THE POOR IN SPIRIT
For many perhaps, the promise of the Beatitude of the Poor in Spirit seems incomprehensible. It seems incomprehensible, what is to be understood by the expression, — poverty of spirit. Certain of the fanatical regard it, that this is an impoverishing of spirit, a freeing it from every thought, lest there be asserted the sinfulness from any thought, of any intellectual life. Others, unreceptive to such an explanation, regard the word “spirit” as an added interpolation not included in the original Gospel text.1
We do perceive, how needful it is to understand this expression.
At monastic tonsure, the person being tonsured gives among other vows a vow of non-acquisitiveness, i.e. of poverty, which can be understood in a material sense, i.e. as the renunciation of every accumulating a wealth of material things. The strict fulfilling of this vow would lead to the blissfulness of the poor, but in such a materialistic and narrow interpretation there would still not be a revealing of the entire concept, — blessed are the poor in spirit.
The vow of non-acquisitiveness can be and ought to be broadened also into the spiritual sphere, and the man giving it, were he to renounce spiritual acquisitiveness, would give him spiritual poverty, for which is promised blessedness. But what is such a spiritual non-acquisitiveness?
In opposition to non-acquisitiveness generally there are two vices, which we in the monastic common-life little differentiate between: the vice of stinginess and the vice of greed. In analysing them, we see, that the stingy man can be quite non-greedy, and the greedy one even a wastrel. It might be possible to present these two vices in view of suchlike a formula. The stingy one says: “What is mine — is mine”, — but very often he does not add on to this: “What is thine — is also mine”. The greedy one however says: “What is thine — is mine”, –but in turn does not always add to this: “What is mine — is also mine”. He can especially want to take from a stranger, while not very much guarding his own in this case. There does occur, certainly, such a state of greed, when it is combined with stinginess, and conversely. This is when the saying goes: “What is mine — is mine, and what is thine — is likewise mine”.
The non-acquisitive man ought to be free both from stinginess, and from greed, and he ought to say: “What is mine — is thine, and what is thine — is likewise thine”. But it would be too simple to think, that this relates only to material goods. Non-acquisitiveness, the absence of miserly stinginess and greed ought to relate to all the inner world of man. We know, that Christ taught us to lay down our soul for another,2 — herein this laying down of soul, this surrendering away of it is also that, which makes man poor in spirit. In the monastic common-life, on the contrary however, even amidst a quite negative attitude towards material acquisition, we are accustomed to regard the spiritual guarding of oneself as something positive. It however is very terrible, since it is not a material, but rather spiritual, a sin. — As such, a spiritually understood virtue of non-acquisitiveness ought to render man open to the world and to people. Life outside the churchly, and the often also distortedly understood Christianity, has accustomed us to an hoarding of inner riches, and has accustomed us to an outward love of prying curiosity, — i.e. a greed in relation to the spiritual world of those nigh about us. We often hear, that man in his love ought to know a measure, limiting himself, — and this is a watching over oneself, for one’s own spiritual benefit, one’s own path of salvation.
Christ did not know measure in His love for people, — and in this love He lowered Himself in His Divinity to the point of being incarnated as Man and took upon Himself the sufferings of all. In this sense He teaches us by His example not of a measured limit in love, but rather an absolute and immeasurable surrendering away of oneself, by definition a laying down of one’s soul for others.
Without such a striving for suchlike a surrendering away of oneself, there is no Christianity, there is no following in the path of Christ.
And it is not Christ, but an ideal external to Christianity, that tells us about the hoarding of inward and outward riches. We know, to what this ideal leads, we know the egoism and egocentrism reigning in the world, we know, how concentrated upon themselves people are, on their own peace of soul, on their own manifold interests. We know only too well. The guarding of one’s own spiritual world, the closing shut of our eyes leads to this, that people as it were poison themselves, they begin to rot, they are bereft of joy, they become intolerant, they fall listless. In a most paradoxical way, they beggar themselves from out of the process of watching out for themselves, since they degenerate into an eternal self-loving and self-attention. The beggars, the poor, guard over their rags and they do not know, that the sole means is not only to guard them, but also to transform their rags into riches, — this means to give them away with joy and love, to whomever has need of them.
These rags — are the rot-corruptible riches of he kingdom of this world. Giving them away, giving oneself away wholly, laying down one’s soul, a man renders himself poor in spirit, which is blessed, since then his is the Kingdom of Heaven, in accord with the promise of the Saviour, since that he therein is become a possessor of the incorruptible and eternal riches of this Kingdom, and is become so already here on earth, finding joy beyond measure, the giving away of self with a sacrificial love, with the ease and freedom of non-acquisitiveness.
Monachina Maria (Skobtsova)
© 2001 by translator Fr. S. Janos
Nischie Dukhom. Article included in Tom 1 of the 2 volume set entitled:
“Mat’ Maria (Skobtsova): vospominaniya, stat’i, ocherki”, by YMCA Press, Paris, 1992, p. 231-233.
Bibliographic notes indicate that this was a “first-time printing” for this unpublished ocherk-draft, and no date as to when written is indicated.
1 [trans. note: Compare the Beatitude in Mt. 5: 3 with Lk. 6: 20, which would seem to suggest such disputational grounds for the “interpolation” or else “deletion” via copyist errata of the phrase “in spirit”, absent in Luke but present in Matthew. And moreover, Mother Maria is quite aware of a further complication: the Slavonic text “corrects” the Lk. 6: 20 Greek/Latin text (as in my Nestle version), by re-adding the “dukhom / in spirit”, — apparently upon some authoritative grounds outside the scope of non-specialists in this area, such as myself. English translations follow the Greek/Latin as in Nestle edition, which however lists no textual variations on this in marginalia. The “dispute” here is further heightened by such trends as the Protestant “Social Gospel” mindset. The form of the Beatitudes as in St Matthew are very familiar to the Orthodox, and are liturgically used in non-festal Liturgies. The curious might also note a curious element in the St Luke shortened Beatitudes — the “Vaecumi / Woe-to-ye”, absent in Matthew.
The Beatitudes in the St Matthew form are thus very familiar for the Orthodox, but remain enigmatic of meaning. Within the Beatitudes internal structure, one thing that Mother Maria fails to note here, is the reiteration of the “for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”, which is said again regarding: “Blessed are those persecuted/outcast for righteousness’ sake”…which perhaps is known only by being lived.]
2 [trans. note: English readers of the Gospel are perhaps here unfamiliar with what Mother Maria is referring to: Jn. 15: 13. “Maiorem hac dilectionem nemo habet, ut animam (Grk.”psukhen”) suam ponat quis pro amicis suis” (“Greater love hath no one than that he lay down his soul for his friends”). Cf. also Mk. 8: 35 “Qui enim voluerit animam suam salvam facere, perdet eam” (“For whoso would save their soul, must perish it…and whoso perisheth his soul for my sake and that of the Gospel, doth save it”). In this, the Slavonic (“izhe vo azhe khoschet dushu svoiu spasti, pogubit iu…”) quite accurately follows the Greek and Latin texts, instead of the pell-mell willy-nilly useage of English translators of “life” in place of “soul”. There is a far deeper and more tremulous spiritual dynamic involved in risking one very soul for Christ-God, rather than merely one’s life. Mother Maria and Orthodox Holy Tradition are quite aware of this deeper aspect, which however is tragically lost on Orthodox familiar only with the English Gospel text.]