“The Poverty of Spirit of the Friend of the Divine Bridegroom”
John 3:22-30, 1/12/2019
Fr. Ignatius John Schweitzer, OP
“No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven.” “He must increase; I must decrease.” These lines from our Gospel today open before us the inner contours of poverty of spirit. This and the rest of John 3, I take to be John’s way of saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” It’s a poverty of spirit that decreases so the Divine Bridegroom may increase. It’s a poverty that knows it receives everything from God for “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven.” But in receiving nothing except what is given from heaven, one really does receive an abundance from heaven.
It is the inner attitude of John the Baptist and even Jesus himself who says later in John 3 “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand.” This is the whole purpose of poverty of spirit, to ready ourselves for what the Father wishes to pour into our hands, so we too can pour it out to others. Our poverty prepares us for God’s superabundance.
St John of the Cross has spoken as extensively and deeply as anyone about this poverty of spirit. And he makes the same point. He says the whole of his ‘Ascent of Mount Carmel’ and the ‘Dark Night’ is devoted to this poverty of spirit, “to live in the complete nakedness and freedom of spirit necessary for divine union” (Asc, Prol). He reminds us of this 10 times throughout the treatise. And, in a fine summary, he speaks of the poverty of spirit or “nakedness and emptiness that lie in faith, hope, and love” (Asc III, 10.2). That’s his stated purpose for the whole of the ‘Ascent’ and ‘Dark Night.’ That is why it can have a negative feel to it. But for the Spanish Saint, poverty of spirit is not meant to leave us cast down and put in our rightful place as downright sinners (though that it what we are). But for him too it’s all about carving out space for the riches God wishes to shower upon us.
St John of the Cross says, “The Father of lights…is not closefisted but diffuses himself as abundantly as the sun does” (LF 1.15) Moreover, God does good to us and favors us in accordance with the properties of his own divine nature. So, St John says, “God loves you and does good to you and favors you omnipotently, wisely, humbly, mercifully, mildly, subtly…and with rejoicing” (LF 3.6). Our poverty of spirit corresponds to what the Lord wants to do in us, and what the Lord Himself is.
St John speaks of the “dominating fullness of God’s pure and simple light” (Asc I, 4.1). And it’s poverty of spirit that makes us fitting vessels for this “dominating fullness of God’s pure and simple light.” To get more specific and expound on this. We might note how these following dispositions of soul correspond to what God is. Why poverty of spirit? Because of God’s riches. Why freedom of spirit? Because of the dominating force of God’s communications. Why emptiness? Because of God’s fullness. Why sensitivity and subtlety of soul? Because of God’s gentleness. Why the need to be stripped naked and pray without mode? Because of God’s overwhelming simplicity. What God works in the soul corresponds directly to what God Himself is, because he is preparing a fitting home for himself in our souls.
(Carmelite subjectivity derives from theologal objectivity!)
And this is why the poverty of spirit in our Gospel today is so key, because it prepares for the Divine Bridegroom. “He must increase; I must decrease.” My emptiness makes way for his fullness. “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven.” And when we are entirely dependent on what comes from heaven, the floodgates of heaven open.
But haven’t we strayed from the simple Gospel message in all this? No, not really. Let’s turn to the lowly handmaid of the Lord and the mystery of Epiphany to find the same basic thing. From the beginning, Our Lady says “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done unto me according to thy word.” And God’s word had great things planned for her so that all generations now call her blessed. Mary lived the humble hidden life, she decreased; but in turn, her Son increased. And the Son’s increase was also her increase. In the mystery of Epiphany, as the Son is made manifest, so is Mary made manifest until she becomes the most honored woman of all time. Hiddenness, to becoming manifest in her Son. Decreasing, to increasing in the Lord. Emptying, to being filled to overflowing, and overflowing to others because that is precisely what God himself is like! Yet in all this greatness, Mary remains the humble vessel.
To close, here’s all I meant to say by this whole sermon. Mary’s humility radiates greatness. Mary’s greatness radiates humility. Quite simply, Mary radiates God. May we radiate Mary, and her Son.