Ottawa poet Suzanne Nussey crafted "Beggar Psalm" in response to Genesis 32:24-26, Matthew 5:3, and the theme of "poverty."
24 ¶ And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. 25 And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. 26 And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.
3 Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Before writing “Beggar Psalm,” I researched the biblical concept of poverty and, particularly, the Hebrew and Greek terms used in the Old and New Testaments for the noun “poor.” The Poor of Yahweh, by Albert Gelin, and Raymond Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah were among my sources. The Greek term for “poor” is ptochos (πτωξος) or “one who is bent or folded; metaphorically one utterly destitute.” The parallel term in Hebrew is “anawim,” which can variously refer to the poor, weak, afflicted, and humble who seek God for deliverance. In both testaments, poverty is understood as complete destitution, a spiritual as well as a material experience.
What struck me as ironic is scripture’s indication that those who are most desolate are also closest to God. The “poor ones”—the lowly, sick, downtrodden, the widows and orphans—lack worldly goods, sustenance, and power. Yet, in their utter poverty and dependence, they become heirs of God’s kingdom. To be poor is to be afflicted and blessed at once.
While I “get” this (monastic life aspires to such poverty and complete reliance upon God), I still find it disconcerting. I have worked with street people and people living on the verge of homelessness. They did not seem particularly “blessed” to me, and I doubt any of them would have used that term to describe their situations, physical or spiritual. I was angry with social and political systems that kept people poor, and was frustrated by the limited resources my programs could offer to make significant and lasting changes in their lives.
For my Spark and Echo Arts commission, I wanted to avoid writing a diatribe against the forces that create and maintain poverty. I also wanted to evoke the experience of being poor. Though I have witnessed poverty, I could never call myself poor—hard up for cash, unable to afford certain creature comforts, in debt: yes. But never truly poor. So I searched for a literary form suited to the topic, and for an aspect of my own experience to relate to the desolation of the “poor ones.”
What resulted is a contemporary psalm, based on the structure and literary devices used in Old Testament psalms, as well as their themes, ranging in emotion from anger to despair to supplication of the Divine. The poem is also influenced by the Ignatian spiritual practice of reflecting on one’s consolations and desolations, and by my own experiences of loss and illness, perhaps the nearest I will come to knowing how such poverty brings one closer to God.
Suzanne Nussey graduated with a B.A. from Houghton College, majoring in English and Writing. She received an M.A. in English Literature and Creative Writing from Syracuse University, and an M.A. in Pastoral Counseling from St. Paul University in Ottawa, Canada, where she now resides with her husband, Ken, and daughter, Sophia. Suzanne’s career smorgasbord includes work as a technician in the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, a program assistant with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio Archives, a lifeskills instructor with street people, an employment counselor for a community economic development program, and several stints as a writing instructor. She currently works as a freelance writer and editor, focusing on texts in biblical studies, spirituality and psychology, and helping folks write memoirs, children’s books, and effective CVs. Most recently, she has published articles in Healthwise Ottawa, poetry in The Fiddlehead, has won EVENT magazine’s Creative Non-fiction contest as well as The New Quarterly’s Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse Contest, and has been nominated for the 2014 National Magazines Award in poetry. Suzanne has also developed and facilitated writing workshops for women living in shelters.
(Photo by Ken Ross)