Blessed are the poor in spirit:

a contemplative perspective


I remember my teacher, the Benedictine Sylvester Houedard, speaking one day about how so many young people were travelling to India and the East in search of what Western Christianity had failed to pass on to them. 

This was in spite of the maxim “to hand down to others the fruit of contemplation” (contemplate aliis tradere).

This maxim, Sylvester explained, is based on the unity of temple and kingdom. As we become living temples God reigns through us. Our body, our life, becomes a place where the kingdom happens for others.


“The temple of our body surrounds the inmost room that we enter to pray; the kingdom is manifest in the deeds that flow out from that centre.


“This unity of what flows out in the kingdom from the centre to which we turn (and which we enter) in prayer, is what Christ taught and is the authentic tradition of the Church – the unity between knowing God in contemplation and loving God through compassion for the whole of mankind.


“The vision of God begins when we see God in all things and in all people and are able to love and forgive them as God loves and forgives us. Loving and forgiving others we already share in the nature of God who is Love; not asserting our own selfish love, we allow God to love others through us, and this is the beginning of God’s kingdom or reign through us.”


“Where do we begin the journey to the unity of kingdom and temple?” I asked.


Sylvester replied, “Through turning to God’s presence in the heart of mind, which is his image and the living temple that we are. Through the practice of unselfish love. Through letting go of the sense that we are self-made and coming to know our utter dependence on God. Through becoming poor in spirit, which is letting God be God.”

In the first Beatitude, Jesus points to the wellspring from which all the Beatitudes flow: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus is not speaking about the economically poor, but of those who know their utter dependence on God, who no longer need to exercise power and control over others and the world in order to sustain their sense of identity.

In his Conferences on prayer, St. John Cassian, who was largely responsible for bringing our tradition of meditation to the West in the fifth century, says that we must hold onto our prayer word with the mind, “so that after saying it over and over again…it has the strength to refuse all the abundant riches of thought. Grasping the poverty of this little [word] it will come all the more easily to that first of all the gospel beatitudes, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven’ (Matt. 5:3).” (1)

Notice how Cassian links the “poverty” of the prayer word with becoming “poor in spirit.”  Meditation is a path of dispossession, of self-emptying in the pattern of Christ, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of slave, being born in human likeness” (Philippians 2:7). The path of self-emptying (kenosis) is the path by which we become fully human.

However strange it might seem at first, to let go of all “the abundant riches of thought” is moment by moment to relinquish our need for control and turn to the stillness at the heart of all mental activity, to the still centre, which like the centre of a wheel remains still whether the wheel is turning or not: it is to turn to the silent wellspring of our life.

“What poverty can be greater and more holy than that of the one who...recognises that their life and being are at every moment sustained by divine help?” says Cassian. The absolute poverty of meditation awakens us to the mystery of the Other in which our life is found - the mystery which remains closed to us as long as we remain closed-in upon ourselves.


It’s not easy to speak about this this. It can only really be understood through our own experience. How can we put into words the path that invites us to go beyond all words?

Well, we might not need to speak about this. Somehow, through grace, the path of becoming poor, of dispossession, brings about an inner harmony and peace that communicates itself. The poverty of the prayer word helps us to learn a completely new relationship with life. As we cultivate the power of ungrasping attention, awareness opens. We are increasingly able to live and love from the spaciousness of the heart, with a new capacity to see and hear, to understand and serve others.

The person who perseveres in the simplicity and innocence of the practice, says Cassian, “is a danger and a menace to no one. They are satisfied with their simplicity.” They are content to be on the journey, to be always beginning. In other words, they are content to be human.

What might we see if we look at someone who has become poor in spirit?

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.”

Blessed are those who know their dependence on God, that their life is God’s gift of himself, that the flow of their breath rests on the ceaseless flow of God’s being within them.

Blessed are those who no longer need to exercise power and control over others and the world to know who they are, who no longer need the gaze of others because they live in the light of God’s gaze.

Blessed are those who have replaced competition with collaboration, rivalry with friendship.

Blessed are those who understand the nature of interdependence, that communion is the source of creation, that salvation is a journey in community, co-created with God.

Blessed are those who no longer hide from their mortality, who have learnt to lift their gaze and look to God.

Blessed are those who know how Christ meets us in our brokenness, in our failures and our wounds, and transforms them into doorways of light.

Blessed are those who are undefended, who have learnt to accept and indwell their vulnerability, who have discovered in the silent ground of their humanity a wellspring of solidarity and compassion for all.

Christian meditation - a new way of seeing for a new way of being

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