The Passion of Anger

by Mark Pearson

Moving into another Lenten season of self inspection, I wondered what part of my soul I would be called upon to improve, what passion to combat. The answer came upon reading an article entitled “Cultivating ‘Christian Anger’” by Fr. Theodore Pulcini in the January-February issue of Touchstone magazine. Quoting extensively from the Institutes of St. John Cassian (360-433), he concluded that the only righteous anger was anger against the evil infecting oneself. When after this, by chance, or rather by divine design, I came across St. John’s Institutes on a site on the Web, I knew what God was calling me to confront during the Great Fast.

In his eighth book of the Institutes, on “the spirit of anger,” St. John calls anger a “deadly poison” which “blinds with its hurtful darkness the eye of the soul” and is “to be utterly rooted out from the inmost corners of our soul” (Book 8, chapter I). Unless freed from the passion of anger, he writes, “we cannot acquire right judgement and discretion, and we cannot gain insight nor can we be partakers of life, or retentive of righteousness, or have the capacity for spiritual and true light, we cannot attain immortal life, nor can we be accounted righteous, nor can we acquire esteem and honor, or wisdom.”

While anger affects all of us, it seems men especially are afflicted by anger, often mastered by it, and all too frequently over-mastered by it. Anger lurks in the crevices of the male soul; beneath a veneer of calm wrath rots the roots of our being.

Why is this so? Why is it that the emotion that men express so often is anger? We get angry when others “get in our way,” when they don’t comply with our wishes, when we are frustrated for any reason (including our own fault). We get out of bed in a bad temper, we come home in a bad temper. In our families, we become hyper-sensitive to what we regard as our spouse’s and children’s faults and become angry when our comments are not appreciated. We may comment on our spouse’s anger and generate angry exchanges as a consequence. Indeed we get most “bent out of shape” with our loved ones, the very people to whom we should be most patient and understanding.

Why? Is it not because we want them to be most like us? Do we not feel that if they would only accept our design for their lives, the world, our world (which we consider to be the same thing), would be a better place?

My daughter Megan occasionally uses the British expression, “I’m rather cross with you.” Cross is a good word for anger; anger is a crucifying passion, and we crucify those closest and dearest to us with it. Anger easily goes out of control. Barnabas is freed rather than Christ. We may gain our thirty pieces of psychological victory but then never can rise beyond the death we have dealt to our soul. Unless our anger is itself crucified, unless this passion is sacrificed in the painful arena of our most intimate relationships, we cannot bury it and rise again without it.

The pain of this process is every bit as real as nails hammered into our flesh and we shudder at the thought and do not want to face it. It is so much easier to pretend that all is fine while carrying around a subconscious grudge which then finds its expression the moment our guard lapses.

I need to confront my anger, I need to forgive and I need forgiveness. I need to reconcile and I need reconciliation. In acknowledging anger, in realizing the pain we cause those closest to us, in feeling shame for disgracefully allowing anger to master our emotions and humbly begging forgiveness from those whom we have assaulted — only in this way can I dig out the tap root of this deeply embedded sin.

This has been especially difficult when the object of angry outbursts was one of our children. Then I have to wait for the right moment, not later than bedtime, and apologize, knowing that if I cannot offer them a model of apology, they are not likely to find it elsewhere.

It is just as important to be reconciled with those who may be angry towards us, for, writes St. John, “our prayer will lose its effect, if our brother has anything against us, just as much as if we were cherishing feelings of bitterness against him in a swelling and wrathful spirit” (chapter XIV).

Fasting is a time of “stress testing” for our souls. When I am hungry, low on blood sugar or tired, I am also most likely to be irritated. But it is at these times when “we ought never to be angry at all, whether for good or bad reasons,” as St. John tells us (chapter XXI), for anger only negates our virtuous works.

How can we pray when angry? Either “we never pray at all” or we deceive ourselves and offer prayers in “an obstinate temper and rebellious spirit,” St. John teaches (chapter XIII).

Moreover, “bottling up” anger is no solution either, according to St. John, for “wrath that is nursed in the heart excludes the splendor of the radiance of the Holy Spirit” (chapter XII).

Forgetfulness is useful here, for a heart which cannot remember the wrong done provides no stagnant cesspools that nurture anger and in which biting comments propagate. To be blessed with a pure heart and see God, we need to “entirely root anger out from our inmost soul” (chapter XX). By following the word of the Gospel and destroying “the roots of our faults rather than the fruits” and removing anger from our “very inmost thoughts,” we will “be able to continue in all patience and holiness” (chapter XX).

The consequence of the enforced absence of this most pestilential passion is a sense of inner peace which makes possible other fruits of virtue.

And so, my fellow travelers through the God-appointed season of Lent, let us present a good and true fast well pleasing to the Lord. Let us “alienate ourselves from the evil one by laying aside our anger,” putting “an end to anger and crying out to Christ our King, save us who have sinned against You” (First Week of Lent, Monday Vespers, Apostikha).

Mark Isaac Pearson is an active lay person at St Paul’s Orthodox Church (OCA), Dayton, Ohio. His interests in singing, prayer and liturgical topics take much of his time together with family life. He is also Academic Computing Coordinator at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana.