22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Luke 14:1,7-14
Every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
The Savior speaks to those who were dinning at the house of a Pharisee, exhorting them to the practiced of true poverty of spirit. Not only humility, but also a certain poverty is praised – to take the lower place at table, and to invite the poor rather than the rich when holding a banquet.
What then is “poverty in spirit”? How does this relate to the gift of fear of the Lord and the virtue of hope? This question will also clarify the relation of the virtues, the gifts, and the beatitudes.
The virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines a virtue as “an habitual and firm disposition to do the good.” (CCC 1803)
Virtues, then, are stable realities in the soul – indeed, they are in one or the other of the faculties of the soul, either in the intellect or in the will, perfecting that faculty.
Thus, among the virtues we may distinguish those which perfect the intellect (the intellectual virtues) and those which perfect the will (the moral virtues).
Furthermore, there are those virtues which are built up by human efforts (the acquired virtues) and those which are given directly by God (the infused virtues). And these virtues, even if they bear the same name, are nevertheless distinct insofar as the acquired virtues point only to the natural end of man, whereas the infused virtues are supernatural in there scope. Hence, the acquired virtue of justice is truly distinct from the infused virtue of justice.
Now, finally, we will mention the theological virtues. These “relate directly to God. They dispose Christians to live in a relationship with the Holy Trinity. They have the One and Triune God for their origin, motive, and object.” (CCC 1812)
The theological virtues – faith, hope, and charity – come from God, are infused in the human soul, and lead man back to God as his supernatural and ultimate end. While faith perfects the intellect, hope and charity perfect the will.
All of the virtues (even the theological virtues) are stabile realities in the human soul from which a man acts by his own volition, choosing and doing that which is good.
Even those infused and theological virtues which could not be acquired by human effort but can only be gained through the divine gift, once they are infused in the soul, are capable of being acted upon by the choice of man (moved, of course, by actual grace). We choose to make acts of faith, of hope, and of love. It is possible for man to act on these virtues, with the divine assistance.
HOWEVER, here we see the precise difference between the virtues and the gifts. While the gifts are also stable realities in the soul which, like the infused virtues, are given directly by God, it is yet not possible for man to make an act of the gifts of the Holy Spirit of his own volition. We cannot make acts from the gifts – this is why there is no prayer called “An act of Fear of the Lord”, but there is “An act of hope.”
The gifts are stable realities in the soul, and they do perfect either the intellect (wisdom, knowledge, understanding, counsel) or the will (piety, fortitude, fear of the Lord). However, acts proceed from the gifts only upon the special movement of the Holy Spirit – not from the choice of man (even aided by actual grace).
“These [gifts] are permanent dispositions which make man docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit.” (CCC 1830)
By the gifts of the Holy Spirit, man is able to act according to a new divine mode. By the theological virtues, he tends toward God as his supernatural end, but still according to a human mode. By the gifts, he is now moved by the Holy Spirit in a divine mode of acting.
N.B. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has adopted almost the whole teaching on the virtues and the gifts from the Angelic Thomas, setting aside the theories of other schools of thought (for example, of the Franciscan Duns Scotus).
The Beatitude: Blessed are the poor in Spirit
St. Thomas Aquinas states that the beatitudes are acts which proceed either from the virtues or from the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, “a man is moved towards, and approaches the happy end by works of virtue, and above all by the works of the gifts, if we speak of eternal happiness, for which our reason is not sufficient, since we need to be moved by the Holy Ghost, and to be perfected with his gifts that we may obey and follow him. Consequently the beatitudes differ from the virtues and gifts, not as habit, but as act from habit.” (ST I-II, q.69, a.1 [here])
Thus, every beatitude is properly understood as proceeding from either a virtue or a gift of the Holy Spirit.
This beatitude can first be considered as an act of the virtue of humility: “The first beatitude may refer either to a contempt of riches, or to the contempt of honors, which results from humility.” (ST I-II, q.69, a.3)
On the other hand, we may say that poverty of Spirit comes from the gift of fear of the Lord, as regards the likeness of matter – “poverty and mourning [may be assigned to] the gift of fear, whereby a man withdraws from the lusts and pleasures of the world.” (ST I-II, q.69, a.3, ad 3) Since, indeed, the gift of fear of the Lord allows a man to be free from attachment to worldly pleasures and delights.
However, we must rightly conclude that poverty of Spirit corresponds primarily to the gift of fear of the Lord (cf. ST II-II, q.19, a.12 [here]):
“Poverty of spirit properly corresponds to fear. Because, since it belongs to filial fear to show reverence and submission to God, whatever results from this submission belongs to the gift of fear.
Now from the very fact that a man submits to God, it follows that he ceases to seek greatness either in himself or in another but seeks it only in God. For that would be inconsistent with perfect subjection to God, wherefore it is written (Psalm 19:8): Some trust in chariots and some in horses; but we will call upon the name of . . . our God.
It follows that if a man fear God perfectly, he does not, by pride, seek greatness either in himself or in external goods, viz. honors and riches. On either case, this proceeds from poverty of spirit, in so far as the latter denotes either the voiding of a puffed up and proud spirit, according to Augustine's interpretation (De Serm. Dom. in Monte i, 4), or the renunciation of worldly goods which is done in spirit, i.e. by one's own will, through the instigation of the Holy Spirit, according to the expounding of Ambrose on Luke 6:20 and Jerome on Matthew 5:3.”
From hope to fear, from fear to poverty of Spirit
“Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.” (CCC 1817)
Now, by the virtue of hope, our will is moved to desire God as our happiness and last end. Fear then perfects our hope insofar as the gift of fear of the Lord makes us to avoid all sin and all that leads to sin. As sin is the one thing which can keep us from achieving that which we hope, the gift of fear of the Lord drives us away from sin and toward our loving Savior.
Thus, by the gift of holy fear, the Holy Spirit moves us in a divine mode to fear the loss of our only good and our supreme hope, God himself. By this supernatural, divine fear we draw most close to our Lord.
Finally, then, the gift of fear leads to the acts of poverty of Spirit, since these acts preserve us from the temptations of the world, of the flesh, and of the devil. Riches and honors despised, and humble poverty embraced (even in the midst of actual riches), the soul is safeguarded from sin and all that leads to sin.