"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." —Matthew 5:3
IT IS THE RARE SOUL who remembers particular lines from scripture for reasons other than professional advancement or private absorption, but I remember even as a child being totally riveted by the odder blunter saltier lines in The Greatest Story Ever Told—the ones that made me elbow my wry patient dad, like be kind to your father even when his mind goes, or the ones where the Christos isn’t so much godlike as he is a rattled guy, such as when he whirls and shouts who touched my clothes?!, after he felt the power leave him, what a phrase!
And one of those lines for me has always been blessed are the poor in spirit. I heard that for the first time as a child, of course, at Mass, late in the morning, drowsing between my alpine dad and willowy mother, in a pew filled with brothers seated with parental buffers so as to reduce fisticuffery, and like everyone else I was puzzled and nonplussed; wasn’t the whole point to be rich in spirit? How could you be bereft spirit-wise, but get a backstage pass to the kingdom of heaven? What was that all about? Was that a major serious printer’s error no one had noticed all these years? Was it supposed to be pear in spirit, or something artsy like that?
Diligent schoolteachers subsequently explained it to me, and my gentle wise parents explained it, and learned university professors explained it, and able scholarly writers explained it, and I got the general idea, that the word poor there is better understood as humble, but humble never really registered for me, because I was not humble, and had no real concept of humble, until my wife married me, which taught me a shocking amount about humility, and then we were graced by children, which taught me a stunning amount about humility, and then friends of mine began to wither and shrivel and die in all sorts of ways, including being roasted to death on Sept. 11, and I began, slowly and dimly, to realize that humble was the only finally truly honest way to be, in this life; anything else is ultimately cocky, which is either foolish or a deliberate disguise you refuse to remove, for complicated reasons maybe not even you know.
Of course you do your absolute best to find and hone and wield your divine gifts against the dark. You do your best to reach out tenderly to touch and elevate as many people as you can reach. You bring your naked love and defiant courage and salty grace to bear as much as you can, with all the attentiveness and humor you can muster; this is, after all, a miracle in which we live, and we ought to pay ferocious attention every moment, if possible.
But no, you cannot control anything. You cannot order or command everything. You cannot fix and repair everything. You cannot protect your children from pain and loss and tragedy and illness. You cannot be sure that you will always be married, let alone happily married. You cannot be sure you will always be employed, or healthy, or relatively sane.
All you can do is face the world with quiet grace and hope you make a sliver of difference. Humility does not mean self-abnegation, lassitude, detachment; it’s more like a calm recognition that you must trust in that which does not make sense, that which is unreasonable, illogical, silly, ridiculous, crazy by the measure of most of our culture; you must trust that you being a very good you matters somehow. That trying to be an honest and tender parent will echo for centuries through your tribe. That doing your chosen work with creativity and diligence will shiver people far beyond your ken. That being an attentive and generous friend and citizen will somehow matter in the social fabric, save a thread or two from unraveling. And you must do all of this with the sure and certain knowledge that you will never get proper credit for it, at all, one bit, and in fact the vast majority of the things you do right will go utterly unremarked; except, perhaps, in ways we will never know or understand, by the Arab Jew who once shouted about his cloak, and may have been somehow also the One who invented and infuses this universe and probably a million others—not to put a hard number on it or anything.
Humility, the final frontier, as my late brother Kevin used to say. When we are young we build a self, a persona, a story in which to reside, or several selves in succession, or several at once, sometimes; when we are older we take on other roles and personas, other masks and duties; and you and I both know men and women who become trapped in the selves they worked so hard to build, so desperately imprisoned that sometimes they smash their lives simply to escape who they no longer wish to be; but finally, I think, if we are lucky, if we read the book of pain and loss with humility, we realize that we are all broken and small and brief, that none among us is actually rich or famous or more beautiful than another; and then, perhaps, we begin to understand something deep and true finally about humility.
This is what I know: that the small is huge, that the tiny is vast, that pain is part and parcel of the gift of joy, and that there is love, and then there is everything else. You either walk toward love or away from it with every breath you draw. Humility is the road to love.
Humility, maybe, is love.
That could be. I wouldn’t know; I am a muddle and a conundrum, shuffling slowly along the road, gaping in wonder, trying to just see and say what is, trying to leave shreds and shards of ego along the road like wisps of litter and chaff.
This article is fifth in a series of reflections on the beatitudes, written by some of Sojourners' favorite contemporary authors.