When our children were young and played outside, we waged an ongoing battle with fire ants. If we put the crystals out that were supposed to kill them, they moved their mound to a different part of the yard. Those elusive anthills seem an apt metaphor for the way pride operates within me. When I think I’ve tackled pride in one area of my life, it pops up in a different area.
I wonder if that is why Jesus’ first words in the Sermon on the Mount are these: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3) Poverty of spirit is not something joyfully embraced in our culture of self-sufficiency and busyness. One of the first questions we often ask each other is “Are you staying busy?” To answer that question with a no is to be viewed as ineffective or even useless. My own reluctance to respond with a no, even when I am not “staying busy” reveals my inability to quash pride.
To be poor in spirit is to rely on God for everything, even for validation of my worth as a person. I may say that I rely on God, that I trust God with my life, but just ask me if I am staying busy and suddenly I want to be validated, not by God, but by people. One of the spiritual practices of Saint Therese of Lisieux was to welcome unjust criticism. If I seek to be validated by others, my life will always be in a state of rootlessness as I attempt to meet the expectations of others. To be able to welcome unjust criticism, I have to be rooted in Christ and draw all my life from him. While I recognize this as true, I confess that I am not there yet. Those anthills continue to show up with the persistence of a whack-a-mole game!
Several years ago I read Finding Our Way Again, a book by Brian McLaren. The book is a good introduction to the ancient practices of faith, practices that root us more deeply in the heart and mind of Christ. The watershed moment of the book for me was an example McLaren gave of a way to fast from pride: by not defending oneself when criticized. To recognize that justification or defense of my behavior was a prideful response was a turning point for me, and the beginning of a continuing struggle to address this in my life.
It takes incredible discipline for me to not try to make my motives understood clearly by others when I am criticized because I am misunderstood. I expect this will be a battle I wage for the rest of my life. But without poverty of spirit, I know I cannot hope to live into the rest of Jesus’ teachings. Until I can get Ann out of the way, there is no room for Christ to come and dwell within me.
This quote from Meister Eckhart encourages me toward poverty of spirit and away from prideful seeking of approval: I much prefer a person who loves God enough to take a handout of bread to him who gives the handout in the first place. Why? Because the giver buys his honor; but the beggar sells his.
I pray that I can grow content to be the beggar, the misunderstood and dishonored poor in spirit.