A story about Elder St Porphyrios

I decided to hold off sharing this story yesterday. It is another of my favourites from Elder Porphyrios (saint of the week here) in his memoirs, Wounded by Love. It is a reminder to meet people where they are when we encounter them and bring them softly to the light of the Gospel:

One Sunday afternoon I was passing the Archaeological Museum [in Athens] and since I had some free time I decided to go in. I walked through the rooms looking at the statues. In one of the rooms there was a group of people with a guide who was explaining things to them. There was complete silence. I went towards them. When the guide saw me, however, she whispered to them:

‘A priest’s just come in. I can’t stand priests, but this one doesn’t seem to be like the others.’

I came up closer and said:

‘Good afternoon.’

‘Good afternoon,’ replied the guide.

‘May I listen to what you are saying?’ I asked.

‘Of course,’ she said.

We went from one statue to another. At one point we stood before a statue of Zeus. Zeus was on his throne and was in the act of hurling a thunderbolt at mankind. Once the guide had finished telling them what she knew, she turned to me and said:

‘What do you have to say about this, Pappouli? How do you see the statue?’

Not the Zeus you're looking for (my pic; National Archaeological Museum, Athens)
Not the Zeus you’re looking for (my pic; National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

‘I don’t know about these things,’ I said. ‘But as I see it, I marvel at the work of the artist and also at the human form, such a perfect divine creation. And I see that the artist who made it had a great sense of the divine. Look at Zeus. Although he his hurling his thunderbolt at mankind, yet his face is serene. He is not angry. He’s impassionate.’

The guide, and indeed the whole group, was very pleased with my explanation. What does that tell us? It tells us that God is without passion, even when he punished. –Wounded by Love, p. 59

Now is not the time for a discussion on divine dispassion, but I like the way Elder Porphyrios used the art and the situation he was in to say something meaningful about the divine.

Theophan the Recluse and anger

As I’ve mentioned here before, sometimes I get angry. Usually it’s a fairly tame frustration or annoyance. Sometimes it’s more powerful. I get angry at stupid things people post on Facebook. I get angry at dumb stuff I see in the news. I’ve been known to get angry at people who board airplanes too slowly, those who take forever in the checkout queue, road construction, slow walkers — you know, the usual.

Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894) has some good stuff to say about anger. Of interest is the idea of redirecting this passion towards sin and the Devil:

You say that you cannot help being resentful and hostile? Very well then, be hostile — but towards the devil, not towards your brother. God gave us wrath as a sword to pierce the devil — not to drive into our own bodies. Stab him with it, then, right up to the hilt; press the hilt in as well if you like, and never pull it out, but drive another sword in as well. This we shall achieve by becoming gentle and kind towards each other. ‘Let me lose my money, let me destroy my honour and glory — my fellow-member is more precious to me than myself.’ Let us speak thus to each other, and let us not injure our own nature in order to gain money or fame. (The Art of Prayer, p. 212)

This idea of redirecting anger towards the Devil or towards the passions is found elsewhere, as in Evagrius Ponticus, whose ascetic works had a deep impact on Byzantine spirituality.* The idea is to talk back, to rebuke the passions and sins that tempt and beset you, to be angry with yourself and grieve for your sins. Thus we will use the passions, which are a natural part of the human person, to grow in virtue, rather than to sin.

Sometimes we see Christians in prominent positions who are filled with righteous indignation over various pieces of news and the troubles in society and politics. I know of one fellow who gets really angry with the Canadian government regardless of who is in power. I ask — is this anger, directed at the humans who make things happen, of use?

We should be angry at injustice, but love the unjust. This is what Theophan calls us to do, for anger towards another human being can lead to revilement and hatred, and these are a poison to the human soul. Be angry with sin and the Devil, not your brother!

*His theology, on the other hand, was deemed heretical.