“He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth” (Isaiah 53:7)
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5)
Here we are in Lent and we are looking for ways to overcome our impulsiveness and to grow in holiness. Saint Francis de Sales, a doctor of the Church renowned for his gentleness of spirit, advises us to “Take care to practice well the humble meekness that you owe to everybody, for it is the virtue of virtues which our Lord greatly recommended to us.” A Lenten resolution to curb our times of anger by making humble acts of meekness is certain to do a good work in our soul! The powerful role meekness plays in the spiritual life is often underestimated. If anger is a cross in your life, meekness will teach you to carry it with charity.
Our discussion regarding meekness therefore begins with the teaching of Jesus, who said: “Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart; and you shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). Of this passage Spurgeon says: “One great lesson of the gospel is to teach us to be meek—to put away our high and angry spirits, and to make us lowly in heart. Peradventure, this is the meaning of the passage— that if we will but come to Christ’s school, he will teach us the hardest of all lessons,—how to be meek and lowly in heart.” In the school of Jesus Christ, we learn the importance of meekness for living a Christian life.
A scholar of Saint Francis de Sales, Alexander T. Poceto, O.S.F.S., PH.D, offers the following rather amazing insights regarding the relationship of meekness or gentleness to God Himself:
“We should review in a cursory manner how greatly Francis de Sales cherished and valued the virtue of gentleness and the great importance it has in his spirituality. The French word he uses for this virtue is douceur or suavité. Unfortunately the word “douceur” is frequently translated as “sweetness” or “meekness.” Neither of these, in most instances, appropriately captures the meaning which the saint desires to convey. It is very revealing to note how the saint views the Incarnation. He describes it as the perfect communication of gentleness: ‘This supreme Gentleness (Douceur) was also so perfectly communicated outside of the Trinity that the created nature and the divinity, while keeping their own properties, were nonetheless so joined together that they were one sole person.’ So the Incarnation is conceived by the saint as God having communicated to us Gentleness itself. For him, the essence of the God-man or the Word made flesh is characterized by gentleness. This idea appears also in the Introduction to a Devout Life, where Francis, after the manner of St. Augustine, urges the devout person to invoke God as ‘O Ancient Gentleness! (O douceur ancienne). Why did I not savor you sooner!’”
Relying on Surrin, Father Faber states that “gentleness and softness were the graces our Lord [Jesus] most desired that we should copy in Himself; and certainly, whether we look at the edification of others, or the sanctification of ourselves, or of the glory our lives may give to God, we shall perceive that nothing can rank in importance before gentleness of manner and sweetness of demeanor towards others” (The Blessed Sacrament, p. 169).
Why do the meek inherit the earth? “The words [inherit the earth] may be partly allusive to the ‘kingdom of the saints of the Most High’…. They have, however, a wider and continuous fulfillment. The influence of the meek and self-controlled is in the long-run greater than that of the impulsive and passionate. Their serenity helps them to find the maximum of true joy in all conditions of life; for to them the earth is not a stage for self-assertion and the graspings of desire, but an “inheritance” which they have received from their Father” (Ellicott’s Commentary).
“Far from being weak, however, the meek possess an inner strength to restrain anger and discouragement in the midst of adversity” (Ignatius Catholic Study Bible). In this sense, meekness could never be considered weakness because a beatitude taught by Jesus (“Blesses are the meek”) “is the original and transcendent synthesis of the Christian ethic or, more accurately and more profoundly, of the spirituality of the new covenant in Jesus Christ” (Saint Pope John Paul II). Simply put, the beatitude of meekness is not only a grace-filled power, but a very elevated manifestation of that power.
The real POWER of meekness lies in its capacity to diffuse anger. “Meekness is particularly meritorious when practiced toward those who make us suffer; then it can only be supernatural, without any admixture of vain sensibility. It comes from God and sometimes has a profound effect on our neighbor who is irritated against us for no good reason. Let us remember that the prayer of St. Stephen called down grace on the soul of Paul, who was holding the garments of those who stoned the first martyr. Meekness disarms the violent” (Father Garrigou-Lagrange).
Additionally, Father Garrigou-Lagrange helps us to understand the difference between the virtue of meekness and mere meekness of temperament. He states:
“Meekness, or gentleness… has as its special effect, not the endurance of the vexations of life [the special effect of the virtue of patience] but the curbing of the inordinate movements of anger. The virtue of meekness differs from meekness of temperament inasmuch as, in widely diverse circumstances, it imposes the rectitude of reason illumined by faith on the sensibility more or less disturbed by anger. Meekness of temperament is exercised with facility toward those who please us and is rather frequently accompanied by ill-temper toward others. The virtue of meekness does away with this bitterness toward all persons and in the most varied circumstances. Moreover, into a just severity that is necessary at times, the virtue injects a note of calmness… Meekness, like temperance to which it is united, is the friend of the moderation or the measure which causes the light of reason and that of grace to descend into the more or less troubled sensible appetites.”
Simply put, when we become ANGRY at someone we need to let grace-filled MEEKNESS descend or enter into that anger to produce the fruit of gentleness and self-control. Meekness, then, transforms the vice of potential inordinate anger into the virtue of meekness towards our neighbor.
“The times call for the manliness of meekness more than the false courage of violence and uncontrolled anger. We need the self-conquest of meekness more than the self-centeredness of hate and brutality. We need the meekness and humility of Christ” (Father Kilian McGowan, Your Way to God, p.57)
CONCLUSION: Are not most of us in need of POWER to control our inordinate anger and resentment? What we need, then, is the virtue of MEEKNESS. “Let us often, in practice, ask our Lord for the virtue of meekness united to humility of heart. Let us ask Him for it at the moment of Communion, in that intimate contact of our soul with His, of our intellect and heart with His intellect illumined by the light of glory and His heart overflowing with charity. Let us ask Him for it by spiritual communion that is frequently renewed and, whenever the occasion presents itself, let us practice these virtues effectively and generously” (Father Garrigou-Lagrange).
Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.
P.S. It is important to note that Father Garrigou-Lagrange mentions that the deepening of meekness in our life is the prelude to a higher spiritual life (see “gradations of meekness” below. He says, “Supernatural meekness prepares for contemplation.”
Image: Christ Carrying the Cross by El Greco (Public Domain, U.S.A.)
References: The quotes from Father Garrigou-Lagrange are from The Three Ages of the Interior Life. The article by Alexander T. Poceto, O.S.F.S., PH.D, entitled, “The Sternness of the Gentle Francis,” is available online.
FIVE LEVELS OR GRADATIONS OF MEEKNESS: Relying on Father Garrigou-Lagrange I note five levels or gradations of meekness:
- The natural temperament of meekness.
- The human or acquired virtue of meekness, “causing the light of reason to descend into the sensibility”.
- The supernatural or infused virtue of meekness flowing from sanctifying grace (associated with the cardinal virtue of temperance, which “moderates the inordinate impulses of our sensible appetites”).
- The supernatural virtue of meekness profoundly strengthened by the Gift of Piety.
- The beatitude of meekness which is essentially the overflowing of # 4 in a person’s life.
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