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We Hold Nothing: Spiritual Poverty

We Hold Nothing: Spiritual Poverty

“We hold nothing, nothing is ours

Not even love so fierce it burns like baby stars.

But this poverty is our greatest gift;

The weightless of us as things around begin to shift.”

The Indigo Girls – Emily Saliers and Amy Ray


When we think of poverty, we tend to think mostly of material poverty, of hunger, of homelessness, of loneliness, and most of all, of suffering. If we are paying attention, we think of how to alleviate others’ suffering, how to feed and clothe them, house them, keep families together, offer child care and other parenting support. We may also think of how to change the systems that keep some people in poverty while others bask is wealth.

These are all good things to do, and good things on which to focus our collective efforts.

And yet there is another dimension of poverty that is part of all of us.

This poverty is what the Indigo Girls’ quotation points toward. It is the materially observable and spiritually significant reality that everything, everything we have has come from somewhere else. Everything we have comes to us in the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part, as our Seventh Principle reminds us.

There is no such thing as the “self-made man.” There is no such thing as someone who “did it on their own.”

These realizations can bring gratitude for all that we have, as well as a sober realization that much of what we have has come from the labor and oppression of others.

Spiritual poverty is a both/and situation.

The night of the 2000 Presidential election, I decided, rather than watch the returns, I would attend a panel lecture on happiness, being offered by some visiting Tibetan monks. (As it turned out, a very good choice, given the controversy of that night and the following weeks.)

The lama who spoke shared a concept that has stayed with me ever since, and which is intimately tied up with our Seventh Principle. He talked about the Beneficence of the Ten Thousand Things.

In this context, “ten thousand” means, basically, a whole lot, more than we can conceive of, the Limitless. The Beneficence of the Ten Thousand things is the idea that nothing we have is our own, but rather everything comes to us as part of the impossibly complex web of existence. Not from our own owning, or holding, or grasping. Not even from our own effort. Even our attempts, our persistence, our effort come from other places.

Our own effort moves through us as a gift from somewhere and becomes a gift to somewhere else. It is simply part of arising. And each gift, each movement, each arising becomes an invitation for gratitude.

Consider this morning.

I awoke. My heart, which had been beating all night through no conscious effort on my part, continued to do so. Thank you, heart.

My body, original gift of biology, changed over years and years of experience, nurture, neglect, love, and choice, stepped out of bed. Thank you, body.

And that body, along with my mind and head and spirit, moved about and did things. Thank you, however temporary, this ability to move creakily from my bed to the bathroom and about the house.

Thank you, clothing, woven and sewn by others—and probably by others who live lives much less luxurious than mine, and perhaps under conditions of suffering I know nothing about.

Thank you, water with which I washed myself, brought to my house by pipes I did not lay, coming from springs I did not build or create, but which the generosity of Earth provides.

You see where this goes.

Nothing is my own.

Nothing is our own, or at least, not solely our own. Not our talents and skills. Not the art we create. Not the money we receive. Not the land on which we live. Not the natural resources we use. Not the people we love.

Nothing is our own.

The hymn in our grey hymnal sings out, “We are not our own, Earth forms us, / human leaves on Nature’s growing vine.”. And it goes on to a wonderful realization that arises from this spiritual poverty we have, this utter lack of holding: “And if love’s encounters / lead us on a way uncertain, / all the prayers of saints surround us. / We are not alone.”

We are radically not alone. In fact, we are part of one another in ways that can spin our mind into beautiful new imaginative places.

We breathe the same air as one another. What is within you is within me.

We share the same molecules. What is within me is within you.

We drink water the hydrogen of which was present at the beginning of that condition we call time.

We were present at the beginning of time. Everything we are and all possibility was present at the beginning of time.

Everything that makes us ourselves and everything we encounter was present at the beginning of time.

We are children of Earth, yes, but also of Heaven, of those first beams of what we call stars.

We are literally eternal. As eternal as the universe, at least. Because we are at one with all that is. With all that ever has been. With all that ever will be. We span generations and aeons of time. While our consciousness may end with “this little life,” as Shakespeare calls it, we are nonetheless eternal.

“Existence is a team sport,” Commander Jonathan White says, “and it is a team sport.” We cannot escape it—we are part of one another. We are not our own. If we belong to anything, it is to one another.

And if we belong to one another, then we have a radical mandate to come to know one another, to think of one another, to include one another, to welcome one another into our circles of belonging. To exclude no one.

For Unitarian Universalists, the recognition of spiritual poverty is most easily found in the Seventh Principle of the “interconnectedness of existence of which we are all a part.” But spiritual poverty helps us live into all our Principles. “Justice and equity in human relations,” “world community,” respecting the “responsible search for truth and meaning,” and certainly recognizing the “worth and dignity” of every person.

So I invite you today, to consider the many ways our own spiritual poverty invites us into contemplation and gratitude. What will spiritual poverty help you be grateful for today? How can it help you live out your values? How does it change your ideas of welcome? How can we all become more generous, recognizing that nothing we have was our own to begin with?

So many blessings to you as we ride the waves of change together. We are not alone, friends, so let us love one another.

May the blessings of gratitude be with you –



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