The Wisdom of the Desert

Chapter XIII:
On Anger

THE only point which is really peculiar in the hermits' teaching about anger is that the possibility of righteous anger is altogether denied. No matter how wicked a brother might be, or how serious the consequence of his sin, it was not right to be angry with him. To try to cure another of sin by angry denunciation was the same thing as for a physician to try to cure his patient by innoculating himself with a similar fever, for to be angry even with sinfulness is to sin.

Apart from this one point, the hermits' teaching is only remarkable for the accuracy of its analysis of the source from which anger springs, and its thoroughness in the practical treatment of the fault.

Anger is traced back to the hermits' most intimate enemy -- self. It is an expression of selfishness, a sign that self has not wholly and really been conquered. Thus anger may spring from avarice. It is then the protest of self against any interference with what are regarded as possessions. Where the renunciation of property is really complete this kind of anger becomes impossible. There is a beautiful story of two hermits who determined to find out by experience what it was like to be angry. They planned that each of them should claim for his own an earthen pot which lay in their cell. The attempted quarrel began well enough, for the first monk said, "The pot is mine," and the second replied to him, "No, it is mine." But at this point the first man's resolution broke down, and he said, "As you say, brother, it is yours." This hermit had so entirely renounced the satisfaction of possessing anything that it was as impossible for him to grow angry in a dispute about property as it would be for a sensible man to do battle with a child for the sake of some treasure of broken glass or coloured stone. The desire of impressing his own will or opinions upon others is another sign that the old self in a man is not wholly dead. Where such a desire exists in any strength, and others thwart it, the result is anger. In the same way vainglory, when it is starved for want of praise, and pride when it proves to be indulged in foolishly, give birth to anger. Vainglory and pride are alike vices of selfishness.

The hermits distinguished various stages of anger, to each of which was attached a certain degree of guilt. There was first the feeling of anger in the heart, the sudden rush of bitter feeling consequent on suffering unjustly. This cannot be fought against. It may be avoided only by those in whom the old self is utterly dead. Next comes the expression of anger on the countenance. It is at this point that the hermits' battle with anger really begins. It is possible to choke down at once the emotion so that not even the tightened lips or frowning brow betray its presence. Then there is the vent which anger finds in words. Here is another point of defence for the hermit. He may and ought to be able to bridle his tongue. The final stage of anger is when a man so loses self-control as to strike or injure another. It is something to have stopped short of this.

There is an altogether different kind of anger, which has its origin not in the negative side of the religious life, through failure to eradicate the old selfish instincts, but in the positive side, in coming short of absorbing interest in divine things. To the hermit who fell away from his loving desire for the Lord, whose mind ceased to be dominated by visions of the King in His beauty, the life of the cell or the community became an intolerable weariness. A craving for change and excitement seized upon him. The monotony of his daily round alternately oppressed and goaded him. In this condition he was a ready prey to peevishness and irritability. He flew into sudden fits of unreasoning fury with brothers who had in no way offended him; or if human objects were absent, vented his ill-humour by cursing his pen or his knife or the stones on the road when his feet tripped on them. This kind of anger was the result of a morbid spiritual state which the hermits recognised as sinful, and called accidie. To fly from the circumstances which gave excuse for its expression was manifestly useless. It is possible to fly from men but not, as the hermit in the story found, from the demon who excites to this kind of anger. Even the attainment of a sleepy apathy is not a real cure for it. The serpent is venomous Still, though he lies torpid and bites no one. The true cure lies in the renewal of the broken communion with God. Then the weariness and accidie give place to active joy, and the temptation to sudden anger-fits disappears.


The teaching of a certain elder, concerniug the nature and origin of anger.

A certain elder said, Anger arises through four things -- through the greed of avarice, whether in giving or receiving; also through loving and defending one's own opinion; through a desire of being honourably exalted; also through wishing to be learned or hoping to be wise above all others.

In four ways anger darkens the nature of a man -- when he hates his neighbour, when he envies him, when he despises him, and when he belittles him.

In four places anger finds scope -- first in the heart, second in the face, third in the tongue, fourth in the act. Thus if a man can bear injury, so that the bitterness of it does not enter into his heart, then anger will not appear in his face. If, however, it find expression in his face, he still may guard his tongue so as to give no utterance of it. If even here he fail and give it utterance with his tongue, yet let him not translate his words into acts, but hastily dismiss them from his memory.

Men are of three kinds, according to the place which anger finds in them. He who is hurt and injured, and yet spares his persecutor, is a man after the pattern of Christ. He who is neither hurt himself, nor desires to hurt another, is a man after the pattern of Adam. He who hurts or slanders another is a man after the pattern of the Devil.


How we must not suppose that the spirit of anger is dead in us when we happen to escape for a time from the things which are wont to arouse it.

Anger is like all poisonous kinds of serpents and wild beasts, which while they remain in solitude and in their own lairs are still not harmless; for they cannot really be said to be harmless because they are not actually hurting anyone. For this results in such a case, not from any feeling of goodness, but from the exigencies of solitude. When they have secured an opportunity of hurting anyone, at once they produce the poison that is stored up in them, and show the ferocity of their nature. So in the case of men who are aiming at perfection, it is not enough not to be angry with men. I recollect that when I was dwelling in solitude a feeling of irritation would creep over me against my pen because it was too large or too small; against my penknife when it cut badly or with a blunt edge what I wanted cut; and against a flint if by chance when I was rather late and hurrying to the reading, a spark of fire flashed out. Then I could not get rid of my perturbation of mind except by cursing the senseless matter or, at least, the devil. Therefore for one who is aiming at perfection it is not enough that there should be no men who afford occasion for anger. If the virtue of patience have not been acquired, the feelings of passion which still dwell in his heart can equally well spend themselves on dumb things and paltry objects, and not allow him to gain continuous peace.


Of a certain brother who tried to avoid the occasions rather than conquer the spirit of anger.

A certain brother was frequently moved to anger while he dwelt in a monastery. He said, therefore within himself, "I shall go forth into solitude, and when I have no one to quarrel with I shall find rest from this spirit of anger." So he went and dwelt in a certain cave. One day, after he had filled his pitcher and placed it on the ground, it was suddenly upset. Three times he filled it, and three times in the same way the water was spilled. Then, in a rage, he seized the vessel and broke it. When he came to himself, and began to consider how he had been trapped by the demon of anger, he said, "Lo, I am here alone, and yet I have been vanquished by anger. I shall return to my monastery, because, wherever there is most need of striving and of patience, there, no doubt, chiefly is the grace of God to be found." Then, rising up, he returned to his own place.


How by gentleness we may overcome another's anger.

A certain old man had a faithful disciple. Once, in a fit of anger, he drove him from his cell. The disciple waited all night outside the door. In the morning the old man opened it, and, when he saw him, was struck with shame, and said, "You are my father now, because your humility and patience have conquered my sin. Come in again, and from henceforth be you the elder and the father. I will be the disciple, for you have surpassed me, though I am aged."


The advice of an elder, showing how we may avoid feeling angry with those who injure us.

A certain monk was injured by one of the brethren. He told what had happened to one of the elders, who said to him, "Let your mind be at peace. The brother has done no injury to you, nor must you think he wished to. He has done injury to your sins. In any trial which comes to you through man, do not blame the man, but just say, `On account of my sins this thing has befallen me."'


He who is a slave to anger is not likely to conquer other sins.

A certain one said, If a man cannot bridle his tongue in the moment of anger, he will certainly not be able to be victorious over any lust of his flesh.

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