Sr. Maria Comito, DC of the Province of Australia offers these reflections on Gentleness in Vincent and Louise. These reflections were originally part of a sabbatical program.
In Matthew’s gospel we read the teachings of Jesus called the Beatitudes, which is an invitation to a way of living. If a person chooses to respond to Jesus’ invitation to follow him on this path then that person will find true happiness and peace inwardly and outwardly. One of those eight Beatitudes is the focus of this paper: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” The other text which will be explored is also from Matthew’s gospel, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” At the same time, we will read about the importance of “meekness” and “gentleness”, or ‘douceur’ in lives of the Vincentian Family through St Louise de Marillac and St Vincent de Paul.
The word ‘gentleness’ is a noun that express “the quality of being kind, tender, or mild-mannered…softness of action or effect…a courteous or chivalrous quality attributed to noble birth.” Whereas the word ‘meekness’, is seen more as being “patient, long-suffering, or submissive in disposition or nature; humble…spineless or spiritless; compliant…” It is difficult to imagine that Jesus, along with St Vincent and St Louise, would be considered as being spineless or spiritless. In fact their characteristics are quite the opposite. They are kind, tender, mild-mannered, courteous, patient, long-suffering in their attempts to bring the kingdom of God into their world.
The first scripture passage from Matthew, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” is found in Jesus proclaiming the beatitudes. “Beatitude” is Latin for “an abundant happiness,” an invitation which Jesus gives to everyone. Accepting this abundant happiness we become whole and complete in such a way that we find our true selves, the very person created by God. Accepting an invitation gifts us with a transformation which leads to peace and joy. A joy and peace “…that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Understanding meekness as long-suffering and patient ties in with the beatitude as it calls forth an endurance in the face of injury without resentment. The French expression ‘douceur’ has a meaning of sweetness, mildness, good nature, and gentleness. If a person has these qualities then he or she will inherit the earth as promised in the Beatitudes. This is why being spineless or spiritless cannot be what Jesus meant because to be meek requires an incredible amount of courage to sustain any kind of injury inflicted on a person for a long period of time, and to do so with integrity.
The meek exercise self-control which St Paul names as a fruit of the Holy Spirit in his letter to the Galatians. Having no self-control leads to “…idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness…” On the other hand, having self-control leads to “…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness,…” Meekness helps a person to be self-possessed, aware of the truth about themselves and others, and free from malice and revenge. Meekness calls us to surrender to God’s will for us, even though we may not like it, and challenges us to change. A meek person embraces all circumstances in his or her life as pure gift and always accept guidance from God and the Holy Spirit to navigate through it all. His or her trust in God is rock solid.
St Vincent included meekness as one of the five virtues he gave to the Congregation of the Mission: simplicity, humility, meekness, mortification, and zeal. St Vincent is in agreement with St Paul when he says to his confreres that “The gentle person still feels the emotion but resists it so it doesn’t get the better of him; it may happen that he becomes a little flushed, but he soon gets control of himself. . .That, then, is the first act, which is wonderfully beautiful, and so beautiful that it prevents the ugliness of vice from manifesting itself. A certain resilience in minds and souls not only tempers the heat of anger, but stifles the slightest feelings of it.”
The second scripture passage from Matthew’s gospel speaks of God being gentle and humble of heart. Humility for God goes hand in hand with gentleness, and once again does not encourage a person to be a doormat. It takes courage to be gentle! Therefore, gentleness includes true humility so that a person does not consider himself or herself too good or too exalted for humble tasks. Gentleness is never about promoting self-importance but is considerate, courteous, and modest, yet willing to try when a job needs to be done.
Gentleness is not false humility, nor is it false modesty, self-depreciation, nor a cowardly response which refuse to acknowledge that God has given each person talents to be used for building the kingdom of God.
Jesus was very aware of himself, his mission, to whom he belonged, and the responsibility he had to be gentle to the needy as we read in Matthew’s gospel, “He will not break a bruised reed nor quench a smouldering wick until he brings justice to victory.” Jesus’ mission is to bring wholeness and mercy not destruction and dictatorship. Jesus knew that when vulnerability meets power the result is annihilation. However, when vulnerability meets vulnerability then the result is intimacy.
This is the model Jesus upholds. He does not avoid conflict, is not lacking in convictions, is not feeble, and definitely not spineless. Jesus draws his strength, power, leadership and conviction from his Father in prayer and in demonstrates in the most basic gesture: washing the feet of his disciples.
It is no wonder than that St Vincent and St Louise also drew their conviction, strength, leadership, power and backbone from Jesus and in turn encouraged the Daughters of Charity and Congregation of the Mission to do the same. St Vincent speaks to Jean Martin, Superior in Turin regarding his role “…will become gentler and stronger and, in the end, the work of the Lord will be, as always, better accomplished by gentleness than otherwise.” St Louise tells her Sisters that they need to “… please God by serving your masters and His dear members with devotion, gentleness and humility.”
Gentleness, mildness of manner or disposition, was seen by St Louise as lacking in her Sisters due to the lack of education, and so she continually reminds them of the importance in their work if they want to serve God in his people. Following are some examples:
“Gentleness, cordiality and forbearance must be the practices of the Daughters of Charity just as humility, simplicity and the love of the holy humanity of Jesus Christ, who is perfect charity, is their spirit.” “I urge you, for the love of God, to render them the service you are obliged to give them with great gentleness and respect.”
“A deep love for God in this life which will be shown by practicing His goodness, gentleness and charity toward my neighbour.
St Louise was able to recognise that gentleness did not come naturally to some of the Sisters but rather they needed to learn and be constantly reminded of its importance in dealing with the poorest of the poor who were, in the main, not gentle themselves! St Louise understood that sometimes gentleness came with great difficulty and through harrowing experiences. Her expectation was that her Sisters would model for anyone they came in contact with, from the rich to the poor, how to necessary it was to be gentle, as we read her letter to Sr Anne Hardemont, “ For the love of God, my dear Sister, practice great gentleness toward the poor and toward everyone. Try to satisfy as much by words as by actions. That will be very easy for you if you maintain great esteem for your neighbour: the rich because they are above you, the poor because they are your masters…”
The prophet Elijah is an example of learning gentleness the hard way. As a prophet he spoke against sin and lawlessness in the land and sanctioned the execution of false prophets.
However, a warrant was issued for his arrest and execution. This strikes terror in his heart, and takes refuge in a cave on Mount Sinai where he stayed for forty days and nights. Whilst there Elijah meets God not in a great wind, or in an earthquake, nor in a fire, but in a gentle sound of a small still voice (1Kings 19:10-21). Here was an example of the gentle side of God. Even though there may come a time when a person needs to act strongly and loudly like Elijah he or she must retain their humility and be of a gentle spirit.
Jesus gave St Vincent and St Louise the perfect picture of gentleness: “See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey” Now that gift is offered to each of those who follow in their footsteps and it is made possible by allowing the Holy Spirit to lead them.
Sr. Maria Comito Province of Australia