Patricia and I are doing post-Workbook practice this year, starting with a journey through the Manual section on the characteristics of the advanced teachers of God (M-4). So far, it has been a very rewarding journey. To give one example of how it has helped us: The other day, we were deeply impacted by the section’s discussion of the characteristic of “gentleness.” Gentleness, the section told us, is both 1) absolutely essential to the teacher of God’s work, and 2) the only source of true strength. What a radical teaching, especially as we daily face a violent situation in Mexico where, in the world’s normal way of thinking, it seems like gentleness is the last thing that will help us.
Let me expand a little on both of the ideas I mention above. First, gentleness is absolutely essential to the teacher of God’s work, a necessary element of walking the spiritual path. After assuring us that in truth, God’s teachers “can neither harm nor be harmed” (a recognition Jesus had even while on the cross), the section tells us:
No teacher of God but must learn,—and fairly early in his training,—that harmfulness completely obliterates his function from his awareness. It will make him confused, fearful, angry and suspicious. It will make the Holy Spirit’s lessons impossible to learn. Nor can God’s Teacher be heard at all, except by those who realize that harm can actually achieve nothing. No gain can come of it. (M-4.IV.1:8-12)
Second, gentleness is the only source of true strength, however much it may look otherwise. The section continues:
Therefore, God’s teachers are wholly gentle. They need the strength of gentleness, for it is in this that the function of salvation becomes easy. To those who would do harm, it is impossible. To those to whom harm has no meaning, it is merely natural.…Who would choose the weakness that must come from harm in place of the unfailing, all-encompassing and limitless strength of gentleness? The might of God’s teachers lies in their gentleness. (M-4.IV.2:1-4, 7-8)
Wow! What a contrast to the way we normally think. We normally think that doing harm is a bad thing, but that there are some situations where it is an unfortunate necessity. For instance, we think that the way to protect ourselves against those who attack us is to counter-attack in one way or another — to do harm to them. And doing harm to others in “self-defense” is generally regarded as compatible with the spiritual path. For instance, Christianity has the well-known “just war” doctrine, which describes the situations in which fighting a war is “just” — self-defense being one of those situations.
To be gentle in the face of others’ attacks, we tell ourselves, is to be naïve, weak, and even immoral, since gentleness seemingly allows attackers to get away with it. However much we may admire those who are gentle, it seems to us that they are forever doomed to be bugs on the windshield of life. The only way the meek will inherit the earth is if God raises the dead. Respond to attack with gentleness? No, we tell ourselves: Real strength in the face of attacks comes from counter-attack. As the saying goes, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.”
Patricia and I see this attitude every day (and confront its various forms in ourselves) as we observe the situation in Mexico with the drug cartels and the government’s response to them. (Of course, Mexicans are no more violent than anyone else. Americans’ response to Islamic terrorism, for example, is much the same.) Here, we see all around us a living snapshot of the conventional view. The violence of the cartels has been met by the counter-violence of the government. The police and army patrol the streets. It seems that there is no end in sight. On the contrary, it seems to be getting worse.
And most people seem to agree that counter-violence is the only way to stop the violence of the cartels. I’ve talked to taxi drivers who tell me point blank that the narcos should all be killed — period. And even one of Patricia’s relatives, a lovely and kind-hearted woman, said at a family gathering that a certain group of Salvadorean youths who have committed atrocities should be killed because they are not really human, but are just animals. The temptation to respond to harm with more harm is an disease that afflicts us all.
But the Course comes along and says no: harm is completely incompatible with the spiritual life — it completely obliterates the teacher of God’s function from his awareness, and makes the Holy Spirit’s lessons impossible to learn. Harm is not a source of strength at all: on the contrary, the only true strength is “the unfailing, all-encompassing and limitless strength of gentleness.”
Of course, the form that gentleness takes is meant to be guided by the Holy Spirit, and discerning what form it is to take in any given situation is a tricky process. (I recently wrote an article on responding to violence with radical love that discusses this issue in greater depth.) But whatever the form, the content of our hearts as we try to respond helpfully to a situation in which our brothers are doing harm needs to be gentle and completely harmless. As we read early in the Text, we must “cooperate in the effort to become both harmless and helpful, attributes that must go together” (T-4.II.5:5).
So, the day we read that section, Patricia and I made a real effort to practice gentleness and harmlessness. As we’ve been doing, we chose a line from the section to use as a practice line: “The might of God’s teachers lies in their gentleness.” We reminded each other of it throughout the day, and tried to bring that attitude to each interaction as we went through the business of the day, especially when it seemed someone was giving us a reason to get upset and attack in “self-defense.”
Later in the day, we had an opportunity to do a little “response to temptation” practice. As we were walking down the street, we saw a magazine with a photo of notorious Mexican narco Joaquin “el Chapo” Guzmán on the cover. He was pictured with a stern look on his face, aiming a fearsome-looking automatic weapon; the headline below read, “El Chapo: Crime and Power”. He was, in other words, the epitome of “strength” as normally conceived. (Indeed, the narcos are actually admired by certain segments of the population — there are even celebratory songs called “narcocorridos” written about them.) Immediately, I thought of our practice line and said, “The might of God’s teachers lies in their gentleness, not in that gun.”
Patricia bought the magazine to read more about el Chapo (we are learning about the narcos as part of our work), and as we talked about it, we realized that of course we needed to apply that teaching to him as well. We needed to look at him with gentleness and harmlessness in our hearts, not with condemnation. To do anything else would obliterate our function from our awareness, and rob us of the strength we need to fulfill it. Whatever the solution to the problems in Mexico, it can only come from an attitude of gentle and forgiving love for everyone involved, including our brothers the narcos.
As I said, this section on gentleness had a deep impact on us, and has stayed with us as we contemplate daily the work we are called to do, work in which we are being brought face to face with the harm wrought by the absence of gentleness. We dearly hope that we can truly embody this teaching, and discover for ourselves in a deeper and deeper way the might that lies in our gentleness. As we’ve learned from this powerful section, the fulfilling of our mission quite literally depends on it.
[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]