(Lead me) gently

In a world where anger is all the rage, gentleness is much maligned.  Ours is a world where might, and power, and privilege, and affluence are pursued.  So pervasive is the culture of self-assertion, self-promotion, and self-justification that we are tempted to believe that these attitudes are the way things are intended to be in the human heart and that our faith and our commitments to another way are one long struggle against our true nature.  But it is the opposite that is true.  We look to Jesus to see what it looks like to be fully human.  And he describes himself this way:

Matt. 11:28   “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Humility and gentleness are central to the authentic heart of Jesus.  Those of us who follow in his way are invited to take his yoke upon us and learn from him.  His teaching is gentle, so we will need to be attentive.  His presence and his leading will most often be subtle in our life and the way we learn from him is to tune into his tender and humble work within us.  Jesus promises us in the wake of his resurrection that the Spirit will come to us (John 14). He is alerting us of the need to be mindful of the world of the Spirit. That Holy Spirit-inhabited world surrounds us like air, it impinges on our thoughts, it is full of gentle invitations, and it awaits our attention.

Gentleness is like love — it is a very powerful thing to experience.  And like love, it eschews harsh and burdensome methods for the shaping of a person.  Rather it works by a persistent presence and tireless invitation for us to leave behind our old life with its attachments to power and influence.  We are invited to leave behind self-reliance and self-justification (which lead to either judgmentalism or despair), in favor of a new life of dependence on God for our daily bread and our justification (which lead to a compassionate heart).

The seventeenth century Saint Francis de Sales gave us the following apothegm:

“There is nothing so strong as gentleness,

nothing so gentle as true strength.”

[This saying is attributed to St. Francis de Sales by his nephew,

Jean Pierre Camus, in The Spirit of Francis de Sales.]

What is the strength of gentleness?  How is Francis de Sales’ assertion so?  Gentleness brings about slower but more resilient faith.  Not spectacular, but strong.  When I was younger I helped my mother plant a large section of her front yard with a new hybrid tree which advertised that it grew up to 6 feet a year.  She was eager for the trees to mature because a contractor working on her new home mistakenly bull-dozed what was supposed to be a natural forest into a red-clay mess.  The trees grew true to the advertisement and in three short years they were nearly caught up to the original trees in height.  But we had a winter storm with ice and high winds and they all broke off and eventually died.  Their growth was spectacular, but it led to fragility.  So it is on our journey in faith, I think.  It takes a lifetime (or at least a long time) to become what we are called to be and any efforts to speed that process along run the risk of creating in us a fragile trust in the God we seek.

And if the first part of the aphorism is true, the second part seems true, too.  How often have I encountered people who claimed to be of deep faith but whose way of being in the world was anything but humble and gentle.  I have often left their presence with the feeling that their stridency and their posturing spoke not of deep trust in God so much as they pointed to an insecurity within them — as if they needed to make others conform in an effort to find their own assurance.

The prayer of a pilgrim, and the discipline of pilgrimage, trust in a gentle and humble pathway to lasting confidence in God as our guide, our companion, and ultimately as our destination.  Pilgrimage by its nature confronts us with the limits of what we can know and what we can control.  It invites us to embark on our journey with one another and with God trusting that we will come to know what we need to know by God’s grace and in God’s good time.  We are set free from the need to be perfect and the need to be constantly adjudicating the lives of our companions because we are keenly aware that we too are partial in our faith and that it is better to be kind than to be right.  In short, we learn to be gentle with ourselves and with our neighbors.  Growth as a pilgrim is a slow process of careful listening, of intentional reflection, and of being present to the experiences which our lifelong journey provides us.  That stands in contrast to flashier models of faith-formation which provide us blue ribbons for our ascetic exploits so that we can reassure ourselves of our own holiness.

Daily Collect —
Gentle Lord: you lead us and teach us in mercy.  From your example we have come to understand that  though we might be tempted to make demands as apostles of Christ — we should be gentle, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.  Lead us by way of your gentleness to be gentle with ourselves and with others; in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.