We move now to a thought which constitutes the first afflictive thought of the mind. Anger is an affliction which seems today to be evermore present in our society as a default position for many people and groups. It is a thought which betrays a deeper dissatisfaction and lack of peace in the person and thus often becomes the outward vehicle to express the presence of other thoughts, hidden but at work.
It seems to be a part of our human frailty and struggle, and was well-known even to the spiritual masters whom we call the desert fathers and mothers. Abba Ammonas said, I have spent fourteen years in Scetis asking God, day and night, to grant me the victory over anger. But it is an attitude which is unacceptable to these people of wisdom, who see anger as a hurdle to truthful living: Abba Poemen said, A monk does not complain, a monk does not return evil for evil, a monk is not angry. And it is reported that Abba Agathon said even more forcefully: A man who is angry, even if he were to raise the dead, is not acceptable to God.
Aner has manifold destructive effects for the afflicted person: it reduces our ability to do spiritual work because our capacity for love is diminished; it deprives us of the capacity to pray and to enter as fully as we can into the Christian life and the relationships which define that life, with God, others and ourselves; it robs us of the capacity to discern and come to Spirit-guided decisions; it creates an inner blindness; and it prevents us from a right perception of information.
In short, anger becomes the cancer which eats up our relationships.
That great monastic communicator, John Cassian, advises that we move quickly to counter the angry thought, as soon as it rises in our hearts. Since it is a thought which afflicts especially when we believe that we have not received what we want (anger ignores the discernment between need and want) we need to practice constant vigilance, watching our thoughts and guarding our heart, lest anger rise and take root there. Anger demands that we move to reconciliation, conscious that when we have done wrong, or have wronged another, or even that someone thinks we have wronged them, we should be the first to move to heal any wound or division. Such an attitude helps neutralise the selfishness which lies at the root of anger and takes seriously the counsel given in St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (4:26). And we need to practice a purification of memory, to put aside any recollection of hurt done to us, making way for a constant remembrance of God rather than self.
Anger has a tendency to smolder when we stay alone or isolated. Thus, the communities to which we belong can have a healing effect on our anger and we should continue to live within them, and according to their model, if we find anger taking root. Above all, we should recall that our exercise of free will, working with the grace which is Christ’s overwhelming love, allows us to choose between the destructive angry affliction or the healing charitable virtue. Only when I become my thought, and am effectively consumed by my anger, do I lose this capacity to exercise my free will in a definite and transformative way.
Tackling the Thoughts
We can tackle both the thought and its effects by gentle and constant use of the Jesus Prayer, which uses the invocation of the Holy Name to bring a great measure of healing and with which we can purposefully move aside these thoughts. Making use of real stillness and silence in our lives – since anger creates extreme agitation within us – is also to be recommended. Above all, recourse to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which places us back, through the Father’s mercy, incarnated in the Son and made always present by the gift and activity of the Spirit, places us back in the relationships which are formative for us because they are the real living out of charity and selflessness.
We should also become used to manifesting our thoughts to someone who has knows the manner of healing these thoughts, and especially of seeing anger present. In doing so, we seek only to speak out the afflictive thought and distance ourselves from it, seeking to regain peace in our hearts and put aside the division which anger brings within us.
We might also look at the friendships which build us up and support us. St Aelred of Rievaulx, in his exquisite treatise On Spiritual Friendship, maintains that a friend is ‘medicine for the soul’ and an essential companion in our life’s joys and sorrows and struggles. He warns, however, that friendship can be broken by five things – slander (harming a friend’s reputation and killing charity); reproach (an unjust accusation); pride (which does away with humility of heart); betrayal of secrets (which belittles trusted confidences); a treacherous blow (which amounts to secret detraction and a stab in the back). Looking at the converse of these we see what should shape a truly loving and mature friendship and so become a context where anger can never be allowed to flourish – the practice of the encouraging word, freely given comfort without any thought for profit, always putting the other first and myself last, allowing another to find deep trust in us, and a life lived in honesty and integrity.
–Part of our ‘Afflictive Thoughts’ series-