Yesterday I wrote about the call of Jesus to take upon ourselves his "yoke." This yoke is described as gentleness and humility (Matthew 11:29). Eugene Peterson's The Message, not a translation but more of a flowing free thought commentary paraphrase, provides this helpful rendereing of this text:
Are you tired? Worn out? Burned our on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.
I am "burned out on religion." Maybe you are as well. What I need is more of Jesus, his gentleness and true humility of heart. I need someone who is imperturbable, a person who can teach me how to become the same over the long haul. I have learned this through "the unforced rhythms of grace." What a beautiful expression of what St. Francois de Sales is talking about in his classic Introduction to the Devout Life.
St. Francois de Sales said these two virtues, humility and meekness, are the "favorite and beloved" virtues of the Lord himself. He adds, "Humility perfects us with respect to God, and meekness with respect to our neighbor."
The cultivation of this meekness of heart helps us precisely because it directly addresses the violence that is natural to our fallen human nature. Msgr. Charles M. Murphy, a retreat leader and former rector of the North American College in Vatican City, writes: "Sometimes in their effort to overcome anger people become angry with themselves for being angry." That is my problem more than I care to admit. St. Francois writes, "So too it often happens that by trying violently to restrain our anger, we stir up more trouble within our heart than wrath existed before and being thus agitated our heart can no longer be its own master." What both writers are saying I have often missed due to the misuse of my more Reformed theological paradigm. I have sought to be meek and gentle toward others but not toward myself. I have rejected the idea of loving myself as flawed and psychological mumbo-jumbo. (It can become this in the hands of pop-writers but I am not advocating this extreme as any fair-minded reader will readily see.) St. Francois is right when he counsels: "We must not fret over our own imperfections."Amen.
Here is the part of St. Francois de Sales' thought that floored me and then lifted me up to new grace and fresh hope. He suggests we should "love" our imperfections. He uses the word "abjections" but what he means is the same as our idea of limitations or imperfections in the modern sense. (In French, "abjections" signifies miserableness or wretchedness.)
Here is where the influence of Puritanism, with its rather harsh condemning sense of the self, especially in regard to the mortification of sin, did not help me in this battle. I loathed my sin (and myself very deeply) thus I could not humbly and meekly accept my imperfections in the right way.
St. Francois is saying that I should love, or delight, in my human limitations, imperfections or "abjections." By such love I can learn true spiritual wisdom. He writes:
There are even faults that involve me in no other ill except abjection. Humility does not require that we should deliberately commit such faults but it does require that we should not disturb ourselves when we have committed them.
Rather than bearing down harshly on myself if I have spoken in anger, or presented myself in the wrong way, as I often find that I do, I should repent before God and then make the best amends that I can make (publicly, if necessary, and privately). Then I should accept the temperament that I have been given by God. In Msgr. Charles M. Murphy's words, "go with it." Yes, go with it. Rest in the Lord and remain calm, unperturbed. Murphy adds: "For someone like St. Francois, who was subject to excessive scrupulousness, this must have come as hard-won wisdom." It comes that way for me too. I am far too introspective and self-loathing in all the wrong ways, ways that do not produce healthy godliness.
St. Augustine wrote, "It is better to deny entrance to just and reasonable anger than to admit it, no matter how small it is. Once let in, it is driven out again only with difficulty." I agree totally. I know that I have been justly angry, but only on a few occasions. Even then anger is a dangerous emotion to deal with over the long term. I do find that it is always better to resist it. St. Francois de Sales adds, "It is better to attempt to find a way to live without anger than to pretend to make a moderate, discreet use of it."
So what is needed in dealing with anger is both humility and meekness but it seems to me that meekness is the greater virtue, at least in terms of calming the anger that burns within us, especially those of us who have a passionate temperament.
What I find stunning in St. Francois's counsel is this matter of loving my abjections. I have, far too late in life, begun to love and live in my areas of brokenness and blindness, areas that seem to remain in me no matter what I do. As I near sixty years of age I am learning to lean into these abjections, not as unwanted limitations but rather as parts of my self life that can be embraced in a healthy way under God's grace and love. I am learning, properly speaking, to love myself as I really am, weak and broken. The modern writer Wendy Wright concludes, "To love our abjections is indeed a sublime spiritual teaching." So it is. And the sooner you embrace it the stronger you will be in dealing with your anger toward others. But even more importantly you will be able to deal with the anger you have toward yourself, an anger that is destructive and unfruitful.