Advent is a time of preparation, a reminder that our whole life is preparation for the coming of Christ. We prepare for our annual celebration of his first coming: by decorating and making cookies, by prayer and perhaps some fasting, by meditating on the mystery we will celebrate in the busy whirl that is Christmas.
We recall, perhaps in the Jesse tree, certainly in the readings from Isaiah and about John the Baptist and Mary, how through all of history God prepared for that first coming.
And we remind ourselves, by our annual observance, that our whole life is a preparation for his final coming, when at last we too shall meet Jesus face to face. Every time we prepare for communion, we prepare for that ultimate communion, on our last day and on the Last Day.
A voice is calling,
“Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness;
Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.
“Let every valley be lifted up,
And every mountain and hill be made low;
And let the rough ground become a plain,
And the rugged terrain a broad valley;
Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
And all flesh will see it together;
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 40).
But a hymn reminds us, “make straight the way for God within.”
All the external preparations point to our internal. How do we prepare the way within?
This Advent I’ve been thinking about meekness. I’ve been thinking about the beatitudes in general for a couple years. A traditional reading notices three kinds:
The first three are about emptying ourselves of obstacles (the purgative way):
Poverty of spirit
The next two are about discovering who God is (the illuminative way):
And the next two (or three) are about becoming one with him (the unitive way):
Pure in heart (who see God)
Peacemakers (called children of God)
(Those who are persecuted for him)
The illuminative way prepares the way for God within – but I’m thinking now especially of clearing the path. Like Mary, we have to become poor with him, to set aside all our earthly distractions. We have to weep with him, setting aside our worldly pleasures and embracing the pain of a fallen world, refusing to flee or cover them up. And we have to become meek with him.
I’m thinking about meekness partly because I recently, finally, discovered Thomas Aquinas’s treatment of meekness.
One way to understand the beatitudes is by their rewards. Blessed are the meek | for they shall inherit the earth. What are the meek? Those who inherit: those who don’t fight for riches, but receive everything from their Father.
Still, what does meekness mean? Thomas points out that Aristotle, that great observer of humanity, discuses the same word used in the Greek text of Matthew: praüs. Aristotle says (in IV Ethics) that praüs, meekness, is moderation of our anger. Thomas sees it as a kind of self-restraint: just as we have to control our desire for food and alcohol and sex, so too our anger.
We can go a step further: clemency is self-restraint in regard to punishment. It is closely related to meekness, but it’s worth noting the difference. Clemency is about our external actions: we need to control ourselves when it comes to acting on our anger. But meekness isn’t just about lashing out. It’s about our interior life. It’s the virtue that moderates our anger itself.
Mercy, we should note, goes a step further: mercy is the desire to help another person in distress. Clemency just doesn’t hurt him; meekness doesn’t feel angry with him; but mercy goes out to help him.
And meekness too is a beatitude, a way of clearing the paths for God to enter into our hearts. I have been pondering Mary’s meekness in the beatitudes. Meekness isn’t everything, but Mary has room in her heart because she is not full of anger, even as they scourge her beloved.
How do we cultivate this meekness? It’s interesting that it’s a virtue, not an action. These days we talk a lot about forgiveness, but two problems. First, forgiveness is darned hard to do. We can say the words, even repeat them internally – but have we really let go of our anger? Second, it’s interesting that forgiveness isn’t in the Summa. Thomas doesn’t think it’s the most helpful category. I think he might be right.
Meekness is a virtue: not a single act, like forgiveness, but a way of being. Virtues are cultivated by practice, by continually restraining our anger – just as you cultivate sobriety by not getting drunk, over and over again.
Meekness is also a fruit of the Spirit, in Galatians 5. (In English, this spot in the list is “humility,” which is of course even greater. But in the Greek and Latin of Galatians, and in the Latin Catechism, it’s meekness. Letting go of our anger, of course, has a lot to do with letting go of our pride: meekness and humility go hand in hand.)
How do we cultivate meekness? By not acting on our anger. And by asking the Holy Spirit to pour his fruits and his gifts into our hearts – by asking, that is, Jesus to take our heart and make it like unto his, by begging Mary, full of grace, to pray for us sinners, that we may be holy as she is, including meek and mild as she is, and so make room in the inn.
How does anger keep Jesus out of your heart? What do you do about it?