The story reminds us that gentleness untangles hearts and minds and that taking people by storm creates fear, anger and isolation. That at least was Don Bosco's view. He reminded his youth workers that more could be achieved with a spoonful of honey than with a barrel full of vinegar. He was using an image from his inspirational patron, St Francis de Sales whose feast day is January 24th.
Gentleness was one of St Francis' major insights into spiritual life and an attitude that left no room for the hard-hearted and punitive images of God that still haunt the church despite the words and example of a gentle and humble Jesus. Francis was working in the post reformation period of church history and had to manage the tensions between protestants and catholics in Geneva. Exiled from his own town and surrounded by the anger of the cathedral chapter many wanted to start a full scale military attack to re-take Geneva. In the discussion Francis said this:
I propose neither steel or powder; nor will I levy an army of mercenaries with no faith or piety. . . . It is by charity that the walls of Geneva will be breached, by love the city will be invaded, by kindness it will be won over.
This gentleness will have been viewed by many as naive but it reminds us now of the work of Mahatma Gandhi and the words of Don Bosco who spoke about a young person's heart being a fortress that will only be opened up by loving kindness. The same could be said of every friendship, marriage, family and community. Only love is worthy of ultimate belief and only love can open up, energise and heal what has been broken or stunted in its growth.
Gentleness disarms, leaves people free, reassures, waits, hopes and believes in the goodness of others. That is the real profile of the God we see in the Gospels; The Father of whom Jesus spoke and The Spirit that heals and inspires. Whenever you find a God who is not gentle, forgiving, optimistic and patient you will have found a false idol.That is what many young people have discovered in our church and they are right to reject it.
A God who judges, places impossible burdens on young lives, condemns whole groups because of their orientation and excludes groups from full communion projects an image of God that no one has a right to bow down to. We need to think again as a church about the primacy of loving kindness and use that to keep our fearful voices and narrow minds in a wider embrace of God's gentleness. Especially on this feast of God's gentleman saint.