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.
I have gotten so used to stories of violence in the news every morning that I confess they don't move me as much as they should, or used to. Today: Three straight days of killing in Karachi with 42 dead; Syrian tanks shelling the city of Hama, where more than 100 people have died since Sunday; U.N. peacekeepers killed by a landmine in Sudan; daily deaths in Libya; bombings in Baghdad and assassinations in Kandahar. It goes on and on.