April 04, 2018

Meekness: the power to change the world

By Bishop Arthur Serratelli *
Credit: Pexels
Credit: Pexels

Before Gutenberg invented the printing press, society depended mostly on the spoken word. When it came to communicating the news, teaching the faith, spreading propaganda or offering practical solutions to difficult dilemmas, people would often frame their message with the use of rhyme in songs and poems. Not infrequently these little songs held hidden messages about someone embroiled in scandal or a ruler out of favor. Thus, Mary, Mary Quite Contrary was a satirical commentary on the rule and personal life of “Bloody Mary,” Queen of Scots.

Today, nursery rhymes are handed on from parents and grandparents to children and from teachers to students, even after their original purpose no longer exists. Little children enjoy the ever popular Ring Around the Rosy. They thrill to recite this nursery rhyme in their playground games, totally unaware of its grim origin as a coded message about the Black Plague.

In the art of language, rhyme has advantages over prose. “Rhyme delights the brain. It seems to spring to life and dance in the empty spaces between the words… Rhyme seems to wire the brain with an internal beat that lives on inside of us, sometimes for many years” (Pat Skene, “Reading, Rhyming and Reciting,” Sept. 27, 2011). But, there can be a downside to rhyme. Because of the brain’s internal beat or propensity to rhyme, certain words are paired and their meanings distorted, such as “accept” and “except” or “amoral” and “immoral.”

In modern times, pairing words by rhyme has dealt a death blow to the very laudatory word “meek.” This is a perfectly good word and one with biblical meaning. But, because “meek” so glibly rhymes with “weak,” many people simply see the two words as synonyms for the same personal attribute. As a result, what is spoken for someone’s fame is now understood to their shame.

In a culture that identifies strong people with those who are assertive, meekness is not seen as an asset. In times past, mighty kings and rulers would have considered it high praise if they were seen as meek by their subjects. While “meekness” conveys to us moderns the pejorative idea of being too gentle, too non-confrontational or too timid, this is not its root meaning.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined meekness as a virtue because it is a balance between two extremes. It stands between becoming angry at the wrong things and not becoming angry at anything. It is the mean between being reckless and being cowardly. When adversity or hardship strikes, instead of yielding to anger, the meek person remains calm and self-possessed and, thus, is able to deal rationally with the unavoidable sufferings of human existence.

The Greek word “meek” (πρ?ος) is highly instructive. It is the word used for a wild animal that has been tamed. An ox is a powerful beast. But, yoked and guided, it plows the field and accomplishes much good. Its power is directed to a higher purpose. A stallion is aggressive, unruly and filled with wild energy. But once disciplined, its strength is harnessed to a higher purpose.

Far from being weakness, meekness is strength. It is the ability to take what causes anger, frustration, disappointment and suffering and subject it to reason. It turns any assault of misfortune into an opportunity to grow in virtue and holiness. Meekness is the stronghold against evil entering our soul and destroying our peace with God.

Only two people in the entire Bible are called meek. Both were strong and passionate. Neither was timid. The first person is Moses. After Moses married a Cushite woman, Miriam and Aaron used this as an excuse to rebel against his authority. Moses remained calm. Such a quiet spirit, unwilling to quarrel, seems out of place at that time in history. Instead of resisting, Moses went to God in prayer. And so, Scripture praises him, saying, “Now Moses was meek, more than any man on the face of the earth” (Num 12:3).

The only other person besides Moses whom the Scriptures call meek is Jesus (cf. Matthew 11:29; 21:5). Jesus was strong enough to cast out the merchants and money changers who were defiling the Temple in Jerusalem. He had power enough to call down legions of angels to defend himself when he was unjustly arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. But, he did not. Confronted with the bitter hatred and false accusations of his enemies, he remained calm. Like Moses, he turned to the Father in prayer. He did not yield to the temptation to retaliate. Instead, he submitted himself to the Father’s will.

Like Moses, but on an even greater scale, Jesus shows us that meekness is not a passive attribute. It does not consist in the reluctant resignation to things which we cannot change. Rather, it is the willful, positive choice to discern the hand of God in all that happens and to deliberately accept his wise disposition of our lives, including the good with the bad.

In these times where we suffer from the chronic display of brute power, we need to behold our “King [who] comes… meek, and sitting upon a donkey, and a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Mt 21:5). Imitating him, we will have the strength of the meek to make our world a place of peace. For Jesus promises, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Mt 5:5).

Bishop Serratelli is the bishop of Paterson, New Jersey.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.