Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The Catechism states that the beatitudes are exclusive to Christ’s disciples and define the Christian life:
[T]hey shed light on the actions and attitudes characteristic of the Christian life; they are the paradoxical promises that sustain hope in the midst of tribulations; they proclaim the blessings and rewards already secured, however dimly, for Christ’s disciples (CCC, 1717).
“Blessed” here could also be translated “happy”:
The Beatitudes respond to the natural desire for happiness. This desire is of divine origin: God has placed it in the human heart in order to draw man to the One who alone can fulfill it (CCC: 1718).
By referring to the “poor in spirit”, Jesus does not just limit this promise to the impoverished but extends it to all of his followers enduring distress and who acknowledge their dependence on God.
One example of this particular beatitude occurred in my former days as a student in an evangelical seminary, which required 40 hours of internship. At a church in Minneapolis led by popular evangelical author John Piper, I was asked to make weekly visits to two young men whose parents had requested spiritual counseling: one of them was slightly mentally disabled, and the other had severe cerebral palsy; both experiencing depression. While both were positive experiences, my work with the young man with cerebral palsy had a particularly interesting outcome.
While palsy damages the body due to spasticity (involuntary muscle spasms), it doesn’t always affect intellectual capacity, as was in this case. The mind is trapped. Tim, who was 19, could not be understood and while our conversations were one-sided, we were able to develop a friendship.
I recorded and gave him cassette tapes of my favorite classical pieces which had a profound impact on him. I remember getting to his facility early once and seeing him relaxing in his wheelchair listening to Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances on full volume.
As I came to the end of my internship, I learned that Tim had made a request to the church for a special healing prayer for the ability to speak. The whole church was praying intensely for him and there was an expectation of an imminent miracle. This concerned me; God answers prayer but not always in a predictable manner and in this case, it ended in disappointment.
The semester ended and I returned home for the Summer. In the Fall I came back and while at church I saw Tim being rolled in by an attendant. I went over to greet him and in a fairly clear voice he greeted me back. We had a short conversation as his face beamed with joy. His attendant said that he’d been working with a speech therapist all Summer.
I reflect on two things when I recall this experience:
- Tim was still attending church. Though his prayer request was not answered right away, he remained faithful. He came to understand that developing the ability to talk was always a possibility for him and that this was God’s way of answering his prayer.
- Dr. Piper had been my Greek instructor in college and didn’t know much about me. He didn’t know that my brother was mentally disabled (Downs Syndrome), and that throughout high school it was my daily responsibility to take him to a place where there were simple jobs he could do; it was a Cerebral Palsy Center. There I got to know some of the staff and members. Was that coincidental or providential? Not sure.
Tim’s suffering ended as he passed away not long after that.
How is it, then, that I seek you, Lord? Since in seeking you, my God, I seek a happy life, let me seek you so that my soul may live, for my body draws life from my soul and my soul draws life from you.
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