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Virtue: The Ultimate Remedy for the Problem and the Passion of Anger

July 25, 2013

In the past blog posts on anger, we have seen the way in which modern approaches to managing anger can be used by Christians in a way that is consistent with the teachings of earlier ascetics. Consistency with Christianity and the message of Christianity, however, are not the same. The ultimate cure for the problem of anger is not to be found solely in techniques such as relaxation, reframing the situation, taking a time out, thought stopping , or assertiveness training, as valuable as these techniques may be. No, the ultimate cure can only be found in acquiring the virtues inherent in the image of God and perfected in the person of Christ Jesus. For the fathers, anger is not just a psychological problem; it is a passion, a spiritual disease caused by a misdirection and misuse of the aggressive faculty of the human soul. As a passion, anger is always accompanied by its spiritual cousins pride and vainglory.

The discerning hesychast bishop, Saint Isaac the Syrian, once wrote, “Before the war begins, seek out your ally; before you fall ill, seek out your physician; and before grievous things come upon you, pray, and in the time of your tribulations you will find Him, and He will listen to you.” (The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac, Homily V) Who are our allies and our physicians in our struggle with the grievous passion of anger? For the fathers, the problem with anger is not so much our interpretation being irrational as it is our interpretation being distorted by the presence of pride and vainglory on the one hand and the absence of love and compassion on the other. In keeping with the wise counsel of Saint Isaac, our allies in the war against anger are love made incarnate through almsgiving and profound humility acquired through prayer, an awareness of our sins, and a sense of gratitude for the forgiveness of God. With such love and humility, it is possible to serenely accept even the false accusations made against us without giving quarter to the passion of anger, but instead with a gentle, “Father, forgive them, for they know now what they do” (Luke 23:34).

If we desire to be freed from the passion of anger, we need to increase our love for our brethren, which does not mean just some warm, fuzzy thoughts about others, but concrete actions of service and offering of self. This is why Saint Maximus the Confessor advised turning to almsgiving as “a treatment for anger” (Chapters on Love, I, 79) and elsewhere noted, “If the aggressive aspect is constantly aroused…, the remedy is kindness, compassion, love, and mercy”  (Chapters on Love, II, 70).

We also need to become humble to fight anger, for as Saint Gregory of Nyssa writes, “If you close the door to pride, anger does not find a way to enter”  (Homily 2 on the Beatitudes).  Humility is also reinforced by repentance and tears. Saint John Climacus notes that the tears of repentance further bolster humility of heart: “As the gradual pouring of water on a fire completely extinguishes the flame, so the tears of true mourning are able to quench every flame of anger and irritability” (The Ladder, 8, 1). According to Saint Gregory of Nyssa, humility is also “the mother of meekness of heart” (Homily 2 on the Beatitudes), and meekness is another virtue that is incompatible with anger. Saint John Climacus defines meekness as “an immovable state of soul which remains unaffected, whether in evil report or in good report, in dishonor or in praise” (Ladder, 8:3). In terms of behavior, meekness entails “praying calmly and sincerely for a neighbor when he causes many turmoils” (Ladder 24:3).

Just as anger fuels other passions such as lust and gluttony, so pride and vainglory are the scouts who first survey the battlefield before assisting anger’s entrance into the battlefield of the soul.  In order for the soul to remain in communion with her loving Creator, it must remain vigilant by practicing the virtues of love through almsgiving and humility through sincere repentance.  It is not enough to implement the strategies of behavior modification for the passion of anger to be rooted out of the soul.  It is naïve to believe that anger can be controlled by only employing the psychological strategies of time outs and talk therapy, for these do not address the roots of anger which, according to the fathers, are found in pride, vainglory, and the absence of love.

Once again, the wisdom of Saint Isaac is instructive in this regard, “It is better to avoid the passions by the recollection of the virtues than by resisting and arguing with them. For when the passions leave their place and arise for battle, they imprint on the mind images and idols. This warfare has great force, able to weaken the mind and violently perturb and confuse a man’s thinking. But if a man acts by the first rule we have mentioned, when the passions are repulsed they leave no trace in the mind. Just as the dolphin stirs and swims about when the visible sea is still and calm, so also, when the sea of the heart is tranquil and still from wrath and anger, mysteries and divine revelations are stirred in her at all times to delight her.  That which befalls a fish out of water, befalls the mind that has come out of the remembrance of God and wanders in the remembrance of the world.” (The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, Homily VI) There is so much to gain in combating anger through love and humility. We gain our soul; we gain our brothers and our sisters; we even gain our God Who is love and humility incarnate.

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