Haseena Sahib
Professor Manchester
RLS 390 Christian Mysticism
May 11, 2009

Spiritual Poverty

Meister Eckhart and Rumi were intelligent theologians and spiritual leaders of their time and region. Both lived in the 13th century, and both aimed to enlighten men to a deeper understanding of the Word of God. Rumi’s teachings and poetry allowed Muslims to gain a deeper love and awareness of the Koran. Through great insight into the New Testament, Eckhart taught Christians to have a deeper love and awareness of Jesus. Both spiritual teachers stressed the need of ‘poverty’ in attaining spiritual ascension and nearness to God. What is poverty according to both of these revered scholars? The readers of both scholars’ writings will be surprised to find that the explanation of poverty is extremely similar. Poverty is not merely a physical one, but a poverty of the self—realizing that the human self is non-existent with respect to the Existence in God.

Both Eckhart and Rumi understood poverty as having two different levels. There is external poverty and an inward poverty. Both are necessary to attain closeness to God, however, the inward poverty is the goal and reality of the external. Eckhart and Rumi waste little time in discussing external poverty. Eckhart exclaims that it is, “good and is greatly to be esteemed in a man who voluntarily practices it for the love of Our Lord Jesus Christ, for he himself used it when he was on earth. I do not want to say anything more about this poverty” (Eckhart 199). Eckhart’s outright claim that he does not feel the need to explain more about external poverty proves the unmatched importance of inward poverty. Eckhart spends the rest of his sermon describing the merit and process of acquiring the latter poverty.

Rumi describes external poverty as only the gateway to the real poverty: “When you enter the world of poverty and practice it, God bestows upon you kingdoms and worlds that you never imagined. You become ashamed of what you longed for and desired at first” (F 145-46; from SPL 187). One must willingly give up worldly possessions before he can attain honorable possessions of the soul. Although Rumi may mean both levels of poverty each time he mentions the term, his poetry repetitively describes poverty as a science much more than a station. This is slightly different than Eckhart, who describes poverty more as a station than as a process.

In Islamic spirituality, the process of annihilating selfhood and the desire for worldly pleasures is described as poverty. It is for this reason that poverty can be considered synonymous with ‘Sufism’ and ‘annihilation’: “Of all the different kinds of knowledge, on the day of death only the science of poverty will supply provisions for the way” (M I 2834; from SPL 187). This poverty is described as the path that forces one to remove all inner obstacles—such as pride, selfhood, ego, lust, etc.—that hinders one from ascending higher on the spiritual path. Thus Rumi seems to be speaking to people who have already abandoned the wealth of this world in order to acquire the wealth of the soul.

Eckhart begins his discussion of inward poverty with the biblical lines, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Eckhart 199). Poverty in spirit is to lack all inner obstacles that hinder one on the path. Even desiring to act in God’s will is a roadblock because it affirms the self-existence of the person. Eckhart says that the poor man “wants nothing, knows nothing, and has nothing” (Eckhart 199). The man that “wants nothing” is “free of his own created will as he was when he did not exist” (Eckhart 200). Eckhart says that before humans received their created selves, they desired nothing because they were empty beings. This is the state Eckhart claims we must return to. It was in this state that we were one with Reality, and one with God as who He really is. God only became “God” because humans became created beings and thus needed a “God”. But God is and always was who He was even before we were created, and this is the God we need to unite with. Rumi says, “Poverty is not for the sake of hardship. No, it is there because nothing exists but God” (M II 3497; from SPL 188). Rumi implies that poverty is the only method of totally annihilating our self-existence and affirming the second part of the Shahadah in Islam: “There is no god but God.” This part of the Shahadah indicates that there is no existence other than God. This is the state that the Sufi must return to: the state of non-existence. Thus, poverty according to both Eckhart and Rumi returns us to the state we were in before we existed—a state in which our entities were empty.

Next Eckhart says that a poor man “knows nothing.” Eckhart claims that this man “ought to live as if he does not even know that he is not in any way living for himself or for the truth or for God. Rather, he should be so free of all knowing that he does not know or experience or grasp that God lives in him” (Eckhart 201). Again, Eckhart says we must have the knowledge we had before we came into existence. This means, our total self-knowledge must be eradicated. Only God knows, and His Knowledge pervades all. To know that God is working through us is to claim duality: that “I” still exists while God exists. This is not true poverty. Rumi agrees and says that the seeker of intellect is pure, yet still far from the goal of self-annihilation: “He who craves sensuality is polluted, he who craves the intellect is pure—but poverty has set up a tent on the other side of pollution and purity” (D 9326; from SPL 188). Poverty is on a completely different plain than intellect; poverty is the highest level of ascension. It is through the ridding of one’s knowledge of selfness that one becomes a “poor” man.

Finally, Eckhart says that a poor man “has nothing”. A man who fools himself into thinking he has a place for God in his soul has not acquired poverty in its most intimate form. Poverty is for a man to realize that he has no place in his soul for God, because God works for Himself through Himself and not through man:

Poverty of spirit is for a man to keep so free of God and of all his works that if God wished to work in the soul, he himself is the place in which he wants to work and that he will gladly do so. (Eckhart 202)

God works through the man who has completely annihilated his own self-existence. This is very similar to Rumi when he says that he does not write poetry from himself, but it flows freely from Wisdom unknown to man. The poor man is a tool that God uses; yet the poor man does not realize that he is a tool because it is God that works. Rumi, realizing that his selfness does not exist, only explains to others that he is a tool in order for the laymen to understand.

The true person of poverty is the one who has lost his own entity and has been consumed by God’s entity. At this point man and God are one. Eckhart says:

When I flowed out from God, all things said: “God is.” And this cannot make me blessed. For with this I acknowledge that I am a creature. But in the breaking-through, when I come to be free of will of myself and of God’s will and of all his works and of God himself, then I am above all created things, and I am neither God nor creature, but I am what I was and what I shall remain, now and eternally. (203 Eckhart)

This is the path and goal of poverty. A true person has negated all forms of self and duality until he is one with God as the Reality of who God is, even before humans were created. Rumi also confirms that poverty is the path that unlocks the door to unity: “Poverty has outstripped all and advanced stage by stage! Poverty unlocks the door—what a blessed key!”(D 9326; from SPL 188). Stepping through the door is the final step in which the pure and pious man becomes poor. Rumi tells his reader to step through this door and lose their selfhood:

So behead your selfhood, oh warrior! Become selfless and annihilated, like a dervish!
When you have become selfless, you are secure in whatever you do: Thou didst not throw when thou threwest but God threw. (M VI 1522-23; from SPL188)

Rumi and Eckhart say the same thing: that it is not man that throws, but God that threw. God works through the poor man, the man who has returned to the state of knowledge and awareness he had before he existed.

Annihilation and poverty are some of the most intimate and joyous spiritual mysteries to be discovered by man. Rumi says, “No one will understand these mysteries of Thy Gentleness but he who comes out from the spiritual work without existence, obliterated by poverty” (D 11234-39; from SPL 191). Eckhart says, “for in this breaking-through I receive that god and I are one…God is one with the spirit, and that is the most intimate poverty one can find” (Eckhart 203). It is interesting to note that this mystery of achieving poverty in its genuine form was able to transcend visible religious differences and become the goals of two of the world’s largest spiritual traditions.

Works Cited
Chittick, William C. The Sufi Path of Love. Albany: SUNY Press, 1983.
Eckhart, Meister. Eckhart, Meister: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1981.