Abelly: Book 3/Chapter 12
Charity reaches its perfection," Blessed Francis de Sales said, "when it is not only patient, but mild and good mannered." Meekness is like the flower of this divine virtue. It reveals its excellence with the more difficulty it has in repressing the outbursts of nature, often under the guise of zeal, which would give greater freedom to the passions.
Monsieur Vincent was by temperament a bilious character. His spirit was lively, and therefore given to anger. He had so dominated this passion by the help of grace, and by the practice of its opposite virtue, meekness, that not only did he not offend, but he seemed not even to feel the first movements of anger. While he was in the household of the wife of the general of the galley, as he himself mentioned to a confidant, he sometimes showed his bilious and melancholic temperament. This caused this good lady to wonder if perhaps there was something in the house which displeased him. It became apparent later that God was calling him to live in community where he would be dealing with all sorts of diverse personalities. "I addressed myself to God," he said, "to beg him earnestly to change this curt and forbidding disposition of mine for a meek and benign one. By the grace of our Lord and with some effort on my part to repress the outbursts of passion, I was able to get rid of my black disposition."
Monsieur Vincent never spoke of himself unless he thought it necessary to do so, or if it would help the edification of those with whom he conversed. His humility was such that even in these cases he would later beg pardon for having spoken in this way, for fear of having scandalized his hearers.
Monsieur Vincent has told us how, with the grace of God, he was able to acquire this virtue of meekness, even though it was not natural to him. He earned it by his prayer to God and by practice. Once, speaking to his community he said:
- "Sometimes we see persons who seem to be gifted with great meekness, a feature of their natural disposition. This, however, is not the Christian virtue of meekness, whose proper role is the suppression of the opposite vice. A chaste person is not one who never experiences the urgings of lust, but one who resists them when they occur. We have an example right in our own community of a most truly meek person, Monsieur N. I don't hesitate to say it for he is not present. You are aware that his natural disposition is dry and laconic. You may judge for yourself if there are two people in the whole world more crude and surly than he and I! Yet this man has so conquered himself that he has become more than he is. And how is that? It is the virtue of meekness, at which he has worked so hard, while miserable me, I have remained dry as a thorn. Gentlemen, please do not let your eyes rest on the bad example I give, but rather I exhort you (to use the words of the apostle) to walk worthily in all meekness and good manners in the vocation to which God has called you. <Ftn: Eph 4:1. CED XI:64-65.> "
It is not enough to have acquired a virtue. It must be preserved and cultivated. The virtue must be practiced often in real situations. This faithful servant of God did this, for, before instructing others, he always put his lessons into practice himself. We give here an abridgement of the advice he gave on this matter, and which he himself had already observed.
In order not to be surprised by those occasions when we might offend against this virtue of meekness, we must first foresee situations which might arouse our anger. We then can prepare our hearts in advance the acts of meekness we want to practice.
Second, we must detest the vice of anger, seeing that it displeases God. Yet even here we must not get annoyed nor angry with ourselves if we are subject to this vice. We must hate this vice, and love the opposite virtue, not because we are unhappy with ourselves but solely for the love of God. He is pleased by this virtue and displeased by this vice. If we act this way, the sorrow we feel for faults committed against this virtue will be calm and peaceful.
Third, when we the passion of anger moves us, we must not act or speak, or even decide anything, until the passion has passed. What we do in anger is not fully controlled by reason, for passion troubles and obscures this faculty. Even if later what we do seems right, it will never be perfect.
Fourth, when we feel angry we must make an effort to ensure that no trace of this emotion appears on our face, which is the image of the soul. Rather, an expression of Christian meekness should appear. This is not against simplicity, for we do this not to appear other than what we are. We are to act through the sincere desire that the virtue of meekness, which resides in the superior part of the soul, appear in our features, on our tongue, and in our exterior actions, to please God and the neighbor for the love of God.
Lastly, in the fifth place, we must above all be careful to restrain the tongue. Despite the storm of anger and all the sentiments of zeal we may think we have, we must use kind and agreeable language if we are to gain others to God. Sometimes it takes only a soft word to convert a hardened sinner, and on the contrary, a harsh word can upset a soul, and can cause it endless sufferings. <Ftn: CED XI:66-67.>
In this connection he recalled that on only three occasions did he use harsh words in reprimanding others, believing he had good reason to do so. But each time he regretted having done so, for it proved not to be helpful. On the contrary, he never failed to obtain what he sought when he acted with kindness.
There is a big difference between true and false meekness. Meekness which is so only in appearance is soft, cowardly, and indulgent. True meekness is not foreign to firmness in doing good. It is always a part of it, for true virtues are all interrelated. On this subject Monsieur Vincent said:
- "No one is more constant or more firm in the good than the person who is meek and well-mannered. On the contrary, those given to anger and the passion of the irascible appetite are usually most inconstant, for they act by fits and starts. They are like raging torrents which have power only when bursting down the stream, but quiet down as soon as the flow of water stops. Rivers represent milder persons, without noise or show, flowing on without pause. <Ftn: CED XI:65.> One of his favorite maxims was attigit a fine ad finem fortiter, et disponit omnia suaviter ["She reaches from end to end mightily and governs all things well"]. <Ftn: Wis 8:1.> To accomplish our end we must remain firm, yet all must be done with gentleness. He recalled the example of Blessed Francis de Sales, bishop of Geneva, who he said "was the meekest and gentlest person I have ever met. The very first time I saw him, I saw from the outset that his expression, his way of speaking and conversing with others was an expression of the meekness of our Lord Jesus Christ who had taken possession of his heart."
We could say in truth that Monsieur Vincent profited well from the example of the blessed prelate. Like him, he conveyed at first encounter a mildness and marvelous affability, and the most respectful language towards all classes of people.
One day he said to his community:
- "We have great need of affability because by our vocation we must often talk with one another and with our neighbor. What contributes to the difficulty of such conversation is that we come from such diverse backgrounds, in our place of origin, our temperament, and our dispositions. Dealing with our neighbor we will have much to put up with. Yet affability will ease the problems, for it is like the soul of good conversation. Affability will make it not only useful, but agreeable as well. Affability will help us converse with pleasure, with mutual respect for all. As charity is the virtue which unites us as members of the one body, affability is the virtue which perfects that union. <Ftn: CED XI:68.>"
He recommended that this virtue be particularly observed in dealing with the poor country people. Otherwise, they will pull back, and fear to deal with us, thinking us too severe or too lordly for them. When they are treated affably and cordially, they feel otherwise, and are better disposed to profit from the good we seek to do for them. Since God has destined us to serve them, we must do so in a way that is most helpful, and therefore treat them with great affability. Each of us should take the words of the wise man in Scripture as addressed to ourselves: Congregationi pauperum affabilem te facito, "make yourself agreeable to the assembly of the poor." <Ftn: Sir 4:7. CED XI:68-69.>
Although Monsieur Vincent was most affable in his speech, he was in no way a flatterer. On the contrary, he strongly opposed those who used such speech to insinuate themselves into the good graces of others. He said once to his community: "Be affable, but never a flatterer. Nothing is worse or more unworthy of a Christian than flattery. A truly virtuous man holds nothing in such horror as this particular vice."
Another maxim concerning this virtue of his, was that we must never dispute with others, even when trying to convert the most vicious. He wanted only mild and affable language to be used, as prudence and charity demanded. Acting on this principle he forbade his priests to enter into debates and disputes when it was a question of meeting with heretics, for he believed they were more influenced by mild and amicable words. He reported on a trip he had once made to Beauvais, when he had converted three heretics he had met. His mild manner contributed more to their conversion than anything else in their conversation. He said:
- "When we argue, it becomes obvious that our effort is designed to gain the upper hand over our opponent. This is why he prepares a resistance rather than a recognition of the truth. In this sort of debate, rather than finding a way to his mind, we ordinarily succeed in having him close the door of his heart to us. Mildness and affability, however, would have opened it. We have a good example of this in Blessed Francis de Sales, who though well versed in controversy, converted heretics by his kindness and not by his teaching. On this subject, Cardinal du Perron used to say that he worked hard at convincing the heretics of their error, but the bishop of Geneva alone converted them. <Ftn: Jacques Davy du Perron, died 1618.>"
Recall the words of Saint Paul to the great missionary, Saint Timothy: Servum Domini non oportet litigare. <Ftn: 2 Tim 2:24.> A servant of Jesus Christ ought not enter into controversies and disputes. I can tell you frankly, I have never seen or heard of a single heretic converted by the force of a debate or a subtle argument, but only by the kindness he had experienced. This virtue alone has enough strength to gain men back to God. <Ftn: CED XI:65-66.>
The kindness of Monsieur Vincent was most evident in the corrections or admonitions he was obliged to make from time to time. He acted with such moderation and meekness and spoke so graciously but effectively, that the hardest hearts were softened. They could hardly resist the strength of his meekness. We will give here only a single example to show not only his kindness but also the prudence of the wise and charitable superior when he had to reprove one of his own. On one occasion he heard that a priest of the Congregation was not applying himself well to the work of the mission, even though he was capable of doing so. Also, when he did preach, he was rude to the poor people in church.
Monsieur Vincent wrote him a letter exhorting him to be committed to the work and more gentle towards the poor people before him. He did so in a manner that was kindly, prudent, yet energetic, with no show of personal displeasure, or hint of who had raised the question of his failings.
I write to you to ask for news, and to give you news from here. How are things going with you after all your work? How many missions have you given? Do you find the people well disposed to follow the exercises and to draw from them the fruit we hope for? I shall be much obliged if you inform me about on these matters.
I am in good contact with other houses of the Congregation. They all report that they have great success, thanks be to God. They don't quite reach the example of Monsieur N., who has been working in his mission only nine months, but who works without ceasing. It is a marvelous thing to see the strength God gives him and the extraordinary good he does, as I hear from all sides. The vicars general have written to me, others have either told me or have written, and even neighboring religious have written. The happy success he has had is attributed largely to the care he uses to speak to these poor people with mildness and kindness. It had made me resolve more than ever to recommend to the entire Congregation to be committed more and more to these two virtues. If God has blessed our first missions we may say that it is because we have acted amiably, humbly, and sincerely towards all sorts of persons. It has pleased God to use the most miserable members of all in our Congregation for the conversion of several heretics. They themselves stated that because of the patience and cordiality shown them they were moved to return to the Church.
The convicts among whom I lived reacted the same way. When I spoke to them impersonally I spoiled everything. On the other hand, I began to praise them for their resignation, sympathize with their sufferings, and pointed out how fortunate they were to be making their purgatory in this life. I also kissed their chains, shared their sorrows, and spoke against their bad treatment. After that, they began to listen to me, give glory to God, and enter upon the road of salvation. Monsieur, please join me in thanking God for this. Let us ask him to give all our missionaries this custom of treating our neighbor kindly, humbly, and charitably, both in public and in private, even hardened sinners, without ever using invectives, reproaches, or crude language against anyone. I have no doubt, Monsieur, that you will strive to avoid this unfortunate way of serving souls. It tends merely to annoy them and drive them away, rather than attracting them to you. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the meek master of men and of angels. By the practice of this same virtue you will go to him and bring others to him as well. <Ftn: CED IV:52-53.>