30 November 2012


Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (14)

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

We might be inclined to think that, of all the passions, monks struggled the most with lust. We know very well that some did, but the passion with which they struggled the most was actually anger; and the desert fathers knew that anger can develop into more serious sins, putting up barriers between ourselves and others.

In the fourth century, Evagrius of Pontus delineated what he called the eight dangerous thoughts: gluttony, fornication, love of money, sadness, anger, listlessness, vainglory and pride. With some modifications, these become known as the seven deadly sins: lechery/lust, gluttony, avarice/greed, acedia/discouragement/sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. Evagrios did not use the word sins, but rather thoughts. Evagrios said, "It does not lie within our power to decide whether or not the passions are going to harass and attack the soul. But it does lie within our power to prevent impassioned thoughts from lingering within us and arousing the passions to action" (here).

On the particular subject of anger, Evagrios thought it to be the worst passion of them all. It is the response to resistance or interference with goals and intentions, or to fear, irritations and disappointments. It's the response we may have when we are busy and someone interrupts us. It's the response we have when we are driving and either are cut off, or impeded in our progress by the driver in front of us driving slower than we are (even when we're trying to drive the speed limit). It's the response we have when our internet connection is slower than usual, or if we lose the connection altogether because our modem suddenly fried or died. In each of these, and similar, cases we are responded to an obstacle.

At its most fundamental level, anger is the desire that some harm come to the person or object thwarting us, whether or not we desire to commit the harm ourselves. It also exults in seeing harm come to those who, we believe, have stymied us. For example, when the bottom fell out of the economy, I read in the comments to a news article, one commentator express glee that rich people were losing money and going bankrupt because they needed to know how it feels to be poor. Why? Because simply by being rich these people had committed some harm to others, especially, one supposes, the commentator—and his fans.

According to some psychologists, anger is rooted in childhood insecurity. Easily angered people don't always yell, curse and throw things. Sometimes they withdraw, sulk, or become physically ill. Anger may be more responsible for most of our sins than we may imagine, even our sexual sins. I recall glancing through a book in a bookstore, a book about marriage and divorce, in which the author made the claim that all adultery is rooted in anger. There are probably many explanations for it but I suspect there is much truth in that. Many adulterers have been hurt (or perceive themselves as having been hurt) by their spouses. Adultery can very easily be understood as rooted in anger, since anger itself is rooted in pain.

The Westminster Divines were not unaware of the spiritual necessity of harnessing and resisting the passions. In its teaching on the implied duties and prohibitions involved in obeying God in the Ten Commandments, The Larger Catechism includes acts intended to confront and restrain the passions. For example, the duties required in the sixth commandment's prohibition of murder are "all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; by just defense thereof against violence, patient bearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit; a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreations; by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent."

Note among many of the duties, some of which seem to be unrelated to the commission of murder: "quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit; a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreations." We might easily see how having a quiet mind and a cheerful disposition are related, since these dispositions are the opposite of anger, without which there can be no murder. But "a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreations"? What about these? The truth is immoderate use of these things (food and drink, medicines, sleep, labor and recreations) is a life filled with "surfeiting", or dissipation and drunkenness, a life of indulging the passions, which the Lord forbids, rather than a life of alertness and prayer, which the Lord requires (Luke 21.34-36):
Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day will not come on you suddenly like a trap; for it will come upon all those who dwell on the face of all the earth. But keep on the alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.

It is not that we are forbidden to have pleasures. Even John Calvin, falsely-accused killjoy recognized that Scripture nowhere forbids us “to laugh, or to be full, or to add new to old and hereditary possessions, or to be delighted with music, or to drink wine” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.19.9). But, as he goes on, in the same place, to say, “ [L]et all remember that the nourishment which God gives is for life, not luxury....” The Christian life is, among other things, a life of alertness.

But what can we do about anger? Recall that anger is our response to resistance, or injury— even perceived resistance and injury. It is also a response to some deprivation or, again, perceived deprivation of pleasure or need (even, yet again, perceived need). We must deal with it as a response, more specifically as a learned, habitual response.

The monks employed several strategies in their battles against this emotion. First, we shouldn't be surprised to find anger lurking within our souls; we shouldn't be discouraged or despondent about it, either. We are fallen; our feelings do get hurt. We are also creatures of habit. It is dangerous not to admit this. If we don't admit that we can be hurt, we are likely not to realize that we have been hurt and, as a result, not very likely to recognize even the potential for finding anger within us, much less the reality. It was common for monks to believe they were, or should have been, above being angered. The wisest of the monastics knew better than to think monks were not like everyone else. As I have quoted St Chrysostom, both layman and monk "must rise to the same height." The monk, simply by being a monk, has arrived nowhere.

Second, when we do find anger, we have to deal with it immediately and decisively. If not, if we let it simmer in our conscious or unconscious minds, it will take root within us. We must keep short accounts with others, pulling weeds daily. As St Paul says: "Do not let the sun go down on your anger" (Ephesians 4.26). Some people think this means letting everyone who has angered you know they have angered you. There may be times when this is necessary, but in many cases what usually happens is that the other person believing (as we all do; let’s admit that, too) he has been falsely accused simply gets angry in turn. There’s a fine mess. Keeping short accounts means forgiving those who have made you angry. And forgiveness does not mean changing how you feel. To forgive is to relinquish a claim to restitution; it is a decision not to seek repayment for the wrong. Yes, that means we suffer the slight, which means we, ourselves, in effect pay the debt that is owed us. But that is exactly what it means for God to forgive us. Forgiveness of debts always costs the creditor. (This is a commonly mis-understood element of the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15.11-31. The father did forgive the son, but it cost him half of his wealth in order to do so.)

Third, the most effective way to deal with anger is to die to our egos; this is also the most difficult. We are very sensitive to what others may think of us, suspicious that others may be talking about us unfavorably behind our backs. We get hurt when others disappoint us, convinced (truth be told) we had a right to expect differently of them. Then too, we may feel that others expect too much of us, and have no right to do so. One of the desert monks had a humorous tale by way of remedy:

A brother  came to see Abba Makarios and said, "Abba, give me a word that I may be saved." Abba Makarios said, "Go to the cemetary and abuse the dead. " The brother went there and abused them and threw stones at their graves. The he returned to Abba Makarios and told the old man about it.  The old man asked, "Did they say anything to you?" He replied, "No." The old man said, "Go back tomorrow and praise the dead." So the brother went away and praised them, calling them apostles and saints and righteous men. He returned to the old man and said, "I have complimented them." And the old man said to him, "Did they not answer you?"  The brother said, "No." The old man said to him, "Do you know how you insulted them and they did not reply, and how you praised them and they did not speak? So you too, if you wished to be saved, must do the same and become a dead man. Like the dead, take no account of either the scorn of men or their praises, and you can be saved.

We too must become like a dead man, dead to our egos. In such a state of mind neither praise nor insult can harm us. Yes, praise can harm us, even if only by setting us up for disappointment when we are not praised (and moving us to attempt things for purposes of eliciting praise) and by making insults ever more difficult to bear, making us angrier than we might otherwise have been. This isn't to say we shouldn't express gratitude when we are praised, depending upon the nature of the praise. But we should simply take note of the praise, express gratitude, and forget about it.

Of course, if it were easy everyone would be there and there would be no anger in the world at all. It requires work because, for many, anger has become a habit. And as Saint Neilus the Ascetic said, “Habit leads to a set disposition, and this in turn becomes what may be called ‘second nature’; and it is hard to shift and alter nature.” Indeed. And I know this well, for of all the passions, anger is the one I struggle with most.

About Me

James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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