Some Peaceful Thoughts on Anger

An Essay by Lawrence S. Cunningham






In 1979 the late Henry Fairlie wrote a wonderful book called The Seven Deadly Sins which was a contemporary look at the ancient list. The essays in that volume reflected a traditional counting of sins that goes all the way back to Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century who named them in the Moralia in Job as pride, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger and sloth. Gregory took the category over from earlier Christian monastic authors who, in fact, listed eight of them. Among the early monks they were not really understood as “sins” in the technical sense we understand the term today but as erupting temptations or emotional states (the Greeks called them logismoi) which clouded the soul, obscuring that “purity of heart” which Jesus said in the Beatitudes allowed one to “see” God. The seven deadly sins were a standard listing all through the Middle Ages inspiring artists and writers to depict them vividly as cautionary tales for those who strayed from the straight and narrow. Chaucer’s Parson devotes a sermon to them. Dante organizes his mountain of purgatory with seven terraces, each terrace purging one sin as the souls mount toward heaven.

What has always struck me as curious is how often the early Christian writers, especially the monastic writers, singled out anger as one of the most persistent and dangerous of these sins. I say that this is curious because the Bible is filled with stories of anger. The prophets were specialists at anger as they excoriated their people for lack of fidelity to the covenant they made with God at Sinai. Job cries out in anger at the seemingly unjust state of his being. Jesus not only got angry but, as the Gospels tell us, lashed out in anger at the sellers at the temple, overturning their tables and lashing them with whips of cords.

Thus, the question arises: why did those early Christian writers single out anger as a treacherous condition that imperils our humanity and poisons our relationship with God?

Perhaps it might be useful at the outset to make a distinction between getting angry and being an angry person. After all, would it not be a callous person who did not react in anger at the sight of manifest injustice? Are there not things in this world that warrant an angry reaction? Getting angry is different than being an angry person. Everyone, at times, can identify with the character in the movie that opens his window and cries out, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Such sentiments have driven more than one politician out of office. Perhaps, following a distinction which we have in Latin, we should distinguish indignation (indignatio) from anger (ira).

Anyone who pays attention to the media knows how destructive anger (ira) can be. We give it different names at times: road rage, eruptions of homicidal anger in the workplace, terrorism in the name of righteous anger against real or perceived injustices. There is a lucrative business in the therapeutic world teaching “anger management” to those whose behavior erupts into, or gives symptoms of, anger which might move into acts of socially unacceptable behavior. Anger in these manifest forms is easy to detect and formidably dangerous when put into practice either by an individual or by what we call the angry mob.

By and large the early Christian writers did not always have that kind of anger in mind since that sort was easy to detect. What most worried those writers was that kind of internalized anger fueled by disappointment, wounded pride, real or imagined slights, disappointment with one’s situation in life, or other personal affronts that smoldered within a person, often undetectable by others but becoming a lens through which that person saw all of his social life. In our contemporary vocabulary, we often employ synonyms for this kind of anger. We call it “bitterness” or “resentment.” In a homily on anger the fourth century monk and bishop Basil the Great called it a “sickness of soul, a darkening of thought, an estrangement from God...a cause of conflict, a fullness of misfortunes.” He ends that catalog indicating that such a person actually gives birth to a “demon” in his soul. Please note that “demon” did not mean a little creature with horns and a forked tail but a “power” (Greek: daimon) that took control of a person.

What ultimately is so bad about internalized anger is this: it hurts only the person who possesses it. Who, after all, is poisoned by one’s internal resentment but the one who holds it? One sees that kind of anger in families where a person “doesn’t speak to” or “freezes out” another member or members because of issues which, perhaps slight at the time, become magnified into a massive grievance that the person constantly rehearses mentally or externalizes by silence in the face of invitations or other gestures of good will. One sometimes sees a similar kind of angry person in the business environment: the employee or colleague who vents his or her internalized anger with passive-aggressive behavior or through little acts of sabotage or, more sadly, through a depressed life of doing as little as possible in order to “get through the day,” enveloped in a fog of barely suppressed unhappiness.

Such anger may not be as dramatic as eruptions of visible rage, but it is a soul-destroying state of life. Can such anger be overcome? The great fifth century monastic writer Cassian discusses anger at some length in book eight of The Institutes. He states bluntly that the acquisition of peace of mind “must not be made to depend on another’s will...but it lies rather in our own control.”

Not to put too fine a point on it: the angry person only exorcises the anger when it dawns on her to stop hurting herself. That observation may seem, at first glance, to be a banality but on consideration it is as current and true as anything the most expensive contemporary psychotherapist would say—namely, one must understand why one is angry and, more importantly, learn how to let go of it. Cassian frames the matter in theological terms: the Holy Spirit cannot dwell in company with the spirit of anger. We might put it this way: the price of persistent anger is misery; the reward for letting go of anger is peace of mind.

We might also mention another antidote to persistent anger. The fourth chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict has the wonderful title “Tools for Good Works,” and in the chapter says that the way of the monk should not be the way of the world. Benedict quickly adds: “You are not to act in anger or nurse a grudge.” He then, without explanation, adds a few more injunctions: do not be deceitful in your heart; never give a hollow greeting of peace or turn away when someone needs your love. In that almost brusque series of “good works,” he might have given us a gem: to avoid anger, turn from the self in love, and care for others. Without saying so, Benedict links anger to self-absorption and pride; he links peace of mind to its opposites, love and concern. That strikes me as a wonderful truth even if easy to give and hard to put into play.

Jesus tells us that we must first love God and then our neighbor as ourself. It is patently the case that the angry soul neither loves neighbor nor self; so to let go of anger is to learn to love one’s self and, then, others. If the old monks are correct, and I think they are, it is a hard task to do so but, in the end, worth it for self and neighbor and, ultimately, for the love of God.

Lawrence S. Cunningham is the John A. O’Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Copyright © 2006 University of Notre Dame All Rights Reserved Last Updated on: December 6, 2005