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Gentleness

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

In the spirit of the Gospel we have just read from St. Matthew and in the context of so much that our Savior has been teaching us we should reflect on the virtue of gentleness. As Isaiah foretold of the Savior, He will not break the bruised reed He will not condemn, He will not cry out. Gentleness is written on almost every page of the Gospels describing the Savior. Yet there are certain virtues that are as we might expect popular in certain times. No doubt because they conform with the spirit of those times. By now thousands of volumes have been written on the spirit of our times. And I suppose in the Western world at least, the features that characterize our age are aggressiveness, boldness, a strong, often, ruthless effort to conquer. Since the turn of our present century we have had two devastating world wars that accumulatively have cost more lives lost than in all the previous wars of human history. Surely then the virtue of gentleness scarcely typifies our age. And yet if we are going to be authentic followers of the Master we must be gentle. So we ask ourselves first what is this virtue of gentleness. Then look briefly at our Lord’s teaching about this virtue and His practice of the same and then to apply all of this to ourselves of why we, if we wish to be truly Christ-like, must be gentle.

Gentleness is the virtue that restrains the passion of anger. Over the centuries it has been variously described. Sometimes poetically, sometimes theologically. Where anger flares up, gentleness calms down. Where anger is a bursting flame gentleness is a gentle rain. Where anger asserts itself and crushes, gentleness embraces and quiets and soothes yet as we hear these and similar descriptions of gentleness we are liable to make the mistake as I dare say so much of the modern world makes the mistake of identifying gentleness with weakness.

A gentle person is a meek person. So most people think that a gentle person is a weak person. It is just the opposite. In order to be truly gentle and that does not mean soft or sentimental, one must be strong. Only strong people can be gentle, because gentleness restrains strength by love. Whether its strength of body that could destroy physically or strength of will that could crush volitionally or strength of mind that could devastate intellectually. It’s only such people that can even begin to be gentle. And the reason of course is because they’ve got something to restrain.

But the motive power behind gentleness is always love. Love of the other for whose sake I restrain myself. There are then two qualities that belong to the meaning of gentleness and they are strength and love. As we turn to the Gospels and ask ourselves where and how has the Savior commended this virtue to our practice? At first sight we may be shocked to learn that there is only one expressed occasion when Christ explicitly told us to learn from Him; now of course He was teaching constantly. But only once did He formally tell us, command us to learn of Him. Learn of me He told us, for I am gentle and humble of heart. So the first and primary lesson that we learn from Christ’s own telling us, bidding us, to imitate him especially in His gentleness is that if we are to be gentle as He was we must be humble like He was. Gentleness or meekness which are synonymous are impossible in the absence of humility. Why? If we’ve ever asked ourselves why do we get irritated with people. Why do they bother us? Why all these inner and sometimes outer flares of passion isn’t because somehow though we may not even articulate the fact to ourselves that we, well, don’t like what the person is doing because we feel the person has no right to be doing this. At least in my presence or I wouldn’t do this. Who does she think she is talking that way to me? If we wish then in imitation of Jesus to be gentle we must become humble. So much so that I do not hesitate to say that the best single barometer of humility which by its nature is quite hidden and not so easy to identify, the best single barometer of how humble we are is how gentle we are. Only humble people will be gentle. Because only they will honestly say to themselves why should I get angry with her, come to think of it I’ve just done the same. Or why should I be irritated? If I’m really honest I know there must be things that are irritating to him or her. So why should one irritant be irritated with another irritant?

If we are humble, if we look into our hearts, and not just at times, but constantly, what do we see there? If we look, you know we don’t see except what we’re looking for. If we look into our hearts we see sin, passion, weakness, ineptitude, crudeness, self-conceit. You name it and we’ve got it. All it takes is a good hard look but that takes humility. We are so prone, as the same Jesus has been telling us, we are so prone to see the faults even the minorest of them, the littlest thing that Christ calls speck in our brother’s eye, and we don’t see the beam in our own. And do you know why because maybe the beam is so big in our own eyes we can’t even recognize the fact that the person does have virtue, does have fine qualities. Remember this: we always see others through our own eyes. And our eyes are sinful eyes. So much and more that could be said about Christ’s teaching about gentleness is practice. Christ practiced his gentleness from the womb of His mother. No objections recorded by Mary or Joseph for having to trek the long miles to Bethlehem.

The Christmas scene is a study in gentleness. Realizing that behind that crib there are so many reasons for being angry with the proud Caesar that forced this and no doubt thousands of others just to sate his pride. But no, then in His public life the Savior was gentle with so many irritating people. That’s almost a description of the twelve apostles. The twelve men who irritated Christ. How many reasons they gave Him from Peter on down and Peter perhaps more than anyone else forbearing kind, understanding, repeating, explaining, gentle with sinners. Magdalene at Christ’s feet. The woman taken in adultery. The mother’s whom the disciples told to get these kids out of the way. And most tellingly, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ was even gentle to the traitor who kissed Him. In His passion until He expired on the cross gentle, forgiving to those who had crucified Him and His last dying act was an act of gentle mercy to the thief at His side.

How much we have to learn but we have to want to learn it from the Master. There is one final question, however. We should ask ourselves, and that is why. Why should we be gentle? Or, more fundamentally, why is gentleness so insisted upon in Christian spirituality? The first and most obvious reason is because God became man to teach us this virtue. There are, as we know, two fundamental attributes in God relative to His creatures. They are the attributes of justice and love. From God’s viewpoint surely God had every reason to be angry with a sinful world but, had He only expressed His anger, He would not have become man. If only divine justice was to be manifest there would have been no Incarnation. God became man precisely, explicitly, uniquely to teach us that though God is just and has had so many reasons, towering reasons, for righteous anger and punishment of a sinful world God did not want to avenge himself on man’s sinfulness. So He became man that He might love restraining His divine strength by the love which He exercises since He became man and because He became man in a word.

In others words, God’s mercy is His gentleness. That’s the fundamental reason why we should be gentle: because God became man to practice this, the most necessary of virtues when justice is to be restrained by love. Secondly and understandably, we are to be gentle because Christ is so insistent on our practicing this virtue. His word for us should be our law. Gentleness is not an option. It is not merely an opportunity. It is a grave obligation. And the more we intend and insist that we are trying to imitate Jesus the more gentle we must become. Otherwise we are only His followers in name.

But there is another reason on the practice of our gentleness towards others depends on in some of the most frightening passages of revelation, depends God’s gentleness towards us. If we are provoked by others, we provoke God. If we tell ourselves that others make us angry and maybe there’s provocation. So what. So what. Unless we are kind and understanding, forgiving and forbearing in a word unless we are gentle with the failings and often the merest foibles in others how can we expect God to be gentle, that is merciful towards us? And, before Him, we have committed more than foibles. The virtue of gentleness is built right in to the middle of the Lord’s Prayer. Forgive us, we plead, with God. But then, what a terrible condition Christ tells us to lay down, that, insofar as I forgive others. Why be gentle, patient, putting up with, bearing with, not complaining , not reacting not avenging myself in a thousand ways that our sin-laden nature has of being angry? Why? Because in the exact degree, this is not poetry. This is revelation. In the exact degree to which I am un-angry, that is gentle with others God will be un-angry, that is gentle, that is merciful to me. On this same level we might also soberly remind ourselves not only is our gentleness towards others a condition for God’s gentleness towards us but, hear it, we having sinned and God wanting to give us the opportunity to expiate our sins, how good of God though, we must admit, dear Lord, how hard of God. See what He does. He puts irritating people into our lives, people that annoy us, that disturb us.

There is such a thing as love at first sight. There is such a thing as what shall I call it, un-love at first sight. There are some people, good people, for some mysterious reason just don’t appeal to us. All the things that people can do wittingly or unwittingly at us, towards us, or in our presence. What they say, often what we think they think about us can make us angry. The Lord has given us this wonderful opportunity of expiation. So much so, I hope I won’t be misunderstood, but it’s true. So much so that if we really realize the mystery hidden behind this divine virtue of gentleness I don’t think we would pray for annoying people in our lives, but we would welcome them. Dear Lord, thanks, here’s another one. And I am not being facetious. I am simply sharing with you what is our common faith. I am not quite finished. There is one more great value to the practice of gentleness and that is in the apostolate which, as we know, always begins right at home. The first object of our apostolic zeal should not be the destitute people in Northeastern India. They should be the people right at home. If we want to be influential in effecting others, and who doesn’t, if we want to be effective in bringing Christ into the hearts of others. If we wish to be convincing and persuasive, in a word if we want to be effectively apostolic, we have got to be gentle. The beatitudes, variously translated by different translators, Blessed are the gentle they will possess the land. You might be liable to say to yourself, who wants land anyhow? That’s not the point of the beatitude. Gentleness can achieve, can conquer, not just people but nations, all the great apostles of history, beginning with Jesus, were so effective in winning the hearts of men because they were, as the first apostle told us, gentle and humble of heart. Let us ask Him and His mother to give us what we all need: greater meekness, greater gentleness, being sure that there is no single virtue that will more surely identify us as Christians than if people see us, especially under provocation, calm, peaceful, indeed, mysteriously more at peace because we are more provoked. Nothing under heaven except the grace of God can make us, as we should be, gentle. We need that grace. Jesus will give it to us if only we earnestly ask Him. Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make our hearts like unto thine. Amen.

Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica






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