Humility – or being Poor in spirit
has always been an admirable quality.
However, there has always been a double bind associated with it.
if we feel we are humble;
we probably are not.
Or as an American religious was reported to say once:
“I’m the humblest monk in Texas!”
Uriah Heep in Charles Dickens’ novel is obsequious,
#But that is a phoney sort of being poor in spirit,
Because his apparent humility masked an inner malignant pride and deceit.
Perhaps to be poor in spirit
Is actually to be accurate about oneself
Which can be both positive and negative.
*There is a story of Winston Churchill towards the end of his life being in
bed at Chartwell. A small child comes through the doors of his bedroom and
“Please Sir, my Mother said you were the most famous man in the world. Are
To which the reply was:
“Too right I am; now buzz off.”
That is an example of humility,
Because at the time, he was. It would have been inaccurate for him to deny
it out of a false sense of modesty.
Sometimes being poor in spirit is essential for one’s work.
I suppose the opposite of being poor in spirit,
Is someone who is full of themselves.
Some people in their work have to get themselves out of the way almost to
the point of being a non-entity:
There is a beautiful description of Smiley, the spy in Smiley’s People,
which said: “Smiley was a good spy. For instance, if he were sitting alone
in a pub and someone opened the door and looked around and left, they would
have sworn that the pub was empty.”
A good counsellor or listener often has the quality of forgetting
themselves and losing themselves in what someone else is saying in order to
identify what the meaning of what is being said is for the person saying it.
Someone who is poor in spirit in a spiritual sense, would be much like
Mother Theresa, who would essentially look at the world through a
God’s-eye-view, rather than her own.
It might be described as being like a stained-glass window in which God’s
love shines through our own particular window in the unique colours of our
Like the stars, the heavenly light shines most clearly when it is not
diminished by the light pollution of our own ego trip.
In the New Testament lesson read this evening, the Centurion, who is a
high-ranking officer in the Roman Army occupying Israel, sent some Jewish
elders to see Jesus, to save his servant’s life.
He did not come himself, nor did he send one of his own men.
Then when they approached his house, he sent word to say:
“Do not trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my
roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you, But
say the word, and my servant will be healed.”
Jesus calls his poverty of spirit, faith, for that is what it is.
He is putting absolute trust in God’s power acting through Jesus.
The degree to which he is able to trust Jesus, rather than his own
authority, is a poverty of spirit, which results in the healing of his
servant. Jesus’ says ” I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”
Perhaps it is like the laws of physics, that 2 things cannot occupy the same
space at the same time. Either we or our pride can be there
or others’ needs and God’s power can be present, though it probably is not
as absolute as that when we look at it on a paradoxical level.
On a paradoxical level, it can be the ultimate selfishness to be unselfish,
because we certainly receive far more. This is backed by research that
someone’s ability to be fulfilled is largely dependent on whether they can
live a considerate style of life.
Many ask the question “How can I allow myself to get close to another
person, without my pride or bossiness getting in the way?”
In short, how can I become intimate with another person or with God?
Perhaps the basic response is how can we become poor in spirit.
How is this done?
Think of a continuum:
On one side, there is power – on the other side there is intimacy.
We are somewhere in between.
Power is where I can get what I want, when I want it.
Intimacy is where I give up power, and allow myself to be vulnerable to
another person. When I am vulnerable, they have power over me.
They can hurt me, reject me, shun me, or say they do not love me.”
As a rule, the more power we have, the less intimacy.
To a powerful person, intimacy is shunned because the vulnerability feels
* I learned a valuable lesson about this from a strange cat I
once owned. It displayed strange behaviour, which I had to consult a vet
about. I would pet the cat who was lying on my lap. The cat would purr and
go to sleep. All of a sudden, , the cat would waken, jump up, bite and
claw me severely, often drawing blood, hiss and run off as if I had become
What the vet said, is that the cat, in going to sleep, would forget it was
being rubbed by a friend. It would suddenly wake up, and register the
closeness as danger. It would then attack as if its life depended on
defending itself from an enemy who had got too close, as it would in the
wild. He suggested only giving the cat a few rubs, and not letting it fall
asleep on my lap.
I thought, how similar to people who develop an intimacy, then suddenly
reject the partner, who is too close, because they register intimacy as
being powerless; the partner as being a foe.
Likewise when 2 wolves are fighting, when one wants the fight to stop it
lies on its back and bares its neck in a gesture of intimacy. The other
wolf could easily rip its opponent’s throat out.
It doesn’t, in the face of such an act of intimacy, hostility stops.
Perhaps this is similar to Jesus’ approach to violence by suggesting turning
the other cheek. This plays judo to power, through a display of intimacy.
In order to achieve intimacy with another person or with God, we have to
give up power, to become poor in spirit.
Power can take many forms. It can be by achieving dominance over another;
it can be to become addicted to drugs.
How is addiction power?
To take drugs is to feel better instantly. It places my feelings entirely
within my control. I can feel better now, without waiting for it to be in
the gift of others or a change in my own attitude toward what is happening.
This instant power comes at a heavy price. The heavy price is that we lose
our capacity to handle stress.
The interesting side effect is that if someone achieves a position of power,
or becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol,
the side effect is that it freezes one’s emotional age from the age the
power or addiction starts.
For instance, if someone starts drinking at 16 and stops at 45, then they
are a 16 year old in a 45 year old body.
When they stop drinking, they go through all the stages of development and
growth between adolescence and 45.
You can tell the emotional age often by the tone of voice, sometimes getting
it down to a year or two.
One such client said “It’s not fair, nobody loves me.”
“How old are you?” I asked
” I’m 35″ said the client
I replied, “Listening to the emotional age of the voice, it sounded like age
15 or younger.
Anyway, as they grew up emotionally, the voice changed to late adolescence,
then adulthood and took on a deeper and more understanding tone. The client
was listening to their own voice as well. We stopped when the emotional and
physical age were the same.
The poor in spirit, sometimes speak with the wisdom of an elderly person,
even when they are young in years.
I once was given a tape of a child aged 6 who had suffered and was in a
hospice. I said that it sounded as if the child were 6 going on 100. I could
even imagine myself sitting at his feet and learning something, despite the
It makes it interesting to listen to politicians on the news, to hear their
Here power does the same as drugs in bringing about arrested development:
Statements from world leaders like “We’re going to whup their ass”
” Or nobody is going to tell US that we can’t develop nuclear weapons”
betrays being stuck at a particular emotional age.
Isn’t it reassuring that many weapons of mass destruction in the world are
in the capable hands of a few emotional adolescents?
There is a spiritual paradox here. The more we have under our control in
possessions and power, the less intimacy, and the capacity to enjoy what we
In Zen, this truth is illustrated by a circular elliptical figure, which is
a complete circle, called MU.
MU means two things simultaneously: it means both everything and nothing
It reflects a divine truth that the more of everything we have; the less we
(Gadgets and worldly possessions cannot love us back)
The paradox it represents is one who is without possessions, owns the world.
And the one who owns everything, enjoys nothing of what he or she has
because of the worry of defending their possessions,
and therefore really enjoys nothing.
If we own nothing; we possess the world because no possessions own us.
*This truth was illustrated in a Zen tale.
A Zen master asked one of his disciples to reflect on the koan : “Do cats
The disciple went away for several days and reflected.
Finally he came back to the Master, sat down and answered in one word: “Mew
To be poor in spirit is to have no power
and to feel no burden of wealth.
It means to be able to be open to what life has to offer
— the intimacy of another
–the intimacy of the beauty of nature and the universe
but most important, the intimacy of God.
Both the hand and the heart
which wishes to receive, must first let go and be empty of lesser things
in order to receive the greater.
To be poor in spirit is indeed to be able to receive all that the kingdom of
heaven has to offer.
In a moment of silence:
At what time of your life were you the most full of joy, contentment and
on what particular loss or what poverty of goods or of spirit
made that joy possible? ///
Canon Beaumont Stevenson
Chaplain, the Psychiatric Hospitals of Oxford
Pastoral Care Adviser, Diocese of Oxford