By Fr. John Hainsworth
“The Glory of God,” said St. Irenaeus of Lyons in the second century, “is a man fully alive.” Quite a remarkable claim. It is not enough that God is worshipped by the myriads of angels. It is not enough that the sun and the moon, the earth and the seas, the mountains and the valleys, the creatures great and small reflect His glory and express His beauty. God’s glory is somehow completed in man being fully alive. So what does it look like and what does it mean to be fully alive?
The apostolic answer is clear. Life looks like Jesus Christ. If we would truly live, we must follow His example and teaching. There is no better answer to the question, “What does it mean to be fully alive?” than the nine descriptions of blessedness spoken by Christ Himself in Matthew’s Gospel (5:3–12). Taken individually or studied together, they are an icon of Christ, the Man fully alive, and of every genuinely holy person.
This article will focus on the first beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” As we will see, it is not only first in Gospel order, but provides the foundation on which all the others are built. But first, we must understand what a beatitude actually is.
What Is a Beatitude?
At a Bible study once, a conversation started up about the meaning of “beatitude.” One man said he’d heard that the word was a composite, meaning that we should be these attitudes, be-atitude. Some fought down smiles, but I thought this was a charming, albeit naive, approach. These are indeed attitudes that we should recognize and adopt as the proper state of being.
However, the word itself comes from beatus, the Latin translation of the Greek word macarios, which begins each of the sayings. There is no English equivalent to macarios; the best match, the one used in most translations, is “blessed.” This blessedness, this macarios, is unassailable joy, a state of matchless peace; it is the glory of God in a man fully alive. Being macarios means being a Christian.
Nine times from the mountaintop, as if pealing down from the courts of heaven, the Messiah proclaims the blessedness of being His disciple. He does not promise this blessedness as a future reward only; He describes it as a present reality, the state of being belonging to the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, the hungry and thirsty, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemaker, the persecuted and reviled. This blessedness is the quality native to a disciple of Christ, and this is why the beatitudes are immediately sobering as well. The French philosopher Leon Bloy said, “There is only one real sadness in life, that of not being a saint.”
Do we yet know unassailable joy? Is bliss our normal state of being? Are we in fact blessed? If not, then the beatitudes are a call to faith. The desert fathers said that God gives us His Spirit when we give Him our blood. The Lord says as well, “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12). This does not mean hair-shirts and violence to the body. It means an uncompromising loyalty to the words and example of Christ; it means allowing Christ to take mastery of our life; it means, most succinctly, “not my will, but Yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). For those of us taking up this call to discipleship, the best place to begin is the first of the nine beatitudes.
From the beginning of the beatitudes, we have a challenging claim. Sometimes this beatitude is read as meaning that we will be blessed and truly full of joy if we are fully aware of how insignificant we are, how truly meaningless our state is before God, if we cower in our state of spiritual poverty. But is this so?
The word used for poor is ptokos, and it describes an emphatic state of poverty: not that of a low-income wage earner, but that of someone who is without a wage at all, and indeed must ask for everything he receives. Commentators often use the image of a beggar to describe ptokos, but this is misleading. Disciples of Christ are not beggars; they are children, and beloved children as well, ones sought out by God even to death on the Cross. The more appropriate image of one “poor in spirit” is a child.
My little daughters are utterly dependent on me for everything. If I did not feed them, they would starve; if I did not clothe them, they would freeze; if I did not give them a house to live in, they would be totally exposed to the elements. A child, at least in circumstance, is ptokos. An adult is too, at every level of his or her existence. We forget our total dependence on God, the degree to which God permeates our reality. We forget this, or we just don’t know it. So, if we want to understand what poverty truly means, the first beatitude demands that we acknowledge from the beginning God as Creator of heaven and earth.
News about God
We claim first of all that the ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same God made everything we can see and know, and everything we can’t. The billions and billions of stars and galaxies, places we will never reach or know about, all exist because He took pleasure in making them. Yet not only the vast architecture of this universe springs from His deep pleasure, but the unfathomable fabric of it too.
Bill Bryson, in his book, A Short History of Everything, shares a remarkable story of a group of scientists who discovered that if you separate two subatomic particles by a distance of seven miles (a nearly incalculable distance at the subatomic level), and spin one to the right or to the left, the other will simultaneously spin in the opposite direction at exactly the same speed. This was a discovery which was left, at the time it was discovered, unexplained, because it opened a horizon at the subatomic level which the scientists felt was beyond their capacity to comprehend. This prompted James Trefil to remark that scientists had encountered “an area of the universe that our brains just aren’t wired to understand.”
There are universes within universes, and everything is God’s, and everything reveals and expresses Him. This is the first consequence of claiming that God created heaven and earth, namely, as Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it, that “the world is news about God.” “The heavens declare the glory of God; / And the firmament shows His handiwork. / Day unto day utters speech, / And night unto night reveals knowledge” (Psalm 19:1, 2).
What, then, is the news about God that we can read from His creation? First of all, it is that God loves to make things. As a young boy, I went on a seven-day backpacking trip into the Rocky Mountains with my family. We traveled to places few or none had ever been to before. After a whole day of climbing a difficult mountain pass, of cutting our way through thick undergrowth until we were sore and sorry to have even come, we came out into a vast mountain meadow between two glorious peaks. I saw miles and miles of every kind of flower in every conceivable color. Even then, as a boy, I felt in communion with the Divine, and I really wondered why so much beauty would exist and be so lavishly displayed for no one to appreciate—unless, like us, one happened to discover it all, and even then never return again. Clearly, this all existed because God took pleasure in making it.
God Loves to Create
But the news of that mountain meadow was that God loves to create. That creation exists because it was loved into existence. Man and beast, mountain and flower, camel and flea have their being in God’s love, and therefore express it to those who yearn to see it.
“This is very strange that God should have want,” says the great seventeenth-century English poet and mystic, Thomas Traherne, “It is incredible, yet very plain: want is the fountain of His fullness. Want in God is a treasure to us. For had there been no need He would not have created the world, nor made us, nor manifested His wisdom, nor exercised His power, nor beautified eternity, nor prepared the joys of heaven. But He wanted angels and men, images, companions. And these He had from all eternity.” What is more, Traherne says, this creation “is all filled with the majesty of His glory Who dwells in it . . . and we need nothing but open eyes to be ravished like the cherubim.”
We must understand, as central to our creed, that the world is news of His love, because God’s love creates the world, out to the furthest stars and down to subatomic particles. And He is still creating. As the rabbi states in Bishop Seraphim Sigrist’s book, The Theology of Wonder, “With God the act of creating and the act of sustaining are one act.” You are being created as you read this sentence. And the moments, the pages, the breath, the room, and the whole cosmos are being created with you through an act of love. God is not some clockmaker who, having assembled His masterpiece, sits back and lets it tick through until the end of its wind. He is nothing so mechanistic, so human, or so modern.
The Source of Our Dependence
This leads us to the deeper mystery of our dependence on God. God not only creates the cosmos, he is the pulse of His creation. He is the life in us, the blood in us, the thoughts in us, and not just in us but in everything. Dylan Thomas calls Him “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.”
A few years ago, I was getting my daughter ready for church. At that time in her life, she was asking a lot about where to find God. “I can’t see Him—I want to see Him.” She once walked into the sanctuary of the church and asked forcefully, “Where’s Jesus?” This seems like a good way to enter church. On this particular morning, she asked again where God was. I replied that He was in her heart. She put her hand to her chest and asked, “Is He my heartbeat?” This affected me deeply. God is not just in our hearts, He is the beat in our hearts, He is the pulse of man. I told her to feel her heart beat again whenever she needed to know that God was near.
God is not, as one popular song claims, “watching us from a distance.” He is not so passive as to be an observer, or even a cheerleader, to our lives. He is nearer to us than we are to ourselves, and so engaged in our lives and in all life that without Him nothing would have being. Christ incarnate and Christ crucified is the icon of that nearness. We might want God to be at a distance, and all sin is an attempt to put Him out of our way. But if we are alive, He is alive in us, and we through Him. When we sin, we in fact work against that life in us, and that is why “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).
We are like the grape on a vine: so long as we are connected to the branch, we are healthy, nourished, sweetening in the sun. When we remove ourselves from the branch, we fall and begin the slow process of rot and decay. This is dependence. This is poverty. This is ptokos.
The Poor in Spirit
So by claiming that God is the Creator of heaven and earth, the Orthodox are also claiming that we are connected to everyone and everything, and all things find their origin, existence, and meaning in God. Not a sparrow falls, not a flower blooms, not a fruit ripens, not a child is born, not a man dies, without Him. When we know this, and truly understand it, then we know that we are totally dependent on Him for everything, and can literally call nothing our own, not even our next breath. Like children, we are ptokos, we are utterly reliant, even if our fridges are full and our bank accounts flush. The fool, as the Lord defines Him in Luke (12:16ff), is the one who claims anything as His own, and those who trust in their riches are the most fragile people on earth.
The poor in spirit see wealth and poverty, health and sickness, as instruments of faith, opportunities for thanksgiving. They possess nothing and so give thanks for everything. They do this because their hearts are somewhere else. The kingdom of heaven is their only concern in this life. If they are sick, they make their illness an offering to God and rejoice that they can participate in Christ’s suffering, making their own sickness redemptive like His. If they are healthy and wealthy, they offer these gifts to God, to their neighbor, and use it all to make friends in heaven, giving always so that they never come to trust in their possessions.
When the young man came to Jesus to become His disciple, but asked to bury His father first, Jesus’ response—“Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead” (Matthew 8:22)—was not cruel indifference. He was making the point (which only the divine Son of God has the authority to make) that no matter what we have going on in this life, the Kingdom of heaven and the Gospel of salvation will always be pre-eminent and more urgent.
This is why the poor in spirit are filled with unassailable joy, why they are blessed, because knowing how totally dependent they are on God, knowing how fully the world reveals God’s presence and how beautiful this presence is, they know that they in truth possess nothing, and possessing nothing they possess everything. “Theirs,” the Lord says, “is the kingdom of heaven.” The poor in spirit are therefore an invincible force in this world, because they can be given the riches of nations, or cast to the streets of ghettos, and they will give thanks and find a way to offer it to God. They know how near He is and therefore how near is His Kingdom, the true gift that gives meaning to all gifts.
Fr. John Hainsworth is pastor of All Saints of Alaska Orthodox Mission of Victoria, British Columbia. Fr. John converted to Orthodoxy in 1992. He graduated from St. Vladimir’s Seminary in 2002 with a Master’s degree in Divinity.
This article originally appeared in AGAIN Vol. 28 No. 1.