Cultivating Gentleness

By Fr Joe Lucey SDB

St Francis de Sales is often referred to as the Apostle of Gentleness. In fact it is this quality of Gentleness which was one of the main factors which led John Bosco to chose Francis as his model and years later to chose him as the Patron of his new congregation, the Salesians, followers of de Sales. Francis himself wrote much about gentleness. For him it was not something soft, nor was it an easy option. He used to say: “There is nothing as strong as gentleness, nothing as gentle as real strength”.


But why is it that we can often find it difficult to be gentle? What is going on within us, when we find ourselves caught up in a fire or passion which leads us to be anything but gentle with those around us? One of the emotions, or set of emotions which hinders us from being gentle relates to our anger. To a large extent, a central task in the cultivating of gentleness, involves identifying and attending to our anger.

It is not always easy for us to admit that we are angry people. Often our anger is something we are ashamed of, something we prefer to hide. We don’t like the way we are when we get angry. Usually our anger has a focus. We might be angry with a person we are close to, angry with an employer, a colleague, a member of our family. We might also be angry with an institution, an organisation, a government, a law. We may also be angry with ourselves. This self-directed anger often presents itself in the form of depression. At other times our anger may not have any clear focus, we might feel angry with life, with the way things have generally turned out for us. We may live in such a way that there is a passive or seething anger there in the background of our lives, not always finding appropriate expression.


In a very simple way, but in a way which seems to ring true for our lives, what is common to all our angers is that they come from places of hurt deep within us. My anger is like an energy which is festering away, seeping out from an inner wound which has not yet found healing. My anger is like my inner wounded self, crying out for help.


The Vietnamese monk, Venerable Thich Nhat Hahn, uses a very simple image to help us identify and attend to our anger. In so doing he also assists us in cultivating gentleness in our lives. The image is of a mother who responds to the crying of her little son. When the mother hears her little one crying, she instinctively reaches out and holds her son in her arms, to comfort him and reassure him, that she is near, and that things are going to be alright. As the little one’s tears begin to ease, and the sobbing is less intense, the mother then asks her son: “What is the matter? What happened to you? Where are you hurting?”, and the little boy is then able to point to the sore, or tell his mother where he is hurting, how he is frightened, or what has caused his upset. She is then able to attend to the source of the pain, washing and dressing the wound, kissing it with healing and with reassuring hope.


There are two stages in the mother’s response and these are the same two stages or movements which we can also employ in responding to our experience of our anger.  First we need to hold ourselves tenderly. When I am angry I need to go to a quiet place as soon as I can, and simply hold myself in my anger recognising that this anger is coming from a wound which festers deep within me. I need to be gentle with myself here, not scolding myself or punishing myself for the fact that I am angry. After a while, as the intensity of the emotion begins to ease, I need, like the mother, to listen deeply to my anger, listen deeply to the hurt which is underlying my pain. Sometimes, I may need the help of another, to talk things over, in order to really identify where this anger is coming from, or why there is such intensity to its expression. But essentially, I need to listen deep within, with great gentleness and tenderness, attending to my anger, to my wounded self, as a mother would attend to her hurting child.

By spending time identifying and attending to my anger, I will find I am growing in strength, in the inner strength of gentleness, gentleness not just with myself, but with all those others, who also share this fragile and beautiful life.