The Role of Meekness in the Spiritual Life

The anniversary of the death of Fr. Éduoard Hugon, O.P., (1867–1929) is the seventh of February. Fr. Hugon is perhaps best known nowadays for his work on the 24 Thomistic Theses (read his commentary on the theses here), and his extensive three-volume course of Thomistic philosophy (available here via Ite ad Thomamthe second volume, Cosmology, has recently been translated into English). Yet there was far more to his life than academic work. For example, he played a role in the approval of St. Joan of Arc’s fourth miracle, necessary for her canonization on 16 May 1920. Indeed, his biography, written by his brother Abbé Henri Hugon, Le Père Hugon (3e ed., Paris: Pierre Téqui, 1930), attests to his holiness of life and his great solicitude for souls in his roles as teacher, spiritual director, and confessor.

In his memory, I present this short article, which is included as an appendix in that same biography. It discusses the role of meekness in the spiritual life. Fr. Hugon assumes some familiarity with St. Thomas’ treatment of meekness in Summa Theologiae, IIa–IIae, q. 157. Meekness is a virtue that especially moderates the passion of anger, and in this respect the following meditation serves our modern culture well insofar as more frequently the focus upon virtues which moderate the passions is directed towards chastity or purity. St. Thomas defines meekness (along with clemency) as follows:

As stated in Nicomachean Ethics II, 3, a moral virtue is “about passions and actions.” Now internal passions are principles of external actions, and are likewise obstacles thereto. Wherefore virtues that moderate passions, to a certain extent, concur towards the same effect as virtues that moderate actions, although they differ specifically. Thus it belongs properly to justice to restrain man from theft, whereunto he is inclined by immoderate love or desire of money, which is restrained by liberality; so that liberality concurs with justice towards the effect, which is abstention from theft. This applies to the case in point; because through the passion of anger a man is provoked to inflict a too severe punishment, while it belongs directly to clemency to mitigate punishment, and this might be prevented by excessive anger.

Consequently meekness, in so far as it restrains the onslaught of anger, concurs with clemency towards the same effect; yet they differ from one another, inasmuch as clemency moderates external punishment, while meekness properly mitigates the passion of anger. (St. Thomas, ST, IIa–IIae, q. 157, a. 1, c.)

It is particularly fruitful to meditate upon Fr. Hugon’s discussion of meekness insofar as it pertains to the life of the mind. Anger can present itself in the intellectual life in the form of a selfish defense of “one’s own” views, retaliating against interlocutors who are in good faith attempting to rest in the common good of truth. Reading Fr. Hugon’s reflection upon meekness reminded me of Marcus Berquist (and see the comments of Suzie Andres, here), as well as the following passage which discusses the relation of the individual to the common pursuit of truth:

How often have you found yourself in the middle of an argument, defending and even advocating a position, because it is your own, even though you can see, if only dimly, through the haze which the passion of disputation creates, that your adversary has a better case? For those of us who are involved in the intellectual life, this is a major stumbling-block and occasion of sin. If the truth is not a common good, what is? If we subordinate the good of truth to the private good of our self-esteem, what excuse can we offer to the One Who is the Truth itself and the Good Who is common to every creature? Given the universal goodness of the truth, the only right attitude is to order oneself to it—to discover it, communicate it, and defend it. (Marcus Berquist, “Common Good and Private Good” p. 8)

May Our Lady, St. Dominic, and St. Thomas Aquinas pray for us!

* * *

The Role of Meekness in the Spiritual Life

by Fr. Éduoard Hugon, O.P.

 

Hugon_OP
Fr. Éduoard Hugon, O.P.

The truly spiritual man is the one who manages to pacify his home, to establish harmony among the diverse parts of his being, assuring the dominion of the superior part against the inferior appetites that are always inclined to revolt against it.1 In order to permanently constitute this equilibrium, so as to never descend to the level of passion or to the level of trivialities, but to rest always at God’s level, one needs that peace which St. Augustine calls the tranquility of order, tranquillitas ordinis.2

This tranquility ought to reign in our mind, so that it can in all serenity and without bias judge the truth; it ought to reign interiorly, so that all stirrings therein might be measured by and in accord with sound reason; it ought to reign exteriorly, so that all words, actions, attitude, and deportment might be as a hymn of praise and a song of love for the Lord.

It is one of those little virtues decried as passive which assures a man this complete mastery of himself and permits one to look after his soul, to fully possess it, to keep it well for himself: meekness. “Fili, in mansuetudine serva animam tuam—My son, keep thy soul in meekness.” (Sirach 10:31) We shall try to explain how meekness contributes to establish the tranquility of order in our entire being and makes it such that God can dwell in us, which is true spirituality.

I. Tranquility of Order in the Mind

Created for the truth, our mind does not rest except in it. It must therefore make an effort so as to arrive there. It goes there by multiple acts and as it were by successive leaps and bounds. First, a movement so as to seize the first notions, bring together ideas, concepts, the elements of our knowledge; then, it must unite them by judgments; finally, it must associate many judgments, coordinate them, and by analyzing and synthesizing, construct the edifice of science. God and the angel see the truth in a single glance; as for ourselves, we must scurry from one object to the other, a discourse. The best definitions that we give of realities are the result of long investigation, and, so to speak, of a laborious hunt—venari definitiones, to hunt definitions, according to the expression of Aristotle and St. Thomas. Intellectual peace requires that all these motions of human understanding be harmonious, that concepts, judgments, and arguments are produced and maintained in order. Mental tranquility is obtained only in the light. A serenity so complete supposes in the mind a complete freedom to judge soundly of the truth and of the good and the truly noble so as to not contradict the truth once it is known and understood.

This is the twofold service that meekness renders to our intellect. It prepares for the contemplation of God by dispelling obstacles. First of all, meekness assures a man in self-possession because it curbs precipitation and fits of anger. It is, indeed, the impetuosity of this passion which takes that freedom of mind away from us, that sovereignty over ourselves, without which our judgments are exposed to a lack of impartiality. Second, meekness keeps us in the truth, causes us to love it, prevents us from contradicting it, because what ordinarily enables men to contradict the words of truth are the agitation and disturbance that anger arouses in them.3

Meekness will produce, therefore, little by little, that composure of soul, equanimity, which is necessary to contemplate the truth.

This is why Blessed Jordan of Saxony says of St. Dominic: “Nothing would disturb his equanimity unless it was compassion and mercy. And, because a content heart gladdens the face of a man, one could easily divine his interior serenity from the goodness and joy of his features, which the least movement of anger would never obscure.”

Thus, the superior excellence of the virtue of meekness lies in causing calm and serenity in the mind and putting the entire soul in the best disposition. At the same time, it leads to the charm and attractiveness in the truth, which it renders victorious by taking on the face of amiability. “Reason clothed in meekness,” says St. Francis de Sales, “has more force and brilliance; clothed in anger, it loses its brilliance and its force. The truth is never established without charity; but impiety does the opposite.”4

Furthermore, a man who has the tranquility of order established in his mind will bear souls infallibly, so to speak, towards God. Hence the well known cri du coeur of St. Vincent de Paul: “Oh, my God! If my Lord of Geneva is so good, then so must you be yourself!”5

But the empire of meekness must be exercised over all our faculties, and in so doing make them the supple and docile instruments of the supernatural.

II. Internal Tranquility of Order

The harmonious equilibrium of virtue can be broken by the impetuous or violent attacks of impatience and anger. What sustains anger is the desire for retaliation, and this desire itself is accompanied by a certain bitterness that accompanies grudges and antipathies. There are people who, on the outside, will avoid making a scene, but on the inside they keep an accumulation of gall. It awaits an occasion. Self-love, ever prolific in its schemes, will find fresh industry so as to take its revenge. It will nourish these feelings for years and one day, all of a sudden, as if coming out of an ambush, it takes revenge and savors the triumph so long awaited. They are unspeakably miserable, these joys of great or petty vengeances! The property of meekness is that is suppresses these secret resentments and goes even to the point of forgetting injuries. It does not know the malicious phrase: “I forgive, but I do not forget,” for it knows that to forgive is to forget, or that the forgiving is complete in the measure that the forgetting is complete. Such is the true way of “taking anger by the collar,” in the words of St. Francis de Sales, “to rebuke it, to trample it underfoot.”

All that demands a prolonged effort in order to collect meekness drop by drop, according to the expression of the same saint, as a rose in the vase of our poor heart, and to prevent anger from seething in the brain, like water in a boiling pot.

Christian meekness has other refinements which cause it to carefully remove anything that could hurt one’s neighbor. Indeed, to hurt someone, says St. Thomas, that would provoke horror in the truly meek soul: “This moderation of soul comes from a certain sweetness of disposition, whereby a man recoils from anything that may be painful to another.”6 It is thus possible for some people to not only have no horror of hurting others, but to feel an intense satisfaction, a bitter pleasure, upon seeing their neighbor humiliated, who feel an unhealthy joy at another’s pain, savoring in secret the triumph of seeing another’s downfall, defeat, or hurt?

The saints take these refinements to such a level that they refuse to disturb even a servant: “I assure you,” said St. Francis de Sales to his servant, “That I called you several times, I even went to your bed, and I found you sleeping so soundly and peaceably that I did not want to wake you.”7 Traits no less exquisite are recounted of St. Dominic: “When Dominic had spent a long space of time in vigils, prayers, and tears, and had offered his soul and body as a sacrifice, if the matin bell had not rung, he would go and visit his children, as if longing to see them again. He would enter their cells very quietly, making the sign of the cross on each of the inmates, and re-covering those whose clothing had become disarranged in sleep. After this he returned to the choir.”8

The virtue of meekness does even more. It suppresses the root of all feelings of bitterness, at the same time it also banishes grudges and antipathies. Just as it is madness to take delight in the pains and sufferings of one’s fellows, because it shows that one is no longer a man or that one is deprived of that human heart from which clemency is born, so also it is a contradiction for Christians to keep this animosity after having met at the same table of communion and having recited the same prayer: Our Father, who art in heaven . . . .9 To nourish antipathies would be to keep a viper in one’s chest. The meek crush its head before it can bite them or hurt them.

Lastly, true meekness takes pity on its own wretchedness, it does not get angry at itself in spite of self-love, it encourages one to correct oneself with calmness and energy, as it is said of St. Francis de Sales: “Bearing with his faults in meekness, he never would get upset at himself, and his displeasure at his faults was peaceful, steadfast, and firm, believing that we chastise ourselves better by tranquil and constant repentance than by sour and angry repentance.”10—“One must,” St. Francis de Sales would say, “suffer our own imperfection in order to have perfection, having patience with our imperfections and working to correct them, beginning again every day and never thinking that we have done enough.”11

If the tranquility of order is thus established in all our interior life, our soul will be a peaceful kingdom in which the Lord will truly be able to dwell as in his own abode. He will find himself at home in coming to us, and thus the beautiful words of the Doctor of the Church, St. Hilary of Poitiers, will come true: “Because of the meekness of our interior Christ dwells in us.”12

This influence will shine forth through our whole person, so as to submit even our exterior itself to the blessed reign of the Lord Jesus.

III. External Tranquility of Order

Christian meekness must rule all that which manifests virtue externally, in speech as well as in manners and actions.

There is no need to repeat here the warnings of Sacred Scripture against malicious speech, an inferno which devours, a sharpened razor whose wounds do not heal, an unruly power that wreaks much havoc. It suffices to quote the words of St. James: “And if any man think himself to be religious, not bridling his tongue, but deceiving his own heart, this man’s religion is vain.” (James 1:26)

One could also say that sometimes is becomes like a tiger’s claw, drawing blood, or like the painful grip of an ape. For there are some people who make a profession, a consummate art of lashing out—suddenly, unexpectedly, without one being able to foresee anything—with the treacherous stroke of the malignant allusion, the hurtful or cutting remark, the remembrance that saddens and that sorrows.

Meekness, habituated to possessing its soul in peace, acts as did the holy cardinal who prayed for a quarter-hour before his audience with the Sovereign Pontiff so that nothing in his speech might be harmful to his neighbor; it acts as St. Francis de Sales, of whom a witness reports: “It seems to me that all meekness which could exist in a man was assembled in him. I could never get enough of seeing him and hearing him, he was so meek and agreeable, never doing anything or even saying anything which was not caused by the meekness of Our Lord.”13

The tranquility of order will be reflected in the body and in one’s entire countenance. It is said of St. Dominic that a certain radiant light would shine from his forehead and from between his eyelashes, which called forth respect and love, and that he was always agreeable, except when he was moved with compassion by some affliction of his neighbor. Baron de Cusy also said of St. Francis de Sales: “One never saw the Lord of Geneva but with a visage so meek and so sweet, that he spread devotion into hearts.”14

There are persons, by contrast, whose actions impeach them of a poorly contained anger, whose mere presence is enough to injure, whose countenances are feared, who cause harm even before speaking or before arriving, whose eyes seem full of venom and their mouths full of bitterness. To them one must propose the example of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus: “I ought to anticipate the wish, and show myself glad to be of service.”15

To establish the tranquility of order in its full development, meekness must rule one’s bearing, step, gestures, and deportment. To lack calm, restraint, or dignity in all this is sometimes to compromise the efficaciousness of the most generous zeal. There are some of whose noisy passage it is said: “It’s a hurricane that’s coming!”

The meek are never a hurricane, because they know that the Lord is not to be found in noise or in agitation. One shows one’s self-possession of soul in the way that one conducts and comports oneself, in the opening and closing of doors, as has been well said by Lacordaire in the description of one of the monasteries in the time of St. Dominic: “Along these spacious and lofty corridors, whose sole luxury consisted in their cleanliness, the charmed eye discerned a symmetrical line of doors on the right hand and on the left. . . .  At the sound of a clock every door gently opened. Hoary and serene-looking old men, men of precocious maturity, young men in whom penance and youth had formed a type of beauty unknown to the world, every age of life here appeared wearing the same garb.”16

Conclusion

This quick overview allows us to see that the role of meekness is vast and universal in the domain of the spiritual life. This virtue puts into play the multifarious powers of nature and of grace. It forms and tempers true character, since the saint who was both the master and the model of meekness and the hero of strength could say: All meekness is strength, as all anger is weakness.

Thus Moses by his great meekness merited that God appear to him,17 the meek who imitate Him become in appearance like Christ Jesus, like the revelation of His beauty: “The goodness and kindness of God our Savior appeared.” (Titus 3:4) They are, so to speak, the beauty of grace which passes through the world; somehow, they are the charm and attractiveness of the Savior Himself.

This is why Jesus said: “Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land.” (Matt. 5:4)

But these meek, the conquerors of the world, these heroes to whom are reserved the true victory, are also the humble, as an upcoming article will attempt to demonstrate.


1   See St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul, 1st Strophe:

On one dark night
With longings, inflamed in love,
–-oh, happy chance!–-
I went out unobserved,
My house being now calm [estando ya mi casa sosegada].

2   St. Augustine, The City of God, XIX.13 (PL, XLI, 640): “The peace of the body then consists in the duly proportioned arrangement of its parts. The peace of the irrational soul is the harmonious repose of the appetites, and that of the rational soul the harmony of knowledge and action. The peace of body and soul is the well-ordered and harmonious life and health of the living creature. Peace between man and God is the well-ordered obedience of faith to eternal law. Peace between man and man is well-ordered concord. Domestic peace is the well-ordered concord between those of the family who rule and those who obey. Civil peace is a similar concord among the citizens. The peace of the celestial city is the perfectly ordered and harmonious enjoyment of God, and of one another in God. The peace of all things is the tranquility of order. Order is the distribution which allots things equal and unequal, each to its own place. And hence, though the miserable, in so far as they are such, do certainly not enjoy peace, but are severed from that tranquility of order in which there is no disturbance, nevertheless, inasmuch as they are deservedly and justly miserable, they are by their very misery connected with order. They are not, indeed, conjoined with the blessed, but they are disjoined from them by the law of order.”

3   See St. Thomas, ST, IIa–IIae, q. 157, a. 4, ad 1: “Meekness disposes man to the knowledge of God, by removing an obstacle; and this in two ways. First, because it makes man self-possessed by mitigating his anger, as stated above; second, because it pertains to meekness that a man does not contradict the words of truth, which many do through being disturbed by anger.”

4   See André Jean Marie Hamon, Vie de Saint François de Sales, Éveque et Prince de Genéve, ed. by M. Gontheir and M. Letourneau, revised ed., 2 vols (Paris: Victor Lecoffre, 1917) vol. II, 509. Hereafter, The Life of St. Francis de Sales.

5   Ibid. He was speaking of St. Francis de Sales.

6   St. Thomas, ST, IIa–IIae, q. 57, a. 3, ad 1um.

7   Hamon, The Life of St. Francis de Sales, vol. II, 523.

9   See St. Thomas, ST, IIa–IIae, q. 157, a. 3, ad 3um: “But that a man who takes pleasure in the punishment of others is said to be of unsound mind, is because he seems on this account to be devoid of the humane feeling which gives rise to clemency.”

10   Jean Goulu (Dom Jean de Saint-François), La vie bienheureuse de Monsieur François de Sales, 2nd ed. (Paris: Jean de Heuqueville, 1625) 468.

11   Hamon, The Life of St. Francis de Sales, vol. II, 529.

12   St. Hilary of Poitiers, In Matt., IV, 3 (PL, IX, 932).

13   Hamon, The Life of St. Francis de Sales, vol. II, 509–509. Hugon’s quote has a slightly different sense than the 1917 edition of Hamon, which has “caused by [déterminée dans]”; Hugon’s quote reads, at the end: “. . . which was not soaked in [détrempée dans] the meekness of Our Lord.”

14   Ibid.

15   St. Thérèse of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul, trans. by T. N. Taylor (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1912) 150.

16   Lacordaire, The Life of St. Dominic, ch. 8 (E. Hazeland translation).

17   See Dionysius the Areopagite, Letter VIII to Demophilius, Therapeutes (PG, III, 1083): “Holy, distinguished Moses was deemed worthy of the Divine manifestation on account of his great meekness.”

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