At first glance, meekness may be the most unattractive Christian virtue. Today, many people think of “meekness as weakness,” the antithesis of the “holy” self-assertion that enables us to get our own way. We picture a meek person as a wimp or doormat, not as a virile, Christian man.
Yet, those of us who are serious about following the Lord and growing in Christian virtue know that the Bible presents a different image of meekness. Our faith extols meekness not only as a desirable virtue, but also as a beatitude and fruit of the Holy Spirit. Moses, who boldly delivered an entire nation from bondage, is described in Scripture as “the meekest of men” (Num. 12:3).
Surely Jesus Himself embodied all the virtues, but when it comes to meekness, there can be no doubt. He says, “Learn from me; for I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt. 11:29). Not only is Our Lord meek, but He also expects us to imitate His meekness. This message is for everybody, but in a special way it goes out to today’s men, for whom meekness sadly is a rare commodity. [more]
We can often come to a richer understanding of words by examining their roots. Virtue (in Latin, virtus) is derived from the Latin word vir, which means man. Virtue, therefore, has historically been understood as implying a manly strength.
Meekness, sometimes used interchangeably with “gentleness” in biblical translations, comes from the Greek word prautes, meaning “not easily provoked.” This in turn comes from praus, which refers to a highly spirited trained horse. Such a horse has become so gentle and mild that a child may pet it or ride on its back. But the more important thing is that the horse no longer thrashes about wildly, but rather has been trained to take direction. The strength of the noble animal has been harnessed for good, not forfeited. Similarly, a harnessed river can generate power, and a harnessed or “meeked” fire can heat a campsite. Meekness, even in its etymology, has always implied harnessed strength, not weakness.
Applied to the human virtue, meekness implies an openness to God that allows Him to act through us, particularly at those times when our fallen nature might lead us to thrash about wildly in response to adversity. Meekness indeed involves a certain gentleness toward our neighbor, but it primarily applies to our relationship with God, as we daringly acquiesce to His harnessing of our gifts and talents for our own good and the good of His Church.
Meekness invites God’s presence, enabling us to do good in response to evil. St. Thomas Aquinas points out that meekness moderates anger according to right reason. Therefore, meekness is opposed to the vice of anger, which involves excess in the passion of anger–in other words, what we might call “unbridled” anger.
St. Thomas says that anger can be a great obstacle to our pursuit of truth, while meekness allows us to remain self-possessed. What does that mean? An example from the world of sports might help.
When a professional athlete is provoked and allows the provocation to “get in his head,” he commits a foolish foul or penalty by blindly retaliating. Such retaliation does not demonstrate strength, but rather foolishness and a lack of virtue. His action hurts himself and his team. Conversely, the player who keeps his head in the game proves himself coachable and he likely raises his game a notch under pressure. We would call this person a “gamer” or a “clutch performer.”
When it comes to living as Christians today, meekness prevents us from “going ballistic” and allowing our anger to consume us. But not foolishly making things worse is only part of the equation. Meekness also allows us to remain focused on the prize–Our Lord Jesus Christ and eternal communion with Him. This may seem obvious, but we all have experienced the blinding effects of anger at one time or another. Meekness keeps us focused during crunch time, when things don’t seem to be going our way.
Kinder, Gentler Christians
Meekness involves taking seriously Our Lord’s instruction that we become meek and humble of heart. It doesn’t mean that we can never feel anger, and it surely does not exclude legitimate self-defense or steadily persevering in doing the right thing (cf. 2 Thess. 3:13).
Rather, meekness is about clinging to God and letting Him bring about good in any situation. As St. Paul writes, we should strive to “overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21). As Bl. Teresa of Calcutta once said, “It is better to do good than fight evil.”
St. Francis de Sales said we should make a special point of daily asking God in prayer to give us, before all else, the true spirit of meekness that befits the children of God. In his spiritual classic Introduction to the Devout Life he writes: “It is better to learn how to live without being angry than to imagine one can moderate and control anger lawfully; and if through weakness and frailty one is overtaken by it, it is far better to put it away forcibly than to parley with it, for give anger ever so little way, and it will become your master. . . . You will ask how to put away anger. My child, when you feel its first movement, collect yourself gently and seriously, not hastily or with impetuosity. . . . Moreover, when there is nothing to stir your wrath, lay up a store of meekness and kindliness, speaking and acting in things great and small as gently as possible.”
Interestingly, St. Francis counsels us not only to “seek the sweetness of aromatic honey in courtesy and suavity with strangers, but also the sweetness of milk among those of our household and our neighbors; a sweetness terribly lacking to some who are as angels abroad and devils at home.” This counsel beckons us to examine how we are able to restrain our anger at home and also within the Church, which is our true home in the Family of God.
Furthermore, meekness is an eminently “practical” virtue, as Scripture identifies several ways that it helps build up the Church. Galatians 6:1 says that those who have fallen away, if repentant, are to be brought back “in a spirit of gentleness”; 1 Peter 3:15 says that our apologetics efforts should always be accompanied by reverence and meekness (or “gentleness”), as we’re trying to win brothers and sisters, not mere arguments; James 1:21 says that we should receive God’s Word with meekness, to be receptive to the Lord’s discipline and sovereignty in our lives; and 2 Timothy 2:25 says that we should correct those who oppose us with “gentleness,” exuding a calm confidence in the Lord.
Inherit the Land
Our Lord says, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Mt. 5:5). The meek are not patsies to be trampled underfoot, but are the big winners in God’s eyes.
As Catholics, we learn in the “Act of Hope” to trust in “God’s infinite goodness and promises.” This infinitely good God has given everything to Christ. When we unite ourselves with Christ as His faithful disciples, we prove ourselves to be truly His brothers and sisters and thus true heirs of His Father’s kingdom.
We know that Christ was perfect in His humanity. We also know that the sin and violence inflicted upon Him did not deter Him from fulfilling His Father’s will. He teaches us that meekness isn’t for wimps, but rather is tough as nails–the nails of the Cross.
While we see aspects of Our Lord’s meekness in His tender affection toward children, outcasts, and the sick, it’s on the Cross that we see meekness in all its splendor. Rather than curse His fate or blindly retaliate against His persecutors, Christ has the presence of mind to commend His spirit to the Father and utter the striking words, “Father, forgive them . . . ”
This article originally appeared in the March-April 2000 issue of Lay Witness magazine.