Today we continue our Lenten journey and celebrate the First Sunday of the penitential season. In the Gospel reading from the liturgy, we see Jesus being led out into the desert by the Spirit. In this place of solitude, observing his own forty days, the Lord Jesus prepares for his public ministry. In these weeks, he empties himself and experiences his own poverty of spirit.
In Lent, it’s good for us to ask about this disposition of soul. A poverty of spirit will later be given as the Lord’s first Beatitude and described as the entrance into a kingdom of happiness. But what does that mean? How are we to understand living poor in spirit?
Simply put, a poverty of spirit begins with an acknowledgment of our need for something beyond ourselves. We truly desire to surrender all our commands and demands and instead labor to be open and receive all things as a gift. And so, the decision to be poor in spirit is a choice we make to live in a state of profound reverence of God and our neighbor.
It means caring, being committed, and actively working for the growth of goodness in our world.
Admittedly, such a choice to live dependent on anyone – even God – is immensely counter-cultural in Western culture today. We are told and convinced to rely only on ourselves, to refuse help, and fuel a radical sense of our own autonomy. This egotism, and the pride it fosters, is a war against our own happiness.
In fact, this hubris is precisely what has to be dethroned in order for us to be truly poor in spirit and begin to recognize the kingdom of happiness.
In his public teachings, the Lord Jesus praised an example of someone living poor in spirit. While in the Temple, Jesus looked up and saw many rich people putting their gifts into the treasury. He also observed a poor widow putting in two mites, the smallest of copper coins valued at a halfpenny. Most people would have overlooked the widow since her social status was not one of prominence and her gift was not a significant one in terms of monetary value.
The Lord Jesus, however, saw something others did not. He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all the living that she had.”
The two mites the woman gave reflected her sustenance and basic well-being. By giving them, she showed her complete dependency on God. She manifested that her life was a living supplication to God and his goodness.
The widow chose a happiness that is not given by this world, one that the proud and self-reliant cannot understand.
Our decision for happiness, therefore, will bring forth a desire to live with a poverty of spirit. While this is an authentic inclination given to us as children of God, we will feel a battle within our hearts since—although we were created good—we are fallen and crave to possess, own, and control ourselves, things, other people, and even God. This craving is fed by fear, anxiety, constant restlessness, and an insatiable appetite for more.
The battle, however, is worth the fight, and the conflict will have two major fronts: one of the spirit and the other within the material world. Neither should be overemphasized or neglected. The summons to live poor in spirit is not only a spiritual call to dependency and humility but also a command to temperance and detachment.
In his teachings, Jesus never promised health or wealth. As we seek to follow the Gospel—the Gospel that shows us the meaning and value of suffering and poverty—God is able to sustain our happiness and bless us with freedom, flexibility, and a forgiving spirit.
In receiving these blessings, we are invited to actively seek a poverty of spirit in all the material and spiritual areas of our lives. This includes how we approach abilities and talents, our health, our aging process and limitations, the future, our prestige, the affection of others, time, accepting correction, giving guidance, and how we own and use the things of this world.
Trying to live a heartfelt poverty of spirit, therefore, is a way for us to be with the Lord Jesus in the desert during this First Sunday of Lent. And from this time of solitude and spiritual sand, we can re-learn and deepen in our own awareness of our need for God and our neighbor. We can re-commit ourselves to goodness and happiness.