Tuesday, October 13, 2015

On "Mitis": Accipe sanctum gladium

In the wake of Pope Francis' motu proprio Mitis iudex there has not been very much discussion of the word mitis (gentle) itself, which as a word for "merciful" is much less common than near-synonyms like clemens (clement) or misericors (tender-hearted).  My purpose here is to begin a conversation about that word.

Etymologically "mitis" means "ripe", and so Virgil in the Bucolics says "sunt nobis mitia poma", "there are ripe apples for us." "Mitis" therefore carries a sense of maturity, of being "just right." For this reason, unlike many other Latin words relating to softness, it does not carry a pejorative sense (cf. mollis).

 In the Clementine Vulgate there are only eleven instances of the word "mitis".  (To give a sense of its rarity, compare over 400 instances of "misericors".)  It is used of Moses, in Numbers 12:3 to describe him as the meekest (mitissimus) man on the face of the earth; in Psalm 85:5 to describe God as suavis et mitis, et multae misericordiae (sweet and mild, and full of mercy); and in Matthew 11:29 where Jesus says, "Take up my yoke upon you, and learn of me, because I am meek (mitis), and humble of heart."  The other instances are comparable, as are the nine instances of the verb "mitigare" (to lighten, alleviate), e.g. Psalm 84:4, "Mitigasti omnem iram tuam", "Thou hast mitigated all thy anger."

The Roman Breviary provides us with one further example of the word mitis in the Church's liturgy.  An October responsory at Matins says, "Hic est fratrum amator, et populi Israel: Hic est qui multum orat pro populo, et universa sancta civitate Ierusalem. Vir iste in populo suo mitissimus apparuit," "This is a lover of the brethren, and of the people of Israel: This is one who prays much for the people, and for all the Holy City, Jerusalem. This man appeared most gentle toward all his people."  This text comes at least in part from 2 Maccabees 15:14.  I am not sure whether the response containing the word "mitis" relies on an alternative version of the Bible (perhaps the Old Latin that pre-dates Jerome's Vulgate) or whether it has some other origin.  In either case, this mitissimus or most gentle man was, we know from context in the Second Book of Maccabees, the holy prophet Jeremiah, who appeared to Judas Maccabeus in a dream and "stretched forth his right hand, and gave to Judas a sword of gold, saying: Take this holy sword a gift from God, wherewith thou shalt overthrow the adversaries of my people Israel." (2 Macc 15: 15-16)

In the public prayer of the Church, this is an example of what it means to be mitis.

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