The Beatitudes - Part I
Poverty of Spirit (1st Beatitude)
by Father Reginald Martin, O.P.
A Noble Beginning
"Seeing the crowds, He went up on the mountain, and when He sat down His Disciples came to Him, and He
opened His mouth and taught them . . . ". Saint Matthew tells us that Jesus
began His Public Ministry by going about Preaching, ". . . saying,
‘Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand’". Matthew then tells us that Jesus
called Simon, Andrew, James and John. "And He went about all Galilee, Teaching
in their Synagogues and Preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom and Healing every Disease and every Infirmity among the People"
These events take place in the Fourth Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, which records the very
beginning of Jesus’ Public Ministry. The remaining Twenty-Four Chapters
of the Gospel read very much like a Footnote to what Matthew tells us here. Until we read of the
Passion and Resurrection of Our Savior, we must search the
Gospel very hard to find Jesus doing anything except
Teaching and Healing.
. . . and [He] taught them, saying: "Blessed are the Poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of
Heaven. Blessed are those who Mourn, for they shall be Comforted. Blessed are the Meek, for they shall Inherit the Earth"
(Matthew 5:2 - 5).
For most of us, the Beatitudes are synonymous with the Sermon on the Mount,
the Beatitudes are only the Introduction to the Sermon. The Sermon itself takes up
Three Chapters in Matthew’s Gospel, and includes the Our
Father as well as Jesus’ telling the Disciples they are the
Light of the World and Salt of the Earth. This long Sermon is the
First of Jesus’ Sermons that we hear, and it stands as a Summary of nearly
everything else Jesus will Preach. He will Amplify the
Message with Parables and other Examples, but He will Never-Change the Message
He Preaches here.
Two Linguistic Points: "Who" & "What" in the Beatitudes
Whenever we read Jesus’ Words in the Gospel we must pay attention to
Whom Jesus is speaking. All His Words
are important, but some are aimed more directly at us than others. When Jesus Preaches
His Sermon on the Mount, Saint Matthew tells us that
Jesus addresses His Disciples. This means we ought to Sit-up and Take-notice, because
whenever we find Jesus talking to the Disciples, He is talking
to us, the Church.
Saint John Chrysostom said, He said not "this or that person," but "They" who do
so are Blessed. So that though thou be a Slave, a Beggar, in Poverty, a Stranger, Unlearned, there is nothing to hinder thee from being
Blessed, if thou emulate this Virtue (Homily XV).
Chrysostom also remarks, "He doth not introduce what He saith by way of Advice or Commandments,
but by way of Blessing, so making His Word less burthensome, and opening to all the course of His Discipline"
A Connection to the Past
Moses and the Tablets of Law -
by ROSSELLI, Cosimo -
from Cappella Sistina, Vatican
(Click image to enlarge)
By telling us that Jesus went up a Mountain to Preach, Saint Matthew wants us to identify
Jesus - the Giver of the New Law - with Moses, the
Giver of the Old. Moses came down from Sinai with the Ten Commandments,
Imperative Instructions for the Israelites to obey. But he says:
. . . this Commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not
in Heaven that you should say ‘Who will go up for us . . . and bring it to us . . . . Neither is it beyond the sea that you should say,
‘Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it back to us that we may hear and do it? But the Word is very near you; it is in your mouth
and in your Heart’ (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).
"For Man has in his Heart a Law inscribed by God"
Infused/Innate Knowledge -
God writes His Name on the Soul of every man at Conception. Reason and Conscience are the God within us
in the Natural Order. The Fathers of the Early Church were wont to speak of the Wisdom of Plato and Aristotle as the 'unconscious'
Christ within us. Men are like so many Books issuing from the Divine Press, and if nothing else be written on them, at least the
Name of the Author is indissolubly engraved on the Title Page. God is like the 'Watermark on Paper', which may be written over
without ever being obscured.
Moses’ spoken words suggest that the Words written on the Tablets are a reminder of something the Israelites already
knew, i.e., Commandments written on their Hearts (Reason). The
New Moses doesn’t use an Imperative at all;
He knows the Law is in our Heart
(Soul). Jesus simply states things as they are, states them for
the benefit of everyone, and invites us to consult our Hearts to see whether they equip us to enjoy
the Happiness He describes.
Saint Thomas Aquinas on Happiness
Saint Thomas Aquinas says that there are Three Kinds of Happiness
(ST I-II, 69:3):
the Happiness of Sensuality,
the Happiness of Activity, and
the Happiness of Contemplation.
Sensual Happiness is an Obstacle
to Future Happiness, because (as we shall see)
It is Opposed to Reason.
A Second Kind of Happiness is the
Happiness of the Active Life. This is a Life of Good Work, not simply
Exercise or Mindless Running Around, and it disposes us to Future
The Third Type of Happiness is the
Happiness of the Contemplative Life. The Mystics among
us enjoy Perfect Contemplative Happiness even now, as the writings of Saint Catherine of
Siena and Teresa of Avila demonstrate. This Happiness is something the rest of us will
enjoy fully only in Heaven. If our Contemplative Happiness is
Imperfect - and that is what most of us experience - it is an introduction to what we have to look
forward to in the Future.
The True Meaning of Perfection
Here it might be worthwhile to point out that when our Theology says something is "Imperfect"
it does not mean that it is Deformed, or Ugly, or
Bad; it means that it is Incomplete. Imperfect diamonds are
still diamonds, after all, and Imperfect Contrition is sufficient to gain
Forgiveness for Sin in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Our Happiness will be Perfect in
Heaven because in Heaven there will be nothing to add to it. In the meantime, the Imperfect
Happiness we enjoy as a result of our Sacramental and
Prayer Life is a Powerful Aid to Virtue, and a Powerful Reminder
of what we have to look forward to in Heaven.
(A Unity (1) of Body and Soul)
Satan attacks the
Psychosomatic Powers already weakened by Original Sin.
When we think of Sensuality, the First Things that come to
mind are probably Food and Sex. But
"Things", in general, Power, the Honors that distinguish us, and simply the Indulgence of
following our own Inclinations are also a part of this Defective
Happiness. And the First Three Beatitudes promise a
Reward to those who are Willing to forego this
Happiness, either by moderating our use of the "Things"
that make us Happy, or, for the Truly Heroic among us, by turning-aside from them altogether.
Poverty of Spirit (1st Beatitude)
& the Responsibility of Wealth
When we consider Poverty of Spirit, the First Thing we need to
remember is that Economic Destitution in-itself is neither Noble nor Ennobling. Nor is there anything
intrinsically Degrading about being Rich. Scripture commends the
Poor because the Economically Deprived have nothing to hang-onto except the
promise that things will be better in a Better World. And the Bible Condemns the Rich because
a Spirit of Irresponsibility often accompanies Wealth.
A Cautionary Example
Parable of Lazarus and Dives -
by BONIFACIO VERONESE
from Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice
(Click image to enlarge)
We see this Spirit of Irresponsibility, of course, in the Parable of the Rich Man
and Lazarus. The Rich Man (Dives) is Condemned to
Hell both for what he has done and for what he has failed to do. His Sin of
Commission, Saint Luke tells us, is that he dressed in Linen and ate "Sumptuously"
Every Day. The Law says that we shall enjoy a Sabbath’s rest on One
Day and Labor on the Others. What we wear to dinner on the
Sabbath may be optional these days, but many of us still look forward to a better meal on that day than we enjoy the rest of the week. The
Rich Man’s Sin is that he has turned Every Day into a
Sabbath, and is doing nothing Productive with his Time. His
Sin of Omission is not some Wrong he has done to
Lazarus, but that he has Failed even to see him.
Saint John Chryostom, always alert to the World’s Injustice, commends the voluntary
Poverty of Spirit, by which we are willing to Deny ourselves to relieve the
Distress of others. He says,
. . . in this World, as often as we run into these men [whom we have helped] we will derive great pleasure
from meeting them, because we will recall the Good Turn we did them. When we see them in the next world, before the dread Tribunal of
Judgment, we will experience a great confidence. When the Unjust, the Greedy, the Plunderers . . . go before this Tribunal and see
their victims . . . they will not be able to open their mouths or to say a word in their own defense . . . (Discourse VII).
The Irrationality of Sensual Happiness
Sensual Happiness, such as the Rich Man in the Parable
enjoys, is not Wrong because Food or
Sex, or Wealth are inherently Bad, but
because we want too much of these things or because we will accept only the highest quality in them. Excellence
and Abundance - we might also call them Quantity and Quality - are Attributes of Heaven, because only
God can satisfy our desire for everything good. Because we cannot expect Complete Abundance or
Absolute Excellence in this life, Saint Thomas concludes that Sensual
Happiness is Unreasonable. A more modern writer, G.K. Chesterton likewise observed that a person can be a
Glutton by eating Very Little but at the same time being Very Picky about what one will eat.
The Heroic Example of the Saints
Saint Francis of Assisi, not surprisingly, is the Exemplar of Poverty of Spirit. At the
Franciscans’ First General Chapter, we are told, some in the Community argued for greater
economic practicality in their rule, and Francis moved to indignation said:
. . . Brothers, the Lord called me by the way of Simplicity and Humbleness, and this is the way He has pointed
out to me for myself and for those who will believe and follow me . . . The Lord told me that He would have me Poor and Foolish in this
World and that He willed not to lead us by any way other than that. May God confound you by your own Wisdom and Learning and, for all
your fault-finding, send you back to your Vocation whether you will or no.
In our own time, when Blessed Theresa of Calcutta used to send her Sisters shopping, she ordered them to buy the
Cheapest example of whatever they were seeking. Invariably, someone would object that to pay more would buy a better
quality product that would last longer. Mother Theresa’s answer was always the same, "We have not
taken a Vow of Economics; we have taken a Vow of Poverty".
Good Capitalists (and Economists will argue that we are all born Capitalists) may decline to embrace Saint
Francis’ or Blessed Theresa’s moral completely, but their words teach us very clearly that Poverty
of Spirit is an Attitude by which we Judge, Value, Use and Desire the Good Things of the
Madonna of the Magnificat
(Madonna del Magnificat)
by BOTTICELLI, Sandro -
from Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
(Click Image to enlarge)
The Example of the Blessed Virgin
In his True Devotion to Mary, Saint Louis de Montfort
remarked, "I am speaking mainly for the Poor and Simple who have more Good Will and Faith than the common-run of
Scholars" (26). Economic Poverty forces one to see the World in very real,
Life-and-Death terms. Voluntary Poverty, which is closely allied to
Humility, confers a similar Clarity in which we see ourselves as
we truly are in relation to God. When she utters the majestic
words of her Magnificat, the Blessed Virgin turns
her back on the very hint of False Modesty.
"All generations will call me blessed", she says, for
He has "exalted the lowly". To be
Poor in Spirit is to see all we are capable-of, because of God.
Poverty of Spirit & the Happiness of Activity
If we seek the World’s Goods only for themselves, we Unreasonably look for a Perfection on Earth
that we can only expect to find in Heaven. If we use them so that our dealings with others are
characterized by Justice, we have achieved the Happiness of
Activity and drawn closer to Perfect Happiness, because we have made the Kingdom of this
World a little more like the Kingdom of Heaven. And if we can school ourselves not
to want more than we need, then we have discovered the Happiness the Saints enjoy in
Heaven because we have discovered that God is the only
Source of the Excellence and Abundance that will make us Happy.
"Today" & "Tomorrow" in the Beatitudes
Here we should consider a Third Linguistic Point in the Beatitudes.
The Reward for Blessedness is something we look forward to in the
Future, so Jesus appropriately uses the Future-Tense to describe
what we can anticipate. But He uses the Present-Tense to describe the Life-Conditions and Actions by
which we are Blessed. "Blessed are the Poor in Spirit . . .
Blessed are the Meek . . . Blessed are those who Mourn". We
can look forward to the Perfection of Happiness only in Christ’s
Kingdom, but if we are Poor in Spirit, or Meek,
or if we Mourn now, the Blessing has already begun.
One of the early Church Writers taught that Christ Saved us by taking on our
Flesh and going through every moment of our lives, teaching us, by His
Example, how to Act Rightly when we had grown used to Acting Wrongly
by following the Example of our First Parents. Another Early Writer (Basil of Caesarea, 329 -
379), pointed out that the teaching in the Beatitudes is always
preceded by an Action. Christ can urge us to Poverty of Spirit,
he said, because,
being rich by nature, since all the Father’s Goods are His, He became poor on our account in order to enrich us
by His Poverty . . . it is He . . . Who emptied Himself, taking the Form of a Slave in order that we might receive gift for gift from His
The Beatitudes & The Eucharist - Gift & Challenge
Our Holy Father has declared 2004 - 2005 the Year of
the Eucharist, so we should consider the connection between what we are - and what we hope to be - and what we eat at the
Mass. Every other food we consume is turned into us. But our Faith
tells us that "when we eat this Bread and drink this Cup" we become what we eat, and are
Transformed into the Body of Christ. This is at once a
Gift beyond any we might hope for, and a challenge to Transform
the World. In the Life of Christians, Gifts are never given simply
to Enrich the Individual who receives Them;
They are given for the Building-Up and the Sanctification
of the Church.
Not long ago, the retired Archbishop of San Francisco, speaking on the relation of Moral Life to Moral Law, said,
The First Question of Christian Discipleship . . . is not, What am I obliged to do or to avoid? The First Question
of the Moral Life is, What does it mean to me to be in Christ Jesus? What claim does being a New Creation in Christ make on the way I
The Eucharist, then, is not only the Focus of our Worship, It
is the First Principle of our Morality. Our Holy Father
makes explicit the connection between the Christian’s Obligations in and to the World, and the
Eucharistic Food that equips us for these challenges. He says,
A significant consequence of the Eschatological tension inherent in the Eucharist, is . . . the fact that It
spurs us on our Journey through History and Plants a Seed of Living Hope in our daily commitment to the Work before us. Certainly the
Christian Vision leads to the expectation of "New Heavens" and a "New Earth" (Rev 22:1), but this increases, rather
than lessens, our sense of responsibility for the World today. I wish to reaffirm this forcefully . . . so that Christians will feel
more obliged than ever not to neglect their duties as Citizens of the World
Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 20).
The Eucharist is Blessing in the
Present, Promise for the Future, and
Strength for the Journey. Christ became
Poor to teach us where we ought to look for Wealth.
The Eucharist is the Point of Connection that
Unites our Hope
for the Future with Beatitude here-and-now, by Transforming us into the
Christ Who allowed Himself to be Transformed to look like us.