Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. // Matthew 5:3
When we think of poverty, we usually imagine a lack of financial security and material goods. But if we consider a broader definition of poverty, we quickly realize that, along with the aforementioned, poverty is a deeper reality that affects all of us in one capacity or another.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the formal definition of poverty is “a lack of something.”
When put in those words, who isn’t affected by poverty?
We all lack something.
We all need something.
All too often what we lack—and what we need—is a greater dependence on God, a greater poverty of spirit.
What is Spiritual Poverty?
Put simply, spiritual poverty is an emptying of self, especially self-reliance, so that God can fill us with His grace. Saint Augustine said:
Thou must be emptied of that wherewith thou art full, that thou mayest be filled with that whereof thou art empty.
But in a culture that applauds self-sufficiency, we can easily forget that apart from God we can do nothing (see John 15:5). And so we strive in various capacities of life. We think we have to rely on our own strength to accomplish this or that. But in reality, we need to remember that we are dependent on God for everything, including our life and our very next breath. He is the Giver of all gifts, after all, and the Source of everything in our lives.
Becoming more aware of this, we cannot help but unite our song with the Psalmist’s:
Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! // Psalm 150:6
Our Lack of Something Can Lead to More Reliance on God
Often, we reach a realization that we must lean more on God and less on ourselves in the midst of suffering. Perhaps we are humbled by misfortune or humiliation. Or we reach a point of burnout. Maybe we have tried everything and have nowhere else to turn.
Reaching this point may be difficult, but it is also a great grace. Because when we become more dependent, we become poor in spirit, which can lead to freedom and peace.
But how do we get from Point A to Point B? When life feels so hard, how do we let go and begin to let go of control and lean more and more on God?
Let the Saints Be Our Guides
Each Saint in Heaven faced challenges on earth. They experienced circumstances in their lives that they had to surrender in order to grow in spiritual poverty, holiness, and love of God.
It was not easy for them. In fact, Saint John Vianney said:
The saints did not all begin well, but they all ended well.
But now they are in Heaven, eager to accompany us on our path to becoming spiritually poor.
Below are beautiful examples of Saints who lived in various forms of poverty. At some point in their lives, these holy men and women discovered that dependence on God—becoming childlike and poor in spirit—increased the virtues they needed to draw closer to the Lord and His perfect Will for their lives.
While we do not know many details about the hidden life of the Holy Family, the Newborn King was not born in a palace but in a stable, “because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).
According to Saint Alphonsus Liguori in The Glories of Mary, “at her purification, in the temple [Mary] did not offer a lamb, which was the offering prescribed in Leviticus for those who could afford it … but she offered two turtle doves, which was the oblation prescribed for the poor.”
But their poverty was not only material. Mary and Saint Joseph completely surrendered their own plans when God asked them to take on the role of Mother of God and Foster Father of the Redeemer. In addition, they depended completely on God’s Providence when an angel told them to flee into Egypt to protect the Christ Child (see Matthew 2).
Companion to the Poor
Saint Katherine Drexel was born into abundant wealth. She had private tutors and traveled the world. In addition, her parents were devout Catholics and gave generously to the poor.
As Katherine witnessed her stepmother’s severe battle with cancer, she realized that no amount of money could protect her from pain and suffering. After her father passed away, she used her inheritance to help Native and African Americans, but she soon realized that they needed personal interaction, not just financial help.
At the encouragement of Pope Saint Leo XIII, Katherine founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. She only maintained her wealth in order to help others by establishing schools and missions and financially supporting other religious orders doing similar work.
At the hour of her death, she had given it all away for love of God and love of neighbor.
For Better or For Worse
Probably the most well-known Saint who endured poverty in marriage is Saint Monica. She put up with her immoral, pagan husband, her critical mother in law, and her three impulsive children, including the rebellious Augustine. Monica bore the stress of her familial relationships, but at times, she struggled with controlling the situation.
After years of persistent prayer, she realized that only God could change her family’s hearts. This allowed Monica to surrender her family fully to the Lord and completely trust that God would change the hearts of her husband, son, and mother in law—which eventually, He did.
From Addiction to Freedom
As a soldier, Saint John of God took part in gambling, drinking, and other ungodly activities, and his reputation as a drunkard grew. One day, when he was thrown off a stolen horse, he made an impulsive—but permanent—decision to change his life.
Despite his initial conversion, he struggled with spiritual growth.
Saint John the Evangelist visited John and encouraged him focus more on the needs of others than on his personal hardships. As he began working for the poor, John gained peace of heart.
John’s Corporal Works of Mercy were fueled by a deep interior prayer life.
Depression Leads to Spiritual Understanding
Saint Ignatius of Loyola was born into Spanish aristocracy and had dreams of becoming an accomplished military officer. He did not think of God or living a holy life, until he was brutally injured in battle. During his recovery, he was given the Bible and a book about the Saints, but he resisted reading them. Eventually, the stories within those pages changed his heart.
After his initial conversion, Ignatius struggled with severe scrupulosity and depression. Eventually, God drew him out of this darkness, and his experience helped him cultivate an understanding of desolation (and consolation) in the spiritual life.
Similar to depression, desolation is a state of restlessness, irritation, doubt, and lack of perseverance in fulfilling spiritual practices. God does not cause desolation (or depression), but sometimes He allows it as a reminder of our profound need for Him.
More Saints Who Lacked Something
This is only a small sampling of the many human struggles the Saints endured, which ultimately led them to deeper dependence on God.
As we prepare for the upcoming liturgical season of Lent, perhaps it is a good time to consider how the Lord is inviting us to grow in spiritual poverty—a greater and deeper dependence on Him for everything.
Perhaps one of these beautiful souls can accompany you on your journey toward letting go, surrendering, and deeper settling into a life of spiritual poverty. Or maybe there is another Saint who more closely relates to your personal “lack of something”:
- Anxiety // Saint Martha
- Distraction in prayer // Saint Therese of Liseiux
- Illness // Blessed Benedetta Bianchi Porro
- Loneliness and rejection // The hemorrhaging woman in Mark 5:25-34
- Pregnancy difficulties // Saints Zachariah and Elizabeth
- Spiritual dryness // Saint John of the Cross
All you holy men and women, pray for us!
This was originally published on the Blessed Is She blog.