First, I must recognize that today is Veteran’s Day. Armistice Day.
I lived in Belgium for a year. This poppy brooch is from Flanders Fields. Every city, every village, has memorials to soldiers and civilians killed in the Great War. In the nature reserve and fields near my home were old craters from explosive shells, softened by time into small ponds. The bucolic landscape, the unassuming people are impossible to reconcile with the No Man’s Land of trench warfare.
I was thanked, as a American, for the role my country played in the conclusion of the war, and for providing flour—food—for a starving population that had been occupied by hostile forces for years. It is a thanks I have not earned, but I accept on behalf of others, many of whose graves are dutifully tended today and throughout the year.
I do not understand the impulse to war. This aggression. The impulse to hurt and control. So much hurt and sorrow. Defense, I can understand. And like Captain Moroni, I would kill to protect my children. But I have not sent them off to die. I don’t know how to do that.
As a student of ancient Greek, I read Xenophon’s Anabasis, about the march of ten thousand Greek mercenaries to the interior of Babylon. Two other famous works by Xenophon are The Art of Horsemanship and The Calvary Commander. In them, Xenophon talks about the selection and training of war horses.
Xenophon uses the adjective “praus” to describe these war horses. These praus animals are tamed, obedient, responsive. They don’t flinch, they fight fiercely, and obey their rider’s every direction. They charge into battle, the noise and fear and blood without hesitation because they are so well-trained. Their natural instincts are bridled; they have been made mild, compliant obedient. But they have not lost any of their strength, even as they submit entirely to the will of their master.
Praus is the word used in Matthew, in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the meek (praus), for they shall inherit the earth.”
Christ’s beatitude here echoes Psalm 37:11: “But the meek shall inherit the land, and enjoy peace and prosperity.”
The same word, praus, the gentle, the meek.
Praus, of horses, means tamed, made mild, bridled. Of people, it means mild, gentle, meek.
Meek, in English, now, means timid, subservient, easily imposed on, submissive, quiet and gentle, yes, and obedient, but also unprotesting, unresisting. We tend, as a society, to not think of meekness as any great virtue. To be meek is to be a doormat, to be walked upon. You don’t stand up for yourself.
But think about it: this word, praus, was used to describe war horses. They were fierce and had lost none of their strength. They were effective tools in the reins of their masters, capable of feats no wild, untrained horse could stand.
With that in mind, I turn to Elder Bednar’s talk.
Meekness is a defining attribute of the Redeemer, and is distinguished by righteous responsiveness, willing submissiveness, and strong self-restraint…Meekness is strong, not weak; active, not passive; courageous, not timid; restrained, not excessive; modest, not self-aggrandizing; and gracious, not brash. A meek person is not easily provoked, pretentious, or overbearing, and readily acknowledges the accomplishments of others.”
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land.
Learn of me, and listen to my words; walk in the meekness of my Spirit, and you shall have peace in me.
The war horse does not choose to go to war. The boys one hundred years ago did not choose the trenches. But meekly, they went.
Canadian Major John McCrae wrote an elegy for his fallen friend:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
This poem was used as a recruitment tool to aid the war effort, to call more boys to fall as fodder to machine gun fire and mustard gas.
Although McCrae is writing in the tradition of Horace (Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori), other poets, Siegfried Sassoon and especially Wilfred Owen, chronicled the horror of these deaths, and the continuing horror that the wounded, disfigured, shell-shocked soldiers carried for the rest of their lives.
They were meek, and strong, but they were still mown down. The earth they inherited was the grave, and their peace, the sleep of death.
Two survivors of the trenches, C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkein, both grappled with this. Perhaps the most poignant treatment of trench warfare is the story of an officer and his batman told through the characters of Frodo and Samwise. Soldiers of meekness, servants, humble heroes.
He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter,
And as a sheep before her shearers is dumb,
So he openeth not his mouth.
Most of us here are not called to the meekness of soldiers, but there are many meek among us who are “oppressed and afflicted” like Isaiah’s suffering servant. Who are “despised and rejected of men, [people] of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” Do we hide, as it were, our faces from them?
Praus. Gentle, biddable, obedient. Strong.
Think now, not of soldiers, but servants, slaves. Those who have no choice, no power. Who must turn the other cheek because they cannot fight back.
We all occupy different positions of power and powerlessness. You may be the head of your household, but the lowest of the low at work.
When I think about Jesus saying, “blessed are the meek,” I think about those who are forced to bear the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the proud man’s contumely. The casual cruelty inflicted by those who have power on those who do not. They take these blows, these insults, and they have the strength to absorb them, to not pass on the pain.
The strength of the meek is that they hold the end to the chain of violence. There is always someone lower than you. When your boss yells at you, do you then take it out on the cashier at the grocery store? The driver on the road? Your child? Do you kick the dog?
The meek may have to submit to indignities, but her strength ist hat she does not subject others to such pain. What can be stronger than that? That “strong self-restraint,” that resistance to provocation?
That, my friends, is how we have peace.
We bury, not just our weapons of war, but we take the anger and injury that lead to it, we absorb it into our broken selves so it does not keep ricocheting through the world, building up into an avalanche of desolation, pain, and damnation.
Instead, we can be meek, we can do “whatsoever is gentle and human.”
Learn of me, and listen to my words. Walk in the meekness of my Spirit, and you shall have peace in me.
I never really gave it much thought, but you can’t be humble without being capable of pride.
You can’t be a saint without having turned from sin.
You can’t be meek without power — that’s just well m weak.
But meek can only describe someonewho refrains from exercising their power.
Else it would be like describing someone who is in a coma as reverent. You can’t be reverent if you don’t have the capability for irreverence.
So you actually have to have power to not be meek, and yet choose otherwise in order to be meek.
I like how this everything in opposition viewpoint can open up a lot of understanding
Thank you, Rachel.
I’m constantly surprised at how differently this is dealt with in the US compared to Canada. Back home everyone took the moment of silence. I rarely hear of people doing that here in the states. Almost everyone when I was growing up wore poppy pins as well in the weeks before the remembrance. Of course it’s been a few years since I was last in Canada for November. So I don’t know if this is still the case. It’s odd to me though that it’s become yet an other “celebrate soldiers” type day in the states at best.
Thank you for this. The line that stood out to me was this:
“The strength of the meek is that they hold the end to the chain of violence.”
I wonder at what point I’ll be able, when in an argument, to hold on to the end of that chain rather than trying to justify myself, thus passing the end off to someone else. A great insight, and an important challenge for us all.
Provocative post. I wonder if the meekness of the war horse answers your initial puzzlement over the fact of war—violent domination. Like the horse, we’re plastic and capable of being shaped by institutions and cultures and unleashed toward a specific, violent end. That fact seems true to your analysis, while raising a specific and serious caution with regard to our praus(tian) natures. Discipleship requires an autonomy, an election of that end toward which we’re meekly shaped, as well as participation in the institutionalization of our better natures that doesn’t exist for the horse. I’ve got a cynical voice barking at me with regard to this trait, but I believe Christ demands the positive kind of interpretation you’re beginning to work out here.