Mysterium fidei

A wise lady who reads this Idleblog — I think her wisdom began in a fear of the godless, back in her native Prague — mentioned confusion while reading my last post. Words confuse us, and such quickly interchanging phrases as “rich in spirit” and “poor in spirit,” with negatives and double-negatives buzzing about, may leave one’s intellectual tendons aching.

“All I know is that God made us all rich, very rich by the gift of life. Rich or poor (in a material sense), if we know this we are rich, if we don’t know it we are poor; and most of us have experienced both states in our life sometime.”

Further puzzlement is obtainable by comparing the eight Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount with the four paraphrased in St Luke (chapter six). Luke clinches the metaphorical nature of them by recalling that Christ also listed four corresponding Woes.

The poor are blessed, for the rich have consolation in this world.

The hungry are blessed, for the full have their consolation.

The mourning are blessed, for the laughing have their consolation.

The persecuted are blessed, for the celebrated have their consolation.

God will console, and those who found their consolations in this world — who boomed while you busted, ate while you starved, laughed while you mourned, and piled on humiliations, will regret their arrogance. Meanwhile love your enemies; and pray for them, they desperately need it.

In Roman Palestine, incidentally, a person of superior rank who slapped you in the face would expect you to respond by crawling in the dust and grovelling before him. (Or, her.) To remain standing, instead, and turn the other cheek, was a little more edgy than we may nowadays appreciate. Similarly, a Roman soldier could lawfully require you to carry his gear for one Roman mile, but not farther. This was a tax in kind, a short-term enslavement. By carrying it for two miles, you were turning the tables. You were now portering in friendship as a free man — and showing him how to do his job. This, too, was edgy. Similarly with him that commandeered thy cloak: give him the coat also, as the charitable act of a free man. Jesus was not counselling passivity, let alone gestures that are “holier than thou.” He was proposing quite practical — and edgy — stratagems for the slave to free himself from the bondage of this world.

It is very easy to become confused in a field of multiplying negatives and positives; but I think the preferential option for the word “poor” was one of Our Lord’s most delicious paradoxes. Our first instinct is to think “rich in spirit” must be right. Most would rather be rich than poor. This would have been all the truer in Jesus’ time — which was, after all, before the spread of Christianity. People would think, “rich good, poor bad,” and wonder what on earth He was saying. All eight of the Beatitudes in Matthew seem designed to pull the magic carpet of received attitudes out from under His audience. In doing this, Jesus was forcing people to think, which must therefore be a good thing. (I know, I know, thinking is painful.)

Most who address crowds are not so demanding. They don’t want people to think, just cheer. This is among the thrills I take away from the Sermon on the Mount, and each one of those eight Beatitudes: for throughout Christ subverts commonplace opinion. He is the opposite of a demagogue; He methodically cancels every possible applause line. As a man — as some candidate for public office — he’d have no chance of getting elected. For that, you must be not only willing but eager to tell self-serving lies. The Crucifixion is what the man Jesus of Nazareth actually got for his persistent and wonderfully confrontational truth-telling. Christ was no politician: “King of the Jews,” perhaps, but not in any sense Pilate would understand.

To this day, despite all the best efforts of the Church through the centuries, we continue to crowd-source our virtue, and seek mere popular applause. (I have been made desolate recently, each time a certain Bishop has played to the media gallery in this way, attacking things no one is defending: the sure sign of a compulsive politician.)

At the Reformation, the very idea that worldly success betokens divine approval came back into Christendom with a vengeance. At the Enlightenment, even the idea of divine approval was tossed away. A glib and over-literal use of Bible texts was the populist Christian reaction to that (for “fundamentalism” is also a product of the Enlightenment: the irrationalist flip side of an overbearing rationalism). The “power of positive thinking” soon followed. And even within the Catholic Church, today, the wholesale retreat from the sacramental involves an equal and opposite advance of preaching that is downright obtuse.

That is why I insist on using the fuller phrase, “poor in spirit.” Christ was not obtuse. He was teaching “the mystery of the faith,” not announcing a political action programme. I think T.S. Eliot explained the meaning of this phrase very well in “East Coker”:

In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

It is that simple.