Blessed are the poor in spirit, because theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
What is poverty of spirit?
Saint Gregory says there are two kinds of riches: Material wealth and Virtue. Now the Lord instructs us not to put our trust in accumulating material riches.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. (Matt 6:19-21)
In other words everything material is subject to decay or loss. On the other hand the Lord commands us to strive for spiritual wealth. These once gained cannot be lost.
Gregory points out that there are two kinds of poverty. We can be poor in virtues like justice, wisdom or prudence. When we are poor in this sense we lack what is most important. But another kind of poverty is where we are voluntarily poor in all that has to do with sinfulness. Gregory says, "He who is the man whom the word presents as enjoying that poverty which is called blessed, whose fruit is the Kingdom of Heaven."
The aim "of the life of virtue," says Gregory, "is to become like God." But he acknowledges that for mankind to live without passions and sinfulness is impossible. What we can do is to imitate God to the extent that is possible based on our nature. "If we do this," he says, "you will have put on the blessed form."
Our downfall comes when we make our aim to follow our passions, to seek only pleasure from material things or sensual pleasures. To become like God we must aim for a life based on virtue. This will come with a voluntary humility. We must voluntarily give up the aim of sensual and material pleasure. Paul advises that this is the way of Christ, "Who for us became poor, being rich, that we through His poverty might become rich. (2 Cor 8:9)"
Gregory highlights that the kind of humility we call "poor in spirit" is not easy to obtain because we are filled with pride. This was the downfall of Adam and Eve. To purge this from our way of being, Jesus advises us that we must remove it from our character by trying to imitate Him who became poor of His own will. The apostle Paul says,
"Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God; but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant. (Phil 2:5-7)."
As Gregory says, "The Ruler of rulers, the Lord of lords puts on voluntarily the garb of servitude. The Judge of all things becomes a subject of governors; the Lord of creation dwells in a cave; He who holds the universe in His hands finds no place in the inn, but is cast aside into the manger of irrational beasts. The perfectly Pure accepts the filth of human nature, and after going through all our poverty passes on to the experience of death. Look at the standard by which to measure voluntary poverty!"
Gregory gives us some advice about how to overcome our pride by examining our nature. Think of our creation. We are made from clay. He says, "the high dignity of the proud is related to bricks." He sarcastically advises to beware of uncovering the shame of our relatives, things we don't want others to know about us, for if we do our pride might be uncovered. Then he become quite descriptive.
Do you not look at both ends of man's life, where it begins, and how it ends? No, you pride yourself on your youth, you look at the prime of your age and are pleased with your handsome appearance, because your hands can move quickly and your feet are nimble, because your curls are blown about by the breeze and your cheeks show the first signs of a beard. You are proud because your clothes are dyed in brilliant purple and you have silk robes embroidered with scenes from war or hunting or history. Perhaps you also look at your carefully blackened sandals delightfully adorned with elaborate needlework patterns. At these things you look but at yourself you will not look? Let me show you as in a mirror who and what sort of a person you are.
Have you never gazed at the mysteries of our nature in a common burial ground? Have you not seen the heaps of bones one on top of the other? Skulls denuded of flesh, fearful and ugly to look at with their empty sockets? Have you not seen their grinning jaws and the other limbs, strewn about at random? If you have seen these things, you have seen yourself. Where will then be today's blooming youth? Where the lovely color of your cheeks, the fresh lips, the fine brilliance of the eyes flashing under the circle of their brows? What will then have become of the straight nose beautifully set between the cheeks? What of the hair falling down to the neck, and the curls round the temples? Where will be the hands skilled with the bow, the feet controlling the horses? The purple and fine linen, the mantle, the girdle and the sandals? The neighing horses with their race-course? What will have become of all the things that now feed your conceit? Where, in these bones, are all these things about which you are now so greatly puffed up? What dream is so fleeting? What are these hallucinations? What shadow eluding touch is as unsubstantial as the dream of youth that vanishes the moment it appears?
He does not stop here but then addresses those in middle age.
But what shall we say about the middle-aged, who are, indeed, settled in years, but whose moral life is unsettled, and whose pride is a growing disease, though they call this moral cancer highmindedness? The foundation of this pride is usually high office and the power that goes with it. For they are affected by it either in the office itself, or whilst preparing for it; even talking about it will often fan the latent disease. But what words could penetrate their hearing which is already filled with the voice of the heralds? Who shall convince people in such a frame of mind that they are just like actors parading on the stage? For these, too, don a delicately polished mask and a gold-embroidered purple robe, and proceed solemnly in a chariot. Nevertheless the disease of pride does not invade them on account of this. But their frame of mind remains at the procession the same as it was before they appeared on the stage; and later they are not sorry to have to descend from the chariot and to discard their dignity....
For they imagine themselves master over life and death, because, having to judge men, they bestow on some the sentence of acquittal, while condemning others to death. And they do not even realize who is the true Master of human life, who determines the beginning as well as the end of existence. ...
Hence he ought to be poor in spirit, and look at Him who for our sake became poor of His own will; let him consider that we are all equal by nature, and not exalt himself impertinently against his own race on account of that deceptive show of office, but, being truly blessed, he will gain the Kingdom of Heaven in exchange for humility in this transitory life.
Then he concludes his discussion as follows.
Would you like to know who it is that is poor in spirit? He who is given the riches of the soul in exchange for material wealth, who is poor for the sake of the spirit. He has shaken off earthly riches like a burden so that he may be lightly lifted into the air and be borne upwards, as says the Apostle, in the cloud walking on high together with God.
Gold is a heavy thing, and heavy is every kind of matter that is sought after for the sake of wealth–but virtue is light and bears souls upwards. Truly these two, heaviness and lightness, are opposed to each other. Therefore, if a man has attached himself to the heaviness of matter, it is impossible for him to become light. Since, then, we ought to tend to the things above, let us become poor in the things that drag us down, so that we may sojourn in the upper regions.
The Psalms show us the way: He hath distributed, he hath given to the poor, his justice remaineth for ever and ever.