Our Blessed Lord began the sermon on the mountain with eight short maxims which summarize, or contain in embryo, the gospel message He came to live and teach. We refer to the eight beatitudes, the message of which are in great contrast to the wisdom of the world. While salvation is promised to those who live by them, the perfect fulfillment of what they promise is not in this world, but in the next. Yet, in the measure that their demands are met, they bring - even in this world - the peace of Christ in the midst of life's tribulations.
We are considering here 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."
Meekness is a virtue which moderates the passion of anger according to the dictates of reason, and calms the desire for revenge (St. Thos. II II,157,1 & 2). It restrains one from wanting to inflict injury for injury. It enables one, relying on the Father's will, to remain tranquil in the face of wrongs done him (ibid. I II,69,3). St. Paul stressed the need of this virtue in his letter to the Thessalonians: "See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seeks to do good to one another and to all" (I Thess. 5:15).
Because of the inclinations of our fallen nature we are usually inclined to avenge every offense, and to resist every adversary. Such is the spirit of the world, but not the spirit of Christ. In time of adversity meekness inclines not to revenge, but to gentleness and patience, to pardon personal insults; and in trials allowed by God's providence - to patience and resignation. It helps us to endure difficulties that we encounter in those of different tastes and dispositions. It is an indispensable aid to charity in bearing wrongs patiently, and avoiding bitterness when misunderstood or undervalued. It saves one from answering back quickly with wounding words, that afterwards one wishes had never been said. In a word, it enables one to endure affronts and injuries in a spirit of mildness dictated by reason enlightened by faith. In all such situations it drives the thought and inclination to revenge out of one's mind and heart, thereby removing a key obstacle to the work of the Holy Spirit in the soul. "Do nothing to sadden the Holy Spirit with whom you were sealed against the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, all passion and anger, harsh words, slander, and malice of every kind" (Eph. 4:30).
"Blessed are the meek," said our blessed Lord, "for they shall possess the earth." The earth that is promised to the meek is not temporal territory or the earth's riches, but the riches of Christ's inheritance. In the Old Testament God promised land (the Promised Land) to the Israelites as a reward for their obedience; but that was only a type or figure of the greater promise made by Christ in the New Law. As we have pointed out, the perfect fulfillment of that promise is in heaven; but Christ promised to provide even in this life the basic temporal necessities to those who "seek first the kingdom of God and His justice" (Mt. 6:33).
When we say that meekness moderates the passion of anger according to the dictates of reason, it is because the passion of anger, in itself, is neither good nor evil. It can be either. There is such a thing as a just and righteous anger. We have examples of this when Christ drove the money changers out of the temple (Mt. 21:12), and when He looked upon the pharisees with anger because of their hardness of heart as He cured the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath (Mk. 3:5). Again, Moses was filled with righteous anger when he broke the tablets of the Law as he came upon the Israelites worshiping the golden calf (Ex. 32:19).
Consequently, while anger when aroused in fallen nature is most often blameworthy, we see that it can be praiseworthy and just, when meekness directs it according to the dictates of justice and charity. We are speaking of anger that tries to destroy sin, without wishing to destroy the sinner. "Be angry and sin not" (Eph. 4:26; Ps. 4:5). Even in just anger, however, one must be careful not to sin by excess. St. Bernard reminds us that there are two extremes one must avoid in this matter: "It is a sin not to be angry when one should be angry; but to be angry more than is necessary is equally sinful." Fr. Walter Farrell, O.P. speaks in similar language: "There are times when our failure to be angry is a weakness, when we hold back the punishment because our love is not strong enough to be just." (Comp. to Summa, p. 457).
It would be a grave misconception of meekness to confuse it with timidity or cowardice. The modern world may look upon meekness as a weakness, as one afraid to stand up for his rights, as one unwilling to fight back in the face of insult or offense. Yet, on the contrary, as Fr. W. Farrell, O.P. explains, "the meek man is a conqueror; for he has subdued the wildest passion of man, the passion that strikes most suddenly and most devastatingly. This is not the task of the timid person, but rather of a fearless rider of a wild steed he has subdued" (ibid. p. 456).
In contrast to this, our modern movies at times hold up as hero the macho who in his unbridled anger inflicts untold damage and destruction to seek revenge; and who deals with his victims with unbelievable brutality. If such a one might display physical strength, it is a pitiful display of spiritual weakness. For such a one is often a slave of the demands of the ego, and uses the passion of anger to his own selfish ends.
Meekness, then, is rooted in spiritual strength, for it requires great spiritual strength to keep the emotion of anger under control; and the very practice of that virtue calls for frequent acts of such strength. Understood properly, the meek are those who are truly strong in the Christian sense, strong with the strength that brings about conquests the fruits of which are eternal. Yet, as we saw in the case of a righteous anger, the meek person will fight back with controlled anger, when his rights or the rights of others are abused. However, since it is so easy to be mistaken in judging the just motive of anger, being inclined as we are to wishful thinking when the ego is hurt, and because anger easily gets out of control, one must be vigilant lest a sudden movement of anger would carry one beyond the limits of justice and charity. In this regard, Fr. Jordan Aumann, O.P. warns: "In case of doubt it is better to incline to the side of meekness than to the danger of excessive rigor" (Spiritual Theol. p. 301).
When Our blessed Lord calls our attention to His own meekness, He singles out another virtue which is its immediate foundation, and without which one will never control the passion of anger. "Learn of Me," He said, "for I am meek and humble of heart" (Mt. 11:29). Neither of these two virtues are popular in our secular society, but both are essential for the follower of Christ. Just as meekness calms the passion of anger, so humility restrains the inclination to pride. And as Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, 0.C.D. points out, "it takes only a small amount of pride, of self-love, of attachment to our way of seeing and doing things, to make us unable to stand opposition" (Div. Intimacy).
In our Blessed Lord, then, we see both the expression of just anger, and the suppression of the passion of anger when falsely accused and roughly treated during the Passion. Both of these are the fruit of the virtue of meekness. He who is Lord and Master of all mankind and Creator of the entire universe, remained meek and humble of heart when being treated with sheer contempt by His own creatures. In this Christ the Redeemer made reparation for our pride, and Christ the Teacher pointed out the way to the Father.
We will better understand the work of the virtue of meekness if we see a bit in detail the violent passion it keeps in control. Anger is the spontaneous reaction to some injury, opposition, frustration, restraint or coercion, insult, etc. (actual or imaginary) that inclines one to respond in kind. It is an emotion implanted in man by nature and intended to be governed by the dictates of reason. Since anger is a passion, the first impulse of it is independent of reason or will, and therefore, as we have seen, is neither good nor evil. It becomes sinful insofar as it influences or interferes with the judgment of reason, or if it is out of proportion to the injury that provoked it, or when it seeks means of revenge that are contrary to reason. Anger is listed among the capital sins, because it is the mother of many offense against charity and justice. The more violent the anger, the more passion becomes man's master rather than reason enlightened by faith.
One with deep faith in God knows that everything that happens to us, no matter how painful, is permitted by God for our sanctification. Yet, when anger flares up, this thought vanishes, and one sees only the person against whom the anger is directed, and against whom one is inclined to react. "Man is master of his actions," says St. Thomas, "through the judgment of reason" (ibid. 158, 2, ad 3), and anger interferes with that judgment, and can completely wipe it out. The stronger the passion, the more blindly one acts.
Even when the degree of anger is not extreme, the calmness of judgment is lost, and one no longer sees God's will, the image of God in his neighbor, and the fact that what he does to another he does to Christ. One loses full control of his actions in the measure that his decisions are dominated by pride and self-love, for these vices frequently give rise to resentment and anger, preventing one from seeing things in their true light, from making unbiased judgments, from making wise decisions, and from refraining from words and actions that offend against courtesy and kindness.
It might be helpful to see how the passion of anger affects the whole person, body and soul, not only clouding the mind, but bringing about rapid physical changes that mobilize the body's forces for aggression. The New Catholic Encyclopedia describes the bodily effects of anger as follows:
We have given in detail these effects of anger to show how greatly and how quickly this emotion effects the entire body as well as the powers of the soul, and how important it is to check the initial stirrings of this emotion.
One who by natural temperament is more prone to anger must especially be on guard. Prayer is an indispensable means to grow in the virtue of meekness which controls the emotion of anger. Ask God to see His providential hand behind the disturbing and upsetting circumstances, allowing this situation, this inconvenience, this humiliation, this set-back, this disturbance - to test our humility, our patience, our unselfishness, our faith and trust in His providence. We squander many difficult situations that could be sources of grace and growth. We must never lose sight of the fact that the divine Physician heals as He wounds if we are submissive to His healing hand. (Heb. 12:5,6; Rev. 3:19).
Looking at anger from a purely natural point of view, some would encourage various types of physical exercise, various physical discharges of energy - such as playing sports, rail splitting, physical work-outs, etc. which frequently assist in the dissipation of pent-up rage. These might bring some temporary relief, but they do not get at the causes of anger. As long as any trace of pride and self-love remain in us, we will encounter situations in which resentment and anger cause us to lose some of our control and self-mastery. For as St. Thomas says: "Meekness makes a man master of himself" (ibid. 157,4). Without the interior control that meekness brings of impulses of animosity, or antipathy, or indignation, etc. we will never face calmly the trials of daily life.
We have made little progress in the virtue of meekness, if when unexpected trials, or contradictions, or injuries or offenses come along our peace of heart vanishes. The meekness of which we speak comes from an habitual frame of mind that sees the merciful and purifying hand of God in all the trials of life, and from a concern to calm the first feelings of anger or resentment lest they blind one to God's purpose.
By our own efforts alone, however, even aided by grace and the infused virtues, we will never completely eradicate all traces of pride and selfish tendencies. But to those who do what they can, the Holy Spirit comes with an added gift, the Gift of Piety, which erases the last traces of ill-feeling toward others, and softens the hardness of heart that stands in the way of His action in the soul. True Christian meekness, then, requires concern and effort to discipline all forms of pride and self-love that give rise to resentment and anger, to calm the first feelings of anger when they arise, and the indispensable help of the infused virtues and gifts - to be sought with fervent and persevering prayer. The help we ask from the Holy Spirit is expressed in the sequence of the Mass for Pentecost: "Come, Holy Spirit, bend the stubborn mind, warm the chilled heart, guide the steps that go astray."
From all that has been said there should be little need to stress the importance of this virtue. If our blessed Lord summarized the whole of the Old Law and the New Law in the two great commandments of charity - love of God and neighbor, meekness is one of the main custodians of charity. This is because it controls anger which in so many ways causes one to offend God and neighbor. How often do we find people who are angry with God because of the trials which His merciful providence allows for the good of their soul, or because their prayers seem not to be heard.
Too, meekness keeps one from usurping God's rights, restraining the inclination to seek revenge. "Revenge is mine, I will repay, says the Lord" (Rom. 12:19).
If one would win others to the acceptance of goodness and truth, of God's view of things, it will not be by force or by sheer authority which can be counter-productive and arouse opposition; but rather by meekness and patience along with prayer after the example of our Savior who is "meek and humble of heart."
Meekness is especially important for progress in prayer, for one agitated with feelings of anger and resentment cannot sincerely apply himself to recollection and conversation with God, nor be open to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit.
Each of the Christian virtues relies on the help of other virtues for its perfect fulfillment. This is true of meekness. We have seen how meekness cannot get along without humility which keeps pride in check, for the main source of anger is hurt pride and frustrated self-will. Too, meekness leans heavily on the virtue of fortitude in its passive aspect of bearing wrongs patiently. And it needs the Gift of Piety that brings a filial reverence of the Father in heaven, and an awareness of His permissive will in all things.
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Pray to the Mother of Jesus who, like her Son, was "meek and humble of heart." In her fullness of grace she was more like Him than any other, for more than all the angels and saints she shared in His divine life. How truly, at the foot of the Cross, she bore wrongs patiently, offering to the Father her Son and herself for the same redemptive purpose as Jesus. Obtain for me, Blessed Mother, the grace to be more like your Son, "meek and humble of heart."
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