Orthodoxy Today
Smart Parenting XXIV Applying Christ’s Beatitudes to Parenting: Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Mathew 5:3).


In previous articles on parenting I have emphasized the importance of making connections between Christ, His Church and the issues and problems that make up modern life (Morelli, 2010). Jesus entry into his public life is recorded by the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Matthew. It was at His baptism in the River Jordan by St. John who is called the Baptist. This event is called the Theophany in which Christ's Divinity was proclaimed by His Father as told to us by St. Matthew: "And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." (Mt 3: 16-17) The spiritual-theological significance of the Theophany is noted in the beautiful Apolytikion of the Feast:

Theophany icon

When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan, worship of the Trinity wast made manifest; for the voice of the Father bore witness to Thee, calling Thee His beloved Son. And the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the truth of His word. O Christ our God, Who hath appeared and enlightened the world, glory to Thee.

Christ in the Desert

Jesus then prepared Himself for His public ministry by retiring to the desert for 40 days in which He resisted the temptations of the evil one, thus not only not to sin, but to be able to demonstrate His complete power over sin and death. As St. Matthew (4:10) tells us "Then Jesus said to him, "Begone, Satan! for it is written, `You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'"

It is no accident that Jesus went into the desert to confront Satan and show that He had power over him. He was modeling the same preparation we must do to confront the evils we will encounter in life. We have to know the teachings of Christ and His Church and overcome as much evil as can be accomplished in our own lives. Parents in a holy and blessed marriage, as leaders of the domestic church, the little church in their homes (Morelli, 2009) must be especially prepared because they have to guide not only themselves but their children as well to Christ. They must instruct their children and model Christ so that they and their children are able to become "partakers in the Divine nature" (2Pt 1:4), that as a family they be able to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The Orthodox Marriage Service provides a special blessing and grace that the husband and wife be able to do this. (Morelli, 2009)

The Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount

It is also no accident that after His preparation of overcoming the evil one the first of Jesus teachings is theSermon on the Mount. In fact St Matthew accords three full chapters (5-7) of his Gospel recounting this event. The familiar Beatitudes (Mt 5: 1-12)i are at the beginning of Christ's rather extensive discourse. Jim Forest (1999) provides an interesting understanding that both the geographical location of the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes contained within it are quite deliberate. He likens the 'mount" as an object that is high and points to heaven, as such purposely chosen by Christ. Forest writes: "Mountains are images of earth reaching toward heaven, thus places of encounter between Creator and creature." Forest notes that St. Matthew's recording that Jesus sat was also important because in the ancient world sitting while teaching was a symbol of one who has authority to teach.

Beatitudes as a Ladder

Forest goes on to point out that the Beatitudes themselves have the structure of a ladder with each successive step built on the foundation of the preceding step. The first step "blessed are the poor in spirit ..." is the subject of this article. The ladder as symbol of spiritual ascent to God was not unknown before Christ. A common view of the Jewish people links the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament as a ladder connecting God and His people.

Moses tells us of one such connecting ladder in Jacob's Dream (Gen 28: 11-19):

Jacob's Ladder

Jacob's Ladder

And [Jacob] came to a certain place, and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, "I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and by you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth bless themselves. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you." Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, "Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it." And he was afraid, and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone which he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called the name of that place Bethel...

The Church Fathers' Understanding of the Ladder

St. John Chrysostom views the Ladder as a Godly means of our attaining salvation. In the last few lines of his Homily 85 on the Gospel of St. John, he writes:

Let us learn then, and having reckoned up our faults, let us accomplish their correction in time, and let us determine to correct one this month, another next month, and a third in that which follows. And so mounting as it were by steps, let us get to heaven by a Jacob’s ladder. For the ladder seems to me to signify in a riddle by that vision the gradual ascent by means of virtue, by which it is possible for us to ascend from earth to heaven, not using material steps, but improvement and correction of manners. Let us then lay hold on this means of departure and ascent, that having obtained heaven, we may also enjoy all the blessings there, through the grace and lovingkindness of our Lord Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.ii

St. Gregory of Nyssa tells us that in emulation of Moses our ascetic struggle results in union with the infinite God.

Activity directed toward virtue causes its capacity to grow through exertion; this kind of activity alone does not slacken its intensity by the effort, but increases it. For this reason we also may say that the great Moses, as he was becoming even greater, at no time stopped in his ascent ... once having set foot on the ladder which God set up (as Jacob says) he continually climbed to the step above and never ceased to rise higher, because he always found a step higher than the one he had attained. (St. Gregory of Nyssa, 1978)

The Ladder of Divine Ascent

The Ladder of Divine Ascent

The Ladder of Divine Ascent

St. John of the Ladder (1991) is the most detailed of the Spiritual Fathers of the Church in delineating the steps of the ladder in his book The Ladder of Divine Ascent. An overview of these stepsiii indicates the beginning of the journey to God is to first make oneself destitute and then gradually attain Him by being totally reliant on Him.

What is a Beatitude?

Wisely, Forest (1999) also discusses the question of the importance of understanding the meaning of the word beatitude. It is important to note that the original Gospels were all written in Greek. Thus understanding the meaning in Greek of various usages of the word "blessed" is significant in uncovering the spiritual perception of the Holy Spirit- inspired Church, the understanding of the writers of the Gospels and the continuing understanding of the Church.

Forest notes:

In those passages where "blessed" is a verb, the Greek is eulogeo ("to bless")-an action associated with praise, thanksgiving and consecration, and therefore used in liturgical contexts.

He then goes on to give an example from the Gospel account by St. Mark (14:22) of Christ's instituting the Eucharist: And as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, "Take; this is my body."

However the word blessed is also used as an adjective. Forest notes "it is a translation of makarious." It is the adjective makarious which is translated as “blessed” throughout the Sermon on the Mount. The classical Greek meaning of the adjective is "being deathless, no longer associated with fate." Now the connection between being blessed and being united with the Divine can be seen. It is Christ, true God and true man who overcame sin and death for our salvation. That is to say that we too can become "partakers of the Divine Nature." (2Pt1:4). This is what really being "blessed" really means, that we become "like God" (1Pt 4:6). In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus lays out the path to take to achieve this state of theosisiv and it all begins with being "poor in spirit."

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit for Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven

Let us remind ourselves of the insight of St. John Chrysostom on the purpose of Christ's Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes it contains. St. John writes: "For though it was spoken unto them, it was written for the sake also of all men afterwards."v St. John goes on to ask: "What is meant by “the poor in spirit?” He answers:

The humble and contrite in mind. For by “spirit” He hath here designated the soul, and the faculty of choice. That is, since many are humble not willingly, but compelled by stress of circumstances; letting these pass (for this were no matter of praise), He blesses them first, who by choice humble and contract themselves.

St. John in his Homily goes on to ask a deeper question. He asks why did Christ choose the word “poor” [in spirit] and not the word “humble”. St. John explains this by pointing out that the choice of the word "poor" emphasizes that the poor would be awestruck and tremble at "His [God's] words as Isaiah said (66: 2) St John goes on to distinguish two types of humility. One type he calls "one humble in his own measure" and "another with all excess of lowliness. It is clear that the second type is spiritual humility. St. John likens it with “contriteness of heart”, as David tells us: "sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; a broken and humbled heart God will not despise" (Ps 50: 19). St. John, the Golden-mouthed saint sees that pride is "the greatest of evils" the consequence of pride is that it has made "havoc on the whole world." In coming to this conclusion St. John cites Moses account in Gen 3: 22-24:

And he [God] said: Behold Adam is become as one of us, knowing good and evil: now, therefore, lest perhaps he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever. And the Lord God sent him out of the paradise of pleasure, to till the earth from which he was taken. And he cast out Adam; and placed before the paradise of pleasure Cherubims, and a flaming sword, turning every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

In his explanation of The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, Blessed Theophylact (2006) tells us that being poor in spirit means our pride is crushed and we are contrite in soul. Such virtue is based on a foundation of humility. The saint tells us: "Since Adam fell through pride, Christ raises us up by humility." We too have to not succumb to the vice of pride. This is especially relevant applying St. Paul's words originally directed to bishops, to the husband and wife, the parents as the leaders of their Domestic Church. As St. Paul tells St. Timothy (1Ti 3: 5-7):

But if a man [and woman-husband and wife] know not how to rule his [her] own house, how shall he [she] take care of the church of God? Not a neophyte: lest being puffed up with pride, he [she] fall into the judgment of the devil. Moreover he [she] must have a good testimony of them who are without: lest he [she] fall into reproach and the snare of the devil."

St. John sums this up this way: "for as pride is the fountain of all wickedness, so is humility the principle of all self-command."

Overcoming pride by a foundation based on humility can be tied into the first step of the Ladder of Divine Ascent. The first step in St. John of the Ladder's ascetical treatise is "On renunciation of the world." Implied in the title of this step is the question: as long as we are attached to the world how can we be attached to Christ? St. Isaac the Syrian (Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011) helps us understand humility by employing a very earthly example: "For the man who loves splendid apparel cannot acquire humble thoughts, since necessarily the heart within conforms to the attire without." St. Isaac speaks of humility more directly by associating it with knowledge of our weakness:

Blessed is the man who knows his own weakness, because this knowledge becomes to him the foundation, root and beginning of all goodness...comparing his own weakness with God's help, he will straightaway understand the greatness of the latter.

St. Isaac reminds us of King David's lament: "A heart that is broken and humbled, God will not despise" (Ps 50:17). In his Homily 48, St. Isaac goes on to say: "the man who has reached the knowledge of the extent of his weakness has reached perfect humility." In Homily 77 St. Isaac tells us of the connection of humility with Divinity:

For humility is the raiment of the Godhead. The Word Who became man clothed Himself in it, and therewith He spoke to us in our body. Every man who has been clothed with it has truly been made like unto Him Who came down from His own exaltedness and hid the splendor of His majesty, and concealed His glory with humility..."

Later in his writing St. John of the Ladder makes clear the criticality of humility in reaching the height of the ladder. He writes of the view of an un-named Spiritual Father: "It is the mind’s recognition of one's weakness and impotence."

This is to say that when we see our weaknesses, our helplessness, that we are destitute when we rely on ourselves and not God and when we see the valuelessness of the material world then we are poor in spirit and we see that only God can be our true treasure. As Jesus Himself instructs us: "Lay not up to yourselves treasures on earth: where the rust, and moth consume, and where thieves break through and steal. But lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven: where neither the rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do not break through, nor steal. For where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also.” (Mt 6: 19-21)

Educating Children to aim at Becoming Poor in Spirit

The task of aiding children to develop the virtue of becoming poor in spirit is very difficult in the modern world. The focus of our increasingly secular world on financial gains, materialism, personal power and gain, sensory stimulation and technological innovation blots out our sense of our need for God.

St. Dorotheos of Gaza

St. Dorotheos of Gaza

St. Dorotheos of Gaza gives us a starting point. (Wheeler, 1977) He relates an encounter he had with "one of the great lights of Gaza." They were discussing the topic of humility. St. Dorotheos was making the point that the closer we get to God, the more we see ourselves as sinners. Certainly this spiritual understanding is absolutely correct. But the encounter can also be interpreted in another way. As a psychologist, I can see the dialogue between St. Dorotheos and the named 'great light' to be a form of reality testing. The general definition of reality testing is that it involves the psychological practitioner asking questions that help the patient to objectively distinguish between their perceptions, cognitions and emotional reactions about themselves and the world about them versus what is real. This therapeutic technique has been readily embraced by cognitive-behavioral therapists (e.g. Overholser, 1993). In cognitive-behavior therapy a Socratic process called collaborative empiricism aids clinicians and patients to interact together to examine the reality of evidence supporting or refuting the patient's perceptual and/attitude system. Beck and Emery (1985) identified this as a principle technique in the healing process of Cognitive Therapy.

St. Dorotheos as a Cognitive-Behavior Therapist

The encounter described by St. Dorotheos beautifully matches the use of Socratic Questioning-Collaborative Empiricism as used in cognitive behavior therapy. Below are the words of St. Dorotheos recounting the dialogue on humility-the poor in spirit with the 'great light' of Gaza:

I said to him ‘Master of the First Rank, tell me, how do you regard yourself in respect to the other citizens here?'

And he said, 'I regard myself as great, and first among the citizens.'

I said then, 'If you went away to Caesarea, how would you regard yourself then?' 'I would regard myself somewhat less than the great folk there.'

So I said, 'If you went away to Antioch, what then?'

And he replied, 'I would regard myself as one of the common people.'

I said, 'And if you went from the city of Caesarea into the presence of the Emperor, what would you think of yourself then?'

He replied, 'I should think of myself as just one of the poor.'

Then I said to him, 'There you are! In the same way, the saints, the nearer they approach to God, the more they see themselves as sinners!' Abraham, when he saw himself 'dust and ashes.' And Isaiah, said, 'Unhappy am I, for my lips are unclean.'...do you see the humility of the saints and how their hearts were set on it.

We can see this dialogue is reality based. The great man of Gaza had responded truthfully, in this case in the reality of the way he thought of himself. Using this Socratic method of answering questions he thereby learned the lesson, St. Dorotheos was trying to have him learn.

Recall the root of the word education is the Latin word educare which means "to lead out." (Morelli, 2010) Part of the parental task, male-female, husband-wife joined together as one flesh ordained by their blessed marriage as shepherds so to speak of their domestic churches, their homes to lead themselves and their children to understand and implant poverty of spirit in their hearts so it also appears in their actions.

Modeling the First Tool in Education

Voluminous research on child development has suggested the essential role of modeling in influencing child behavior (Bandura, 1986; Morelli, 2005a,b, 2006). Unless parents themselves practice what they preachvi that is to say teach, anything they say lacks authenticity and credibility for their children (Morelli, 2008). In previous articles I have shared the importance of parents being aware of the efficacy of the various models children are exposed to which significantly influence their behavior. In one article I wrote:

If a parent capitulates to the culture, then the culture will assume the teaching authority of the parent. Several decades ago research psychologists demonstrated that there was no real difference between real life and mediated models (cartoons, movies, books) in terms of their effect on a child's perceptions about sexuality and other important moral issue (Morelli, 2007).

This same behavioral research demonstrates that modeling has an important effect in shaping values and in this case leading ourselves and our children to grow poverty of spirit in our hearts. I cannot underestimate the importance of all who work with children to be aware that values and virtues (or unfortunately vices) can be produced or altered vicariously by the child observing favorable or unfavorable experiences of significant valued others (models) (Barnwell, 1966).

The Attitude of the Awesomeness of God

St. Peter of Damaskos

St. Peter of Damaskos

St. John Chrysostom

St. John Chrysostom

St. John Chrysostom

St. Peter of Damaskos, in his discourse “The Seven Commandments” (Philokalia III), correlates the Beatitudes with the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.vii He informs us that the beginning of the spiritual life is fear, by which he means a sense of the awesomeness of God. He tells us: "Our Lord Himself began His teaching by speaking of fear [awesomeness]; for He says, 'Blessed are the poor in spirit (Mt 5:3), that is, those who quail with the fear of God and are inexpressibly contrite in soul." St. Peter goes to say how this is accomplished. "-we should meditate deeply upon the contingencies of life ....and upon God's measureless unfathomable blessings."

St. John Chrysostom has a much more pastoral focus in his understanding of the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes. St. John writes:

And He doth not introduce what He saith by way of advice or of commandments [emphasis mine], but by way of blessing [emphasis mine], so making His word less burthensome, and opening to all the course of His discipline. For He said not, “This or that person,” but “they who do so, are all of them blessed.” So that though thou be a slave, a beggar, in poverty, a stranger, unlearned, [?????.] there is nothing to hinder thee from being blessed, if thou emulate this virtue.viii

Parents Modeling Awareness of the Awesomeness of God in their Domestic Church

In the Orthodox Wedding Ceremony, after praying that the servant and handmaiden be united by God, the priest continues: “Unite them in one mind and one flesh, and grant them fair children for education in Thy faith and fear," that is to say acknowledging the awesome, transcendent God. This requires that parents not only be hearers of the Word, but also doers of the Word. They must learn the way of God, particularly His design for marriage and family through study, prayer, being united to His Church through obedience, reception of its Holy Mysteries and practice of the spiritual life.

Ideally, a true Orthodox Christian domestic church in our day should look like (but is not limited to) something like this: Jesus Christ is at the center or hub. Husbands, and wives, as such, and as fathers and mothers, should be the leaders of the "church at home" in Christ's name. They should bless one another and their children, bless the food which is partaken, give thanksgiving for all that God has provided (house, furnishings, etc.), thank God for health and talents, and lead by the sanctity of their conduct as well as their words.

However, even in homes purportedly to be Orthodox-Catholic Christian how often are comments made about the occurrences or circumstances of life with no reference to God? Rather, succumbing to the secular godless culture, by their remarks parents attribute the cause of events merely to be of some good or bad fortune? Remarks like: "Boy! That was lucky!"; "Good luck today!" or "What terrible luck!" or ”it was fated to be”.

The first place parents can begin to model being "poor in spirit," is to point out that the occurrences of life are related to God's unfathomable will. In talking to adults and children as well I often put it this way: "That God sees the big picture, we see the little picture. We have to see that we are blessed by Him and without Him we can do nothing."

Understanding Being "Poor in Spirit" Starts with Reality, but Based on God

Our God Given Gifts and Talents

Following the Cognitive Therapy use of Socratic Reality Testing and the example of St. Dorotheos' reality dialogue with the monk, discussed above, parents may ask their children to list the 'gifts' God has given them. This may be the talents they have, the things they may be good at. This may even include some of the things they may not be good at and are struggling to succeed. Children in this case, considered as what psychology calls “coping models” could be told that others may learn from them by watching them persist in working on a task despite initial setbacks. Psychological research has shown that coping models are more efficacious than models that do something 'perfect' right off. Meichenbaum (1971) explains this by suggesting that coping models who initially had coping problems before mastering tasks "enhanced the perceived similarity between the observer and models who initially demonstrated coping behaviors," which accounts for their effectiveness.

Children can be reminded of the words of St. John the Baptist as recorded by the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John (3: 27): "A man is able to receive nothing unless it hath been given to him from the heavens." St. James (1:1) addressing his Epistle to the Jews abroad, as he tell us "to the twelve tribes which are in the diaspora," says "Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there can be no variation neither shadow of turning." (Ja 1: 17) Children can also be shown the connection (Morelli, 2010) between this beautiful passage of St. James and the ending prayer of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, The Prayer Behind the Ambon:

O Lord, who blessest those who bless Thee, and sanctifiest those who put their trust in Thee: save Thy people and preserve Thine inheritance ... forsake not those who hope on Thee ... for every good and perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from Thee, the Father of Lights, and unto Thee we ascribe, glory, thanksgiving and worship; to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; now and ever, and unto ages of ages.

Children can come to learn that they are poor in spirit when they attribute their skills and talents as coming from God and giving Him thanks for them.

Thanksgiving to God for What Comes from Nature

St. Anthony the Great

St. Anthony the Great

St. Antony the Great also provides a beautiful lesson on poverty of spirit that parents can employ both for themselves and their children. He says:

Just as God has given us sight in order that we may recognize visible things - what is white, and what black - so, too, He has give us intelligence [a spiritual perception of what is Godly] in order that we may discern what benefits the soul. ... [helps us] attain union with God. What takes place according to nature is not sinful; sin always involves man's deliberate choice. It is not a sin to eat; it is a sin to eat without gratitude [to God] ... it is not a sin to use one's eyes with purity; it is a sin to look with envy; arrogance and insatiable desire [disrespecting others, who are made in God's image]. It is a sin to listen not peacefully, but angrily, it is a sin to guide the tongue, not towards thanksgiving and prayer, but towards backbiting; it is a sin to employ the hands, not for acts of compassion but for murders and robberies. And thus every part of the body sins when by man's own choice it performs not good but evil acts, contrary to God's will. (Philokalia I, p. 338)

Regarding what St. Antony has written, children can be guided through a series of questions to help them discern what is godly or good from what is evil:

  • Is it a sin to eat without thanking God?
  • Does God want us to be resentful or be angry with others for what they have?
  • Is it a sin to use others for some personal gain without their consent or God's blessing?
  • Does God tell us to say bad things instead of good things about others?
  • Is it a sin to take from others what is theirs?
  • Did Christ tell us to hurt others instead of helping them?

To be poor in spirit is to realize that all we do has to be done from God's perspective and our powerlessness to achieve true Godliness on our own. Even when we attribute some success to ourselves and forget God, it is still God that is source and dispenser of all gifts we have and all we do that is good. Consider the words of St. Mark the Ascetic: "There are acts [and statements] which appear to be good; and there are other acts which appear to be bad, while the motive of the doer is good. This discrepancy is due sometimes to inexperience or ignorance." (Philokalia I, p 112-3) That these words are meant for us to consider our true poverty and our ultimate need for God can be seen in the instruction St. Mark gives a few verses later: "God is the source of every virtue, as the sun is the source of daylight" (p. 113); and "Think of nothing and do nothing without a purpose directed to God. For to journey without direction is wasted effort" (p. 114). As Christ Himself has told us, "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." (Mt 19: 26).

Finishing the Race

St. Paul did not hesitate to use the analogy of running and finishing a race to describe the path of his spiritual journey. "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith." (2Ti 4: 7). He tells the Corinthians (1Cor 9: 25) "Every athlete exercises self-control in all things." And he reminds St. Timothy again “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.” (2Ti 2: 5) Such references of the spiritual life with sports should resonate well with children who are usually engaged in sport activities either in school or as an extra-curricular activity. It could be pointed out that no athlete can ever accomplish "winning" or playing to their 'personal best without a coach. Once again a series of questions can lead children in seeing this for themselves:

  • How do you think that quarterback (football) was able to call that play that won the game? He followed the coach’s advice or the coach helped him.
  • You see how complicated the figure skating performance (the Olympics) is. Who is always on the sidelines and is there to hear the score with the skaters? The skaters coach.
  • If some of the best athletes in the world need coaches, what do you think we need to win the spiritual race? We need a coach. Yes we need a coach, that is God Himself, along with His saints and the spiritual fathers and mothers He has given us. We cannot go it alone. This is what Jesus said: we have to be "poor in spirit" to see we need Him, we cannot do it by ourselves.

In this regard another important connection to athletics can be pointed out. After games or performances, an intensive review, usually by going over videotapes of the sport events, takes place. The technical term for this is debriefing. The spiritual term is a detailed examination of conscience. This is what St. John Chrysostom had in mind when he considered being "poor in spirit" as "lowliness". Athletes have to be keenly aware of their errors and how to correct them. We who are put on earth to achieve sanctification can only do so by spiritual humility. To be contrite of heart, as St. John Chrysostom points out, we have to be keenly aware of the mistakes, shortcomings, missing the mark, our sins, and how they can be corrected.

If athletes use and need coaches, how much more should we need coaches to win the most important race of our lives: union with God. Here St. Paul's reminder to the Corinthians can be referenced: "They [athletes] do it to receive a perishable wreath [a trophy or medal], but we an imperishable [crown-the "Kingdom of Heaven"]. (1Cor 9: 25)

The Heavens Declare the Glory of God

Night sky

We can look at the vastness of what we can see and realize this is finiteness, it is as nothing in contrast to the infinite eternal glory that is God.

Another way to spiritually perceive and understand being "poor in spirit" is to meditate on our finitude as creatures versus the magnitude of the cosmos God created. King David understood this spiritual perception when he wrote his Psalm 18: "The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament proclaim His handiwork." A visit to a planatarium can give us a visual picture of the microscopiality that is Earth, the planet God placed us, on versus the seemingly limitless vastness of the universe that we are aware of.

To look at the universe proclaims God involves developing and nurturing what could be called a feeling and intuitive cognitive style. We can thank Carl Jung, as a philosopher, hardly a scientist, nor a psychologist (Morelli, 2006) for this insight. Hall, Lindsey and Campbell (1998) write:

[Cognitive Style] may be clarified by the following example. Suppose that a person is standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. If the feeling function predominates, [he] will experience a senses of awe, grandeur and breath-taking beauty....if the intuitive function prevails, the spectator will tend to see the Grand Canyon as a mystery of nature possessing deep significance whose meaning is partially revealed or felt as a mystical experience.

The Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon

I can speak from personal experience. I visited the Grand Canyon some years ago. Words cannot encompass the sense of the beauty and awesomeness that is God in contrast to my own finiteness. I could not get out of my mind the overwhelming beauty, that no picture or words can capture, of the Canyon and how much greater must be He who created it. We know that beauty and goodness is of God (Morelli, 2010a,b). St. Maximus the Confessor (Philokalia II) tells us:

The beautiful is identical with the good ... Observe how the Divine force of love — the erotic [deep] power pre-existing in the good — has given birth to the same blessed force within us, through which we long for the beautiful and good in accordance with the words, 'I became a lover of her beauty' (Wisd. 8: 2) and 'Love her and she will sustain you; fortify her and she will exalt you' (Prov. 4.: 6,8).

This means purposefully exposing the child to what is beautiful. When I lived some years ago on the East Coast, I had a friend who was a teacher. I was asked to be 'a chaperone' for third grade field trip to the Hayden Planetarium. The sense of marvel and awe that I observed the young children had in viewing the cosmos was almost more wondrous than the presentation itself. How easy it would be for Orthodox Christian parents to help their children to discover that goodness and beauty connect with God.

  • What do you think about the universe (cosmos)?
  • How did it come about—Who made it?
  • What is our place in this immense universe?
  • If the universe is that vast and beautiful, how much more so is the God who made it?
  • How do we compare with God who is indescribable and eternal?

It need not be a visit to a planetarium or the Grand Canyon, almost every major community has a museum in which objects of beauty are displayed. Similar questions can be asked about the exhibits. Here even is an opportunity for information technology, vivid computer screens, high definition TV's and the like to be able to be the source of introducing children to the wonders of God's creation and lead them (educare) to realize how more wondrous is the Creator and our paucity (poverty in spirit), in relation to Him.

Balancing the reality of death and the reality of hopeix

Great care has to be taken by parents and anyone engaging children in the topic of death. A spiritual understanding of death is the apprehension of our being poor in spirit. Death should not be approached in such a way that discussion would induce psychological trauma. However a sense of the finiteness of life (death) and the hope of eternal life of God is essential for attaining salvation. St. Dorotheos of Gaza (Wheeler, 1977) writes: "The Fathers tell us that a man gains possession of the fear [awesomeness] of God by keeping the thought of death before his mind..."

The Idiomela of St. John of Damascus, sung at the Orthodox Funeral service, are especially graphic in the depiction of our finiteness of our bodies and the reality of death:

All mortal things are vanity and exist not after death. Riches endure not, neither doth glory ... all these things vanish utterly. .... Where are the gold and the silver ... All are dust, all are ashes, all are shadows ... I looked into the graves and beheld thee bones laid bare, and I said: Who then is the king or the warrior, the rich man or the needy...

Christ the Resurrector

Christ the Resurrector

In my pastoral experience I have never encountered a child of any age traumatized by the funeral service. I pray it is because it is balanced by the hope and trust in God, that He will bring us all into the paradise of His Kingdom. St. Ephraim the Syrian put it this way:

Christ the Resurrector will appear in the heights with glory. He will bring the dead to life and raise those in the graves. The children of Adam, who was made of earth, will all arise together and give praise to the Resurrector of the dead...Let not your souls be sorrowful, ye who were redeemed by the cross and called into the Kingdom.

St. Isaac of Syria (Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011) approaches death and eternal life from a theological perspective:

Sin, Gehenna, and death do not exist at all with God, for they are effects, not substances. Sin is the fruit of the will; there was a time when sin did not exist, and there will be a time when it will not exist. Gehenna is the fruit of sin; at some point in time it received a beginning, but its end is not know. Death, however is a dispensation of the wisdom of the Creator; it will have power over nature only for a time; then it will be totally abolished.

If a child does exhibit psychological anxiety-fearx of their own death, then care must be taken to emphasize the healing of Christ- His triumph over sin and death. In fact St. Isaac of Syria gives the straightforward spiritual treatment for such fear: "Divine hope uplifts the heart..."

Nurturing the Virtue of Humility to Attain Becoming Poor in Spirit

St. Isaac of Syria

St. Isaac of Syria

I end by returning to the question St. John Chrysostom asks in Homily XV on Mt 5 that I discussed earlier in this article. Why does Jesus use the term poor in spirit instead of humility? I believe the answer is that being truly poor in spirit means having attained the summit of humility. For most of us attaining the summit begins with the first step. St. John the Baptist informs us that the first step in humility is actually a step backwards. He models humility for us by describing his own life: "It is needful for that One [Jesus] to go in increasing, but for me to go on decreasing." (Jn 3: 30)

St. Isaac of Syria (Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011) informs us of what we must take on our journey:

If you love gentleness, be peaceful. If you are deemed worthy of peace, you will rejoice at all times. Seek [spiritual] understanding, not gold. Clothe yourself with humility, not fine linen. Gain peace, not a [worldly] kingdom. No man has understanding if he is not humble, and he who lacks humility is devoid of understanding. No man is humble if he is not peaceful, and he who is not peaceful is not humble. And no man is peaceful without rejoicing.

"Take up my yoke upon you, and learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart: and you shall find rest to your souls." (Mt 11:29)


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Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. "Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven ..." (Mt 5: 1-12)

ii http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf114.iv.lxxxv.html

iii The Steps:

  1. On renunciation of the world
  2. On detachment
  3. On exile or pilgrimage; concerning dreams that beginners have
  4. On blessed and ever-memorable obedience
  5. On painstaking and true repentance, which constitutes the life of the holy convicts, and about the Prison
  6. On remembrance of death)
  7. On joy-making mourning
  8. On freedom from anger and on meekness
  9. On remembrance of wrongs
  10. On slander or calumny
  11. On talkativeness and silence
  12. 12. On lying
  13. On despondency
  14. On that clamorous mistress, the stomach
  15. On incorruptible purity and chastity, to which the corruptible attain by toil and sweat
  16. On love of money, or avarice
  17. On non-possessiveness (that hastens one Heavenwards)
  18. On insensibility, that is, deadening of the soul and the death of the mind before the death of the body
  19. On sleep, prayer, and psalmody with the brotherhood
  20. On bodily vigil and how to use it to attain spiritual vigil, and how to practice it
  21. On unmanly and puerile cowardice
  22. On the many forms of vainglory
  23. On mad pride and (in the same Step) on unclean blasphemous thoughts; concerning unmentionable blasphemous thoughts
  24. On meekness, simplicity, and guilelessness, which come not from nature but from conscious effort, and on guile
  25. On the destroyer of the passions, most sublime humility, which is rooted in spiritual perception
  26. On discernment of thoughts, passions and virtues; on expert discernment; brief summary of all aforementioned
  27. On holy stillness of body and soul; different aspects of stillness and how to distinguish them
  28. On holy and blessed prayer, the mother of virtues, and on the attitude of mind and body in prayer
  29. Concerning Heaven on earth, or Godlike dispassion and perfection, and the resurrection of the soul before the general resurrection
  30. Concerning the linking together of the supreme trinity among the virtues; a brief exhortation summarizing all that has said at length in this book

iv Union and sharing of the very life of God. Consider St. Paul's instruction to the Corinthians (1Cor 6:17): “he who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with Him”.

v St. John Chrysostom Homily XV on Mt 5


vi Preaching, especially when this is considered as lengthy repetition distracts children (and many adults as well) from the message attempting to be conveyed. The best way to teach is to say something short and sweet and ask the child or person to repeat back what you have said. To put it bluntly: 'A short phrase is sometimes better than a thousand words'.

vii The Prophet Isaiah (11: 1-3) refers to the gifts that the Messiah will receive that we too can receive by God's grace at our Baptism and strengthened by Chrismation:

And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root. And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: the spirit of wisdom, and of understanding, the spirit of counsel, and of fortitude, the spirit of knowledge, and of godliness [piety]. And he shall be filled with the spirit of the fear of the Lord.

St. Paul tells the Corinthians (1Cor 12: 7-11): of nine gifts. This passage actually is the Epistle reading for the Feast of St. Gregory Palamas which is celebrated on 14 November:

[Brethren], to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the profit of all. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom; to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith in the same Spirit; to another the working of powers; to another prophesy; and to another the discerning of spirits; to another diverse kinds of tongues. But all these are accomplished by the One and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to each one severally even as He wills.

viii St. John Chrysostom Homily XV on Mt 5


ix I want to thank the editor of this article Sh. Laura Sanders for making the following comment about this section:

Somewhere I read that the poem “Now I lay me down to sleep” originated during the time of a virulent flu epidemic, when children were literally playing together in the afternoon and dead by morning from the contagion. While most sites report the words to have been a child telling the hearer they pray (a statement) “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep” – it’s my theory that it actually was a prayer, as in Old English, said aloud, the words would have SOUNDED the same as the modern version, but MEANT something deeply different:

“Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to take”

Thus instead of being a morbid song ABOUT death, it’s actually a prayer of trust from a child who’s watched playmates or family members die and it must have been a comfort to the heart of any Christian parent kneeling with them, knowing that their child has just made a confession of faith in Christ. I found this prayer to be a comfort myself, especially when “going under” before surgery.

x Child anxiety disorders are not easy to detect by untrained individuals. Some changes is a child behavior parents can look out for are sleep disturbances, especially nightmares about death, as well as the child exhibiting attenuated emotion, becoming emotionally numb so to say, becoming disorganized, agitated or easily irritable, and withdrawn. If parents suspect their child may have developed a fear of death, evaluation and treatment by a scientifically trained (e.g. Cognitive-Behavioral Psychologist), licensed, experienced and spiritually oriented mental health practitioner should be sought. (c.f. Morelli, 2006, 2006b)

Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: January 2, 2012

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