Open to God’s Mercy

The familiar blinds us. All too often we hear a reading from scripture and we think, “Oh, I’ve heard this before.” Eyes glazed over, our minds turn to daydreaming or planning the day. It is amazing how blind we can become when we think we know something. The Beatitudes are a prime candidate for our being blinded by familiarity. What we need is a shock to our system to bring us to a deeper awareness and a greater incorporation of Jesus’ wisdom into our lives. Therefore, I suggest simplifying the Beatitudes to focus on the first, “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” and using a very different word to describe what Jesus means here. That word is nothingness.

Nothingness is not some new-fangled or dangerously innovative term. It comes from Catholic tradition. St. Paul, for instance, writes, “God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something” (1 Corinthians 1:28). Meister Eckhart, a fourteenth century German mystic, specifically equates poverty of spirit with the way of nothingness. In Sermon 52 he says, “a poor person wants nothing, knows nothing, and has nothing.” No less than a doctor of the church, St. John of the Cross, says, the way of the perfect spirit is “nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing.” Finally, a medieval hermit Stephen of Muret, a more obscure person from Christian tradition, says, “If it is the Son of God you wish to imitate – he who emptied himself – you will have to reduce yourself to nothing.”

The Beatitudes are the summary of the whole Sermon on the Mount. They represent the core of Jesus’ preaching. The first beatitude, poverty of spirit, is the key to the whole of the Beatitudes, and so is key to the whole Sermon on the Mount. With poverty of spirit, Jesus sets the theme and spiritual practice of his disciples. Blessing poverty of spirit, Jesus teaches a way of nothingness. When Jesus begins the Beatitudes with “Blessed are the poor in spirit; theirs is the kingdom of heaven” he is saying that nothingness is key to living what he preaches. Clarifying some of the words of the first beatitude may help. The word “blessed” is makarios in the original Greek. It means “happy.” The word we translate as “poor” is ptoches in Greek. It means not simply poor but people who own nothing and are nothing. Jesus pronounces these people to be happy!

They are happy because they are totally open to the kingdom of heaven, oneness with God. Jesus is saying the “poor in spirit” are symbolic of the most necessary spiritual practice: interior nothingness. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Happy are those who are in the state of interior nothingness for theirs is oneness with God. Happiness is the state of interior nothingness. They have the kingdom, because God alone is their happiness and their identity. The poor in spirit are happy with the invisible God and have let go all other sources of happiness. They are nothing within because they release all thinking while abiding in an interior state of pure faith, bare hope, and naked love. They drop all thinking – everything within – and drop into God.

How can we live this first beatitude? Here are two ways. The first is to sink into nothingness in prayer. God is not a thing, but mystery beyond being. Therefore, we pray by sinking into the nothingness of God. We close our eyes and let everything in our minds fall away. We relax into the inner nothingness. This is done with faith in and love for God, but God is not a thing. Sinking into nothingness is to find all our happiness in God, the infinite nothing. It is to rest in God within and not pay attention to anything in particular.

The second is to practice nonresistance, non-retention, and nonreaction in daily life. Finding all our happiness in God allows for a new attitude in daily life. It is the attitude of not resisting, not retaining, and not reacting to the moment. Someone interrupts your work with a problem. Don’t resist. You get a moment of pleasure to which you want to cling. Don’t retain. You try to make it through a light, but it turns red. Don’t react. This is about accepting the moment as it is and letting go of our compulsion to impose self-generated expectations and assumptions onto the present moment.

Of course, we do resist, retain, and react. It happens all the time! Here, nothingness or poverty of spirit is a stroke of genius. When we do resist, retain, and react, we don’t give up but use the experience as an opportunity to sink into the nothingness. Messing up provides a grace-filled moment for us to pray, to bring our hearts into God’s Holy Mystery and let go of self-preoccupation. When we feel anxious, we sink into the nothingness. When we get clingy, we sink into the nothingness. When we are sad, we sink into the nothingness. When anger consumes us, we sink into the nothingness.

Without fighting, holding on to, or judging our experience, we sink into the nothingness.

The inner nothingness of spiritual poverty is vital for the teachings to follow in the Beatitudes and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. Showing mercy, being meek, thirsting for justice, all depend on interior nothingness, the fertile ground for God’s own life to express itself through us. The poor in spirit have annihilated hearts, that is, hearts free and ready for God’s presence and love. The poor in spirit can love their enemies and not worry. They can be humble, honest, and compassionate. From the space of interior nothingness, they can let go of the anger that gives rise to violence, quarreling, and even murder. Their hearts are wide open to God’s mercy. In such a heart, there is no self. In such a heart, there is nothing but God.

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