Jesus, strong in stature, His constitution toughened by years of the hard physical labor of His trade, and by His hale attraction to long walks, mountains, and the wilderness, climbed a hillside so that the crowds of people could hear Him. Among them were men, women, and children, the old and the young, the healthy and the sick, people who knew they were sinners, and people who didn’t. And Jesus, in a voice that must have made the hillside ring, uttered words unlike any that men had heard before: “Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God!” (Luke 6:20).
I’d be a liar if I said I know what those words mean. We could spend the rest of our lives, I think, meditating upon this first and most fundamental of the Beatitudes and never come to an end of drinking of its wisdom.
That is, if we want to drink of its wisdom. The noblest of the pagans would have shrunk from it. Aristotle, a practical philosopher if ever there was one, held that to be really happy a man needed some wealth, not so much for comfort as for the pleasure of being generous with it. You can’t be a great benefactor to your city unless you have some means.
What he would have said about the poor widow whom Jesus praised, who gave her small coins to the Temple, and who therefore “cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury” (Mark 12:43), I am not sure. He probably would have praised her too — but to call her “blessed,” that might have required a stretch of the imagination. Or more, infinitely more. It might have required the lifting of his human mind and heart to a new reality — as a sapling transplanted into another and brighter world.
But what do those words mean? Jesus was not sent among us to be a social worker, armed with a sheaf of strategies for eliminating poverty from the world. Indeed, He seems to suggest that that will never happen. “The poor always ye have with you” (John 12:8), says He. But that does not mean He is indifferent to the poor. Nothing could be further from the truth. He goes out to meet them. He feels deep pity for them. He inveighs against those who abuse them from their positions of prestige and wealth.
It is not hard to see Jesus’ preference for the company of sinners as also a preference for the poor. For who could be poorer, or more miserable, than the tax collector in His parable? The Pharisee strides with insouciance to the foremost reaches of the Temple, where he contemplates the riches that God has showered upon him. He does not know it, but he is essentially falling down in adoration before man’s favorite idol — himself.
“God, I thank thee,” he says, “that I am not as other men are” (Luke 18:11), for instance like the tax collector he noticed as he passed him by. And this Pharisee goes on to mark off, as a man taking inventory of his precious goods, all the righteous deeds he performs, as, for instance, giving to the United Way, and suchlike. Meanwhile the tax collector, “standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).
Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Come with me to a prison cell. The most brilliant scholar of his day there sits at his desk, writing. He has been charged by his enemies with treason. It is essentially a political assassination. He is awaiting an unjust death, and, ever since the half-barbarian Goths came to be the overlords in the western empire, executions are horrible and cruel.
Perhaps he knew what sort of death he would die, from having watched others. One account has it thus. His enemies soaked a leather thong in heated vinegar, to stretch it. Then they bound the man hand and foot, and tied the thong around his forehead. The thong would take a day or two to shrink, slowly, agonizingly, resuming its original size, crushing the bones and penetrating the brain.
So the man, Boethius by name, is writing. He pretends in his own person to be moaning the treachery of Fortune, who once blessed him with honor and now has taken everything away. But in the midst of his sorrow he is visited by a figure of surpassing splendor. It is Lady Philosophy. She will lead him back to the threshold of his true dwelling place.
She does not say that the things that men pursue, such as wealth, fame, honor, power, and pleasure, are bad in themselves, but that they are only partial goods and that anyone who seeks them alone or even in combination with one another both gives himself over to the whims of Fortune and misses the true and unchangeable good he really seeks.
This is especially true of the wicked: for instance, those liars and power-grabbers who have conspired against this just man’s life. “Consider how terrible is the weakness of wicked men!” she exclaims. They fail not merely in the quest for some earthly good, but in the quest for the greatest good of all, for the fulfillment of their beings as creatures who are made to love the good and the true. Consider, she says, that if God denies the wicked His mercy, He may allow them to continue in their ways, rich in the things of the world, and utterly destitute. For happiness, says Lady Philosophy, is not something that man can scramble up on his own, in measurable amounts. It combines in itself the goodness of all good things. It can be found only in God. Indeed, it is itself God.
What God gives, no man can take away. We can only refuse the gift. So Boethius, with his whole life snatched from him, awaited his execution filled with riches. He had been reduced to a poor prisoner in a cell. His enemies gloated. Yet just because he had the Lord, he had everything. As Saint Paul says, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). If the people of the nearby countryside are worthy of trust, Boethius died in a state of grace. They revered him as Saint Severinus, after one of his Roman names. His bones are honored in a tomb in the cathedral at Pavia, in northern Italy, where rest also the bones of Saint Augustine. His bones rest there, but his soul sings in Paradise.
Blessed are the poor, says Jesus, for theirs is the kingdom of God, and I look about my own home and say, “How can this be?” For I have worked hard to provide my family with good things — a comfortable and attractive home, and a cottage far away for vacations in the summer. And I look at the alumni whom my school — a genuinely Catholic school — most pointedly celebrates, and they are not housewives and plumbers and carpenters and janitors and kindergarten teachers, but those who have made a “success” of themselves in the world of business or medicine or, Lord help us, politics. Those are the stories we like to hear. We especially like to hear them about ourselves.
There is the danger. In one sense it does not matter how much we have in our bank accounts. Jesus did not come to preach the evil of personal property. That would be the companion error to believing that our salvation comes from property. “Except ye be converted,” says Jesus, “and become as little children, ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). There is nothing in all the sagas and chronicles of the ancient pagan world that prepares us for such a saying; the closest, perhaps, is the sight of the aged and blind Oedipus, humbled by unspeakable suffering, led by the hand by a young girl, his loyal daughter Antigone. What can Jesus mean by it?
A little child has nothing of his own, but receives everything as a gift. This we can do whether we own a yacht and enjoy sailing it on the high seas, or whether all we can do is tie an old tire to a tree for our children to swing on. Is this what He means by the blessing of poverty? That we heed the word of Saint Paul, and buy, as though we “possessed not” (1 Corinthians 7:30)? Is this the whole of it, that we do not set our hearts on such things, as if we were their masters? Perhaps.
And yet there is the danger. “He hath filled the hungry with good things,” says Mary, dwelling with joy upon the wonderful thing God has done for her, “and the rich he hath sent empty away” (Luke 1:53). The danger is that the things will stuff us full, and we will not be hungry for what really satisfies. The danger is that the things will be heaped so high that we will not see the vast homeland beyond. The danger is that the things will so distract us with their racket that we will not hear the still small voice that fairly broke the heart of the prophet Elijah.
But maybe there is more. Maybe I underestimate the very blessings of poverty. Let us engage in no sentimentality here. A life of poverty is not easy. It strikes fear into the heart of fallen man, as does the approach of the ultimate destitution, the thing we all fear. Says Dante, speaking of the young Saint Francis:
Still a lad,
Against his father he swept off to war
to win his lady love: and such was she,
no one for her unfastens pleasure’s door,
As not for death.
Francis’s father accused the boy of stealing money from the family till, to buy mortar to repair the local churches. Before the bishop and the town elders, in the public square of Assisi, he threatened to disown his son, but before he could do that, Francis disowned him instead, stripping off his clothing and tossing it back to him. That was his wedding embrace of the lady in whose honor he sang, Lady Poverty. Others fear her as they fear death, but, as Dante puts it with almost terrifying power, that Lady
was constant and so fierce
that when his mother Mary stood below,
she alone wept with Christ upon the Cross.
The world tells stories of people who work hard and go from rags to riches. It also tells stories of people who through their own folly or wickedness go from riches to rags. But Christians tell stories of those who through poverty — and often the material poverty we seek to eliminate — reap untold riches. This is not because we scorn the good things of the world, but because we seek what is above. Saint Francis himself, as that poor man of God, would fall in love all the more joyously with the beauty of the earth, even preaching to the birds.
This is hard for us to understand. A secular person might say, “Yes, I see what you mean. You are advocating a simple life, like the one that Thoreau lived when he retreated to Walden Pond. Then he could appreciate the beauties of nature, and not be encumbered by the cares of the world.” No, that is not it at all. Thoreau was animated less by love than by disdain. Sure, he was in a better position to love the natural world while living in a hut by the side of a lake than while living in town. But the joy of Saint Francis is missing.
That is because Thoreau’s self-imposed poverty was a protest against the way his fellows lived. Saint Francis, in his poverty, did not betake himself to the woods to escape the evils of Assisi. He preached in that town he loved, by his way of life. He was so obviously enraptured by his bride, Lady Poverty, that he attracted others to him, and soon there was a community, one whose spirituality would breathe in the art and poetry and song and life of the Christian West for hundreds of years. Thoreau died with a grumble; Francis, with a hymn.
Perhaps it takes a Christian artist who himself knew the pangs of hunger and the embarrassment of debt to help us to understand. The novelist Leon Bloy was a poor man with a family. He wrote fiery satires against the self-satisfied rich in France at the turn of the twentieth century and how they subjected the poor to indignity, squalor, thievery, and contempt. But in his novel The Woman Who Was Poor, we see the noble heroine Clotilde, after she has lost her infant son to disease, and after her beloved husband has laid down his life while saving others from a conflagration, give up everything and live as a beggar in the streets of Paris.
She has known great suffering. Her mother tried to sell her off to prostitution. Her mother’s bedmate was a filthy sot who once tried to rape her, with her mother’s tacit consent. When her child died, an evil and debauched woman neighbor spread the rumor that Clotilde and her husband had smothered him. And yet she has the riches of Jesus. Has she been unhappy?
Her final words are simply these: “There is in the end only one unhappiness: not to have been one of the saints.”
As the great Karl Adam says, “Jesus loves the poor not simply because they are poor but because spiritually they are more capable than the rich of hearkening to the message of the coming kingdom, of hungering and thirsting after justice.” I imagine a palace atop a steep mountain. There is a legend that within that palace is unending and unquenchable joy. Every so often, a strain of music can be heard from it, but it is soon drowned out by the bustle in the plains below. Every so often, a radiance can be seen from its turrets, like the northern lights, but it is soon smothered by the glare of the shops and streetlights below.
In the city of the plains, people bustle. You can read about them in the newspapers. Their stories sell. Their bodies sell, too, and sometimes the buyers won’t have the story without a picture of the body. There is also a vast mart called an exchange, where people, jittery, breathless, hunted, suspicious, buy and sell stocks. Much of the bustle in this city on the plain is devoted to the elaboration of emptiness. You can buy emptiness in bright boxes. You can wear it on your shoulders. You can erect monuments to it. You can consume it, and in more than one way.
Now I imagine a young man at the base of the mountain. He has heard a distant echo of the strains of joy coming from the palace. He sees the steep narrow path that leads to the palace gates. It is called, by the city folk, the Eye of the Needle. They tell terrible stories about people losing everything who venture on that road — prestige, money, power, pleasure, and other objects of ultimate importance. All at once he sees a stranger before him. The stranger looks upon him with love. He says, “Come, let us go up to the altar of God.”
Now, the young man has a camel with him. The camel is heaped up with boxes. One box is full of diplomas, from the University of the World, Mammon Polytechnical, and Self-Lifting High. The young man is proud of them. He plans to use them to do good things. There is another bundle tied up with a rope. In it are pillows and blankets and sheets he has bought from an exchange called Astarte’s Secret. The young man is taking them along, just in case. He isn’t a dissipated fellow, not one to find himself ever feeding pods to swine, but he isn’t a Puritan either. It is important to be prepared — that is what he has learned as a scout.
Then there’s a contraption with iron weights, for making his body handsome and strong, and a keg of beer, for doing the opposite. Medals, mirrors, letters from girls, pictures of himself, memories of victory, all heaped up on the camel, for the great adventure of life. This adventure, for most, means meandering about the plain, looking into the shops, dragging camels along, trying to keep the boxes from falling over, until the play is over.
“Come with me,” says the stranger, smiling. And the youth replies, “I want to — I do. But what do I do with all my things?”
“You will lose nothing true. You may lose much that is untrue. We in the palace do not trade a genuine pleasure for a genuine pleasure. We cast away shadows and give what has substance. You can only gain. Aren’t you hungry for it? Don’t you thirst for it?”
“But what am I to do with my honors from the University of the World? I know I’m not the most important person alive, but I did think I would do something with myself. That was my plan, at least.”
“Anything of truth you have learned there,” replies the stranger, “you will not only retain, but you will find bearing fruit a hundredfold. But the chaff will be blown away. You must forget about honors. Think of your hunger instead. Think of joy.”
“Maybe I can try to climb the pathway with my camel?”
“You may try, but you will fail. The poor beast cannot make it. This is not a path one climbs by being weighty and great. It is a path one climbs by being light and little. Take the boxes off the camel’s back, and then lead him too, if you love him.”
“I don’t know… Can I think about it?”
“That isn’t true, is it? You don’t want to think about it. You want to think about something else instead. Come, isn’t that so? Here, turn that noisebox off for a moment — I have a melody to give you. Or take down that neon light. I have a sunrise to give you.”
“Why,” says the young man, “you are a trickster! You don’t want me to have less. You want me to have even more. You want to give me things. Why should I exchange these things for those things?”
“Because my gifts are true, and you know it. Please now, let’s take these boxes and bundles off the poor camel. May I?”
What shall we do? Shall we let Him unload the stuff? He is waiting to give us all good things, if He can but find the room for them in our hearts. Why, He is waiting to give us Himself, if we would only come to Him as children. Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God.