Spiritual poverty

In the mystic literature I have encountered a theme which I think of as “spiritual poverty”. It means the human soul cannot possess attributes: it is a mirror, and as a mirror, never shines with its own light. What it can do, according to its purity, is reflect unchanged the light of the Sun.

In this way, the human soul can manifest every one of the divine perfections, though it cannot itself acquire them. One cannot be virtuous, but rather manifests virtue insofar as he turns toward the Creator. All the divine qualities we manifest are derived from this orientation. And it is not by the turning that this happens, but what we experience after having turned.

Seeking to be patient, for example, is nearly impossible, since everyone has their limits. If a person falls in love, however, and a request is made by the beloved, the lover’s patience is automatic. He is capable of feats of patience unimaginable to an ordinary man: he can wait for days, simply to hear a single word.

This is true of nearly everything we call a virtue. Attempted alone – without love – it is impossible to acquire. Yet it is easily achieved through the presence or wish of one’s true love. It can even be said that virtue under pressure is a sure sign of love, because only by such love can a man transcend his limits.

This virtue revealed by the lover, however, is not experienced by him as such. In the case of patience: although a lover can sit on a train platform for countless hours waiting for his love, yet in the lover’s heart there is only impatience. He is not “waiting”, in the sense of patience, so much as yearning to the point that he cannot tolerate to be anywhere else. He has no patience for anything, and will choose whatever action brings his beloved closer. If that means waiting in one place, he will wait there indefinitely.

The same with humility: in the presence of the Beloved’s greatness, one is naturally humbled, yet the actual experience is one of awe and wonder. It is not humility in terms of viewing one’s self as small, but the seen Object as great. Or with service: for the sake of love, even the most abasing task is felt as a gift, both given and received. Or with forgiveness, which in the lover’s heart is actually profound understanding. Or with sacrifice, which he feels as exalting. In every case, the real power of virtue is found in love of the right Object – a complete, self-obliterating love. And while seen by others for the virtue that it is, it may very well be felt oppositely in the lover’s heart.

The lover’s entire experience is founded in the Other. At the height of his love, he will not possess even awareness of himself, or of his behavior exhibiting any virtue at all. He will see only the beloved, and reckon himself in comparison a poor madman, for whom life is unlivable without her.

Thus I believe the key to virtue is not to acquire it – for nothing cannot be possessed by the soul – but rather a proper orientation of the heart, by discovering one’s true love. Then everything falls into place naturally, automatically. It will be a completely different experience of reality, and likely have little consciousness of its virtue. After all, one does not seek the Beloved for virtue’s sake, but for His own.

In this way, though possessed of nothing, the lover manages to manifest every perfection. This makes spirituality, instead of a process of self-development – which seems odd when one considers that annihilation of self is a virtue – a matter of turning the heart toward God and of cleansing it from all impurities, such as ignorance and blindness. There is no “development” of the self, since because the soul cannot have attributes, it cannot be changed. Eternal in its essence, it’s only question is whether it can recognize its Beloved in the works of creation and itself.

Life in this scheme is boiled down to a single, ongoing experience of the soul: the perception of God through His attributes, as manifested in the world. If being cannot possess attributes, then nothing is perceptible as an attribute unless it comes from God. If the soul’s perception is blinded, it will not see God in what it perceives, and will not experience love for it; for my understanding is that any experience of love – proven by the qualities of the lover it reveals – indicates a recognition of God. The degree of love matches the degree of recognition. This is what “God” means to me.

Although one may not name what is perceived as “God”, what is at issue is the soul’s recognition. One may not even believe in a soul; in which case I simply mean that part of a man which responds to such recognition. For example, the signs of God are what you see in a sunset that profoundly moves you; your soul is that which is profoundly moved; and love is what prompts you to stand and watch for a while.

We all experience these things, constantly, from the very first moments of consciousness. At question is the depth and degree of our recognition, and the virtues that our corresponding love reveals. As we progress in clarity of understanding, one sees God more fully and strongly in the things of the world. As this happens, our love for life correspondingly increases, until we start to manifest the signs of love, such as forgiveness and kindness to strangers.

I think the concept of spiritual poverty removes the complexity of self-development, and moves the significance of religious truth from the domain of the individual, to God. Religion is all about God, and how to recognize Him, how to turn toward Him. When this accomplished, there is only happiness for the soul, described in the texts as heaven, paradise, or “the next life”. It is a task of love, not change. Change is only necessary in order to gain the necessary clarity to see. Once seen, the Beloved’s beatific vision commands all that the lover does.

Whensoever the light of Manifestation of the King of Oneness settleth upon the throne of the heart and soul, His shining becometh visible in every limb and member. At that time the mystery of the famed tradition gleameth out of the darkness: “A servant is drawn unto Me in prayer until I answer him; and when I have answered him, I become the ear wherewith he heareth….” For thus the Master of the house hath appeared within His home, and all the pillars of the dwelling are ashine with His light. And the action and effect of the light are from the Light-Giver; so it is that all move through Him and arise by His will. And this is that spring whereof the near ones drink, as it is said: “A fount whereof the near unto God shall drink….”1

  1. Bahá’u’lláh, Seven Valleys, p.22↩︎