Friday, August 11, 2017

Naked before the throne

It's getting late, but there is a murmur of restless expectation in the air. Across the valley, people are gathering to hear the prophet.

They file out of their homes, they leave their businesses unattended, and they abandon the market. As the crowd builds, it flows uphill like a storm breaker on the shore toward the mountain, where the prophet has gone with his students. The water rises, and then it crests at his feet, and the people grow quiet. The prophet is speaking.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit," the prophet says, "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

"Poor in spirit." A susurrous like falling leaves ripples through the crowd as the phrase tumbles past Jesus' lips. These are a people who know poverty. The fishers among them may catch a hundred fish in the morning, and be left with only ten to sell by the time the tax collectors have taken their ill-gotten share.

The carpenter or stonemason may work all day, six days a week to provide or his family and his wife may labor all day caring for the children and buying and selling at the market, and still every day is a struggle to survive. Poverty is an old, familiar and unwelcome guest in their lives. He eats their best food, wears through their sandals, and leaves holes in the roof so that the rain gets in. They know poverty.

But poverty of the spirit. Do they know that?

There's Miriam, told at the age of 13 that she would marry a man three times her age and not the boy whom she loved, so that she ran away to the house of her father's sister and caused a scandal that her community still hasn't forgotten. Three years later, she is still not welcome in her father's home and continues to live with her aunt. Yesterday morning she heard that the boy she gave all for has married her worst enemy. Poverty has been eating away at her insides ever since.

Or there's Eliezer, who had studied for years under Rabbi Zecheriah to become a rabbi himself. He had studied Torah for years, memorized the Books of Moses, the psalms and even the scroll of Isaiah, only to be found that he could not become the rabbi he had dreamed of, and would have to become a scribe instead. His spirit is as impoverished as they come.

Then there's old Noach, named for the famed prophet on the Ark. He's a dissolute drunkard who wakes up every morning ashamed of what he has made of his life, and drowns his shame once he has begged enough coins to buy a fresh skin of wine. Poverty of the spirit is all he has left.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The words are more than an invitation to follow, to believe, or to have faith. They are a declaration. The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them, because they know their need for love and restoration, for peace and a new dream to replace the one that failed, and even for forgiveness. The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them because they have lost everything that matters to them, and now they are finding that what matters is taking hold of them.

Miriam may never see her father or mother again. But in her aunt's house and afterward, she may discover a contentment and a level of support that she never knew was possible at her father's house. Eliezer may never become the rabbi he had hoped to be, but he may discover a new dream that will allow him to wonder and discover truths he had never imagined.

And Noah? He may always remain a besotted drunk in the alleyway. But he'll never be turned away or shunned by anyone who loves him.

Knowing spiritual poverty is only the first step. It's the beginning of a journey, yet it's a place that they will return to again and again. We first become aware of our poverty when we become aware of need to follow Christ, whether for forgiveness from sin or just because we realize that he has the answers we're looking for.

Our sense of poverty is renewed later when we encounter teachings that are difficult to come to terms with, even true ones. It deepens once more when we realize the inadequacy of our understanding, and how our faith structure fails to comprehend the world, such as when we see and comprehend the suffering of others.

At some final point, everything collapses before our eyes, and our spiritual poverty is complete. St John of the Cross called this the Long, Dark Night of the Soul. I've heard other people call it being ruined for life. It's the point where there is nothing left, except a voice that says "Follow me" and you have to decide if that's enough.

This is only the first, the least of the Beatitudes, and it is more than I can handle. Kyrie leison. Christ have mercy upon us.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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