Anger (with a little help from the Desert Fathers and Evagrius)

Sts. Anthony and PaulI used to have a lot of anger issues. Rarely directed towards fellow humans (usually inanimate objects or myself) and certainly never physically violent — at least regarding humans (in first-year undergrad I once chucked a book across my room and made a hole in the wall; the book was the object of my anger). These issues, which rarely but still manifest themselves to do include a lot of physical energy and, if directed at a person, yellling.

Earlier today I got really angry with someone in a café. Which is always awkward. And I can’t get it out of my mind and focus on my work.

Out of remorse for the book-throwing and to mask my folly back in first-year undergrad, I memorised and posted on the wall over the hole James 1:19:

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. (NIV)

Anger, according the fourth-century ascetic movement (I’m thinking mostly of Cassian and Evagrius here) is a result of our inability, postlapsarianly (?), to control the irascible part of our soul. Irascible is just a Latin-based word that means ‘anger-able’. If we were holy, our irascible part would only result in anger towards actual injustice and the abandonment of the worship of God, as we see in Christ clearing the moneychangers out of the Temple. Most of us are not holy, though. And most of our anger arises out of selfishness, out of frustration, out of fallenness, out of a need to be right, out of wounded self.

So, as an exercise for myself, I’m writing this and wondering: What is the Desert teaching on anger? I have here beside me, pulled from my pile of Late Antique/Early Mediaeval monastic texts, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection as translated by Benedicta Ward, and The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer by Evagrius Ponticus, translated by John Eudes Bamberger. Both are from Cistercian, whose monastic ressourcement I have extolled previously.

From the Sayings (the numbers in brackets are the number of each saying by Abba; this is not exhaustive):

Abba Agathon (19): A man who is angry, even if he were to raise the dead, is not acceptable to God.

Abba Ammonas (3): I have spent fourteen years in Scetis asking God night and day to grant me the victory over anger.

Abba Isaiah (8): When someone wishes to render evil for evil, he can injure his brother’s soul even by a single nod of the head.

Abba Isaiah (11) was also asked what anger is and he replied, ‘Quarrelling, lying and ignorance.’

Abba John the Dwarf (5): Going up the road again towards Scetis with some ropes, I saw the camel driving talking and he made me angry; so, leaving my goods, I took to flight.

Abba John the Dwarf (6): On another occasion in summertime, [Abba John] heard a brother talking angrily to his neighbour, saying, ‘Ah! you too?’ So leaving the harvest, he took to flight.

Abba Nilus (1): Everything you do in revenge against a brother who has harmed you will come back to your mind at the time of prayer.

Abba Nilus (2): Prayer is the seed of gentleness and the absence of anger.

Abba Nilus (6): If you want to pray properly, do not let yourself be upset or you will run in vain.

It is clear that the Desert Fathers (and, undoubtedly, Mothers) had a fairly bleak view of human anger. Evagrius Ponticus, who was a spiritual master who dwelt among them and was highly influential in later Byzantine spirituality, lists anger in the eight deadly thoughts, which are precursors to Gregory the Great’s Seven Deadly Sins. From The Praktikos:

There are eight general and basic categories of thoughts in which are included every thought. First is that of gluottony, then impurity, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and last of all, pride. It is not in our our power to determine whether we are disturbed by these thoughts, but it is up to us to decide if they are to linger within us or not and whether or not they are to stir up our passions. (6)

What, we may ask Evagrius, is anger?

The most fierce passion is anger. In fact it is defined as a boiling and stirring up of wrath against one who has given injury — or is thought to have done so. It constantly irritates the soul and above all at the time of prayer it seizes the mind and flashes the picture of the offensive person before one’s eyes. Then there comes a time when it persists longer, is transformed into indignation, stirs up alarming experiences by night. (Praktikos 11)

Evagrius is insightful. These and the Sayings are all well and good — but how do we fight anger?

Reading, vigils and prayer — these are the things that lend stability to the wandering mind. Hunger, toil and solitude are the means of extinguishing the flames of desire. Turbid anger is calmed by the singing of Psalms, by patience and almsgiving. But all these practices are to be engaged in according to due measure and at the appropriate times. What is untimely done, or done without measure, endures but a short time. And what is short-lived is more harmful than profitable. (Praktikos 15)

He has much more to say on anger than that. What is clear is that anger is not imagined to be part of the holy lifestyle of the Desert monk. And we are to fight anger through prayer, through Psalmody, by patience, and by almsgiving. The outward disciplines combined with an inner seeking after God, then, will help people like me be free from anger.

What more remains to me than this — Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

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