Spiritual Poverty – What Does It Mean?

A report of a comprehensive study of poverty in the UK in 2012, was edited by Esther Dermott and Gill Main (Universities of Bristol and Leeds respectively.) It was not about spiritual poverty but social exclusion. They found that those surveyed thought poverty is not being able to afford to live an ordinary social life, with adequate shelter and enough nourishment. The results were that, amongst other things, this requires at a minimum:

  • A damp-free adequately warm home,
  • Two meals a day,
  • Transport for going to work, visiting or attending hospital, or being present at important ceremonies and social events.
  • A washing machine
  • A warm waterproof coat and all-weather shoes,
  • Needed dentistry.

I can only guess what it would feel like to be very poor. Perhaps I might feel guilt, if I could not provide an adequate home for my family. Possibly horror, at seeing my children go hungry or lacking proper clothes for the cold winds of winter. Maybe a sense of isolation, if having no money to join in with usual social occasions. As to being homeless, I frankly can’t even begin to imagine the physical and emotional hardship involved in such material deprivation.

One can put up with poverty for a while when one is young, but it will inevitably wear a person down.’ (David Byrne, musician and filmmaker)

Spiritual poverty

When people have spiritual poverty, they tend to have feelings of emptiness, apathy, boredom, aimlessness, or alienation. You may be financially comfortable and have these experiences.

The poor are only too aware of their financial problems and what they don’t have. However, not all who experience spiritual poverty, realise they lack something important to do with inner well-being.

This could be us. What then might be missing from our lives? It could be not having a spirit of generosity. When one behaves in a mean way, then this can be seen by others but not necessarily noticed by oneself, at least at the time. Alternatively, our spiritual poverty might be an absence of patience. This is shown by acting on impulse perhaps to our own detriment. A shortage of moderation is revealed by self-indulgence. A dearth of kindness also springs to mind. This may be made known by our thoughtlessness in what we say or do.

In other words, spiritual poverty is an absence of what traditionally has been known as the various human virtues. I would suggest the New Testament notion of being ‘poor in spirit’ is to recognise this spiritual poverty in oneself.

Our limitations regarding alleviating poverty

If we are without money, there are probable limits on us as individuals in what we can do to relieve our own hardship. Likewise, there are constraints on what we can to stop the suffering of others in material poverty, given the widespread extent of social deprivation.Making, charitable donations to foodbanks, participating in community involvement for social action, and spending our free time volunteering, are some of the things that come to mind. However, we can perhaps do more about our own spiritual poverty.

Alleviating spiritual poverty

The trouble is a personal makeover is necessary to alleviate spiritual poverty. And that also sounds like a tall order. Who of us through our efforts alone can create spiritual wealth? Make ourselves into an altruistic person? Forgiving and tolerant towards those who offend or hurt us? Who of us can magic up a sense of contentment, peace, and joyful well-being? I for one can’t.

It takes humility to accept that we are spiritually impoverished. That what we lack is vitally important and that we cannot create it by ourselves alone.

I believe there are important obstacles that hinder us from receiving spiritual riches. One stumbling block is a sense of self-satisfaction. Another is a denial there is any transpersonal source of virtue beyond us. According to this approach, it is crucial to recognise that spiritual wealth comes from a universal warmth of spirit and light of intelligence that exceeds our own limited minds.

It’s not shameful to ask for needed help. It’s not a sign of unworthiness. We do not have to condemn ourselves as ‘sinners’ deserving punishment. But it does require a humble attitude. Actually, I believe this means no longer attaching ourselves to aspects of our own ego – self-intelligence, self-importance, self-reliance. Necessary is an emptying of self so we can be filled with light and love.

Christ – a role model of spiritual poverty

One well-known role model for humble attitude is Jesus Christ. In my reading of the Gospel account, he comes over as having been assertive in putting forward his teachings. Nevertheless, he did not act as if he were better than other people. Neither did he seek power and social status. Instead he ate meals with people who respectable society looked down upon. I mean those called ‘tax collectors’ and ‘sinners’. On his last night alive, he acted as a servant to his own followers by washing and drying their feet. And he rode past the crowds into Jerusalem on the back of a humble donkey.

As a child the narrator writes that he obeyed his parents in Nazareth where the family lived. His obedience as an adult to his spiritual ‘Father’ was a more obvious feature of the story. For example, when anxious about his future, he nevertheless prayed for help. He would do not what he wanted, but his ‘Father’s’ will. And he carried this promise out in not retaliating against those who were cruel towards him. Even to the point of allowing them to torture and kill him. In other words, he emptied his ‘self’ of self-gratification, self-aggrandisement, and other egoistic states of mind that I would suggest get in the way of receiving rich spiritual gifts.

Like Christ, we also can learn to stop clinging to ego. Instead, recognising our poverty of spirit and seeking help for it.

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ (Jesus Christ)