Like some (but, I hope, unlike most of you!), I stayed up way too late last night, trying desperately to squeak one ounce of certainty out of the American election. I got little flashes of certainty in-state, but was otherwise rewarded for my late-night vigil by the bleary-eyed way my brain hammered itself awake a full hour before my alarm went off, anxiously and reflexively commanding my hand to stretch out for my phone in a perverse, Mr. Hyde-like version of the feeling I used to have as a kid on Christmas morning.
“Race remains unsettled,” read the front page of NBC News.
Yeah. No kidding.
I was not at my ascetical best this morning. I’d like to say I reached next for the Psalter, or my rosary—or that Canticle 18 slipped piously through my lips, “Splendor and honor and kingly power” billowing graciously off my tongue like a well-ironed surplice swelling in the breeze on the way to Evensong. Instead, I opened Facebook. I doomscrolled past the electioneering and all my friends’ attempts to tell the future, to find, to my delight, what I thought might have been the first well-placed ad ever offered up to me by the algorithm, for the World on Fire Bible. “Yes!” I thought, “That is seriously excellent. I wish I’d thought of that. This must be what people who don’t write dissertations come up with.” This continued until, wiping the sleep from my fuzzy eyes, I read again: The Word on Fire Bible. I am ashamed to say, I was disappointed.
I don’t think I’m the only one who felt this way this morning. I don’t think I’ll be the only one to feel this way in the coming days, weeks, months, or years. I have to say, I’m exhausted—not just of the American political situation, though certainly of that—and I’m desperately and daily trying to keep that fatigue from devolving into cynicism. My gamble is that you’re exhausted too—of the election, or the vicissitudes of American life, or COVID, or Zoom calls, or reading, or discussion posts, or all of the above, or something else entirely. My gamble is that I’m not the only one feeling poor in spirit this evening, and that, for this reason, tonight’s Gospel is for us.
To be “poor in spirit” is often, in early Christian exegesis anyway, interpreted as a state of being unattached from earthly possessions (even if one technically possesses quite a lot), or else as the quality of being humble before God, whatever one takes that to mean. Certainly those conditions are necessary to growth in discipleship, but I worry that reducing “poverty in spirit” to them misses a larger point the Beatitudes are making.
Jesus is not naming, in every case, a state of being that is especially and uniquely virtuous. Of course, sometimes he does this, as in the cases of hungering and thirsting for righteousness, being merciful, pure in heart, and so on. But in other cases, Jesus is simply naming conditions which a life of Christlikeness is liable to get one into—conditions which are regrettable, and from which God promises redemption and rescue, like being persecuted for the sake of righteousness, or being reviled and slandered on account of Christ. The question is,
which sort of Beatitude is “Blessed are the poor in spirit”—is being it more like being pure in heart or more like mourning? More like being a peacemaker or like being reviled and persecuted by others?
I hazard that being “poor in spirit” is more like the latter than the former, more a suboptimal state into which Christlikeness can lead us than a virtue pure and simple—and I think that entertaining this as at least a possibility promises good news that many of us tonight need to hear:
That to be poor in spirit is to be drained, to be tired and tapped out by life in a world such as ours. It’s when you have a Freudian slip and think you’re looking at an ad for the World on Fire Bible. And somehow, some way, Jesus thinks it’s to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.
We tend to celebrate the saints in a rather monochromatic way, and I don’t just mean by focusing on their virtues rather than their vices (which the Protestant in me just knows for sure that they had and wants very much to know more about). I mean that we more often focus on what made them spiritually or morally heroic, rather than what they did that allowed them just to get by before, or after, or on their way to whatever it was that made them so. And this is a very great loss to us, given that so much of life depends spiritually on just getting by. Like: what’s up with the fact there’s no bit in Thomas Aquinas’s Lesser Feasts and Fasts bio about how Thomas was bored of and burnt out on Aristotle by the time he got to Pars Prima Secundae of the Summa? Or about how George Herbert used to check his email obsessively on his day off?
I wish we routinely heard a bit more about the saints in this regard, because I seriously wonder: Did Augustine feel this way when the Empire began to crumble? Or Benedict as he tried to pray his way through the vacuum that followed? Did Julian feel this way as the plague spread around her? Or Teresa of Avila as the Inquisition bore down upon her? Did Jeremy Taylor feel this way when he heard they were going to try Laud for treason? Or Alexander Crummell as he wrestled with how best to secure black self-determination? Did Constance and her companions as they cared for the sick in Memphis? Or Pauli Murray as she wrote, marched, and preached against Jim and Jane Crow? At one time or other, I suspect that they did: I suspect that they felt poor in spirit, wearied, worn-out, and distracted. And part of their sanctification, I think, was however it was and by whatever means that God, in God’s mercy, got them through just that interior poverty.
Spiritual poverty is just this feeling bereft of whatever finite things, or institutions, or loves, or ventures of earth may have gotten us by in the past because we’ve been dispossessed of them by that which our Lord in St. John’s Gospel calls “the world.” And the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit because it is in just that feeling bereft that we find we are not really bereft at all—that we are capable still of rejoicing in the unbelievable, even ludicrous splendor of the One who called this unbelievably ludicrous world into being. The kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit because this is so very often where God relishes turning the plot: the moment when fatigue begins to feel like peace.
I have no idea how this election is going to turn out, especially given the challenges, recounts, and lawsuits that will inevitably follow the announcement of any winner. Nor do I have any idea how this pandemic is going to end, or how the many nations to which we belong
will settle and sort out the unbelievable challenges to justice and flourishing that we face at the turn of this third decade of the twenty-first century. What I do know is this: if you were students at the law school, I’d tell you this evening to start or keep sprinting. But you’re not. You’re preparing for ministry in the church and academy, so I want, instead, to suggest that you find time to rest and stay close to Jesus—as close to him as you possibly can. I don’t think I’m the only one not at my ascetical best right now, and no matter which way or how or when this wild moment in American history is settled, it is going to take us years—not days or months—to deal with the political, cultural, and spiritual fall-out. That is, I’m sure of it, the work to which God will call us, more than doomscrolling through Twitter.
I want to encourage you all in the coming days to become students of your own joy—to attend patiently and seriously to whatever means by which God will, by God’s mercy, give you your daily bread and vindicate Jesus’ promise that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit. I pray that you’ll notice and mark the signs, poems, prayers, songs, people, memories, jokes, hymns, memes, birds, leaves, recipes—whatever it is God will put in your way in these days to provide for and strengthen you on your way to whatever it is God purposes for you and our world in Christ, in whom all God’s promises are Yes and Amen (2 Corinthians 1:20).
This Allhallowtide, I believe we need hagiographies of the mundane but no less crucial business of getting by—hagiographies not just of trials but of mercies. I pray, by God’s grace in not just your words but your life, that you’ll write them.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
* In writing this sermon, I was inspired by the memory of a presentation made by Graham Ward as part of the “Theologies of Flourishing and the Most Vulnerable” session at the AAR Annual Meeting 2017 in Boston, in which Ward spoke compellingly of the need to take theological stock not just of what flourishing consists in but of what allows ordinary Christians to “get by” short of their actually flourishing.
**Justin Crisp ‘14 is Associate Rector and Theologian in Residence at St Mark’s, New Canaan CT, and Teaching Fellow for BDS in Anglican Studies. He is completing his PhD in Religious Studies at Yale.