Do Not Break a Bruised Reed

The Virtue of Gentleness


On the 100th anniversary of Pope Leo XII’s consecration of the human race to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, John Paul II not only renewed his predecessor’s call for all to consecrate themselves to Christ but also connected that devotion in a special way to the New Evangelization. From their contemplation of the pierced Heart of the Redeemer, he said, Christians come away with a renewed sense of mission.

What, then, can evangelists learn from the Sacred Heart of Jesus? As Pius XII noted in his encyclical letter on the topic, devotion to the Sacred Heart constitutes, "so far as practice is concerned, a perfect profession of the Christian religion" (Haurietis Aquas, 106). So, in a way, the evangelist can say, "Everything I really need to know, I learned from devotion to the Sacred Heart."

But, in a more specific sense, perhaps the most important thing the evangelist can learn from the Sacred Heart is the virtue of meekness. Christ himself said, in his only direct reference to his Heart, "Learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly of heart." And St. Peter later added, "Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence" (1 Pet. 3:15). So it is in gentleness that the evangelist’s heart is most like the Heart of Jesus.

But what is gentleness? The Greek word translated as "gentleness" is also sometimes translated as "meekness" or "mildness." For most English-speakers, though, "gentleness" is probably the most frequently used of those terms, and we hear it in a variety of contexts.

Suppose, for example, you bring a new baby home from the hospital to meet his siblings. Your four-year-old daughter is eager to hold him and play with him, but after you carefully situate them and make the introductions, you tell your daughter, "Now be gentle with him."

Or suppose you’ve taken out your grandfather’s pocket watch and your six-year-old son wants to carry it over to the window for a better look. You hand it to him, but with a warning: "Be gentle with it!"

Or perhaps you’ve just worked hard on an elaborate meal for your husband, one that stretches your abilities. You’re not sure he will like it, so as you begin your meal, you say, "Tell me what you really think—but be gentle with me."

Protect the Weak

We could imagine more scenarios, but perhaps these are enough to notice a certain commonality. Each of these cases features a difference in power or strength. The four-year-old is more powerful, stronger, even bigger than the baby, just as the six-year-old is with respect to the watch. The husband, in the third case, is more powerful than the wife, in the sense that his evaluation of her meal, and especially the way in which he communicates it, has the potential to build her up or to tear her down.

Gentleness, then, seems to require a difference in power, strength, or advantage. Even more, gentleness applies when that difference can pose a threat to the weaker or smaller member of the pair. For example, the four-year-old, with her bigger size and greater weight, can harm the baby even when she means only to play with him. How many times do parents say of a new baby brought into a house with other young children, "It will be a miracle if he survives their love!"

In each of these cases, the stronger must take special pains to ensure that his strength does not endanger the other. He must recognize the vulnerabilities of the other and the ways in which his strength can threaten those weaknesses, even when he bears no malice to the other. The gentle person, then, is one who protects the littleness and weakness of the other from the danger implied by his own bigness and power.

This definition of gentleness, however, fails to mention the one feature that is central to most traditional accounts. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, teaches that meekness "moderates anger according to right reason" (Summa Theologica II:II:157). And this emphasis on anger is common in the tradition, beginning as early as Aristotle.

I think a deep insight into anger ties these two definitions together. Aristotle, for example, points out that anger is a kind of pleasant emotion, because it leaves us feeling somehow superior to the object of our passion. If anger is, as Aristotle and St. Thomas believed, an apprehension of another as committing an unjust and undeserved offense against oneself, then to experience it is to see oneself in the right and the object of one’s anger as in the wrong.

And that confers a kind of advantage or relative strength over the offended party: Standing on the moral high ground, he enjoys at least a moral superiority to the offender. That superiority can be used in such a way that the vulnerabilities of the offender are protected—or in such a way that they are threatened.

Mercy to Those Who Have Hurt Us

A student from Rwanda once made these possibilities vivid for me. We were considering in class one day the Christian duties of repentance and forgiveness as they belong, respectively, to the offender and offended in any conflict. My student had been a member of the victimizing rather than the victimized faction in Rwanda’s genocidal nightmare, yet he suggested that he and others like him lived in fear. If they offered their victims repentance for their horrible crimes, as my student was ready to do, they felt themselves handing over a certain kind of power. Would the victims offer forgiveness and reconciliation? Or would they respond in kind to their former tormentors?

When someone offends us, their repentance gives them into our hands, in a manner of speaking, and our response will be either gentle or harsh. We will use our moral advantage to build up the other by respecting his vulnerabilities, or we will use that advantage to crush the other and augment our own superiority. Gentleness responds with Christ: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

The traditional emphasis on restraint of anger as the defining characteristic of gentleness has a great deal of appeal. Anger, alienation, forgiveness, and reconciliation are at the heart of the moral life; learning to put these emotions and choices in the proper order is essential to any decent life with others. So the value of the virtue of gentleness first shines most brightly precisely in this arena.

The medieval hymn Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) , makes it clear that these realities are also central to the human’s relation to the divine. The hymn first brings to mind the Final Judgment:

What horror must invade the mind
When the approaching Judge shall find
And sift the deeds of all mankind!

Then the unknown poet, declaring his guilt and his need for an intercessor, turns to the only hope he knows, Jesus. "O King of dreadful majesty!" he sings, "grace and mercy You grant free; / as Fount of Kindness, save me!" This hymn locates the divine superiority not just in the transcendence of God as Creator but, even more dramatically, in the moral superiority belonging to the undeservedly injured in a context of personal relationship. The gentleness by which Christ restrains his divine anger thus emerges as impinging most directly on our greatest concern, our eternal salvation.

But despite the fact that anger and its restraint play such important roles in the relationships among humans and between God and humanity, the moderation of anger does not exhaust the possibilities of gentleness, as our first examples above showed. We must not overlook the fact that gentleness is also called for in many contexts where anger is not the primary factor.

This larger reach of gentleness is not hard to see in the Sacred Heart of Jesus. What greater power differential could there be than that between the Word of God Incarnate, through whom all that exists came into being, and poor creatures like us? Yet the Gospel tells us that he would not "break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick" (Matt. 12:20). Because his heart is meek, he tells us, his "yoke is easy and [his] burden is light" (Matt. 11:30), a burden suited to our weakness and not modeled after his strength.

Moses, the Meekest of Men

Moses is another scriptural hero whose gentleness is more broadly drawn. In the book of Numbers we are told that "Moses was very meek, more than all the men that were on the face of the earth" (Num. 12:3). Because of his meekness, Aaron and Miriam, his siblings, found the boldness to complain that they were being upstaged by their older brother. In response, God reminded Aaron and Miriam of the difference between Moses and other prophets: "With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in dark speech; and he beholds the form of the Lord" (Num. 12:8). Though Moses had not used his superiority against his brother and sister, God himself punished them for speaking against Moses, thus vindicating Moses in his meekness.

The gentleness of Moses also appears in a striking light in Exodus 32. The Israelites, growing tired of waiting for Moses to come down from his mountaintop encounter with God, provoke the Lord to anger by casting their own idol and worshiping it. The Lord offers to make a great new nation from Moses, after the Lord destroys the people for their faithlessness. Thus God would confer on Moses an advantage he could have used to gain an unparalleled status as both founder of and lawgiver to God’s people. But Moses in his meekness petitioned God to forgive them rather than destroy them.

For all their gentleness, however, neither Moses nor Jesus was a man to be pushed around. Complementing their meekness was a zeal for righteousness that could reveal itself in fierceness. Think of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. With a whip in hand, Jesus drove from the temple not only the animals for sale but their owners as well, reminding his disciples of the ancient messianic prophecy: "Zeal for your house will consume me" (John 2:17).

Moses, too, displayed a certain kind of fierceness. It exhibited itself in an unfortunate way at the beginning of his career, when he killed an Egyptian he caught attacking the defenseless Hebrew slaves (Ex. 2:11-15). Though one ought not approve Moses’ particular choice here, the story does illustrate the connection between gentleness and fierceness. By gentleness, the virtuous strong protect the vulnerabilities of the weak against their own superior power, but their fierceness reveals itself when they bring their power to bear on those others who intentionally and maliciously threaten those little ones.

The Right Kind of Answer

Peter, as we noted before, urges Christians to imitate the gentleness of Jesus’ Sacred Heart precisely in their role as evangelists. "Always be ready to give an answer for the hope that is within you," he teaches, "with gentleness and reverence." Why does the evangelist need gentleness?

Evangelism in Peter’s day required gentleness first because Christians suffered great persecution. The very real possibility of abuse and mistreatment provided the context for this evangelistic admonition. And since innocent Christians could only experience such persecution as the infliction of undeserved harms, their anger would inevitably require shaping and restraining so that it would serve the good of their enemies. In the same way, Christ had allowed his Heart to be pierced so that the fountain of his mercy could flow to the worst of his persecutors.

Most of us will not suffer such tribulation. But we can, nonetheless, be treated in unjust ways that arouse our anger. When that mistreatment comes to us because of our commitment to the truth that is Jesus, it is especially important that gentleness restrains our anger and leads us to the forgiveness and kindness we ourselves have already found in the Sacred Heart. Failing to respond gently will not only mean falling short of Jesus’ call to learn of his meek and lowly Heart but will also undercut our evangelistic efforts. How convincing can our proclamation of the truth be if we refuse to embody it in our actions?

Remember: Knowledge Is Power

Evangelists need gentleness for another reason. Knowledge of the truth is itself a kind of advantage that makes its possessor stronger. Consider, for example, the computer expert, who knows exactly what silly mistakes someone is making and could easily put him in his place with a well-chosen sneer or two. The computer expert, if he is not to overwhelm and demoralize the inexperienced user, must instruct him gently. And if the expert intends to help the inexperienced user see the truths about computing for himself, then he has even more reason to pursue gentleness, since the demoralization he could otherwise cause is an obstacle to learning.

How much more does the theological, moral, or apologetic "expert" pose a kind of threat to the relatively unlearned! These truths strike much more closely to the heart of a person’s self-understanding. A rough, ungentle approach to learners’ instruction can leave those already committed in some way to these truths feeling not just embarrassed but positively foolish, as though they do not even understand their own deepest commitments. Such learners are likely to abandon the pursuit of deeper understanding, seeing it at best as an irrelevancy and at worst as a calculated attempt at the evangelist’s self-aggrandizement.

A lack of gentleness threatens to undermine the evangelist’s efforts in another way, too. Since evangelists ultimately strive to bring others to an encounter with Christ that results in conversion of life, the truths they teach touch the center of their hearers’ ways of life. Those who are not already committed to these truths quite reasonably perceive them as a threat to their self-identity. That sense of danger prompts almost impenetrable defenses. And those defense usually cannot be forced in a frontal assault. Not pyrotechnics but gentleness wins the day. As the Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand noted, "If spoken by the meek, the word of truth which like a sword, severs soul and body, subtly insinuates itself like a breath of love into the innermost recesses of the soul" (Transformation in Christ: On the Christian Attitude of Mind, 421).

Devotion to the Sacred Heart contains the key to cultivating this necessary gentleness. Gentleness comes from growing in union with the Heart of Jesus, as we love, trust, and imitate him more. Von Hildebrand sees this point well, and his insight captures the true power of gentleness: "For the meek is reserved true victory over the world, because it is not they themselves who conquer, but Christ in them and through them" (Transformation in Christ, 421).

Sacred Heart of Jesus, make our hearts like unto thine.

SIDEBARS

St. Francis de Sales, Patron Saint of Gentle Evangelists

In his encyclical on St. Francis de Sales, Pius XI attributes much of the saint’s success to his meekness. St. Francis became bishop of Geneva after that city had become the seat of John Calvin’s new Protestant movement. Faced with division in his diocese, with cold and unconverted hearts in his own flock, and with religious orders badly in need of renewal, St. Francis worked tirelessly to bring everyone, religious and lay, Catholic and Protestant, to true conversion of heart. He demonstrated great strength of will and much courage in his interactions with those opposed to his ministry, struggling both with schismatic parties and overreaching governments.

But St. Francis was also legendary for his meekness. His efforts to renew religious life, for example, included his founding of a new order with a mild rule for women too weak, too old, or otherwise indisposed for the austerities of orders such as the Carmelites. And he focused much of his attention on encouraging ordinary lay people to pursue holiness, helping them to discern how that call can be embodied in their own, necessarily less ascetic, state of life. St. Francis summed up his approach in this advice: "Always be as gentle as you can, and remember that more flies are caught with a spoonful of honey than with a hundred barrels of vinegar" (qtd. in Jean Pierre Camus, The Spirit of St. Francis de Sales, 78).

In view of this combination of strength and gentleness, Pius XI applied to St. Francis the scriptural line, "Out of the strong came forth sweetness" (Judg. 14:14). Rather than sapping his strength or making him too weak for the struggle, his gentleness, in Pius XI’s words, "possessed the power to attract hearts in that very measure of success which Christ himself has promised to the meek—‘Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land’" (Rerum Omnium Perturbationem, 10).

Two Types of Apologetics

In his Lenten sermon on the second Beatitude, Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap., preacher to the papal household, connects meekness to evangelism. Drawing on a traditional interpretation of the reward Jesus offers to the meek—"they shall inherit the earth"—Fr. Cantalamessa suggests that the conversion of hearts is the fruit of meekness. He distinguishes "two types of apologetics" that Christians have adopted for that end. "One aims at winning," says Fr. Cantalamessa, "the other at convincing." The former lacks gentleness; rather than attending to and respecting the vulnerabilities of the other, it has in view only its own victory. The latter is the apologetics of meekness, trying to build up the other in truth in a way that guards the other’s weakness.

But if a rough apologetics is an error opposed to meek apologetics, there’s another error, too: the lack of zeal for others’ good that eliminates any motivation even for convincing others. St. Gregory the Great, in his Pastoral Rule, saw this possibility long ago, insisting that authentic evangelization requires both meekness and zeal. In a memorable image, he wrote, "For on this account the Holy Spirit has been manifested to us in a dove and in fire; because, to wit, all whom he fills he causes to show themselves as meek with the simplicity of the dove, and burning with the fire of zeal."

Further Reading

  • Raneiro Cantalamessa, OFM Cap., "Blessed Are the Meek, For They Shall Inherit the Land" (available at www.cantalamessa.org)
  • Pope Gregory the Great, "How the Meek and the Passionate Are to Be Admonished" from Pastoral Rule, part III, chapter XVI (available at www.ccel.org)
  • Pope Pius XI, Rerum Omnium Perturbationem (On St. Francis de Sales). (available at www.vatican.va)
  • St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II:157:1-4 (available at www.newadvent.org)
  • Dietrich von Hildebrand, "Holy Meekness" in Transformation in Christ (Sophia Institute Press)

Randall Colton and his wife Kristen live with their four children in St. Louis, Missouri. He teaches philosophy at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary.

This article appeared in Volume 19 Number 7.