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Saturday, May 30, 2020

The Poor in Spirit

*Over the next several weeks, I will be reflecting on the beatitudes of Jesus.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Without fail, when I taught the beatitudes each semester, some student would ask about the “poor in spirit.” “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus says, “for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Who are the poor in spirit exactly? It’s a little clearer the other time Jesus talks like this, in Luke’s gospel ― “blessed are you poor” (Lk 6:20). We know who they are ― the poor ― even if we’re often unsure as to why they’re blessed.

There’s a temptation to think of poverty of spirit as a kind of timidity or small-spiritedness. There’s a temptation to think of the poor in spirit as a bunch of wimp-chickens. “Blessed are those you can hardly hear when they talk.” You’d be surprised how many people implicitly believe holiness has something to do with how loudly one speaks.

The poor in spirit are the broken of this world. Yes, they are the materially poor, the beggars, the laid off. But they are also the cast down. The anxious and the addicted. They are the heartbroken and alienated. They are the ones whose families have been taken away from them, “Rachel weeping for her children because they are no more” (Jer 31:15). The depressed. The seriously ill. Forgotten and beaten children. Les miserables. The poor in spirit are those who know nothing of this world’s joys. And painfully ― absurdly even ― Jesus says that they are blessed.

This is precisely what makes Jesus a shocking and radical figure. Recall that, when he finished this sermon, the text says “the crowds were alarmed at his teaching” (Mt 7:28). How is it that the world’s most broken can actually be blessed and fortunate?

Let’s exclude one solution straight away. There’s a temptation to think that, when God looks upon these poor in spirit and sees their misery, he will someday in this life wipe it all away and bless them. “Blessed are the poor in spirit because God will eventually dissolve their troubles and give them more than anyone else.” This is not what Jesus is saying. In fact, the Greek word he uses for “blessed” ― makarios ― implies that they are blessed because they are poor in spirit. Indeed, the poverty of spirit itself is somehow paradoxically blessed. It is precisely the place in which, to use Jesus’ words, one inherits the Kingdom of Heaven. There is no getting around the radicalness of Jesus. [1]

So what are we supposed to do with this? How is it that earthly misery is actually a blessing? How is it the place in which one inherits the Kingdom?

In short, when we are poor in spirit, we have nothing. When we are poor in spirit, we possess not a single one of this world’s joys. And so we must turn to the next world. We must turn to God. But most of the time ― for you and I, anyway ― we are not poor in spirit. Most of the time we enjoy the things of this world. We are happy to indulge its services. But the reason we are called blessed when we are poor in spirit is because it is only then that we actually see rightly. Indeed, when we are poor in spirit, that is the moment when it becomes all too clear that this world is devastated and broken and there is nothing that can save us except God. And that is a fundamental truth. And the reason this poverty of spirit is called blessed is because, at every other time ― when we are not poor in spirit ― we simply don't see it. The poor in spirit recognize that there is nothing in this world that can make one happy except God. But more often than not, we think that our jobs will make us truly happy. Or marriage. Or ice cream. Or not dying. Or some other thing besides God.

It's not that earthly goods are bad. They're good. They can be enjoyed "in God," so to speak. But they can't satisfy us in an ultimate sense. They can't save us or make us finally happy. When we are poor in spirit, we know this. Most of the time, though, we do not. Our familiarity with this world's comforts ― our attachment to them ― makes us forget that they won't take us very far. In short, the poor in spirit are blessed because they are the ones who recognize our deep dependence upon God and God alone.

Recall for a moment the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Recall the elder son’s anger at seeing a party thrown for his brother. “These many years I have served you and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a goat, that I might make merry with my friends” (Lk 15:29). What he wanted was a goat. “Son,” the father replied, “you are always with me. All that is mine is yours” (Lk 15:31). The father is not talking about his possessions: “You are always with me.” The son wanted a goat. “Forget the goat,” the father is saying, “you have me.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus said, “theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” In the Kingdom of Heaven, everyone is a beggar, because everyone has given everything away. They’ve recognized how unsatisfying everything is that isn't God. This is what it means to be rich for Christians. This is the inheritance of the Kingdom of Heaven. This is what it means, as Saint Paul said, to “have nothing, and yet possess everything” (2 Cor. 6:10). And once one becomes poor of human things, one becomes rich with God. In the Kingdom, everyone has given away their goats. They have the Father. “Son. Daughter. You are always with me. And all that is mine is yours.”


~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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[1] See Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy ― Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, vol. 1 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), 183-184.

Saturday, May 23, 2020


*Over the next several weeks, I will be reflecting on the beatitudes of Jesus.

The most interesting part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the first word. “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Blessed. In the original Greek, the word is makarios. It’s not an easy word to translate. “Happy are the poor,” you’ll find in some translations. Jesus begins each of the beatitudes with that word. “Blessed are those who mourn,” “blessed are the meek,” and so on. In Latin, the word is beati. “Beati misericordes” ― “blessed are the merciful.” Beati is where we get the word “beatitude.”

Usually, when someone hears the word “beatitude,” they think of these aphorisms of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount. But there is a second meaning to that word. Traditionally, “beatitude” has also referred to the experience of people in heaven. Indeed, “beatitude” describes the state of mind of someone who’s beholding the face of God. Theologians call this the “beatific vision.” The two meanings are linked. Yes, Jesus is describing to his followers something about what it means to live well in this world ― “blessed are the peacemakers, etc.” But he’s also talking about heaven. There is a reason Jesus only offers these beatitudes after he’s ascended a mountain. It is an ascent to heaven, and he is describing what it looks like to live in heaven. In short, the beatitudes describe how people are when they behold the face of God.

This is the great mystery of the beatitudes. They bridge heaven and earth. Indeed, what Jesus’ beatitudes reveal, above all, is that there is a way ― even in this world ― to access the life of the Blessed, the way of life that is promised in the life to come. Jesus reveals that this life is available to us here and now ― that beatitude is possible even in this life, even if “through a glass darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12). [1]

But here’s the strange and awful thing about the beatitudes. We've said that the beatitudes describe how people live ― the way they are, even ― when they behold the face of God. But look at the very first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Luke's gospel is more blunt: “Blessed are you poor” (Lk 6:20) This is not the typical conception of heaven. We think of heaven as a becoming-rich. We say that so-and-so has “gone to their reward.” Even if we understand these rewards as spiritual realities, we still typically understand heaven as the accumulation of good experiences. 

On the contrary, when the scriptures describe the process of our final beatitude, it is not described as an accumulation of something but as a stripping away. In this same sermon, Jesus described the process of entering heaven as a paying of “every last cent” (Mt 5:26). Saint Paul mysteriously described the process of salvation as a “burning up” (1 Cor. 3:10-15). The New Testament depicts heaven not as a making-rich, but as a making-poor, a burning up. 

With respect to living in this world, Christianity offers the same logic. “I must become less,” John the Baptist said (Jn 3:30). The whole spirit of Christianity is about accumulating less of this world into your person: “Martha, Martha,” Jesus said, “you are anxious and troubled about many things.” It is the many-ness that is Martha’s problem. “One thing is needful” (Lk 10:41-42). What Martha needs is to have her many-ness stripped and burned away from her.

Americans in particular struggle with Jesus’ depiction of blessedness. We tend to think of blessedness in the images taught to us by the gospel of American consumerism. Blessedness means abundance. It means accumulating more. It means many-ness. My blessedness primarily has to do with my house, my clothes, my retirement, my Thanksgiving dinner. It means having and consuming. 'The reason we have all this is because we're blessed.' But it’s Amazon and Nabisco who have convinced us of this, not Jesus. 

Upon finishing the last beatitude, Jesus says that the "reward is great in heaven" (Mt 5:12). The reward is great. How certain are we that we know what he means? Americans are tempted into thinking that heaven is about more. Americans are tempted into longing for the heaven of Martha, for the heaven of many-ness. “Martha, Martha…. One thing is needful.” The Judeo-Christian tradition seems to suggest that, on the last day, when we look God in the face, we won’t find a God eager to pour out more and even tastier consumables for our hungry hearts to devour. It seems, rather, we’ll find ourselves not quite as hungry as we remembered. We will experience, I think, a different kind of hunger, and we will feel it with extraordinary acuteness. The Blessed, we are told, “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” And on that day, we are told, “they will be satisfied.” In heaven, the Blessed are not rich, but poor. They have become empty, and thus filled with God. They have, as John the Baptist hoped they would, “become less, so He would become more” (Jn 3:30).


~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II.69.2.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

An Update and a Skipped Week


Thank you so much for reading these reflections. I'm grateful for the little notes many of you email me after reading. 

You are used to receiving a reflection from me on Saturday or Sunday. It's now been 38 weeks of reflections. And, though it took 2 weeks to write the much longer reflection on my grandfathers, it's time for a week off. I'm sorry, but there won't be a reflection this weekend.

Next weekend, instead of returning to reflections upon the Sunday gospel readings, I'd like to begin a series of reflections upon Jesus' beatitudes. I love the Sermon of the Mount. I hope you'll find the reflections edifying. As always, you should feel free to share these writings with anyone you'd like.

If you'd like to read something this week, you can read this reflection from November. It's about Mary.

In addition to that, if you don't already know, I have been offering audio lectures through the Saint Luke and Ascension website. They're on the papacy of Pope Francis and are modeled on an undergraduate class I taught a few times at the University of Dayton. I usually upload one talk each week. You can access those talks by clicking here


Friday, May 8, 2020

My Grandfathers

When I was 11 years old, I went to college basketball’s Final Four with my grandfather. As we descended the stairs one morning into the hotel restaurant, I saw Tom Izzo, the head coach at Michigan State. Izzo is the real deal. By then, he’d already won a national championship and been named national coach of the year three different times. He’s since been inducted into the Hall of Fame. He’s been so successful in the NCAA Tournament, they call him “Mr. March.” When I saw him, my 11-year-old eyes got really big.

The strange thing, though, was that when Izzo saw us, his eyes got really big. He stood up and rushed over to my grandpa: “Dom? Dom Rosselli?” They exchanged pleasantries as I looked on, dumbfounded. Eventually, grandpa introduced me. I don’t remember much of what Izzo said. But I do remember he finished with something like, “You know... Your grandpa? He’s the real deal.”

I actually did know. In his time, my grandfather, Dom Rosselli, was a college basketball coach himself. He was more than that. He was a legend. In fact, the very day I trembled in the presence of Tom Izzo, my own grandpa had won 357 more college basketball games than him. 

Dom Rosselli coached basketball for 38 seasons at Youngstown State University in Ohio. He collected 589 wins. He’s one of the winningest coaches in the history of the game. Several different organizations named him “Coach of the Year” throughout the 50s and 60s. He was even named, hilariously, “Italian Coach of the Year” in 1958. Not too long after his retirement, Youngstown State painted “Rosselli Court” on the floor of their arena and, several years later, erected an enormous statue of him outside its door. When he died, it was on ESPN. Flags in the city of Youngstown were flown at half mast. Tom Izzo was right. Dom Rosselli was the real deal.

Growing up, both sets of grandparents were just a short drive away. After the Final Four, we visited with my other grandparents. They wanted to know about the trip. My Grandpa Johnny did not move in the same circles as Dom Rosselli. While Dom was becoming a legend for the city of Youngstown, John Slovasky was making it smoke. For 35 years he worked in one of its famous steel mills. As a kid, I was just told that Johnny had “worked at the mill,” and so I pictured him as a man of the blast furnace and of molten iron, a hardened laborer. It turns out he did bookkeeping in one of the offices. But when the Youngstown steel industry was decimated in the late 70s, Johnny was one of the now unremembered 40,000 who lost their jobs. For years afterward, he wallpapered homes to make a living. 

I knew my Grandpa Johnny as an older man and, as I knew him, there wasn’t much to him. He was a quiet man, a calm man. He was a Buick man. He liked to talk about routes and avenues, about “the construction over on Tibbetts Wick.” He could always remember a good restaurant about halfway to someplace, but he could never remember its name. He hated the New York Yankees, but let his wife do the yelling at the TV. He had one of those senses of humor where you really wanted to be certain your girlfriend liked you before you let her meet him. He liked John Wayne. He fixed things with duct tape. When he died this week, it was not on ESPN.

Neither of my grandfathers were the sit-you-down-and-teach-you-a-lesson type. They weren’t going to leave you a book of aphorisms. The lesson was in the very doing of their lives. Simply moving among my grandfathers ― passing one the chocolate, losing to the other in chess ― was the lesson. It was on you to observe it. 

A few years before his death, Youngstown State made bobblehead dolls of Dom Rosselli. They were pretty hilarious. When I opened up the box, I noticed that Grandpa had actually written on the back. It was autographed. “Coach Dom Rosselli.” I was surprised by it. I’d never seen him autograph something. But it made sense. Dom Rosselli was, after all, a sportsman. Grandpa’s living room had more cups and plaques than did my small college’s trophy room. But even after spending hundreds of hours with the man ― after playing countless games of chess with him in that very living room ― I’d never heard him tell a single story about even one of those trophies. Not one story. That’s why, when I met Tom Izzo, I couldn’t attend to the fact that my own grandpa had, at that point, outgunned him by several hundred wins. In my mind, that’s just not who the man was. He wasn’t “Coach Dom Rosselli.” He wasn’t a legend. He was just “Grandpa,” who never held it against me for not improving at chess.

John Slovasky never autographed anything. He didn't even sign his checks correctly. His real name wasn’t Slovasky, after all. In the 50s, just after getting married, John decided that his original family name was a bit of a mouthful. He should just be Slovasky. But instead of legally changing his name, he just began to fill out paperwork with Slovasky. Who’s going to know? This isn’t significant, right? Eventually his identity was fudged over and he just sort of became John Slovasky. 

There is something very Johnny about that. There is something very Johnny about the simple shrug he would surely have offered if told he would need to legally change his name. This swings several ways. When Johnny was in the war, he was ordered to swim to retrieve nurses into a lifeboat in the Azores Islands. He didn’t know how to swim. “I was told to do it,” he shrugged just the same,
looking around for more chocolates. Johnny’s life was not very complicated. His business was that which was right in front of him. Johnny was sheer straightforwardness. He just, as the Buddhists like to say, “chopped wood and carried water.”

In reflections like these — recalling fathers and grandfathers — there’s a temptation to reflect on the way they embodied some bygone sense of toughness, how they taught you the meaning of strength. Oddly enough, my grandfathers taught me far more about weakness and about losing than they did about strength. Grandpa Rosselli had not a word to say to me about his 589 victories. To me, at least, when he talked about basketball he talked about losing at it. There were a few seasons when Dom Rosselli could have won a national championship. Across a few different divisions, he
coached in 13 postseasons. The year they were the tournament’s overall #2 seed, they were upset in the Elite Eight. There were seven times he coached in what is now the equivalent of the Sweet Sixteen. But a national championship never came. “Grandpa, how many games did you win in total?” I once asked him. He never gave me the answer. “I lost several hundred.”

When he was drafted, Johnny told the sergeant at the draft board that he had no interest in combat. His older brother had been killed in the Army while in France. When the letter came, he had to read it to his mother, who didn’t know English. He had no reverence for war. War was not a moment of strength, but of fear and of trembling. War killed his brother and broke his mother. He never told stories of the war. My aunt had to press the story about the nurses in the Azores out of him some 65 years later. [1]

One of the unspoken lessons of my grandfathers, as I gather it, is that strength is far less meaningful or important than we often think — that the real contours of who we are are formed, not in our strength, but in our failure, our fear, and in our trembling. 

At heart, I am an academic. And as an academic, one of the last things I would ever give up is my narcissism. I’m certain of my call to do extraordinary things with my life, convinced of the exceptional urgency of my projects. But this puts me at odds with everything my grandfathers taught me. Dom Rosselli was one of the best coaches in the history of college basketball. “They wanted to fire me,” he once remembered in an interview, thinking of a bad stretch. “Eh. I could find another job... maybe make more money. Maybe they would’ve been doing me a favor.” As an academic, I’m desperate for everything I do to be taken seriously. Johnny didn’t want to be taken seriously. He wanted to be at home near his wife. He wanted to read the newspaper. He wanted Derek Jeter to strike out.

We live in a meritocracy, a society that insists we must hustle to do singular and exceptional things. A central dogma of modern life is that we have to be strong and independent. Johnny’s later life, on the contrary, was one of physical weakness and radical dependence upon his wife. His world was one where even just sitting and standing were extraordinarily difficult. The insistence that we “not mention those kinds of things” is precisely the lie of the meritocracy, the false dogma that the only beautiful part of life is the part that’s lived in strength and health. On the contrary, Johnny’s weakness was precisely the space in which it became all too clear how much he was loved. In the last months of his life, as my Bubba would help him get situated around the house, she’d sometimes stop for a hug. “Why do you want to hug me?” he’d ask. Screaming, because he could hardly hear: “because I love you!”

Neither of my grandfathers were the sit-you-down-and-teach-you-a-lesson type. They never really told me a lot of stories. They told their stories in the very doing of their lives. It was on you to observe it. As I look back, it seems like their lives taught me the odd lesson nobody ever wants to tell a story about. My grandfathers taught me that the far more significant moments in life are the moments when you lose, when you never win a championship, when you get laid off, when you’re not the real deal. They taught me that, compared to the family itself, a family name is interchangeable, that it deserves nothing more than a shrug, even if it’s memorialized on an arena floor. They taught me that you come into contact with what’s really important when you’ve been humbled, or when your body is broken, or when you’re afraid, and not when you’ve won by 20. Life is very rarely about the impressive stuff ― about blast furnaces or 589 wins ― but is more often about straightforward humility and about weakness. Neither of my grandfathers were the sit-you-down-and-teach-you-a-lesson type. The lesson was in the very doing of their lives. It was in the sitting and in the standing. It was in John Wayne. A good restaurant about halfway to someplace. In 589 wins. 388 losses. 0 national championships. It was in humility. Weakness. And it was on you to observe it.


~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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[1] Maribeth Slovasky, Of Lessons Learned: An Interview with My Father