A gentle man understands it is wiser to live without anger than to try to make moderate use of it. He knows that as soon as he is surprised by anger, it is better to turn from it than to start a discussion with it.
The woman caught in adultery by James Tissot
There is an ancient fable about the wind and the sun. One day, they began to argue over which one was the strongest. Each gave compelling reasons to buttress the claim that it was the stronger. Unfortunately, neither one would concede to the other. Finally, to settle the matter and end their disagreement, the wind proposed a contest to prove who was the stronger.
Looking down from high above, the wind saw an old man walking down the road and set the terms of the contract: whoever gets the man to remove the coat more quickly will be declared the winner. The Sun agreed to the terms of the contract and suggested the Wind make the first attempt.
The harder the wind blew, the stronger the man clutched to his coat to prevent the wind from blowing it off him. After a long time, the wind seemed near exhaustion and finally gave up.
Now it was the sun’s turn. The sun shone on the man gently, and he became warmer and warmer until he began to perspire and wiped his brow. Soon, the man willingly removed his coat.
The sun revealed his secret to the wind: you looked for a way to whip the man’s coat off, and this strengthened his determination to keep it on. I gently persuaded him to remove his coat, and soon he did.
This fable about the wind and the sun contains an important lesson for all of us, whether parents, teachers, supervisors, siblings, friends, or strangers. Instead of engaging in a power struggle, we should let a little more sunshine in—gentleness.
Role Models for Gentleness
In the 17th century, St. Francis de Sales was known for his gentle, kind persuasion. He counseled those he guided to do all through love, and nothing through force. Posterity has given him the title of “Gentleman Saint.” If Francis were alive today, undoubtedly he would tell us the greatest role model is Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ reveals his intimate nature when he says: “Learn of me for I am meek and humble of heart.” John’s Gospel records a beautiful example of the gentle Jesus in the incident of Jesus, the Pharisees, and the adulteress. The woman is caught in the act of adultery, and Mosaic Law says she is to be stoned to death. The Pharisees try to trap Jesus in a dilemma: if he says “stone her,” they could say he is hard-hearted. If he says “let her go,” they could say he has broken Mosaic Law. Either response would embarrass him before his followers. Jesus acts like a good confessor. To the Pharisees he says: “Let the man who is without sin cast a stone at her.” They slink away, one by one. Jesus does not condemn her. He forgives her with the gentle admonition: “Go and sin no more” (Jn 8:3-11).
On the contemporary scene, one of the greatest and most visible role models is Pope Francis. His humble, gentle, nonjudgmental, and loving way, and his deep concern for the poor and marginalized, have won the hearts of millions across the world.
I am sure the readers can picture gentle people who have made a profound impression and touched their lives. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. I hope you will flatter these role models by imitating them in your daily lives.
Francis de Sales developed a system of spirituality know today as Salesian Spirituality. I will draw upon some of his reflections on gentleness, especially from his spiritual classic, Introduction to the Devout Life. I will divide these thoughts under two main headings: “Gentleness Toward Our Neighbor” and “Meekness Toward Ourselves.” I will conclude with some additional reflections on gentleness, including gentleness in difficult circumstances.
Gentleness toward Our Neighbor
Jesus asks us to be gentle and humble of heart. Humility is a virtue that perfects us toward God. Gentleness is a virtue that perfects us toward our neighbor. Anger is a major obstacle in the practice of gentleness. Too often we feel justified in our anger. We may even cite the incident in the life of Jesus in which he drives the sellers from the temple: “Jesus entered the temple precincts and drove out those engaged there in buying and selling. He overturned the money changers’ tables and the stalls of the dove sellers saying to them: Scripture has it, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves” (Mt 21:12 -13). It is a house of prayer which the sellers have made into a den of robbers. Some see it as a symbolic act, foreshadowing the end of temple and priesthood to come at the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. It is a “holy anger” which Jesus can control, whereas humans often let passion takeover.
Joseph could justly be angry at his brothers, who, motivated by jealousy, sold him into slavery. Eventually, divine providence provides, and he is named governor of Egypt. When his brothers come to Egypt for food supplies during a great famine, Joseph treats them kindly, and eventually reveals who he is. Instead of being gentle and loving with his brothers, he could have shown great anger. However, he sees the hand of God in all of this. Before they leave for home to bring their father to Egypt, Joseph gives them this admonition: “Let there be no recriminations on the way” (Ex 45:24). He is urging them to be gentle and kind instead of blaming someone for his sale into slavery. Joseph is a type or foreshadowing of the gentle and forgiving Jesus, who, even on the cross, prayed to his heavenly Father: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Joseph is a role model for us.
We must be on our guard and not open the door to our anger. St. James tells us: “Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for a man’s anger does not fulfill God’s justice” (Jas 1:19-20). St. Paul admonishes us, “If you are angry, let it be without sin. The sun must not go down on your wrath; do not give the devil the chance to work on you” (Eph 4:27-28). In the late 1940s, the Oblate House of Studies near Catholic University of America consisted of a few old buildings across the street from the Benedictine sisters’ convent. There was an outdoor basketball court on their property, and some of our seminarians were playing on the court one Saturday afternoon. The game disturbed a sister who came out and scolded one of the men. I was edified that evening. The sister came across the street and apologized to the seminarian for her anger. She said: “St. Benedict told us, ‘The sun must not go down on your anger.’” During our pilgrimage on earth, there is the temptation to strike out at a sister, brother, friend, or enemy. As we march on our journey in life, we must be a band of brothers and sisters. We must be companions of the journey, united in gentleness, peace, and love.
De Sales quotes Augustine writing to Profuturus: “It is better to deny 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. It comes in as a little twig, and in less than no time, it grows big and becomes a beam” (Introduction, III, 8,136). Wisely, de Sales observes: “There never was an angry man who thought his anger was unjust.”
A gentle man understands it is wiser to live without anger than to try to make moderate use of it. He knows that as soon as he is surprised by anger, it is better to turn from it than to start a discussion with it. It becomes the unwanted visitor who soon takes over the place. In his old age, Augustine advised a young bishop: “If you find yourself aroused by anger, call upon God’s help, like the apostles in the boat who beseeched Jesus to calm the storm and the waters.”
Practice calmness and gentleness. When you are in a tranquil state of mind, and there is no cause for anger, build up a stock of gentleness and mildness. In daily interactions, be they great or small with others, speak and act in a mild manner. We must be careful not to become a street angel and a house devil, for example, to be gentle with strangers and lack gentleness with family and neighbors.
Meekness toward Ourselves
It is possible that we employ great effort to be gentle with others, but lack this spirit with ourselves. De Sales tells us one of the best exercises in meekness we can perform is when we are the object. Whenever we commit a fault, it is fitting to feel sorry and somewhat displeased. But we must take care not to grow bitter, gloomy, and very emotionally displeased. This situation can escalate: instead of being gentle toward ourselves, we can permit ourselves to become angry at being angry, and disturbed because we are disturbed. Unfortunately, the second anger does not cause the first anger to go away, and this compounds the situation. Paradoxically, this self-anger may be rooted in pride or self-love. Because we are imperfect, we become upset. A wise man once said: “Above all, be gentle with yourself.”
When we are sorry for our failings, it is important to remain calm, settled, and in a firm way. Self-correction is more beneficial when it is accompanied by a calm repentance, rather than self-correction administered harshly and passionately. Some people are inclined to be very upset with the least fault they commit, while they may laugh at a very serious sin, such as, gross detraction against a neighbor.
Recall the times as a child, or a teenager, when you were corrected gently and lovingly by a parent or teacher. This manner of correction is more likely to produce a lasting correction than one administered in a passionate rage. Whether it is self-correction or correction by another, the gentle way is more effective and just.
The psalmist tells us that God is kind and merciful. Countless times, Jesus is gentle with sinners, like the tax collector. If a person is prone to harsh self-correction, it is profitable for this person to seek out a counselor or spiritual guide. In this setting, the person will be listened to and, later, be more disposed to use calm and effective methods. Experience teaches us that we prefer a gentle confessor to one who may be overly strict or even harsh.
Ordinarily, a gentle person is not jealous. He endures all things, and hopes good things will happen to his neighbor. Contempt and criticism, especially from friends, are very difficult to bear. The natural tendency is either to ignore or deny the criticism and contempt, and too easily dismiss it. A gentle person will graciously accept the contempt and criticism. The test of time will judge whether the contempt and criticism are right or wrong.
When a person is called upon to be gentle in difficult circumstances, it is helpful to recall that Jesus Christ saved us by his sufferings, especially those he gently endured during his passion. We, too, are called on to work out our salvation united to Jesus, while accepting injuries, discomforts, and afflictions with all possible meekness.
There are many virtues we can practice in our friendships and associations with people. Among the virtues, charity, sincerity, simplicity, gentleness, and modesty are preferred to enable us to practice other virtues.
I do not know how often you speak of God. In a chapter entitled, “Society and Solitude,” de Sales gives this advice: always speak of God as of God, that is, reverently, devoutly, not in an outward show or affectation, but in a spirit of meekness, charity, and humility. Pray to God in the deep recesses of your soul, that he may send holy dew deep into the hearts of those who hear you. He compares speaking of God to an angelic office and tells us it must be done meekly and gently, not by way of correction, but of inspiration. De Sales concludes: “It is wonderful how powerfully a gentle, loving explanation of some good practice attracts the hearts of men.” (Introduction, III, 3, 181)
In summary: we must continually allow gentleness into our hearts, and permit it to guide our speech and actions. Gentleness is a Christ-like virtue. Role models are found among saints, and Francis de Sales, the “gentleman saint,” is an important one. Jesus Christ is our supreme role model, and he describes himself as gentle and humble of heart. Search for role models among those in your daily life and imitate them. Augustine, a sinner and saint, extols the value of gentleness.
We are called upon to be gentle with others and with ourselves. Anger is an obstacle to living a gentle life. We must be careful not to allow any anger into our lives. If we do, it can easily take over, and become a destructive passion. Criticism and slander are difficult to endure. A gentle response is a great remedy. St. Paul and St. Benedict tell us we must not let the sun go down on our anger.
When we speak of God, we should do it reverently and gently. Jesus spoke of his Father very reverently, and he was the gentlest of human beings. Gentleness is a balm, and a gentle correction more easily leads to a conversion of the heart, rather than a harsh rebuke. Imperfections and faults can lead to destructive self-anger. Some individuals are more prone to allow imperfections to upset them. Other persons may tend to be harsh and critical, instead of gentle in manner. A counselor or a spiritual guide can assist an individual to overcome such shortcomings and negative behaviors.
De Sales reminds us we can win more hearts with a spoonful of honey than with a barrel of vinegar. Gentle persuasion wins hearts more readily than psychological pressure or physical force. Let this be your guiding light: “Learn of me for I am gentle and humble of heart.” Yes, let the sunshine in!