Lately I have been contemplating a long sought-after virtue practiced and promoted by the renowned evangelist, St. Francis de Sales, who converted approximately 40,000 people in four years. St. Francis de Sales was a bishop during the Protestant reformation and through his virtue of gentleness of heart drew fallen away Catholics back to their faith like flies to honey.
St. Francis de Sales was a gentle, compassionate man, yet at the same time, a very strong and independent individual filled with zeal for his Catholic faith. The love which burned in the heart of Francis de Sales was “no soft, effeminate love, but a loyal, generous, magnanimous, royal love, like that of the blessed that love so much and never weep” (Pere de la Riviere).
What exactly is this virtue?
When we have gentleness of heart, we model our hearts after the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Gentleness of heart is a virtue based on the Scripture verse: “Come to me all who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart” (Matthew 11.28-29).
Francis believed that in order to imitate Jesus we need to cultivate a “gentle or gracious heart” that is formed from the inside out. The heart is the central core of who a person is, so it is here that our development must begin. Francis frequently reminded his followers to be gentle, first of all with themselves, and not to become upset or discouraged by their failings, but to get back up after they had fallen down.
Do we practice this in our daily lives? Are we gentle with ourselves? Do we care properly for our own physical, spiritual, and emotional needs? Can we forgive ourselves for faults, human weaknesses and sinfulness?
Two years ago, I was feeling disappointed and discouraged with myself when I earned a B on a test in graduate school. I had worked hard, consistently earned A’s, and had high expectations for myself. You don’t have to tell me – I know that I’m a perfectionist, as least as far as my studies go.
My dear husband comforted me and assured me that this was a one-time situation. He reminded me that the weekend I took the test, I had another major project going on. He told me to be gentle with myself. Otherwise, I might have received a lower grade on the next test and dropped out of the program. Fortunately, I followed his advice and went onto get straight A’s in all my courses and earn my Master’s degree.
It’s only when we have learned to be gentle and forgiving with ourselves that we are able to reach out to others with this same tenderness of heart.
Gentleness of heart is the act of being tender and compassionate toward others and opening up our hearts to show forgiveness and mercy to all. Practicing gentleness of heart results in an inner peace in our lives.
One of the gospel passages that I am reminded of when I think of this virtue is Luke’s narrative of the sinful woman who approaches Jesus with an alabaster flask of ointment. She stoops down low as she lets her tears drop onto Jesus’ bare feet and she dries them with her hair. She tenderly anoints his feet.
While the others in the room are seething with anger that this outcast should even be there in the first place, Jesus accepts her and gently responds, “Your sins are forgiven…go in peace.” While the others present are filled with hardness of heart, Jesus’ heart is filled with compassion and tenderness for the woman who approaches him with sorrowful repentance for her sins. His tenderness of heart has created a lasting peace in her heart, which draws her nearer to Him.
By now, you are probably thinking, “Of course this is a wonderful virtue! Who wouldn’t want it? But how can I acquire it?” The two arms of St. Francis of de Sales’ spirituality are prayer and action. I believe that he would initially recommend the path of prayer. Pray for the virtue of gentleness of heart. Read Scriptures and the lives of the saints to find examples of this virtue. Then take action. Emulate your models and put it into practice. Remember to be patient with yourself and pick yourself back up when you fall down. Developing new virtues takes time.
Come, Lord Jesus. Soften my heart and make it like Yours. Help me to be gentle, loving, and forgiving. I place each and every person I interact with in your Sacred Heart which I unite with my own heart. Fill me with the grace to love with Your Heart, so that all may be drawn into an intimate union with You. Amen
Copyright © 2013, Jean Heimann