The Meekest Man on the Face of the Earth

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Now, Moses himself was by far the meekest man
on the face of the earth.

Numbers 12: 3

Today’s feast of St. John Vianney and the reading from the Book of Numbers invite a reflection on the inner struggle between the peace of humble self-awareness and the anxiety of envious comparison.

The reading from Numbers begins by describing the envy of Miriam and Aaron. They question the Lord as to what it is that is so distinctive about Moses that he should have this special place of being God’s spokesperson. It appears that the answer to their question lies in the meekness and humility of Moses. Of course, God speaks in diverse ways through all. But Moses, it seems, may of all be most disposed and open to God’s voice within. Perhaps the answer to the question of Miriam and Aaron lies in the very way that they articulate the question. The energy they “waste” in comparison and envy is filling their own vacancy for God. Instead of dwelling within their own original lives, they are dissociating from their own core with worry about how they compare with Moses.

Today is also the feast day of the patron of the diocesan clergy, St. John Vianney. The extraordinary life of this meek and modest country priest had its source in his very ordinariness and limits. Because of his intellectual limits, he had a very difficult time being accepted for ordination. His theology was evidently quite limited and his preaching somewhat simplistic. Yet, he gave himself fully to his call and his people out of those very limits. His lack of intellectual intelligence was balanced by an acute emotional and spiritual intelligence. He possessed, in the words of Robert Ellsberg, “the ability to read souls.” His sanctity and his gift to the world lay in his willingness to recognize in humility his own limits and to give unsparingly of the gifts he had. In this way, he is for us a model of a “vocation loving person.” He lived fully his unique vocation, which was defined both by his limits and by his gifts.

One of the earliest bits of wisdom that our parents taught us was expressed in the opening lyrics to a song: “The grass is always greener in the other person’s yard.” The foundation of the greatness of the most significant figure of the Hebrew Scriptures was that “he was by far the meekest man on the face of the earth.” It is very clear that His meekness was not timidity and self-deprecation. Rather, it was in his recognition and acceptance of who he was in relation to God and God’s call. As Jesus tells Peter in John 21: 22, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!” When we dwell within our own original calling, as expressed in our limits as well as our strengths, and offer ourselves generously, we have no need to worry about what others have or lack. In this way, as we come to the evening of life and are, in the words of St. John of the Cross, “examined in love,” we shall know the peace of having done what we could with what we had been given by God.

Gentleness becomes possible when I begin to experience my life as more than the doing of practical things, more than the attainment of calculated success. This kind of growth can only happen when I say yes to the divine dimension of human existence. This dimension of divine mystery does not float above my daily doings as something ethereal and unreal. It is found in the midst of activities.

Gentle communion with the divine mystery in which all reality is anchored is the heart of real life. Such communion should be of vital concern to anyone who wants to live his everydayness easefully and effectively.

I cannot live gently as long as I put myself—with my pet ideas and projects—in the center. For then I have already overextended myself. I have already done violence to life as it really is. I may need to develop a forceful life style to keep up my enhanced self-importance and to maintain this delusion for others. Any view that focuses exclusively on self is willful and, for the spiritual life, ultimately absurd.  

To become less aggressive, more gentle, I must see the little me within the great landscape of grace and presence within which my short life enfolds. I should not focus exclusively on my worries, desires, interests, and difficulties. I may pay attention to them from time to time, as a passerby would, but not for long. An anxious look at the merely immediate blurs everything else in my picture of reality. I miss the bright clearness of the divine plan and presence from which my life emerges at every moment.

Adrian van Kaam, Spirituality and the Gentle Life, pp. 170- 171.

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