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Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.

June 15, 2014

According to Saint Peter of Damascus, the commandments of Christ are precious gifts that can deliver our souls from both traps of the enemy and those of our own making by teaching us to be watchful about our inner state (On Discernment). Doing as Christ suggests in the area where our free will is strongest—the attention we give to a thought— in turn makes keeping the ancient commandments of the law as epitomized in the Ten Commandments nearly effortless. This is especially clear in Christ’s commandment about anger. As Saint John Chrysostom notes, “He who is not stirred up to anger, will much more refrain from murder; and he who bridles wrath will much more keep his hands to himself. For wrath is the root of murder. And you see that he who cuts up the root will much more remove the branches; or rather, will not permit them so much as to shoot out at all…. for he that aims to avoid murder will not refrain from it equally with someone who has put away even anger; this latter being further removed from the crime” (Homily 16 on Matthew).

And yet how can one refrain from becoming angry, when becoming angry seems like and certainly feels like not only a natural response in many situations, but sometimes the right response. Again, we need to slow down and look within. Cognitive theorists have already done so and provided a sequence of steps leading from an unhappy occurrence to an angry reaction that can be seen in the following flowchart:

flow-1

Something distressing happens that seems to be caused by the negligence, deficiency, or even malevolence of an offender. This makes us feel bad about ourselves, often wounding our overweening pride and exposing our demanding neediness. We feel that there is a wrong that needs to be made right. We become angry and in anger we retaliate.

Fathers, such as Abba Isaiah, suggest that it is possible to not become angry with our brother if we understand that anger is a dispute based on a lie and on ignorance (The Gerontikon, PG 65.180). We are not as important as we think we are and others are often not as malevolent or negligent as they seem. We cling so tightly to what boosts our egos or makes us feel good that anything that pries us from these false idols can enrage us. The problem, then, is not really the event that distresses us, but our inner passions that besiege us. According to Saint Maximus, if we would only despise glory and pleasure, every pretext for anger would be cut off (Chapters on Love, 75). Put in positive terms this means that we can avoid anger by embracing distressing situations as opportunities for humility and ascetic hardship, which can allow us to continue to move forward in peace towards an even greater virtue, being love itself. “Love,” according to Saint Isaac the Syrian, “does not know how to be angry or provoked or passionately reproach anyone” ( Homily 5). In other words, the fathers envision another pathway that starts in the same turmoil but ends not in a readiness to attack, but in a willingness to love. If we were to schematically present this patristic pathway it would look something like this:

flow-2

What is of prime importance is that at the point of distress we learn another way of interpreting the situation considering the aim of the Christian life and welcoming the labor for virtue that is placed before us, learning as Saint John Chrysostom wrote, “to snuggle up to virtue, even though she causes us pain and to spurn vice, even though she gives us pleasure” (Homily on Acts 17). And if that aim seems too high for us in our slothful and indulgent state, we can at least turn to the words of our Savior as a rock upon which to build our house. For example, Saint Barsanuphios suggests that we courageously endure every distress by establishing ourselves firmly on the encouraging words of the Lord: “In the world ye shall have distress; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (Letter 22). If we chart out that cognitive pathway, we again find ourselves reaching the blessed harbor of love:

flow-3

The watchful and committed Christian always has choices, beautiful, inner choices of the heart, which can lead to places of peace, harmony, and love. They begin by listening to our meek Lord’s commandments that may seem to go beyond the limits of human possibilities, because in fact they do. Through His commandments, we do indeed go through the fire of insults and through the water of disgrace, but He brings us to a place of refreshment (Psalm 65:12, LXX). And suddenly our inner world and our outer interactions are radically and wonderfully changed: where there was not only anger, but also a readiness for violence, now there is “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding” (Philippians 4:9) and “the love of Christ, which exceeds all knowledge, so that we might be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19).

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