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Breaking Open the Ordinary

Sandy Prather



“When you encounter difficulties and contradictions, do not try to break them, but bend them with gentleness and time.” — Saint Francis de Sales

It’s that time of year once again when the biggest decision you have to make before going out for walk is what kind of jacket to wear. It’s spring and the warmer temperatures beguile one into thinking that maybe just a windbreaker will do. But I have learned that chilly winds often belie the bright sunshine and so I most often choose discretion over valour and wear a sweater and a jacket, layering my clothes and even donning gloves and a scarf.

The other day found me stripping off those various layers of clothing as I walked through the neighbourhood. Off with the gloves, then the scarf and, as the bright sun continued to warm me, the windbreaker and eventually the sweater followed. As I was tying my jacket around my waist, I ruefully remembered Aesop’s wonderful fable about the North Wind and the Sun. I was experiencing the truth of it as I walked.

The fable, in case you don’t remember it, goes like this:

The North Wind and the Sun were arguing about which of them was stronger when they noticed below them a traveller passing along the road wrapped in a cloak. “Let us agree,” said the Sun, “that the stronger of us is the one who can strip that traveller of his cloak.” The North Wind agreed and, leaping into action, immediately sent a cold, howling blast against the traveller.

With the first gust of wind the ends of the cloak whipped about the traveller’s body. But he quickly wrapped it more closely around him, and the harder the North Wind blew, the tighter the traveller held his cloak, making the North Wind’s efforts unsuccessful.

Then the Sun began to shine. At first his beams were gentle and in the pleasant warmth the traveller unfastened his cloak. The Sun’s rays grew warmer and the traveller took off his cap and mopped his brow. At last he became so heated that he pulled off his cloak, and, to escape the blazing sunshine, threw himself down in the welcome shade of a tree by the roadside.

While the fable might not have much traction these days as a morality tale for children, we know its truth. We have all been that traveller hunkering down and pulling coats and scarves about us as the wind howls and blows. And we’ve all done the opposite: stripped those layers off as we’ve basked in the warmth of the sun.

What happens physically is mirrored with spirit. Who of us has not stiffened and become more fiercely intransigent, clinging to opinions and habits when faced with harshness, criticism and withering instructions? Equally, when approached with gentleness, acceptance and kindness, do we not find our spirits expanding, softening and becoming more amenable?

Walking in the warmth, recalling the fable, I examine my own heart. It can be, I realize, harsh and angry. Faced with difficulties and contradictions in my relationships with others, my temptation is to rail against them, trying to bring about change by sheer force of will. It is often only with effort and a sober second thought that I am able to let go of the severity that grips me in order to approach the other with gentleness.

It is the approach that both wisdom and my faith call me to take. Gentleness and persuasion are indeed the very means that God uses to call us to God’s self. Isaiah describes a Messiah “who will not break the bruised reed” or “snuff out the smouldering wick.” Jesus describes himself as “gentle and humble of heart,” and his approach to people, especially sinners, is always one of compassion and tenderness, even in the face of their weaknesses and limitations.

We have been guilty as a church, however, of abandoning this language of tenderness. Pope Francis, in declaring a Year of Mercy, has decried the anger and severity that marks too much of the church’s discourse. Such harshness, he points out, is a distortion of the God whom Jesus calls “Abba,” and inimical to bringing people to conversion. Warmth, not severity, should mark the follower of Christ: “Let your gentleness be evident to all (Phil 4:5),” St. Paul writes, and it is a challenge for us all.

To the follower of Christ, the way is clear. Gentle persuasion is always more effective than harshness. Years ago, Eugene de Mazenod, writing to one of his Oblate priests, urged him to use kindness rather than severity in his approach to people, citing the following reasoning: “The human heart is made this way; God himself does not enter it by force but knocks at the door: ‘Open your heart to me, my child.’ (St. Eugene de Mazenod, Letter to Father Boisrame, September 1858). The lesson of the Sun is indeed the lesson of the Son: choosing gentleness is always the wisest choice.

Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.