs, and hobbies, and chores? One answer he gives is contemplation, which for Cabasilas is a mirror of the Jesus Prayer, something slightly more active, whereby we consider and fill our minds with Christ so the image begins to radiate from our hearts toward our lips, our hands, and our feet.
The epitome of this contemplation of Christ is the Beatitudes, for they reflect the man who is truly blessed, and that man is ultimately Christ. The Beatitudes begin: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And St. Cabasilas’ reflection on this poverty is what challenges my own journey.
Material poverty is not hard to understand. Even us first-worlders, who don’t live in the abject poverty of the third world, understand. Our experience of poverty may be relative, but it is still part of our life. We know times when paying the bills are difficult, when the pantry is empty, when there is lack, when there are restrictions, when there are certain things you can not do because monetary resources are not there.
Early in my married life, every penny truly mattered. There were many weeks when beans and rice were the main course. Not because we were fasting, but because our money imposed a fast upon us. During our first winter, the propane tank was running low, but we pushed it because things were tight. One morning, we woke with the thermostat crying because it was not designed to go that low. Thankfully the shower was hot, and when that water struck the freezing porcelain tub, steam made that bathroom look like a smoke house.
“Poor” means lack and restriction—not having enough to accomplish what is necessary or even what we desire, and when I hear “poor,” I think of money or the material.
Yet we experience poverty more than in our wallets. Your body is poor. Even the healthy among us have needs that our body cannot fulfill on its own. We need food, sleep, water, air, and clothing, or our bodies cannot function. We are not self-sufficient. Beyond these basics, we need a measure of activity and even exercise to function normally and not slip into decay. Every one of us is poor in body—from the strongest athlete to the well-fed gourmand—if we take away any of these bodily necessities, sickness and death will come. Our bodies are needy because they are poor.
Our minds are poor. No matter what level of success in life a person attains, none was self-generated. Hours of study were needed to train the mind with marketable skills. Mentors were needed to help one along. Somewhere along the way, someone had to put out a hand and assist. Even the greatest among us are not self-made—we are too poor. Read the biographies of the greats of history: yes, they often worked hard and were smart with their resources, but whether they recognized it or not, their poverty propelled them to achieve.
Think about your own life achievements, no matter how small; you are standing on some giant’s shoulders.
I know my wallet can be poor, and it drives me to work each day. I know my body is poor, so I provide it with the basics, and even a sprinkling of exercise and vitamins. I know my mind is poor, so I read, live with smart people, and look for help to become better.
But my spirit is poor? Most times, I forget I have a spirit. Here’s how I remember it is there and it is poor.
In the King James Version, there is a word loved by the Southern Baptist preachers of my youth. It was a favorite of the Old Testament prophets Jeremiah and Hosea.
Perhaps you’ve heard it as well: backsliding.
Backsliding is the story of the Old Testament. Recently my youngest and I have been reading through Joshua, Judges, and now 1 Samuel (1 Kingdoms in the LXX). Every couple of chapters, Israel conquers an enemy, peace settles over the land, and the worship of God is restored, but you can hear a rumbling start to happen. I look at my son, and ask, “What do you think is going to happen next?” In a flash of 8-year-old wisdom, he will say: “They get bad again.”
That is backsliding. Israel repents, re-establishes the habits of worship, then slowly things fall away until they “slide back” into old habits and forget the God of their salvation.
Sadly, this isn’t just Israel’s story. It’s my story. Something rouses my soul or scares me into righteousness. I offer heartfelt confession, restart my rule of prayer, re-read my Bible, fill my mind with church-y stuff, then life happens, and a day goes by with no prayer, then two days, then a week. My Bible starts getting dusty, then people irritate me more. I yell at my kids more often. I grouse around with a judgmental heart. I’ve backslidden. Thankfully, trouble arises and conviction hits my soul, and I head back to the narrow path.
Nothing proves my poverty of spirit more than this tendency to backslide. If I don’t expose myself to the abundance of the life of God continually, rot sets into my soul, and any likeness of Christ I hope to attain begins to evaporate.
Reminding myself of my backsliding ways puts the poverty straight before my eyes and forces me to take seriously this work for spiritual gold, this diet for the health of my soul, this training to avoid heavenly ignorance.
We are all poor in spirit, and recognizing it is a step toward attaining the kingdom of God.
Poverty of spirit doesn’t mean we are wretched or worthless – just normal, and normal means we need the life of God to be human.