Newly elected Pope Francis recently stated that “meekness” was his favorite virtue and that he always asks God to grant him a “meek heart”.
In His Sermon on the Mount, Our Lord proclaimed a set of interior attitudes and dispositions called Beatitudes, into which we must grow in order that Christ may be more fully formed in us. Here, I wish to consider the second Beatitude, “ Blessed are the meek, for they shall possess the earth” (Mt. 5:4). This requires an examination of the virtue of meekness, a virtue that is little understood and little esteemed in a world that glorifies power and might, where “might is right.”
THE POOR IN SPIRIT
The second Beatitude, “Blessed are the meek…”, illustrates an essential aspect of what is meant by poverty. Hence it is closely connected to the first Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: the reign of God is theirs.” This Beatitude implies either that one already has certain possessions but is poor in spirit, or that one lacks certain things but is detached from them nonetheless.
Since everything we are and all that we have is a gift from God, we should use our gifts as God would have us use them and enjoy them but only insofar as we do not take complacency in any thing or creature. The most effective way of detaching ourselves from riches is to invest our wealth in the bank of heaven by giving generously to the poor and to good works. A gift to the poor is a loan to God; it yields a hundredfold not only for heaven but even in this world in the joys which come to us from giving happiness to those around us.
In our more honest moments, we are cognizant of our poverty.
We are aware, for example, of our profound neediness, our intellectual limitations, our spiritual inadequacy, our moral failures, our dependence on God. Poverty, thus has an interior dimension bespeaking of one with humility. God put us in the world to know, to love, and to serve him. Those who are always ready to serve after the manner of Christ are the one’s who are closest to God’s heart. Unlike the proud, who rely only on themselves, the poor in spirit are the people who do not flaunt their achievements before God. They do not stride into God’s presence as if they were partners able to engage with him on an equal footing; they do not lay claim to a reward for what they have done. The poor in spirit whom Christ praises are those who have realized that self-giving love is the richest form of living. It is precisely those who are poor in worldly terms, those thought of as lost souls, who are the true fortunate ones, the blessed, who have every reason to rejoice and exult in the midst of their sufferings.
The figure who perhaps best exemplifies this Beatitude is St. Francis of Assisi. It was St. Francis who created the Third Order with its mission to direct one’s whole life toward spiritual communion with God, to accept with extreme humility the ordinary tasks and requirements of one’s own life and secular profession, “to own goods as if one owned nothing.” Poverty is an attitude that can be recognized in the French proverb: “When you die, you carry in your clutched hand only that which you have given away.”
THE VIRTUE OF MEEKNESS
Most important in regards to poverty, is the virtue of meekness, the notion of which has today become blurred even in the Christian consciousness. The virtue of meekness is a complex one closely associated with humility. It is a supernatural, moral virtue that demands a certain self-mastery over anger and in this sense is related to the virtue of temperance. Meekness requires tolerance of the failing of others, which in turn demands patience and hence the virtue of fortitude. Finally, meekness requires forgiveness of injury and benevolence towards all, including our enemies.
Meekness is not that weakness of character that attempts to hide resentment behind a suave demeanor. On the contrary it is something deeply interior that exists in both the will and emotions in order that peace may reign in the soul.
This peace allows us to accept all things that God sends, even the most adverse, with calm and serenity. It enables us to bear the faults of our neighbors. It also helps us reproach ourselves quietly and kindly when we commit a fault such that by the experience we may learn to be more on our guard.
St. Jerome gives an excellent description of this virtue.
Meekness, he says, “is a mild virtue, it is kindly, serene, gentle in speech, gracious in manner, it is a delicate blending of all the virtues. Kindness is akin to it, for, like meekness, it seeks to please; still it differs from the latter in that it is not as winsome and seems more rigid, for though equally prompt to accomplish good and render service, it lacks that charm, that gentleness that wins all hearts.”
THE PRACTICE OF MEEKNESS
One begins to practice meekness by fighting not only anger and the desire for revenge but every inordinate impulse of passion stirring within the soul. This involves physical mortification since there is a close union that exists between the body and the soul. More important, however, is spiritual mortification.
Here it is necessary to develop the habit of reflecting before acting so as not to be swept away by the first assaults of passion. “It is better,” says St. Augustine writing to Profuturus, “to deny entrance to just and reasonable anger than to admit it, no matter how small it is. Once let in, it is driven out again only with difficulty.” In the event that this passion begins to take hold of our hearts we must not enter into parley but, in the words of St. Francis de Sales, “at the first alarm, speedily muster your forces; not violently, not tumultuously, but mildly, and yet seriously” to drive it away.
This can be done by turning our thoughts away from that which excites our wrath and by invoking the assistance of God in imitation of the Apostles when they were tossed by the wind and the storm upon the sea; for “he will command our passions to cease, and a great calm shall ensue.”
When we find that we have been aroused to wrath we should repair our anger instantly by a contrary act of meekness. It is also advisable that when our minds are tranquil and without any cause for anger that we should then seek to build up a stock of meekness and mildness, by speaking all our words and by completing all our actions in the mildest way possible. This will help perfect the whole interior of the soul and prevent us from being like the hypocrites who appear in public as angels but are devils in their own home.
When anger turns into sentiments of hatred or revenge we should recall how Our Lord still called Judas his friend even at the moment of his treason and how he prayed on the Cross for his executioners.
JESUS CHRIST – THE PERFECT MODEL OF MEEKNESS
Our Lord attached such importance to the virtue of meekness that he had it announced by the prophets as one of the marks of the promised Messiah. In Zech 9:9-10, we read: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble [meek] and riding on an ass.” This passage announces a poor king in opposition to the great kings of the world – a king whose rule does not depend on political and military might. Here we see a kingdom built on peace – a peace that aims at the overcoming of boundaries and at the renewal of the earth through the peace that comes from God. The earth ultimately belongs to the meek, to the peaceful, the Lord tells us. It is meant to become the land of the king of peace.
The third Beatitude invites us to orient our lives toward this goal. One can thus say that the third Beatitude anticipates the seventh Beatitude “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
Jesus, himself, fulfills perfectly this ideal of meekness and taught it admirably in both word and deed. At Jesus’ invitation souls wishing to advance in virtue and perfection thus model themselves after Our Lord who said “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart.”
Jesus taught us meekness in numerous ways. In order to draw men to himself, he announced the gospel not with bitterness or animosity but with calm and serenity: “He will not contend or cry out, nor will his voice be heard in the streets. The bruised reed he will not crush; the smouldering wick he will not quench,” that is, the spark of faith and love that still remain in the sinners’ soul. In conduct he bore the faults, ignorance and rudeness of his Apostles, while tactfully revealing to them the truth in the measure in which they were capable of receiving it.
He preached meekness by demanding that his followers have the simplicity of the doves as well as the cunning of the serpent.
They must be as lambs among wolves; they must not resist evil but offer the left cheek to him who strikes them on the right; they must pray for those who persecute them. As the Good Shepherd he gives his own life for his sheep.
IMITATING OUR LORD’S MEEKNESS
We can imitate Our Lord by avoiding quarrels as well as harsh and hurtful words and actions which can drive away the timid.
We must never exchange evil for evil and we should work to avoid speaking abruptly while in an angry mood. We should appear pleasant and kind to all even those whom we find boring but especially toward the poor, the sick, and sinners. We should also be prepared to do more than we are asked, and to do it with good grace.
In regards to ourselves we must not fret over our own imperfections. Many people, when overcome by anger, become angry at being angry. By such means they keep their hearts drenched and steeped in unhealthy passion. It might seem that the second fit of anger does away with the first, but actually it serves to open the way for fresh anger and this often leads to pride; one becomes disturbed and upset at seeing that he is imperfect. We must be sorry for our faults but in a calm yet firm way. St. Francis of Sales tells us that “If we rebuke our heart by a calm, mild remonstrance, with more compassion for it than passion against it and encourage it to make amendment, then repentance conceived in this way will sink far deeper and penetrate more effectually than fretful, angry, stormy repentance.”
Enmity with God is the source of all that poisons man.
Overcoming this enmity is the basic condition for peace in the world. Only the man who is reconciled with God can also be reconciled and in harmony with himself, and only the man who is reconciled with God and with himself can establish peace around him and throughout the world. Meekness is a virtue characterized by patient submission to the will of God in the midst of suffering and trials. Our Lord calls the meek “blessed” and he himself is the perfect model of meekness.
Without the interior control of impulses of animosity, antipathy, and indignation that meekness brings, we will never face calmly the trials of daily life. Meekness is the first step on the way to transforming our present culture of death into a culture of life. Meekness conquers, meekness wins, meekness overcomes, meekness prevails over the hardest hearts, over the most humanly impossible situations.
To prevail over human wills – there is no more difficult conquest on earth. The secret is restraint, meekness.
By Paul Kokoski