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.

Freedom from the Passions: New Old Ways of Talking about $!n in Public

From left to right: Evagrius Ponticus, John Climacus, and some other dude. The first two are well-known guides to the passions of the human heart. Who knows about the other guy.

Apologies for not having blogged here a bit more of late. I’m in Paris, and the blog where I publicly disclose my name has been getting more attention (I have a slight paranoia about the religious nature of these postings and my future). But today, I had a thought worthy of the pocket scroll. So here it is.

One of the images/concepts of human salvation that is part of the older Christian tradition, and has been continually popular in Eastern Christianity, is the image of salvation as healing. Christ is our Physician, and he cleans and heals our wounds. Each of us wounded in spirit, in soul, in mind.

Part of this disorder of the human heart is misdirected and misguided desire. The Fathers, especially the desert ascetics, (and Aquinas) call this concupiscence. Rather than seeking first things first, we seek second things first, thus losing both (as CS Lewis once famously noted). Concupiscence reveals itself in the pleasures of the senses — in gluttony, in fornication, in other sensuous excesses that can lead us down the dangerous road of addiction, of alcoholism and sexual compulsivity.

Our concupiscible part exists to direct us towards goods that are there both for our survival and our pleasure. Food and booze are tasty on purpose. Sexual intercourse is supposed to feel that way. However, we must allow these pleasures to be enjoyed according the rules of God’s law and natural law. Concupiscence drives us away from that aspect.

Another aspect of our human disorder is irascibility. When ordered rightly, this produces righteous indignation, when we see the poor downtrodden, the alien shunned, the planet raped of her resources. When disordered, it produces selfish and proud rage, ire, and flares of temper that do not lead us to righteousness.

Irascibility and concupiscence are traditionally termed ‘passions’ in those parts of Christian moral and ascetic theology that treat of them, places where our similarities to Aristotle, Plato, and the Stoics are clearly visible. A passion is something that you yourself undergo, something that acts on you, that moves you (hence its relation to passive verbs, patience, and patients).

The passions are not themselves sinful. Some people have claimed that they are, but these people are wrong. The passions are part of our human makeup. And, just as we can grow fat or our bones can become brittle in the physical realm, so our passions can go wrong in the metaphysical.

What the ascetic fathers, such as the Desert Fathers, Evagrius Ponticus, John Cassian, and Maximus the Confessor, recommend is that we control our passions. In your anger do not sin, as the Psalmist says.

The question for the straight, young, red-blooded, Christian male is not, ‘Do you find hot chicks hot?’ or, ‘Do you like boobs?’ Rather, it is, ‘What do you do about the fact that you are attracted to hot chicks and boobs?’ If the answer is honestly, ‘I choose not to lust,’ then one has gone a looooooong way to overcoming a certain aspect of concupiscibility.

We could repeat this process. Not, ‘Do you like wine/beer/coffee/chocolate?’ but, ‘Do you consume wine/beer/coffee/chocolate in moderation?’ Not, ‘Do people who jump the queue anger you?’ but, ‘Will you treat queue-jumpers with love and respect?’* And so forth.

And thus we come to a point I’ve avoided very carefully on this blog. When people ask Christians who are traditionally-minded about homosexuality, the question seems often to be, ‘Do you think homosexuality is a sin?’

This is an inane question.

Homosexuality is a passion, not a sin.

What the traditionally-minded Christian would have to say, to follow what seems to be both a biblically-faithful and tradition-adhering approach, is, ‘The question is not, “Do you find other men/women attractive?” but, “Do you have sex with them?”‘ That is, sin is in the action, not the desire.

This draws us now closer to the inevitable question of overcoming these desires, of reordering our passions as we were meant to, to be able to live lives of fullness and wholeness in the arms of our Bridegroom and Lover, Jesus Christ.

And that, my friends, is a subject for another time. But it a path as hard for each person as any other. If conservatives seek to lay the burden of celibacy upon homosexuals, they should also consider which of their own many disordered passions need treatment from the great Physician.

People Who Wrote on the Passions

The Desert Fathers. A band of ascetics living in Egypt-Syria-Palestine in the fourth through sixth centuries. Most famously quoted in the compendiums of sayings: The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, trans. B. Ward. There is also a short collection at OrthodoxWiki. My page about them here.

Evagrius Ponticus. Try his Chapters on Prayer, online here — there’s also a translation from Cistercian that I couldn’t find on amazon at a reasonable price; mindblowing and awesome is the Kephalaia Gnostica.

John Cassian. People who endured with me for the few long years of this blog will know Cassian, subject of my first MA thesis. Books 5-end of his Institutes treat of the eight ‘thoughts’, beginning here.

*’There are no queues in France.’ Real quotation.