Blessed are the Poor in Spirit, for Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven, by Father Basil William Maturin

detail of an Easter-themed stained glass window, date and artist unknown; Christ Church, Waltham, Massachusetts; photographed on 14 December 2005 by Mbalulescu; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsThe first law of the spiritual life has to do with man’s relation to the manifold things with which he is daily in contact in the world around him. No sooner does consciousness awaken than he finds the outside world touching, pressing upon him, appealing to him in a thousand ways. He stands in the midst of a world created for him, supplied with infinite resources and capable of being put to various uses. He finds this world a captivating and alluring mystery, studying it, questioning it. From the very first it exercises a fascination upon him from which it is impossible to escape if he would. It has secrets to disclose that he longs to discover, mysteries that he cannot rest till he solves. It sets his mind and heart and will at work. It allures him on with ever-increasing hope of understanding it better, keeps him waiting long for an answer to his questions, teaches him patience, self-control, humility. Sometimes it opens its lips to speak, and with beating pulses he listens and is greeted with mocking silence; sometimes in a moment it flashes upon his mind a light that reveals secrets he has been waiting for years to learn.

To some all Nature appears but the thinnest veil through which a mysterious Presence can be felt and almost seen, a vestment that clothes, half-revealing, half-concealing, a great Personality. A mind pierces through its marvellous mechanism, arresting the intellect, and calling it into close communion; a heart throbs through it that sets the hearts of men vibrating in response. To others it is but a vast and complicated machinery, governed by changeless laws, self-acting, self-evolving; nothing stands behind, nothing at least that the human mind is capable of knowing anything about. It presents riddles which men must set themselves to solve, it is capable of being understood and used in the service of man, who, though evolved by the mechanical working of its laws and forces, and shaped and moulded by the things around him, and but the creature of yesterday, believes he is capable not only of understanding it, but of ruling it and using it in his service,

But whatever our theories, no sooner does man awaken to the existence of the world around him than he quickly learns what an influence it has upon him for good or evil, that all these material things affect him in a most remarkable way, that in fighting them he grows strong, in studying them he grows wise, in conquering them he gains victory over himself, That not only does the development of his mind to a large extent depend upon them, but what is more strange, the formation of his character. Naked indeed he comes from his mother’s womb, and naked he returns, but not as he came. He leaves the world, bearing upon himself eternally the marks of his conflict with, or his yielding to, the influence of the material things with which he had to do during his sojourn upon earth.

The sight of and contact with these things excites our minds and hearts, forces us to think about them, study and use them, and they leave the whole person stamped with the effect of their influence.

The history of civilization has two sides, It tells us of development and progress in many things, of the steady growth in the knowledge of Nature and her laws; of late years it records victory after victory in the sphere of physical science that has well-nigh turned men’s heads and made them believe that almost anything is possible. It shows how every new discovery is put at the service of man to make the wheels of life run more smoothly. It discloses the power of the human mind and will, seizing upon the most destructive forces of Nature and making them the kindly ministers of his service. We who look on, and into whose hands these gifts are so generously poured, do not know whether to wonder most at the greatness of the gifts, or the energy and mental vigour, the unwearied patience and perseverance of the men who discover them, and prepare them for our use. Certainly the study of the sciences has developed the mind, and up toa certain point the characters of the men who have given themselves to these studies and have enriched the world by their gifts.

But there is another side to the history of civilization. It is undoubtedly true that in every victory which has been won over Nature men run the risk of a more serious defeat. The intellectual victory of one man leads to the danger, to say the least, of a moral weakening of many. For every new discovery, every new convenience, tends to make life more luxurious and to bind men more and more under the influence of material things, and these things tend to waken and supply new and often artificial wants. The child of modern civilization looks back upon a civilization that is past and wonders that men could have lived in such poverty and such meagre surroundings. Certainly if we are made for eternity and man’s true end is the knowledge and love of God, the fewer our material wants and the more spiritual our life the better. And we know how the flesh with its clamorous demands, and the spirit with its lofty aims, are ever in conflict one with the other, and that the more we give to the flesh, the less vigorous the spirit is likely to be; and thus as the discoveries of science tend to make life more luxurious and more easy, there is the danger of its deadening influence upon men as spiritual beings, who are to live on earth as strangers and pilgrims, journeying to that City which hath foundations, whose Builder and Maker is God.

Following therefore upon the victories of modern civilization there treads an enemy more dangerous than any that has been overcome, who by awakening and satisfying our material wants binds us to the earth. For we scarcely realize how wealth and luxury and ease rob us of our truest liberty and enslave us to material things. In one way the modern world is greater than the ancient world, the poorest have a knowledge of Nature and a power of drawing upon her exhaustless resources that the old world never dreamed of, but with all this, the modern world has needs and requirements of which our forefathers knew nothing. Our nature is bound by a multitude of bonds which every new discovery supplies. The men of the past trod the earth with a freer step, their wants were fewer, they were less entangled in material things. We talk much of our mastery over Nature, how we conquer and bind her forces to do us service, but there is another and a greater victory, the victory which reduces material wants to a minimum and leaves the heart and mind free for higher things. It was a great victory, as it has been well said, which encircled the world with the telegraph wires, and almost annihilated space and time, but who can doubt that it is a greater victory which enables a man to bear with fortitude and calmness the message borne by those wires which tells him he has lost everything that the world had to give him.

The problem therefore becomes a serious one. Is an increase of scientific knowledge, leading as it inevitably does to an increase of luxury, and consequently entangling men more and more in material things, an evil? If science is the handmaid of civilization, and civilization means, at any rate on one side, a development of material comforts, is it a thing to be discouraged by devout Christians? Shall we boldly say, “the fewer our needs the better, the freer from the world the better, the more we look upon this earth as the place of our pilgrimage, and remember that it is not our home, but that our home lies beyond, the more we shall resemble Him who said, ‘The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay His Head,’ and therefore let us discourage in every way that kind of knowledge which tends to make life on earth more luxurious and to entangle men in its snares”.

We know well enough that this is no merely speculative consideration, it is one that presses upon every thoughtful Christian with increasing insistence under the perplexing conditions of modern life. Undoubtedly work, study, the struggle with Nature, develops the mind, hardens the muscles, and produces many excellent moral results in the men who so use their powers; yet the fruits of all this labour, thought and struggle is undeniably materializing. I am discontented today with the discomforts of travel which a few years ago I should have thought luxurious. I can’t get on out of reach of telegraph and telephone of which our grandfathers knew nothing; a few years’ residence amidst the manifold conveniences of a great town utterly unfits me for living in the country, Every year some new discovery shows me the possibility of making life more comfortable and makes me impatient of its discomforts. Have I then the right to make use of all these things, having before me the example and teaching of our Lord? or should I, as one who desires to follow in the footsteps of Him who said “If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his Cross and follow Me,” set them all aside, and discourage that kind of thought and study which produces them?

Certainly God gave us our minds to use, and He gave us the earth to subdue and conquer, yet the inevitable result of the use of our minds in this direction seems to be that it makes it more difficult, if not impossible, to follow closely in the footsteps of our Lord. It becomes therefore a serious question for the thoughtful Christian what is to be his attitude personally and intellectually towards a great deal of what comes under the head of modern civilization.

He seems to be placed in a difficulty whatever position he takes. For if he sets himself in opposition to modern thought and development he is told that he is simply opposing the use of those powers of mind and observation which God has given us, which cannot be justified, If on the other hand he upholds it, he seems to be giving his support to a system which has proved itself to be the greatest power for blinding men’s eyes to spiritual things and making them earthly and material.

How then is he to bear himself amidst the increasing luxury of the age in which he lives?

Now it would of course be very easy to answer to a person who put such a question, “If you feel that these things are injurious to your spiritual life, and that your conscience warns you against them, then you certainly ought to avoid them, but there are others who do not feel as you do. It is a matter for each individual to decide for himself. What is a luxury and a danger to one is neither a luxury nor a danger to another; you must not judge others by your own standards.”

But such an answer is only a shirking of the real difficulty. It is undoubtedly true that many individuals are called to live more strict and self-denying lives than others, and that some are called to “go, sell all that they have,” and follow literally in the footsteps of our Lord, But the question is not primarily one of individual vocation. It is, “What is to be the attitude of Christians generally towards a system that undoubtedly tends to make life luxurious? Is it to be one of protest or of sympathy?”

If, for instance, I say broadly, the whole structure of modern civilization is in direct opposition to the teaching of our Lord, and every man who desires to live a Christian life has only one course possible, that is, to keep himself free from the luxuries which it accumulates round him, and let his life be a protest against them. Then the answer is obvious. ‘Are we then not to use our minds, not to seek to discover what Nature has to give us, or if we do, are we not to make use of our discovery? Does Christianity forbid us to use the mental gifts which God has given us, and command, in many departments, life to stand still?” Such a question has only to be put to be answered in the negative.

On the other hand, if the necessity of our position obliges us to look forward to the wheels of life running ever more and more smoothly, and if we are assured that every fresh discovery is almost certain to be a new source of comfort and luxury, is the Christian, therefore, to take all these good things like every one else and to oil the wheels and pad the carriages that bear him along life’s road, without doubt or fear? And if this be true, what becomes of such sayings of our Lord as, “If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his Cross and follow Me”. “Every one that hath left houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, for My name’s sake, shall receive an hundred-fold, and shall possess life everlasting.”

Now the answer which is to guide the Christian’s life makes, as Christianity always does, high demands upon those who would be guided by it. And it is an answer which goes to the root of the difficulty, and is applicable not merely to individuals but to all. And it certainly does not involve its followers in a position which forbids them to use to the utmost the powers of mind which God has given them, nor on the other hand does it ignore but keeps to the front the fact that the fundamental idea of the Christian life and character is that of self-sacrifice and unworldliness.

But be it remembered that the religion of Christ has to do with men and the formation of character, and that it deals with things only in so far as they affect character. In other words, it lays down man’s proper relation to things. It condemns nothing. “All things are good if they are received with the Word of God, and with prayer.” It declares that “God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good”. It protests against the Manichean idea that there is inherent evil in anything, or that there is anything upon the face of this earth that God has not created.

Yet there is always a tendency in the human mind to condemn as evil those things which have ministered to man’s evil passions, as if the evil were in the thing rather than the person. But the morality lies not in the thing, but in the man. Many things are so associated with evil, and almost only with evil, that they seem to exhale an evil atmosphere which contaminates those who touch them. One can readily imagine that the cards or dice which have been the means of ruining a man’s character and property, might be regarded by him as things bad in themselves and to be universally condemned, yet they are as harmless as those which have given an hour’s rest and pleasure to a hard-working man. It is easy to see how stimulants and narcotics which have been so abused as to be the curse and ruin of the lives of vast multitudes should become so associated with moral ruin and sin in the minds of those who have suffered from them that a certain moral character is attributed to them. Yet these same things when used properly have been the means of saving health and life. It is so easy and so much more satisfactory to our pride to transfer the source of evil from ourselves to things outside of us; to say we were defiled, instead of, what is nearer the truth, we ourselves defiled what was otherwise clean. For the things that have been the instruments of untold evil are nevertheless in themselves good. The fact that they have been abused by bad or weak men is no reason why they should not be used by good men.

Yet how often do we hear sweeping condemnations uttered by men against some good gifts of God, because in their undisciplined hands they have proved a cause of grievous sin, and strong words of protest against those who use them with moderation. It is not uncommon to hear from those who take up a crusade against some great evil, such as intemperance, language that is altogether unjustifiable, not infrequently unchristian, The Church has often been accused of being lukewarm and backward in the part she takes in such movements, because She cannot go to these extremes. She cannot condemn as evil any of God’s creatures, however carefully their use may need to be guarded. It is not from lack of zeal but from reverence for the truth. Her language must always be that of moderation in contrast to the extremes to which many are led by their enthusiasm for a cause; and in the long run her attitude will be justified. It is not the part of wisdom to destroy evil at the expense of truth. Evil can only be overcome by truth.

So in many other cases the attitude of the Church has been misunderstood where she endeavours to preserve that moderation which is necessary in preserving the balance between two truths that may seem at first sight to be in conflict.

By the honour which she has always payed to the state of holy virginity she has been accused of slighting the married state, yet she alone amongst all Christian people has upheld in its fulness the dignity and indissolubility of marriage as a sacrament. She cannot exaggerate the dignity and sacredness of the married state at the expense of the other, nor in the exalted language which she uses of those who for the love of Christ give up all, does she cast any slight upon that which she calls the holy estate of matrimony.

So, again, she has always condemned the principles of socialism and maintained the rights of possession, and yet she honours with special reverence the state of holy poverty.

It is this perfect balance of mind, and this justice in maintaining to the full truths that may seem opposed, which has so often exposed her to the charge of lukewarmness on the part of those fiery enthusiasts which in their zeal press one truth to the practical denial of another. Money has been, as Saint James says, “a root of all evil”. It has fed every worst passion in the human heart, it has been the means of breaking the closest ties of friendship and of blood, it has hardened men’s hearts till they have almost ceased to be human. Yet money has been the instrument of untold acts of kindness and charity. The Church gives her blessing and protects the rights both of those who keep it and of those who for the love of Christ forsake all that they have. The thing itself is unmoral. It can become alike the instrument of good or evil in the hands of those who possess it. And thus the manifold fruits of civilization and of luxury which many gather around them, till every higher aspiration of the soul is stupefied and deadened and the light of heaven is clouded; such things are not in themselves to be condemned as evil, they are God’s good gifts and are capable of being used in His service, and as the instruments of charity and kindness.

It is not therefore by the condemnation of any of these things, or by attributing to them in themselves any moral value, that the Church of Christ would lead men in the way of perfection. It is rather by pointing out man’s true relationship to them, and teaching him that all depends upon this – that there is scarcely any of God’s creatures from which he cannot gain harm, and not one from which he cannot acquire some good; that the good or evil lies not in the thing itself, but in him, and in his use or abuse of it.

In one word, she teaches that man is made for God, and that all created things are given him as means to lead him to God. In so far as they are used as means to this end they help him on, in so far as they are used as an end in themselves they hold him back and come between him and God. All sin can be defined in the language of Saint Paul as “the love of the creature more than the Creator”. The entanglement of the heart in created things.

There is scarcely anything on the face of the earth that cannot be abused and become a snare. There is nothing through which the eye of faith cannot see some faint revelation of the power and wisdom and beauty of the Creator. We are the centre of many wants. A fierce fire of desire burns in the depths of every soul. We find scattered around us by the bountiful hand of God multitudes of things ready to our hand. Many of these things we cannot do without. Even those who reduce their needs to a minimum require many things – the food they eat, the clothes they wear, the houses they dwell in. And every one of these things can be used as means to fit a man to do his work and serve God, or merely for the pleasure they give in the using, till, for the enjoyment of that pleasure, they are sought after more and more and become a means of enjoyment – an end in themselves, and cease to have any relationship to God. And thus God is lost sight of in the creatures which He designed as His messengers to call men to Him.

Thus all that modern life puts at our disposal is, in itself, essentially neither good nor bad. Everything depends upon the way in which each individual uses it. The comforts and luxuries that we are accustomed to, and all that makes the wheels of life run smoother, do, no doubt, tend to make the multitudes who use these things without a thought of God more materialistic and earthly. But the same multitude, in other less luxurious ages, drifted away from God under the influences that were around them at the time, making them savage and cruel. If the heart be not anchored in God it will be drawn hither and thither by the currents in which it finds itself, whether these currents swamp them in material comforts or in brutal and savage passions. It is not by change of surroundings that men are brought to God, but by a change of heart. Prohibitive legislation will never Christianize men. A man who wants to get drunk will not necessarily be one whit a better man because the law has forbidden the use of alcohol in the place where he lives. If his passion be not put under restraint it will break out in another direction.

And men who crave for comforts and ease may be none the less material and earthly in their hearts because they cannot get them. The tramp, sleeping away his day under a haystack and living from hand to mouth upon what he can get, rather than work, differs little in his heart from the millionaire who lives for and loves the luxuries his money enables him to procure. The characters are pretty much alike, the difference lies merely in the accident of circumstances.

It is not necessarily the luxuries that make men luxurious, but the earthly undisciplined heart that loves and craves for ease and seizes upon all that ministers to it. Whether or to what extent these things can be had, is but an accident.

People often talk as if the poor, because they are poor, are unworldly, and the rich, because they are rich, are worldly. But such generalizations do not work out in fact. There are many amongst the poor whose hearts are filled with rage and bitterness against the rich and harrowed with discontent against their lot, and there are amongst the richest, hearts that sit very loose to their possessions and only long for the riches of God.

Therefore accepting things as they are, nay, more, rejoicing in every fresh discovery and every new development of life as God’s good gifts to man, the devout Christian knows that for him all depends upon his using every new thing that is placed at his disposal in the right way, as a means to an end, not as an end in itself, These things that naturally tend to entangle the soul and to press in between it and God if used carelessly can be, and as a matter of fact are, used by multitudes as a means of approach to God and as instruments in His service, and are received with thankfulness and prayer.

But no one can rise through the creatures to the Creator without effort on his part and the help of God Himself, Yet the difficulty lies within not without, in the heart and will, not in the external objects, He who is not struggling with himself and seeking the Divine assistance by prayer and sacraments will find it no easier to be spiritual in the barrenness of a desert than amidst all the luxuries of a most luxurious age. The difficulties would no doubt be of a different kind, but the results, so far as the spiritual life is concerned, would be very much the same.

The first consideration, therefore, for any man who would order his life according to the Will of God, must be his attitude towards all these things that crowd and press upon him and tend to cloy and deaden the soul. And that attitude is clearly defined. It is laid down as the first Law of the spiritual life given by our Lord – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”.

The Beatitude, be it observed, is not here upon the state of poverty as opposed to the state of riches. It is upon the poor in spirit. It is offered to all alike, the richest as well as the poorest. The attitude is one of freedom and inner independence. The man who has little of this world’s goods needs to put himself under the Law of the Beatitude as truly as the man who has much. He must keep his heart free from being dominated by the desire for possession. After all, the sphere touches the earth only on one point, but its whole weight presses and rests upon it as truly as some other thing which rests upon a wider base. Because a man has not much, it does not follow that he does not lavish his whole nature upon what he has just as much, perhaps even more, than one who possesses many things.

And the rich man must keep his riches in their place. He must not allow them to master him, or to sink under their spell. He must learn at once their danger and their value, and discipline himself till he has got to estimate them at their true worth.

Such an attitude of the soul towards the things of this world involves a constant vigilance, a ceaseless struggle with oneself, an insight that can only be gained by faith and preserved only by an unfailing fidelity to God. As our servants all these things are good and useful, as our masters they are tyrants.

For, through the fall, the mind of man has become clouded, and the things of earth have, as it were, become opaque; we see their beauty not as a transparency through which the Mind of God is reflected, but as things beautiful in themselves. And our nature has lost its balance and leans earthward. It is only as we regain by faith an insight into the reality of things, and, as we regain our balance by a constant struggle with ourselves, that we are able to use all things, as spiritual beings whose destiny is to rise through the creatures to the Creator.

The first Beatitude then is the first Law of the spiritual life, and sets man in his right position towards all things around him. It discloses to him the fact that the danger lies in himself, not in things around him, That all things are good, but that they can easily be abused and become the source of evil to him.

It legislates for no one age and no one set of circumstances. It applies no more to those living in the time of our Lord than to those living in the more complicated conditions of our own time. It condemns nothing. It forbids nothing. It does not look askance at those things which minister to the most luxurious lives, nor at those things which have been to many the occasion of sin and ruin. It looks out upon the fair world and repeats the words that were uttered ere man came to spoil the beauty of God’s work. “God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good.” It points man inward, and bids him become master of himself, and all things around him will fall into their place and serve him as he journeys Heavenward, “All things work together unto good to those who love God.” Creation recognizes and obeys its master, when its master is at one with himself and its Creator.

It would be comparatively easy if the use or possession of certain things were forbidden to those who would follow the example of our Lord, but men, as experience shows, would soon find some way of compensating themselves for foregoing the use of what was prohibited, and they would, moreover, be misled as to the real source of the evil and suppose that it lay without rather than within.

Thus man is placed, by the Beatitude, free in the midst of God’s creation, to have and to use what he will; all things are given him for his service, but he is warned of his danger, He must be the master of all, the servant of nothing.

And the Beatitude is a personal one. Each man knows where his danger lies, and what his struggle must be. The same thing may be a source of danger to one and of help to another. The moment any one finds that he is depending too much upon any created thing, the Law of the Beatitude bids him struggle with himself to keep it in its place.

It would be a strange and interesting revelation of character if we could see into the lives of those around us, and learn what it is that has constituted their life struggle, the chief source of their discipline or failure.

Some of us could look with calm indifference, or perhaps contempt, upon that which stirred the deepest passions in another and clouded a brilliant intellect, and swayed and bent a strong will into a degrading slavery.

It is hard to imagine that a thing which we use when needed, and think no more about, makes the head of some strong man swim and his pulses beat, so that he cannot even think of it with calmness or reason. But so it is, We all have a bent towards something here on earth that tends to gain stronger and stronger control over us, “till for its sake alone we live and move,” and are ready to sacrifice God, Heaven, eternity, place, power, influence, human affection, life itself.

We can perhaps look back into the past and see how some such things came into our lives and began to claim more and more of our thoughts, to stir our passions and kindle our hearts, till we felt we must fight them or become their slaves. And we can perhaps remember how fierce, how unreasonably fierce, the fight was, and that we had to turn our backs upon them and refuse to think about or use them till the spell was broken and the magic of their attraction was gone, and we can now laugh to think that such things came so near to robbing us of our liberty and of God.

An easy chair, a pleasant book, the pleasures of the table, have stood between many a man and a life of usefulness.

Such things, in so far as they attract any of us, attract by offering a blessing, a happiness of some sort. The Beatitude of the poor in spirit’ offers another kind of happiness, the spiritual happiness that comes through the possession of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is not merely for our liberty that we are to struggle with these things of earth. It is that we may get something better, and more worth having, something that ensures a far deeper and more lasting happiness. We cannot have both. The heart that is capable of infinite expansion in the love of God and the possession of Heaven can contract itself to the narrow limits of the love of some earthly comfort. It can do without God and the hope of Heaven, but it cannot do without an easy chair or a good dinner. It can do without righteousness, justice, truth, but it cannot do without the gratification of the senses. Such comforts bring no doubt their consolations, poor, transient and enervating as they are; if they did not men would not care to have them. There is a Beatitude for those who set themselves to possess the Kingdom of earth or any or all of the things it has to give, but behind the Beatitude stand remorse, regret, failure and restless discontent. And there is a Beatitude for those that will not have these things, but in poverty of spirit fight their way to the Kingdom that lies hidden behind them, and become possessors of that Kingdom which gives to those who win it liberty and eternal peace.