A classic Maine nor’easter is blowing outside my window and the snow is falling so rapidly that it’s hard to see across the blueberry field. It’s March 1, and until now the winter has been so mild that it seemed the days would continue to roll calmly onwards into April. The crocus are up, the pussy willows are in bloom, and the robins are back. But March has a trick or two up its sleeve, and today we are rudely dumped back into the depths of winter.
Mildness seems to be the norm this winter. After a freak early snow at the end of October, and another prior to Thanksgiving, the ground has been nearly bare. It even seemed as though my inner world was paralleling the outer, for I’ve been blessed with a spell of inner mildness and harmony. Need I say that this is not usually the case?
The unusual weather, both exterior and interior, has led me to reflect on the nature of mildness and its causes. Most of us, myself included, are frequently tossed and buffeted by inner storms of all kinds. Today we say we are working through “issues”. These can be large or small, and can blow over in a few minutes or hours, or they can last for years.
The early desert fathers and mothers thought that many of these inner storms are caused by the ‘passions’, or negative habits. They realized that these passions generated various negative thoughts, which in turn fed the passions, and made them grow even stronger. Evagrius, one of the desert fathers, codified them into the eight negative thoughts (which later were condensed into the seven deadlysins): gluttony, lust, avarice, sadness, anger, accedia or listlessness, vainglory, and pride. Each of these thoughts, or passions, can throw us into an inner turmoil and away from the peacefulness needed to hear the voice of God speaking deep in our hearts. Paying attention to our inner world and combating these passions helps lead us forward in our life’s journey toward God.
This is an abbreviated version of a very complex ancient understanding of the human psyche, but it helps me understand mildness. According to one recent commentator on Evagrius, mildness is “that virtue of the mighty”. But what can this mean? We have often been told about Jesus ‘meek and mild’. How is it possible to be mighty and mild at the same time?
Remember that the word ‘virtue’ means strength. A virtue is a strength, a positive habit of a person that over time has built up a spiritual muscle. Faith, for instance, while it is also a gift, is also a virtue. We don’t merely receive it passively, we need to work at it. When it gets challenged, as inevitably happens in today’s world, we need to ponder the challenge, and find a response within ourselves, within the teachings of our faith, and most of all, we need to pray about it and ask God’s help. All of this is in contrast to merely allowing ourselves to be swept away by the tide of doubt, skepticism, or despair. As these challenges occur over time, and as we struggle with them, we build up the muscle (or the virtue) of faith.
It is no different with mildness, which is opposed to the quick and easy reaction of anger. Not that anger is evil in itself – it’s not. Evagrius tells us that anger is given us by God to help us contend with all the other negative patterns and thoughts that bubble up within us, and to combat the real injustices of the world. Positively used, anger is a real virtue.
But all too often anger is not a virtue. All too often it is an insidious evil, raging and tearing at us from within. Its causes are legion – things without and things within. Unchecked anger can be horribly destructive. Most of all, it destroys our inner peacefulness. Any of the passions will destroy peace, but one of the worst is anger.
“Prayer is an offspring of meekness and angerlessness,” says Evagrius. He is speaking here about what he calls ‘pure prayer,’ that prayer in which we are simply at peace before the Lord, and able to receive whatever God has to give us. Of course, we can pray at any time, and when we are in the midst of struggling with anger or any of the passions – or when we are grieving, or hurting, or frightened; or when asking for something, or interceding for someone – all of these are prayer as well, and very good prayer too. But it can be hard to hear the Lord, or to receive what God has to give us, when we are filled with emotions or needs or requests, or even just filled with our own endless interior chatter. Pure prayer, contemplative prayer, that offspring of meekness and angerlessness, is what we need to open ourselves to and allow ourselves to receive. We do so by building up our spiritual muscles so as to move away from anger and all the other passions. We do so by practicing virtue, and becoming mighty. We do so out of the strength that allows us to respond to others (and ourselves) with mildness, with peacefulness, and with kindness and compassion.
“O Lord, I love the house where you dwell, the placewhere your glory abides.” So sings the psalmist, and so do we, as we long to enter into the peaceful presence of God. Moving away from anger and from all the other passions, practicing kindness, thoughtfulness and mildness – all these strengths open us up to awareness of God’s presence. Like the weather, the events of life are changeable, various, and unpredictable. Often our emotions follow suit. In the midst of Lent, we are reminded that to be meek and mild like Jesus entails not weakness but the mighty strength that comes from God.