Today I will say a few words about gentleness as a mindset, and I’ll begin where we always begin, with the Person Jesus Christ, who tells us that he is the Way, and then what the Way is like. He said, “Learn of me, for I am meek”—and that’s often translated as “gentle”—“and humble.” That’s our call. St. Seraphim of Sarov puts it in wonderful perspective. He says:
You cannot be too gentle, too kind. Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other. Radiant joy streams from the face of him who gives and kindles joy in the heart of him who receives. All condemnation is from the devil.
And I would add parenthetically: Don’t we easily do that? Condemn, draw lines in the sand, “us” and “them”: they’re not as good as “us”; they’re not Orthodox, or if they’re Orthodox, they’re not as Orthodox as I am. Continuing with St. Seraphim: “Never condemn each other.” By the way, parenthetically, the word “condemn” can mean “look down upon” or in some way “marginalize” or “think less of.” St. Seraphim says:
Never condemn each other. We condemn others only because we avoid knowing ourselves. When we gaze at our own failings, we see such a swamp that nothing in another can equal it. It can’t. That is why we turn away and make much of the faults of others. Instead of condemning others, strive to reach inner peace. Keep silent, refrain from judgment. This will raise you above the deadly arrows of slander, insult, and outrage, and will shield your glowing hearts against all evil.
[That’s] the end of that quote, but he began it with: “You cannot be too gentle.” And when we’re gentle, that doesn’t mean wimpy or a doormat. Oh, no, it means [to] be like Jesus: gentle but strong.
I know a priest who was given the charge of escorting Mother Theresa when she came to New York City a while ago—quite an honor for him—and he was driving her to the UN on the east side of Manhattan where she was going to give an address. The car they were in suddenly got a flat tire. Now, they happened to be on the highway, the East Side Highway, where the traffic is going 55 miles an hour and there’s no place to pull off; there’s a wall there on the right side. They had a flat tire, so of course it’s quite dangerous.
The priest understood, being a New Yorker, the danger they were in. Mother Theresa simply said to him, “Well, let’s get to the UN. Leave the car, get out, and hail a ride.” The priest said, “Oh, Mother, this is New York City.” Gently, but firmly, she got out, waved down a car, hailed a ride, was driven over to the UN building, leaving the priest and the car with the flat tire sitting on the East Side Highway. Granted, it’s Mother Theresa and she has white with blue and people know her and they would do that for her, but the point is really clear: that when we’re gentle, we are then boundless in our courage and boldness, and being able to carry through with a life of integrity.
From the writings of the Desert Fathers, we find an exquisite example of gentleness in the little anecdote told about Abba Poimen. An old man asked Abba Poimen if he saw a brethren nodding in church whether he should nudge him to wake him up for the vigil. Abba Poimen answered, “Now, if I see a brother nodding, I lay his head on my knees and give him rest.” That’s a vivid example of the mind and attitude of one wonderful Desert Father toward other human beings.
We find in many of our Orthodox saints examples of how to live this gentleness life. When I converted, the priest who was instructing me in the faith told me that after death the memory, the image we have of the dead person, is like an icon. That is to say, the bad qualities of the person fall away, and the good qualities emerge, rather like figure and ground. So there’s more figure in front and the background becomes less. We begin to see more clearly.
In my own experience, watching people grow old, I’ve noticed that in general the people whom I know and love became more and more gentle with the passing years. For example, my mother died at the age of 102. She was Italian, wonderful woman; I refer to her as a “pasta mama.” She had a very feisty side to her; didn’t come out too much, but it was clearly there, and you kind of knew it. As life went on, I noticed that feisty side reduce and reduce and reduce and finally virtually evaporate. It just went out into thin air. And that’s happened with many persons I know. There’s a slow life transformation [which] occurs toward gentleness.
Yes, that’s true for persons whom I know, now dead, but there’s also an awareness that I’m beginning to gain about some of the people alive whom I know. In my own mind, I have a small group of people that I look upon as extraordinary people, people I really look up to. That small group includes a few seminarians and others who are unlikely candidates to be in that group, but I know them well enough to know their life struggle and how much I admire them. I just do.
What’s interesting is that—and it really is a function of this podcast that I’m thinking more about this—a common trait that cuts through, that is part of each of these living persons, is gentleness. Each of these persons whom I admire has an extraordinary amount of gentleness about them. Perhaps that’s why I’m attracted to them, but it’s not only the gentleness. There’s a certain heroism of choice that goes with lifestyle. Maybe the two go together.
Gentleness is closely associated with tenderness, a careful, strong, yet very soft, soft, soft touch. I think of the fingers of Jesus on icons. Jesus’ fingers are always gentle, beckoning, inviting, signifying the power within his humility. And, so many times in the Bible, Jesus uses his fingers very tenderly: to touch the ears or the mouth of someone in need of healing. Jesus had no fear of gently touching other humans. He used his fingers to carefully write in the sand to help another. So Jesus is our model of extreme humility and of extreme gentleness.
For our purposes, there’s probably no greater saint—in fact, I would say there is no greater saint—than the Theotokos to show us the model of true gentleness. Christ, of course, is not a saint in the sense of the word, and he shows us perfect gentleness. She shows us the gentle, strong life. Let’s listen to a song about her. It doesn’t explicitly talk about her gentleness, but we can pick up in the music the tonality, the actual music itself, the sweetness and the gentleness of our mother.
Beneath thy compassion
We take refuge, O Theotokos.
Despise not our prayers
In our necessities,
But deliver us from harm,
O holy pure, only blessed one.
Most holy Theotokos, save us.
Most holy Theotokos, save us.
Most holy Theotokos, save us.
We look to the Theotokos and saints, and of course begin with Jesus Christ for models of gentleness. And, yes, we look to humans around us who have some saintly virtues. It’s also interesting to me, as a clinical psychologist, how often I need to ask a counselee, “Please be gentle with yourself.” Most of my job, of course, is listening. Someone comes to me; I don’t seek people out. They say, “Can I talk to you?” I say, “Sure. Come in, close the door.” And after a while, the person will tell me things that they have told very few others apart from their confessor.
And then sometimes toward the end will come by some insight on how they want to change their lives, and I’m struck by how often people will set themselves up with a new schedule of personal improvement that’s rather radical and over the top. That is to say, very difficult to do in any kind of sustained way. “This is what I’m going to do: X, Y, Z.” Then I have to say, “Well, I’m really pleased with your trajectory and your desire to improve in these ways. Can I ask you to please be gentle with yourself?” That is to say, factor in some insight into the possibility that you might not be able to do this every day or every week, and you might get sick or things happen to friends and you have to take care of them, and you don’t get to do your new plan.
There’s a certain sense in which we, most of us, don’t have the image of ourselves that God has. We don’t have this strong love and loving gentleness. So we begin with ourselves, and, yes, we be gentle with ourselves in a very Christian life of integrity.