Friday, October 9, 2009

Poor in Spirit

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God." Matthew's first beatitude is a softer version of Luke's: "blessed are you who are poor." Luke is clear that he means material poverty--the matching "woe" refers to "you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort."

In Christian tradition too often we sentimentalize or soften material poverty. Real poverty is not when you don't own three Lexuses, ("lexi"?) Neither is it as seen in some interpretations of religous poverty in which they don't actually own this or that material good, but have full use of it. How absurd. "I don't own the villa." But if you can use the villa, isn't that pretty close to owning or co-owning it, except that there's no personal responsibility for its upkeep? After all, none of us takes our belongings with us when we die. We use them here, and leave them behind. The difference between this form of "evangelical" poverty and ownership is responsibility, not possession.

But those aren't real poverty. Real poverty is when you don't have what you NEED. When you can't feed the kids. When you can't pay the rent. Or when the struggle to do so is real and every-day and the outcome is uncertain. Real poverty often means living in dangerous situations, and enduring the daily indignities of disdain from the better-off. Analogously, what's poverty of spirit? When you don't have what you need. Sometimes I think of this as not having faith, not having hope. Depression might be a form of poverty of spirit. Isolation, loneliness. Despair. Joylessness. But in light of walking the camino, I have another idea, too.

Luke's Jesus says that the rich "have already received their comfort." In other words--they don't know that they need anything more. Their noses aren't rubbed in their need. To be poor in spirit, perhaps, means exactly to have our noses rubbed in our need--to recognize our radical self-insufficiency, spiritually and socially as well as materially, and to live in the real possibility of not having it met.

Both Luke and Matthew's Jesus says that the poor are blessed because theirs IS the kingdom of God. Not "you'll be paid off big-time in the afterlife." Now. The kingdom of God IS yours. Walking the camino we were continually faced by our need--for the fellowship of other pilgrims, for insight on dealing with blisters, sore muscles, and hurting backs. For cheerleading, for us and by us. We needed the hospitality of Spaniards not put off by scruffy travelers with poor command of Spanish. We needed the power of the path itself--the faith of centuries of seekers walking the same road in search of numberless different hopes. I needed Marty's good humor and story-telling, and shared my own. I've remarked before how tourists are far more solitary than pilgrims, who are far more communal. It's because pilgrims need, and know they need (or learn that pretty quickly, if they're paying attention at all.) Even though walking the camino feels like an accomplishment--and it is!--it is also a celebration of need. The kingdom of God is AMONG us. It's a kingdom of we who need.

Lest I be too sentimental myself, it is also true that there are those who are destroyed, physically, psychologically and socially by need. It is not automatic that the Kindgom of God is given to those who need. But the fault for that destruction is ours--for failing to be responsive to the needs of those who need as we need. The challenge of the camino is to need. One challenge of re-entry is to continue to need--and to try to respond. To continue to be that experience of the kingdom among us.

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