The Power Of Gentleness
I think that the best spiritual advice I have ever received came from a wise Italian monk some 10 years ago. I was going through one of those times in life we will all have to face sooner or later. I had meant to do good, to help some people, but partly owing to my inexperience and partly to sheer insensitivity, I had caused some hurt - and understandably these people were not happy. It was one of these situations famously captured by Paul in his Letter to the Romans: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rm 7.15). ‘Hate’ maybe is a bit too strong, but certainly I was not proud of myself, and this led to a lot of soul-searching and a fairly long painful stretch of self-doubt. Striking the right balance in these situations is not easy. We need to be self-critical but might end up being too harsh on ourselves. And harshness is never healthy, neither with others nor, especially, with ourselves. These are the situations when spiritual guidance can be helpful, hence the conversation with this wise monk, and the point of me evoking this anecdote here. He simply said to me: “Luigi now breathe for a little – nothing else, just breathe”. The way I understood this advice was this: “Now, just be gentle with yourself”, maybe a way of implying: the more you’ll learn to be gentle with yourself, the more you’ll be able to do the same with others. The most memorable lessons often are the pithiest.
When life causes us weariness, imposes heavy burdens on us – and I know of no heaviest burden than that of guilt- Jesus invites us not to turn inward on ourselves, and especially not to self-flagellation, but to go to him: “Come to me”, he says in the Gospel! And coming to him we find not judgement or accusation, but simply “rest”, of the kind we need most. We can be very good at finding rest for our bodies but are often totally incapable of the solace we crave for, the “rest for our souls” (Mt 11.25-30).
The image that comes to my mind when I think of rest here is the beloved disciple reclining on Jesus’ chest during the last supper. Jesus in not afraid of this kind of proximity, his virility does not feel threatened by physical displays of affection, just as culturally frowned-upon then as they sadly still are with some people today. Anything to give rest to those who come to him, to open a space where they can be themselves, be welcomed and listened to without judgement, loved and forgiven. We are wrong if we think that self-improvement results from being hard on ourselves. This is not the Lord’s way of dealing with us anyway. He invites us to come to him because, unlike us, he is not afraid of giving us space to breathe, of waiting as long as it takes for us to heal inside, and of taking care of us in the meantime. “Come to me – he says – for I am gentle”. We often mistake gentleness with weakness. In reality we know that anger is weak and harshness results from insecurity. There is no surest sign of strength than a steady, reassuring, calm gentleness –nothing more disarming and hence life-changing. The whole history of salvation is predicated upon gentleness – this is God’s chosen way of saving us, and maybe of teaching us how to save us from ourselves. This is God’s chosen way of making his presence known in our life and in our prayer - through his “gentle whisper’, his gentle breathing. This is the whisper that the prophet Elijah heard when he met the Lord outside his cave (Kings 19.11ff), the whisper that we too might perceive if, for once, we were a bit more patient with ourselves and simply breathe.