Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

The following is a copy of the e-mail I sent to a young Franciscan friar who asked me for my thoughts on "poverty."

Thank you for this thoughtful post. I’ve been thinking & praying a lot about poverty in the past year, thanks in part to that holy man, Pope Francis. I have some disjointed thoughts that I will share. I hope you will erase if you feel the need!
1. Your struggle as a Franciscan seems to me to be as much an institutional issue as a personal one. You are simple professed and a student, so there’s not a lot you can do right now to make any institutional changes.
2. I love the New English Bible’s translation of the first beatitude (Matt 5/3): "How blest are those who know their need of God. . ." The NABRE presents the same verse more traditionally: "Blessed are the poor in spirit. . ." For me, the NEB version of this verse is a more spiritual translation. It gives me a personal definition of poverty that applies across the board in my life. My need and hunger for God makes me always poor because, here in this life, my actions don’t acknowledge my need of God. Instead, I most often live my life as a self–sufficient, self–guiding individual. Every time I rely on my own devices, I deny the reality of my need for God, and I make myself more impoverished as a result.
3. Recently, I was doing a crossword puzzle. I knew the answer to a clue was "eremetic," but I kept spelling it wrong, so I went to Google to find the correct spelling (as I had to do again just now). I clicked on a link, which led me to another link, etc., and not only did I find the correct spelling, but I also came upon the story of a hermit who lived, I believe, in the time of St. Anthony of the Desert. This holy hermit, whose name I forget but who has been canonized) loved apples. His circumstances didn’t allow him to have any apples, however. His mind played yricks on him, though, and he constantly detected the odor of an apple. The spectral odor tormented him. He wrote, though, that after a while he grew to love the perceived apple odor because it was in this lack of apples that he finally found God. He lived away from everybody and everything. He was living his vow of poverty. But the one thing he missed, the one deprivation that hurt, was the thing that made him poor, because it was the only, or the last, thing he wanted but couldn’t have. As a truly poor man, then, he faced God, and, he wrote, God filled the huge void in his life that he only came to recognize through his lack of an apple. God, he wrote, comes to us in our lack of the things we love most.
4. Related to the story of the hermit is the following beautiful text from the Holy Father’s Evangelii Gaudium: "I can say that the most beautiful and natural expressions of joy which I have seen in my life were in poor people who had little to hold on to" (EG 7). People who are materially poor seem (to me, anyway, and apparently also to the Holy Father) to be especially blessed because they have had to face and accept their need of God. Having accepted that grace, their lives become richer and their joy is fuller.
5. Since my teen years, I have wanted a certain type of human relationship. I’ve prayed for it, I’ve arranged my life to make it happen, and I even went to s shrink to try to eliminate any psychological barriers to the achievement of that relationship. I didn’t get it. I’m now almost 67 years old, and only in the last year have I understood what has happened. God gave me a life with a wife (of 36 years) and four beautiful daughters. A suburban life, I always called it disdainfully and ungratefully. Living in the midst of abundant love, I complained to anyone who would listen, "I’m living someone else’s life, not the life I was born to live." I have come to realize that I am wrong. The lack of the kind of relationship I always wanted—and "want" is too weak a word here—is my great poverty. My constant sense of emptiness and unfulfillment is a gift from God. God gave me the want. God gave me my reality. The huge void between the two is where God lives in my life. God wanted me to be able to say, "You have made me for Yourself, O Lord, and My heart is restless until it rests in you." For me, there can never be a poverty—a lack—as great as this in my life. Like the hermit and his apples, though, I praise God for the lack and the room it has made for the Lord in my life.
6. So, young man, I believe poverty isn’t so much about iPhones and laptops. It’s about the basic loneliness and incompleteness that God has given everybody, and the struggle to open that loneliness and incompleteness and letting God fill it, as only God can.
Thanks, little brother, for inspiring me to get this all down in one place!