Hardly a day goes by that my maternal grandmother doesn’t come to mind. She’s been gone a while now. And yet I clearly remember coming home one night from a philosophy lecture to hear the news that she had died unexpectedly. I slumped into a chair and stared into space for a long time.
Marie was her name. She stood about five feet tall and wore her long white hair long straight down her back. German phrases sometimes seeped into her heavily-accented English. My mother and I lived with her and my grandfather during my toddler years and again through Middle and High School.
Never flashy or overtly expressive, her love for me was still warm and unwavering. It may seem cold to you, but it never bothered me that she didn’t say, “I love you,” or give me hugs.
Instead, she always kept Little Debbie Swiss Cake Rolls in the pantry. They were my favorite. When Grandpa cut the ham for supper, she would remind him to trim the fat off my piece. For no particular reason, she frequently smiled at me with her eyes and told me I was a good boy.
On reflection I’ve come to see that in her way my grandmother was teaching me a radical life-lesson. A lesson about who we are and what we are doing here. A lesson that has taken me decades to begin to understand and to make my own. It goes like this:
Love is not a reward for what we do with our lives. It’s a gift, the gift that makes this life possible in the first place. Being the beloved is the starting point—and the finish line—for every single human being. And if we lean into that truth, we will change this world. As it turns out, my grandmother seems to have been riffing on the Beatitudes. (Matthew 5:1-12)
More specifically, I have in mind the first of the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Alongside the many sound interpretations of what Jesus meant by “poor in spirit,” I offer this.
All of us need a “why” to exist. We can endure and even overcome just about anything if we know who we are and what we’re doing here. In his life, death, and resurrection Jesus teaches that giving away the love that we receive freely from God is our why.
For whatever reason, we’ve gotten things turned upside down. We’ve fallen for the idea that life is about earning love. And plenty of us at one point or another assumed that we would get that love by achieving and accomplishing and accumulating.
Some of us spend our lives pursuing possessions or power or status figuring these things would make us lovable. The problem is that we can become so obsessed with ourselves that we actually build walls between ourselves and other people.
And this same, love-pursuing dynamic can take place in our spiritual lives. Plenty of us act as if the depth of our piety, the rigor of our moral conduct, or the orthodoxy of our theology will convince God to reward us. Paradoxically, this kind of religiosity can be a form of self-absorption that isolates us from God and others.
Spiritual poverty starts with giving up the self-defeating idea that any of us can get God to owe us one. That’s just not how God operates. God gives gifts.
As my grandmother showed me again and again, this does not mean that I’m no good and God loves me anyway. Neither does it mean that I’m so good that God can’t resist me. It just means that God makes me the beloved at each instant because, well, God. We exist at all because God loves us. And that goes for everybody.
When our starting point is accepting that we are loved, we get over ourselves. We’re free to consider the needs of others. To give love instead of pursue love for ourselves. This is where the kingdom of heaven begins to be ours.