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“Abba, Father”: The Gentleness From Jesus’ Lips

January 12, 2022


 Abba Nilus said, “Prayer is the seed of gentleness and the absence of anger.” 

I gave a retreat a few years ago in which I used the image of the five stones David had when he confronted Goliath with his slingshot. I argued that these stones represented the five virtues St. Paul listed in his Letter to the Colossians: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Col. 3:12). When we remain faithful to prayer, I argued, God equips us with these five supernatural weapons to fight evil, above all to prepare us for that supreme Christian martial art—forgiveness.

I spent most of the retreat unpacking the virtue of gentleness, which is also one of the twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit. I also used Pope Francis’ brilliant TED talk called “Revolution of Tenderness,” in which he invited Christians to courageously confront our violent, calumnious, divided, and angry world with tenderness. He said: 

Tenderness is not weakness; it is fortitude. It is the path of solidarity, the path of humility. Please, allow me to say it loud and clear: The more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people, the more responsible you are to act humbly. If you don’t, your power will ruin you, and you will ruin the other.

My very first spiritual guide, a Trappist monk, once shared what one of the very old monks at his monastery told him when he was a novice: “You’ll always know who the true greats are [here in the monastery]. They show themselves by their gentleness in dealing with others’ faults and failings. It’s the sign their prayer has matured.” I remember asking him, “Why do you think that is?” He said, “Because those who become friends of God discover that gentleness is the truest sign of divine power.” He read Philippians 2:1–11 to me, and encouraged me to memorize it. 

Divine tenderness also makes me think of another story once told by an Orthodox theologian, the late Fr. Tom Hopko. In a public lecture on the cross as the icon of divine humility, he related a wonderful anecdote: 

I heard this once in a talk, how a person was making this point, and they said, “If you go to the Middle East, very often you’ll see a shepherd sitting on an animal, a donkey, and the shepherd will be riding, and he’ll have his little bell, and he’ll have his voice, and the sheep, docilely, will be following, obediently and orderly after the shepherd.” 

So, then, the speaker was making the point: “You see, the shepherd may have a crook, a staff, where he can pull back one of the sheep who’s straying, but he doesn’t beat the sheep. He doesn’t use that staff to hurt them. He uses it to protect them, and to protect them even against wolves and so on, as we’ll see in a second, where the imagery continues. But there is no compulsion. There’s no beating. He doesn’t push them into the pen. They follow him freely.” 

Well, when this man who’s giving this talk was making this point, a person in the audience raised a hand and said, “Hey, wait a minute! I was once in that part of the world and I saw a man forcing, compelling the sheep, the flock, into the pen, pushing them in, beating them in, whacking them across the rear end, making them to go in. What you’re saying isn’t true!” 

And then the speaker said, “Wait a minute. What you saw wasn’t a shepherd. It was the butcher.” I’ll never forget that. The butcher beats the sheep into the pen and then butchers them. The shepherd doesn’t butcher them. He doesn’t beat them. He calls them by name, and they follow him freely. They follow him voluntarily. They are happy to be members of his flock and to follow him.

Once one embraces his manner of loving, God’s unlimited strength evokes not fear but trust. He is the good shepherd whose response from the cross to our butchering was tender mercy.

While I understand why feminist critics of sinful patriarchy sometimes call for the elimination of all masculine nouns and pronouns from religious language, I believe this eliminates the true genius of Jesus’ redemption of language. In his mission of revealing the mystery of God to us through his life, teaching, and Passion, Jesus completely redefined the meaning of the word “Father.” He is the human face of God, revealing how God deals with the violence of human—and especially masculine—cruelty and malice. Naked, stripped of all power, and made utterly vulnerable in his weakness, the Father says to us in his Son on the cross: “I don’t want to hurt you. I want to redeem you, to heal you, to raise you up into my tender love and mercy.”

Growing up, I was surrounded by a lot of things that instilled fear in me. The net effect of this was a transference of my fear onto God. The last thirty-five years of my life have been a journey of relearning from Jesus the meaning of the word “father.” Mostly in my own life of personal prayer, Jesus has rebuilt me as a son, as only he can do. I know of no greater word I can use to describe the beauty of the one who sent Jesus into the world than the Spirit’s cry in our hearts: “Abba! Father!” (Gal. 4:6). This is a beauty, though, full of ineffable gentleness, is a costly one to learn.

I learned this first from that Trappist monk, who set me on this path of redemption. I remember him saying to me: 

Now, when you pray the Our Father, I want you to hear it first on Jesus’ lips. Ask him to speak it to you. When Jesus says “Father,” it’s so different, so new. Only he knows the Father. And remember, he is meek and gentle of heart. Let him teach you, Tom, how to speak to his Father as he does. It will change everything.

 It has. And it has taught me that gentleness is true strength.