Meekness is Strength

A good friend of mine of many years enjoys relating the story of his confessor’s admonition: “meekness is not weakness.” The priest — a famous Jesuit who has gone to his reward — was on to something. Reflecting on his wise aphorism in rhyme, and considering the words and deeds of the saints relative to this virtue, I am inclined to say that this son of Saint Ignatius understated the truth, for meekness — if it be the real thing — is strength.

While this proposition may superficially resemble the triple oxymoron engraved on the “Ministry of Truth” in George Orwell’s 1984 — “War is Peace, Ignorance is Strength, Freedom is Slavery” — the statements dramatically differ in kind, for one is an evangelical challenge while the other is a devilish lie.

The Gospels present many ironies to us, but no contradictions. The same is true of the life of virtue. According to Truth Himself, those who will possess the land will not be the mighty conquerors, but the meek.

Meekness is not cowardice, human respect, or timidness. It does not oppose zeal, fortitude, or any other virtue; rather, it strengthens them. True meekness is part of the virtue of temperance, and it opposes the vice of anger. It is defined by Father John Hardon in this way: “The virtue that moderates anger and its disorderly effects. It is a form of temperance that controls every inordinate movement of resentment at another person’s character or behavior.”

In the face of an increasingly more angry society, we find ourselves in great need of this virtue. Traditionalists, especially, must cultivate it; for, if our detractors are correct — and I think they are to some degree, anyway — we, as a group, have “anger problems.” Abused children and street people have anger problems, too. In a sense, traditionalists are both, having experienced neglect and abuse from spiritual fathers, and being run out of our homes.1 Seeing the Church is such a condition, we groan and lament (appropriately enough), but we also boil and fume — there’s the problem.

Saint James calls it “bitter zeal” (James 3:14), which he contrasts with “the meekness of wisdom” (3:13).

That meekness is wisdom, or is at least a necessary condition for it, is seen by the manifold recommendations of it in the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament.

Let’s not fall into a moral monism. Meekness is not the only virtue. Rather, it must be integrated into our life along with the other moral and theological virtues. In fact, the simultaneous practice of seemingly contradictory virtues — such as discreet secrecy and kind tact when importuned with inappropriate questions, humility and magnanimity, and fortitude and meekness — is a mark of genuine sanctity, as Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., often repeated.

Both Saint Francis de Sales and Saint Vincent de Paul were known for their gentleness, mildness, patience, and meekness. Yet they both had fiery tempers that were easily provoked to anger. These they conquered by the manly practice of virtue. From the book, “Spiritual Diary” — regretfully out of print — I present “the wisdom of meekness” as explained by these saints, with supporting anecdotes from their lives and the lives of other saints.

Additional reading can be found in “Scriptural Admonitions to Meekness.”

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“If possible, never become angry and always reject any pretext for allowing anger to gain admission to your heart, for once it has entered, you will no longer be able to banish it when you desire, or moderate it. If, however, you find that because of your weakness it has gained a foothold in your heart, summon all your will power and see that you set you heart at peace. But you must do so serenely, never violently.” St. Francis de Sales

This was the practice of many saints, who were never known to become angry. Of St. Phillip Neri, it is said that for the good of his spiritual children he sometimes assumed a stern expression but as soon as they were out of sight he would turn to someone present and say, “Don’t you think I looked angry?” And, at once his usual serene expression would return.

“The means of overcoming anger are: 1.) Forestall such feelings as much as possible, or at least banish them at once by thinking of something else. 2.) In imitation of the Apostles when the storm arose on the sea, have recourse to God, Who will restore peace to your heart. 3.) While you are boiling, do not talk or offer any opposition concerning the point in question. 4.) Strive to be humble and courteous towards the person with whom you feel angry, especially if he has shown resentment in any way.” St. Francis de Sales

When St. Vincent de Paul felt inclined to anger, he would refrain from speaking and also from acting, and above all, he would not make any decisions until the feelings of anger were under complete control. He used to say, that actions, though apparently good, when done while in a state of agitation are not fully directed by reason and hence cannot be perfect. Therefore in these instances, in spite of the heat of anger, and pretexts of zeal, we must utter nothing but kind and affable words in order to win our neighbor to God.

“Nothing is so edifying as charitable meekness. Like oil in a lamp, it keeps the flame of good example burning.” St. Francis de Sales

One day, while St. Ignatius was passing a field, a group of farmers began to deride him and call him names. In order not to deprive them of this pastime, the saint stopped and waited serenely until they finished. Then he blessed them and left. They were so astonished by his conduct that from then on they told everyone he was a saint.

“We must treat everyone with kindness and with those pleasing virtues which spring from a tender heart filled with Christian charity — affability, love, and humility. These virtues are a wonderful means of winning the hearts of men and of leading them to embrace even what is most repugnant to nature.” St. Vincent de Paul

“At times, one word is sufficient to placate an angry person. Similarly, one word is enough to dishearten a soul and cause a bitterness which might prove very harmful.” St. Vincent de Paul

While traveling, three monks lost their way and had to cross through a field of wheat, crushing quite a bit of it. Upon seeing this, the farmer yelled at them angrily, calling them fake monks. The elder of the three exhorted the other two not to answer him. As soon as they were near he said to the farmer: “You are right, my son, for if we were real monks we would not have done so much damage. But now forgive us, for the love of God, because we acknowledge our mistake.” Amazed at such meekness, the farmer fell to his knees before the monks and begged their pardon.

“Since it is impossible for us to go through life without causing annoyance to one another, it is necessary to have a great supply of meekness from which to draw to check sudden bursts of anger and preserve peace of soul.” St. Francis de Sales

“Let us strive to be kind, meek, and humble with everyone, but especially so with those whom God has destined to be our companions. Let us not be one of those who are angels in public and devils at home.” St. Francis de Sales

One evening St. Francis de Sales had to talk at length with a Marquis about some important affairs. It was dark when they finally finished. In the meantime, the servants, each thinking the other had taken care of it, had left him alone and without a candle. Consequently, when the Marquis was ready to leave, the saint had to lead him by the hand through the gallery and down the hall to the door. There they found his servants entertaining themselves with those of the Marquis. While retiring, the saint said to his butler: “My friend, with a two-cent candle we would have done ourselves honor this evening.”

“A very essential means of acquiring meekness of heart is to form the habit of doing everything and saying everything, important or unimportant, calmly and without haste. Act in this manner in times of tranquility and thus you will accustom your heart to gentleness.” St. Francis de Sales.

St. Francis himself practiced this advice in an excellent manner, for he was never known to act hastily. To someone who asked him the reason, he replied, “You ask me how I can remain calm and not become upset when those around me are all bustling about. What can I say to you? I did not come into the world to agitate it. Is it not sufficiently agitated already?”

“Be assured that all disturbing, upsetting thoughts do not come from God, Who is the Prince of Peace. They come either from the devil, or from our self-love, or from the high opinion we entertain of ourselves. These are the three fonts of all our troubles. When such thoughts come to our mind, w should banish them immediately and pay no attention to them.” St. Francis de Sales

This is the reason why St. Francis himself was never seen disturbed or upset. He paid no attention to the temptations of the devil, was always a sworn enemy of self-love, and was humble of heart.

“Humble goodness is the virtue of virtues, very highly recommended by Our Lord. Hence we should practice it always and everywhere. Evil must be avoided, but calmly. Good must be done, but always serenely. Follow this rule: that which you see can be done in charity, do; what cannot be done without dispute, do not do. In other words, peace and tranquility of soul must always take preference over all our actions.” St. Francis de Sales

Of St. Francis de Sales we read that he enjoyed an unperturbed peace of heart. He himself said one day: “What can possibly disturb our peace? Even if the world should turn itself upside down, I would not become disturbed. Of what value is the world in comparison to peace of heart?” Thus he acted whenever the occasions presented themselves.

  1. E.g.: In 2007, the Holy Father affirmed, very rightly, that the traditional Mass had never been abrogated. Yet, for almost four decades prior to that, how many priests were illegally despoiled of their parishes, their pensions, and even their priestly faculties simply for being faithful to the Mass of their ordination? Justice for them will have to wait till the next life.
  • Lionel Andrades

    Thank you! Brother Andre Marie

  • You’re welcome, Lionel!

  • drvsvs

    This issue always confuses me. In a recent article, “Anger Issues,” it is stated that not being angry when anger is warranted is a not a virtue, and furthermore that meekness does not mean “never being angry.” However, when I read the section of saints writing about anger, they clearly say, “never be angry; never show anger.” How is this not claiming that all anger is the vice of wrath, as opposed to some anger being a natural passion that is just and right to use and show?

    In reading this article, I seem to understand that it is saying that, for whatever theoretical reasons there might be for sometimes considering anger natural and “zealous” and “righteous indignation,” according to the words of the saints above, we cannot practically every do or show that. Can you clarify this for me?

  • Dear drvsvs: Since I authored both “Meekness is Strength” and “Anger Issues,” I suppose it is my duty to reply. The old scholastic axiom is “In medio stat virtus” — virtue stands in the middle (of opposing vices).

    At the end of the latter article, I placed this paragraph, in an attempt to forestall this objection that you have made:

    “In relation to the contrast between good and evil anger, here is a practical rule of thumb: The utmost in virtue would be manifested in one who fought with great courage and zeal for the glory of God and the things that pertain to goodness and virtue (even natural virtue), while at the same time practicing lamb-like meekness in the face of personal attacks against himself. Not an easy rule to follow, as I well know, but then, this sanctity thing is not for cowards who back away from difficulties, is it?”

    Does this help?

  • drvsvs

    Thanks so much for the reply. First off, let me be sure to clarify that I’m not actually objecting to anything, because I am truly confused about what the truth is. Perhaps some of the confusion comes because we’re not only talking about virtues and vices, but also talking about behaviors, which is always a prudential matter that has so many circumstantial elements involved with it? Just a thought to throw out.

    This brings me to your quotation, which I was thinking about very much even before you quoted it. I admire so much the saints of our Church and the Old Testament prophets who showed so much warrior-like zeal in the face of their enemies. On top of this admiration, I am in a culture that pushes effeminacy in men, and also admires pacifism and “niceness” (which I try very hard not to confuse with meekness). My confusion comes from this tension. It simply seems that when I read the quotation that I mention in my above comment, that it favors the “meekness = niceness and pacifism” mentality, and I simply cannot see where the zealousness ever comes to play in their language.

    I also respect the fact that this is a very complicated conversation that requires a lot of wisdom and understanding. I say that because I do not want you to be under the impression that I am trying to impose a zealotry that is actually wrath; a vice. At the same time, Br. Andre, I cannot help but be reluctant to say that ultimately, we’re talking merely about timidity here, and sapping the strength of many St. Pauls and St. Jeromes. Does that make sense? I want to clarify my confusion. :-)

  • I don’t want to ignore this comment. I think replying may require a book! Much of this is, as you say, a question of prudence, or — as you also say, and more aptly, Wisdom. It reminds me of this passage from the Gospel of Saint Matthew, Chapter 11:

    “[16] But whereunto shall I esteem this generation to be like? It is like to children sitting in the market place. [17] Who crying to their companions say: We have piped to you, and you have not danced: we have lamented, and you have not mourned. [18] For John came neither eating nor drinking; and they say: He hath a devil. [19] The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say: Behold a man that is a glutton and a wine drinker, a friend of publicans and sinners. And wisdom is justified by her children.”

    That last verse is something that comes to mind when considering the seemingly “excessive” meekness of a Saint Francis de Sales or a Saint Vincent de Paul as distinguished from the physical virility of a Saint Louis de Montfort punching out a heckler or Saint Camillus de Lellis throwing a man out the window for mocking his sick-poor. Certainly, saintly defenestrations are a rarity, but there was at least one!