Hearts of Prayer- Lenten Season
"Blessed Are the Meek, For
They Shall Inherit the Land"
2nd Lenten Sermon
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFMCap, Pontifical Household Preacher
March 16, 2007
1. Who are the meek?
The beatitude on which we wish to meditate today lends itself to an
important observation. It says: "Blessed are the meek for they shall
inherit the land." Now, in another passage of the same Gospel, Jesus
exclaims: "Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart"
(Matthew 11:29). We conclude from this that the beatitudes are not a
nice ethical program traced by the master for his followers; they
are a self-portrait of Jesus! Jesus is the one who is truly poor,
meek, pure of heart, persecuted for the sake of justice.
Here is the limitation of Gandhi's interpretation of the Sermon on
the Mount, which he so much admired. For Gandhi the whole sermon
might have just as well been considered apart from the historical
person of Christ. "It does not matter to me," he once said, "if
someone demonstrated that the man Jesus never lived and that what we
read in the Gospels is nothing more than a production of the
author's imagination. The Sermon on the Mount will always remain
true in my eyes."
On the contrary, it is the person and life of Christ that make of
the beatitudes and the whole Sermon on the Mount something more than
a beautiful ethical utopia; they make of them an historical reality,
from which everyone can draw strength through mystical union with
the person of the Savior. They do not merely belong to the order of
duties but to the order of grace.
To see who the meek whom Jesus proclaims "blessed" are, it would be
helpful to briefly review the various terms with which the word
"meek" ("praeis") is rendered in modern translations: "meek" ("miti")
and "mild" ("mansueti"). The latter is also the word used in the
Spanish translations, "los mansos," the mild. In French the word is
translated with "doux," literally "the sweet," those who have the
virtue of sweetness. (There is no specific word in French for
"meekness"; in the "Dictionnaire de spiritualité," this virtue is
treated in the entry "douceur," that is, "sweetness.")
In German, different translations alternate. Luther translated the
term with "Sanftmütigen," that is, "meek," "sweet"; in the
ecumenical translation of the Bible, the "Einheits Bibel," the meek
are those who do not act violently -- "die Keine Gewalt anwenden --
thus the non-violent; some authors accentuate the objective and
sociological dimension and translate "praeis" with "machtlosen,"
"the weak," "those without power." English usually renders "praeis"
with "the gentle," introducing the nuance of niceness and courtesy
into the beatitude.
Each of these translations highlights a true but partial component
of the beatitude. If we want to get an idea of the original richness
of the Gospel term it is necessary to keep all the elements together
and to not isolate any. Two regular associations, in the Bible and
in ancient Christian exhortation, help us to grasp the "full
meaning" of meekness: one is the linking of meekness and humility
and the other is the linking of meekness and patience; the one
highlights the interior dispositions from which meekness flows, the
other the attitudes that meekness causes us to have toward our
neighbor: affability, sweetness, kindness. These are the same traits
that the Apostle emphasizes when speaking about charity: "Charity is
patient, it is kind, it is not disrespectful, it is not angry." (1
2. Jesus, the meek
If the beatitudes are a self-portrait of Christ, the first thing to
do in commenting on them is to see how they were lived by him. The
Gospels are from beginning to end a demonstration of the meekness of
Christ in its dual aspect of humility and patience. Jesus himself,
we pointed out, proposes himself as the model of meekness. Matthew
applies to Jesus the saying of the Servant of God in Isaiah: "He
will no wrangle or cry out, he will not break a bruised reed nor
quench a smoldering wick" (cf. Mark 12:19-20). His entrance into
Jerusalem on the back of a donkey is seen as an example of a "meek"
king who refuses all ideas of violence and war (cf. Matthew 21:4).
The maximum proof of Christ's meekness is in his passion. There is
no wrath, there are no threats: "When he was reviled he did not
revile in return, when he suffered, he did not threaten" (1 Peter
2:23). This trait of the person of Christ was so stamped in the
memory of his disciples that Paul, wanting to swear by something
dear and sacred in his second letter to the Corinthians writes: "I
entreat you by the meekness ("prautes") and the gentleness ("epiekeia")
of Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:1).
But Jesus did much more than give us an example of heroic meekness
and patience; he made of meekness and nonviolence the true sign of
greatness. This will no longer mean holding oneself alone above,
above the crowd, but to humble oneself to serve and elevate others.
On the cross, St. Augustine says, the true victory does not consist
in making victims of others but in making oneself a victim: "Victor
Nietzsche, we know, was opposed to this vision, calling it "slave
morality," suggested by a natural "resentment" of the weak toward
the strong. According to him, in preaching humility and meekness,
making oneself small, turning the other cheek, Christianity
introduced a type of cancer into humanity which destroyed its élan
and mortified life. In the introduction to "Thus Spake Zarathustra,"
Nietzsche's sister summarized the philosopher's thought in this way:
"He believes that, on account of the resentment of a weak and
falsified Christianity, all that was beautiful, strong, superior,
powerful -- like the virtues that come from strength -- was
proscribed and banned and thus the forces that promote and exalt
life were diminished. But now a new table of values must be given to
humanity, that is, the man who is strong, powerful, magnificent to
excess, the 'superman,' which is presented to us with great passion
as the goal of our life, our will, our hope."
For some time we have been witnessing this attempt to absolve
Nietzsche from every accusation, to domesticate and, in the end,
Christianize him. It is said that at bottom he was not against
Christ, but against Christians who made self-denial an end in
itself, despising life and acting cruelly toward the body. Everyone
has apparently betrayed Nietzsche's true thought, starting with
Hitler. In reality, he would have been the prophet of a new era, the
precursor of postmodernity.
One might say that there has been a lone voice to oppose himself to
this tendency, the French thinker René Girard. According to him, all
of these efforts have done an injustice, above all to Nietzsche
himself. With a perspicacity unique for his time, Girard got to the
heart of the matter. With Nietzsche we are faced with two absolute
alternatives: paganism or Christianity.
Paganism exalts the sacrifice of the weak for the benefit of the
strong and the advancement of life; Christianity exalts the
sacrifice of the strong for the benefit of the weak. It is hard not
to see an objective connection between Nietzsche's proposal and
Hitler's program of eliminating whole groups of human beings for the
advancement of civilization and the purity of the race.
Nietzsche does not just target Christianity, but Christ. "Dionysus
against the Crucified: this is the antithesis," he exclaimed in one
Girard shows that one of the greatest boasts of modern society --
concern for victims, taking the side of the weak and oppressed, the
defense of the life that is threatened -- is in truth a direct
product of the revolution brought by the Gospel. However, by a
paradoxical play of imitative rivalries, these values have been
claimed by other movements as their own achievement and this
precisely in opposition to Christianity.
In the previous meditation I spoke about the social relevance of the
beatitudes. The beatitude of the meek is perhaps the clearest
example, but what is said of it is valid for all the beatitudes.
They are the manifesto of the new greatness, the way of Christ to
self-realization, to happiness.
It is not true that the Gospel kills the desire to do great things
and to esteem. Jesus says: "If someone wants to be first, he must
become the least of all and the servant of all" (Mark 9:35). The
desire to be first is thus legitimate, indeed it is recommended; it
is only that the way to first place has changed: It is not reached
by raising ourselves up above others, squashing them perhaps if they
are in our way, but by lowering ourselves to raise up others
together with us.
3. Meekness and tolerance
The beatitude of the weak has come to be extraordinarily relevant in
the debate about religion and violence that was ignited following
the events of 9/11. It reminds us Christians, above all, that the
Gospel leaves no room for doubt. There are no exhortations to
nonviolence mixed with contrary exhortations. Christians may, at
certain times, distance themselves from it, but the Gospel is clear
and the Church can return to it always and be inspired, knowing that
it will find nothing else there but moral perfection.
The Gospel says that "he who does not believe will be condemned"
(Mark 16:16), but condemned in heaven, not on earth, by God not by
men. "When they persecute you in one city," Jesus says, "flee to
another" (Matthew 10:23); he does not say: "Fight back." Once two of
his disciples, James and John, who were not welcomed in a certain
Samaritan village, said to Jesus: "Lord, do you want us to call down
fire from heaven upon them to consume them?" Jesus, it is written,
"turned and reproved them." Many manuscripts also report the tenor
of the reproof: "You do not know of which spirit you are. The Son of
Man did not come to lose the souls of men but to save them" (cf.
The famous "compelle intrare," "constrain them to enter," with which
St. Augustine, even if with a heavy heart , justifies his
approval of the imperial laws against the Donatists, and which will
be used afterward to justify the coercion of heretics, stems from an
obvious forcing of the Gospel text, fruit of a mechanical literal
reading of the Bible.
Jesus puts the line in the mouth of a man who had prepared a great
feast and, faced with the refusal of those invited to come, he tells
his servants to go out into the highways and hedges and "force the
poor, the feeble, the blind, and the lame to come" (cf. Luke
14:15-24). It is clear from the context that "force" does not mean
anything other than a friendly insistence. The poor and the feeble,
as all the unfortunate, might feel embarrassed to come to the house:
Wear down their resistance, says the master, and tell them to not be
afraid to come. How often we ourselves have said in similar
circumstances: "I was forced to accept," knowing that insistence in
these cases is a sign of benevolence and not violence.
In a recent book on Jesus that has had a great deal of attention in
Italy, the following statement is attributed to Jesus: "And those
enemies of mine who did not want me to become their king, bring them
here and kill them before me" (Luke 19:27) and it is concluded that
it is to statements such as this that "supporters of 'holy war' have
recourse." Now it needs to be said that Luke does not attribute
these words to Jesus, but to the king in the parable, and we know
that all the details of the parable are not supposed to be
transferred to reality, and in any case, they are to be transferred
from the material to the spiritual level.
4. With meekness and respect
But let us leave aside these considerations of an apologetic sort
and try to see what light the beatitude of the meek can shed on our
Christian life. There is a pastoral application of the beatitude of
the meek that is initiated by the first letter of Peter. It regards
dialogue with the outside world: "Worship the Lord, Christ, in your
hearts, always ready to answer whoever asks you the reason for the
hope in you. But let this be done with meekness ("prautes") and
respect" (1 Peter 3:15-16).
From ancient times there has been two types of apologetics, one that
has its model in Tertullian, and the other that has its model in
Justin; the one aims at winning, the other at convincing. Justin
wrote a "Dialogue with Trypho the Jew," Tertullian (or his disciple)
wrote "Against the Jews." Both of these styles have had their
following in Christian writing (our Giovanni Papini was certainly
closer to Tertullian than to Justin), but today the first style is
preferred of course.
The martyr St. Ignatius of Antioch suggested to the Christians of
his time, in relation to the outside world, this always relevant
attitude: "Faced with their rage, be meek; faced with their
arrogance, be humble."
The promise linked to the beatitude of the meek -- "they will
inherit the land" -- is realized on different levels; there is the
definitive promised land of eternal life, but there is also the land
which is the hearts of men. The meek win confidence, they attract
souls. The saint of meekness and sweetness par excellence, St.
Francis de Sales, often said: "Be as sweet as you can and remember
that more flies are captured by a drop of honey than with a barrel
5. Learn from me
We could remain for a long time on these pastoral applications of
the beatitude of the meek but let us pass to a more personal
application. Jesus says: "Learn from me for I am meek." We might
object: But Jesus himself was not always meek! He said, for example,
not to oppose the evil doer and "to him who strikes you on the right
cheek, turn and give him the other" (Matthew 5:39). However, when
one the guards strikes him on the cheek during the trial before the
Sanhedrin, it is not written that he gave him the other cheek, but
that with calmness he replied: "If I said something wrong, show it
to me; but if I spoke well, why do you strike me?" (John 18:23).
This means that not everything in the Sermon on the Mount should be
understood mechanically in a literal way; Jesus, according to his
style, uses hyperbole and images to better imprint the idea on the
mind of his disciples. In the case of turning the other cheek, for
example, what is important is not the gesture of turning the other
cheek (which might sometimes serve more to provoke a person), but
not responding to violence with violence, but to win with calm.
In this sense, his response to the guard is an example of divine
meekness. To measure its range, it is enough to compare it to the
reaction of his apostle Paul (who was himself a saint) in an
analogous situation. When, during Paul's trial before the Sanhedrin,
the high priest Ananias orders Paul to be struck on the mouth, he
answers: "God will strike you, you whitewashed wall!" (Acts 23:2-3).
Another matter should be clarified. In the same Sermon on the Mount
Jesus says: "He who says to his brother: 'Idiot,' will be subject to
the Sanhedrin; and he who says to him: 'Fool,' will suffer the fire
of Gahenna" (Matthew 5:22). Now on many occasions in the Gospel
Jesus turns to the scribes and the Pharisees, calling them
"hypocrites," "fools" and "blind men" (cf. Matthew 23:17). Jesus
also reproves the disciples, calling them "idiots" and "slow of
heart" (cf. Luke 24:25).
Here the explanation is likewise simple. We need to distinguish
between injury and correction. Jesus condemns the words said with
anger and with the intention of offending the brother, not those
that aim at making one aware of his error and at correcting. A
father who says to his son that he is undisciplined, disobedient,
does not intend to offend him but to correct him. Moses is called by
Scripture "the most mild of all men on earth" (Numbers 12:3), and
yet in Deuteronomy we hear him respond to the rebellious Israel:
"Thus you repay the Lord, you foolish and senseless people?"
Let us take are guide here from St. Augustine. "Love and do what you
will," he says. If you love, whether you correct or not, it will be
from love. Love does no evil to one's neighbor. From the root of
love, as from a good tree, only good fruit can grow.
6. The meek of heart
Thus we arrive on the proper terrain of the beatitude of the meek,
the heart. Jesus says: "Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of
heart." True meekness is decided there. It is from the heart, he
says, that murders, wickedness, calumny come (Mark 7:21-22), as from
the boiling within a volcano come lava, ashes, and fiery stones. The
greatest explosions of violence begin, says St. James, secretly in
"the passions that are stirred up within man" (cf. James 4:1-2).
Just as there is an adultery in the heart, there is also a murder in
the heart: "Whoever hates his own brother," writes John, "is a
murderer" (1 John 3:15).
There is not only the violence of hands, there is also that of
thoughts. Inside of us, if we pay attention, there are almost always
"trials behind closed doors" going on. An anonymous monk has written
pages of great penetration on this theme. He speaks as a monk, but
what he says is not just valid for monasteries; he considers the
example of inferiors in a religious community, but it is plain that
the problem occurs in another way also for superiors.
"Observe," he says, "even for just one day, the course of your
thoughts: You will be surprised by the frequency and the vivacity of
the internal criticisms made with imaginary interlocutors. What is
their typical origin? It is this: The unhappiness with superiors who
do not care for us, do not esteem us, do not understand us; they are
severe, unjust, or too stingy with us or with other 'oppressed
persons.' We are unhappy with our brothers, who are 'without
understanding, hard-bitten, curt, confused, or injurious.… Thus in
our spirit a tribunal is created in which we are the prosecutor,
judge, and jury; we defend and justify ourselves; the absent accused
is condemned. Perhaps we make plans for our vindication or
The desert fathers, not having to fight against external enemies,
made of this interior battle with thoughts (the famous "logismoi")
the benchmark for all spiritual progress. They also worked out a
method for their combat. Our mind, they said, has the capacity to
anticipate the unfolding of a thought, to know, from the beginning,
where it will go: To excuse or condemn a brother, toward our own
glory or the glory of God. "It is the monk's task," said an older
monk, "to see his thoughts from afar" and to bar their way when
they go against charity. The easiest way to do it is say a short
prayer or to bless the person that we are tempted to judge.
Afterward, with a calm mind, we can decide how we should act toward
7. Put on the meekness of Christ
One observation before concluding. By their nature the beatitudes
are oriented toward practice; they call for imitation, they
accentuate the work of man. There is the danger that we will become
discouraged in experiencing an incapacity to put them to practice in
our own lives, and by the great distance between the ideal and the
We must recall to mind what was said at the beginning: The
beatitudes are Jesus' self-portrait. He lived them all and did so in
the highest degree; but -- and this is the good news -- he did not
live them only for himself, but also for all of us. With the
beatitudes we are called not only to imitation, but also to
appropriation. In faith we can draw from the meekness of Christ,
just as we can draw from his purity of heart and every other virtue.
We can pray to have meekness as Augustine prayed to have chastity:
"O God, you have commanded me to be meek; give to me that which you
command and command me to do what you will."
"As the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on the sentiments of
mercy, goodness, humility, mildness ("prautes"), and patience"
(Colossians 3:12), writes the Apostle to the Colossians. Mildness
and meekness are like a robe that Christ merited for us and which,
in faith, we can put on, not to be dispensed from pursuing them but
to help us in their practice. Meekness ("prautes") is placed by Paul
among the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23), that is, among the
qualities that the believer manifests in his life when he receives
the Spirit of Christ and makes an effort to correspond to the
We can end reciting together with confidence the beautiful
invocation of the litany of the Sacred Heart: "Jesus meek and humble
of heart, make our hearts like yours" ("Jesu, mitis et humilis corde:
fac cor nostrum secundum cor tutum").
* * *
 Gandhi, "Buddismo, Cristianesimo, Islamismo," Rome, Tascabili
Newton Compton, 1993, p. 53.
 St. Augustine, "Confessions," X, 43.
 Introduction to the 1919 edition of "Also sprach Zarathustra."
 Friedrich Nietzsche, "Complete Works," VIII, Frammenti postumi
1888-1889, Milan, Adelphi, 1974, p. 56.
 R. Girard, "Vedo Satana cadere come folgore," Milano, Adelphi,
2001, pp. 211-236.
 St. Augustine, Epistle 93, 5: "Before I was of the opinion that
no one should be forced into the unity of Christ but that we should
only act with words, fight through discussion, and convince with
 Corrado Augias and Mauro Pesce, "Inchiesta su Gesù," Milan,
Mondadori, 2006, p. 52.
 St. Ignatius of Antioch, "Letter to the Ephesians," 10, 2-3.
 St. Augustine, "Commentary on the First Letter of John," 7, 8
(PL 35, 2023).
 A monk, "Le porte del silenzio," Milan, Ancora, 1986, p. 17 (Originale:
"Les porte du silence," Geneva, Libraire Claude Martigny).
 "Detti e fatti dei Padri del deserto," edited by C. Campo and
P. Draghi, Milan, Rusconi, 1979, p. 66.
 Cf. St. Augustine, "Confessions," X, 29.
Raniero Cantalamessa is a Franciscan
Capuchin Catholic Priest. Born in Ascoli Piceno,
Italy, 22 July 1934, ordained priest in 1958.
Divinity Doctor and Doctor in classical literature.
In 1980 he was appointed by Pope John Paul II
Preacher to the Papal Household in which capacity he
still serves, preaching a weekly sermon in Advent
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