There is a kind of gentleness that is intuitive to us, or is called forth naturally from us, in certain situations. You may recall the first time you held a baby: the way your body responded to one tinier and less durable than yours with a gentle, protecting strength. Or the first time you threaded a kneedle, or placed something under a microscope, or gave someone a kiss. I remember my first childhood pet, a chameleon with skin that changed colors and eyes that swiveled in all directions. Though I gave him the rather ungentle name Thunder, I knew instinctively how gentle I needed to be as his tiny toes and delicate tail gripped my outstretched fingers. Although my heart raced, my breath became slower, my attention focused, and my senses became attuned,for the first time, to the fragile life of another.
In a passage of great insight, our founder Fr. Benson describes the gentleness that he envisions an SSJE Brother ought to embody:
The Holy Ghost dwelling within him spreads the atmosphere of gentleness round about him. It is a living gentleness…the gentleness of a sensitive touch. [He] must be a man of great delicacy of feeling…not delicacy in the sense of feebleness and weakness, but delicate in the sense in which an experienced surgeon handles a tender part firmly but delicately, in the way in which an experienced hand will disentangle the fibres of a plant that has been dried, the delicacy with which the smallest things are touched by one of experience. So [he] must really be ready to handle everything with the greatest possible delicacy and the greatest possible strength.”[i]
Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. 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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” In just two verses, Jesus extends one of the most attractive invitations in the entire Gospel: an offer of rest that genuinely restores the whole person, and that comes through gentleness rather than force. Jesus’s offer of his yoke resonates with images found in the Wisdom books of Scripture, in which we encounter God’s Wisdom personified as a female figure of great gentleness and strength, offering food and drink, shelter and instruction. In the book Sirach, the wise elder instructs the reader: “Listen, my child, and take my advice, do not reject my counsel: put your feet into [Wisdom’s] fetters, and your neck into her collar; offer your shoulder to her burden, do not be impatient of her bonds.” He continues, “For in the end you will find rest in her and she will take the form of joy for you.”[ii]
There is a kind of gentleness that is intuitive to us. But gentleness is not a popular virtue, and while the deep spiritual rest that Jesus offers has immediate appeal, the yoke of gentleness that he offers looks suspiciously like a cross. As burdensome as it has been, I for one have long carried the illusion that effort, striving, and struggle are simply the qualities necessary for the human journey – the spiritual journey included. These values came to supplant much of my innate, childhood gentleness, especially my gentleness with myself. While I did not succumb to a masculine imperative toward physical aggression, my effortful striving to accomplish simply took other forms. Perhaps you have your own version of this. In my apprenticeship to Jesus, I have only just begun to learn gentleness as a way of life, to follow Jesus as God’s gentleness incarnate. And on this gentle path we follow, it may be that taking up the cross is in reality a gentle consent to bear the cross that is placed upon us.
A yoke is meant to join two plowing animals: one more experienced, and the other less so. We are yoked to Jesus, and it is by this partnership, this synergy, that we learn to love what he loves, to desire what he desires, and to live in him as he lives in us. While I believe that our effort plays a part in this synergy, and in some seasons of the journey it plays a great part, I also believe that Jesus ultimately desires our surrender into an effortless gentleness that lives and breathes the gentleness of God. Our effort can get our neck through the yoke, but the bearing of it calls for the gentleness of our Master. This is a gentleness strong enough to hold heaven and earth in being, to hold and absorb the struggle and strain of life until it settles and comes to rest, as a parent might hold a struggling and screaming child. As Moses says to the Israelites on the shores of the Red Sea, “The LORD will fight for you; you have only to keep still.”[iii] It is from this place of rest that we are given that “delicacy with which the smallest things are touched by one with experience,” and empowered by Christ’s gentleness to touch, to hold, and to heal.
[i] R.M. Benson, Instructions on the Religious Life, Third Series. p. 92.
[ii] Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 6:22-30.
[iii] Exodus 14:14.
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