NOTE: The conference I recently presented to Benedictine oblates of Saint Meinrad at chapters in Ohio (Dayton, Cincinnati, Lancaster/Columbus):
We live in an angry world. It’s been an angry world ever since an enraged Cain killed his innocent brother Abel—simply out of resentment and envy. The same anger that motivated Cain afflicts us all in one way or another. Though some of us deal with our anger more constructively than others (hopefully, more constructively than Cain!), not one of us is immune to the emotion itself.
An honest examination of conscience will reveal that often enough, to one degree or another, we each allow that same anger of Cain’s to produce some type of evil action in our lives—in thought, word, or deed, and in either active or passive-aggressive fashion. After all, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus specifically said that it is not enough to simply avoid murdering one another in literal fashion. There are other ways to kill, figuratively speaking. “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘you shall not kill …’,” Jesus said. “But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment … and whoever says, ‘you fool …’ Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:21-22; 44).
Humanity’s anger and murderous impulse seems to be getting more pronounced and increasingly vicious. It’s not difficult to recognize the rage present all around us today. Just turn on the TV or radio, or get on the Internet. Besides the obvious and pervasive instances of war or threats of war, it seems that nearly every week, we are witness to at least one school or workplace shooting, terrorist attack, or some other unspeakable act of violence. This past summer—in the state of Virginia—a 66-year-old man with a rifle opened fire at a park where Republican lawmakers were practicing for the annual Congressional Baseball Game. Five people were shot, and one congressman was seriously injured. Weeks later, in a different Virginia town, a young Ohio man purposely rammed his car into a crowd of people protesting the alt-right demonstration with which he had been involved. Several were injured, and one young woman was killed.
These are the extreme cases. But animosity that falls just short of such deadly force appears to prevail more often than not these days. Gone, it seems, are civilized public discourse, peaceful protest, and the thoughtful exchange of ideas in which each participant honestly attempts to understand, and perhaps learn from, one another. Even the art of persuasion seems to have been lost. Instead, the dominant tactic has become Attack, Humiliate, and Destroy. This tactic is quite evident all over social media, talk radio, and television discussion shows that more closely resemble boxing rings. And it is a tactic that has taken to the streets, where it is not enough to simply offer a protest, say, to counter the controversial views of a scheduled speaker. The opponent and his or her supporters must be shut down, silenced, and driven out.
It is no wonder, in such a rage-fueled culture, that already mentally disturbed individuals take things one step further with a rifle, knife, or a speeding car, Society, it seems to them, has at least tacitly issued a license to express and carry out one’s angry and violent impulses. And for that, we all bear at least some responsibility.
This anger or animosity is present every day all around us, in ways that don’t routinely make the news. It’s not limited to the televised spheres of politics, world affairs, and crime logs. We’ve all been either a witness or party to it. A driver is rudely cut off by another driver on the highway. An impatient office worker’s computer suddenly freezes up on a tight deadline, which is met with a string of expletives. Someone’s cutting remark deeply wounds a loved one. An argument flares up over an ultimately trivial matter, and suddenly a whole storehouse of grievances is brought out to fuel the fire. Sometimes, a punch or shove is thrown in.
Recently, while on vacation in Ohio, I was turning right onto the main drag running along the front of a strip mall. Stopped at the intersection, perpendicular to me on the right, was a truck, whose driver was leaning out the window talking with a man in a wheelchair below him. I proceeded to turn cautiously, slowly, to my right, where I suddenly saw another wheelchair-bound person in the roadway several dozen feet ahead of me. I slowed down even more. I was not moving quickly, and did not express any kind of frustration at all with the situation. Suddenly, the guy in the truck began screaming at me: “Everybody’s in a hurry! Hurry! Hurry! HURRY!”
I was too stunned to respond, so I just continued on, quite puzzled. I honestly examined what I had been doing, and concluded that I was driving reasonably and cautiously. There was no obvious reason for the other driver to be screaming at me. The only explanation I could imagine is that, possibly, another driver who had come through just before me, less careful and in more of a rush, had irritated the man, who then took out his frustration on me. In any event, from a logical point of view, he was the one in the wrong. His vehicle was stopped at the intersection of a busy service road while he conversed with someone in a wheelchair in the middle of that road! They should have pulled off to the side, or into the parking lot. Ironically, his own action not only put a couple lives in danger, but also created the very situation that frustrated him! Instead of realizing that and taking the appropriate action, he hurled his abuse at me.
As I continued down the road, I felt myself growing angry. I had an impulse to turn around and confront the man, ask him what his problem was, point out his error, or perhaps just drive by again and yell something at him. Or, I could have let the incident rile me up until I eventually took it out on someone else—passed the anger on, in other words. But what good would any of that have done? That only would have escalated everything, made it potentially worse, or punished someone else who had nothing to do with it. That’s how human anger and rage become so sinful and dangerous. Feeling slighted, harmed, or threatened, we react without thinking and strike out to inflict our pain on another. We want to retaliate, to punish – often beyond reasonable measure.
So, I ended up praying for the man as I continued driving along. As I did, some well-known Proverbs from Scripture came to mind:
A mild answer turns away wrath,
but harsh words stir up anger. (15:1)
but harsh words stir up anger. (15:1)
It is good sense to be slow to anger,
and an honor to overlook an offense. (19:11)
and an honor to overlook an offense. (19:11)
Fools give vent to all their anger;
but the wise, biding their time, control it. (29:11)
but the wise, biding their time, control it. (29:11)
Believe me; I have not always handled such situations so prayerfully and peacefully. Often enough, I have been an instigator or a perpetuator when it comes to angry words or actions. It’s likely we can all say that.
And unfortunately, the Church is not immune to such affliction. Much of the same anger or animosity I just described is also at work in the Church. We see it played out every day globally, nationally, regionally, and locally. The same distorted tactic of what passes for public discourse -- Attack, Humiliate, and Destroy – often seems to dominate our discussions and disagreements even within the Church. It seems we all too often forget St. Paul’s words to us in Scripture:
There is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Is not the bread we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Because the loaf of bread is one, we, many though we are, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. (Galatians 3:38, 1 Corinthians 10:16-17).
Christ is the divine instrument of human salvation in which we are all invited to share through his suffering and death on the cross. However, rather than live this reality as the Body of Christ we truly are, we the Church sometimes do violence to that Body by engaging in the same angry dissension that afflicts the rest of our world.
Surely, this is not the Church Jesus envisioned when, during the Sermon on the Mount, directly after the Beatitudes, he told his followers: “You are the light of the world … Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father” (Matthew 5:14, 16). From a Christian perspective, this is the real tragedy of our time – that an angry, divided world often does not look much different than the Church. As disciples of Christ, we are called to be a light in the darkness, so that others can see the true Way to God. But why would those in darkness follow those who seem just as angry and divided as themselves?
In Scripture, Jesus is pretty straightforward about how Christians are to be the light of the world. What he tells us is difficult but not impossible, with God’s grace: “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39), “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you … do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:27-28, 31). And if that is not enough to convince us, he backed those words up by putting them into practice [saying, while extending his arms on the cross]: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
As an innocent victim on the cross, Jesus remains compassionate and forgiving to those who are crucifying him. He does not return insult for insult. He does not strike back. He does not speak in anger. Instead, he absorbs into himself all the anger and violence directed at him, and offers his whole being to the Father in atonement. As members of this Body of Christ, the Church, we are all called to do the same. That is our mission as Christians. That is how we become a light to the world.
As followers of St. Benedict, we are encouraged further along this path. “Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way,” the Rule tells us in Chapter 4, the Tools for Good Works. “The love of Christ must come before all else. You are not to act in anger or nurse a grudge … Do not injure anyone, but bear injuries patiently. Love your enemies. If people curse you, do not curse them back but bless them instead” (RB 4:20-23, 30-32).
Toward the end of his Rule, St. Benedict re-emphasizes this ideal behavior in Chapter 72, The Good Zeal of Monks. “Just as there is a wicked zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell,” St. Benedict writes, “so there is a good zeal which separates from evil and leads to God and everlasting life” (RB 72:1-2). This “good zeal,” he says, consists of this: “each should try to be the first to show respect to the other, supporting with greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another … Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ” (RB 72:3-6, 11).
Clearly, as both Christians and as Benedictines, we are called to resist the “wicked zeal of bitterness” that afflicts our world and even the Church – the anger, animosity, and aggression which are so prevalent all around us. I really don’t need tell you how bad it is. You witness it every day. Hopefully less often, you are victimized by it. And, I pray, even less often, you may occasionally be a party to it, as I surely am sometimes.
However, I don’t want to paint too bleak a picture. We must not despair. God’s goodness also is still at work in the world. For instance, amid the horror of Hurricane Harvey in southeast Texas this summer, I was edified by numerous news accounts of generosity and self-sacrifice displayed by rescuers, volunteers, and aid workers. So, let’s not allow the overall state of today’s world dim our hope as a light to the nations. God has never left us, Christ is still among us, and the Spirit blows where he wills. As St. Paul tells us: “All things work together for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28).
Our mission as Christians and Benedictines is to cooperate with this movement of God’s goodness—by his grace, to transform the world little by little into the Kingdom of God. Alone, we cannot change the world. But if we each focus on allowing God to change our individual hearts, then together, as the Body of Christ, we will accomplish great things in God’s name. So, fighting the “wicked zeal of bitterness” in today’s world begins in each of our individual hearts. The point is that we cannot focus solely on what’s happening “out there” in terms of anger and animosity. Instead, we do well to examine what’s happening “in here” [pointing to heart]. If every Christian would do that, the Church’s light to the world would be too bright for anyone to ignore, and it would draw many others in. As the Letter of James puts it: “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members?” (James 4:1) To put it simply, the anger and bitterness that afflicts the world is generated from within each one of our individual hearts.
Perhaps our challenge is not so much to “conquer evil” in the world, but to harvest the goodness that God plants in each of our hearts, and then share its produce with a world that hungers for it.
OK, we’ve identified the problem. That’s not too hard to do in this case. How do we address it? That’s the real question. And it’s not an easy one.
First, let’s establish an important point: Anger, in and of itself, is not a sin. It’s easy to become confused about this. Anger is an emotion—or a passion, in the traditional spiritual vernacular—just like any other. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “In themselves, passions are neither good nor evil. They are morally qualified only to the extent that they effectively engage reason and will” (No. 1767).
Thoughts or emotions that enter our minds and hearts are beyond our control. However, what we can control is how we respond or react to those thoughts or emotions. This is where reason and will come into play.
For example, if someone does or says something that arouses my anger, the very fact that I have become angry is neither good nor evil. I am not being sinful by being angry. The moral nature of my anger is established only by the extent that I allow it to influence my choices, and by what those choices are. If that choice is to strike someone physically because of my anger, or to perhaps spread malicious gossip in retaliation, only then I have engaged in sinful behavior. As the Desert Father Evagrius put it: “Whether our thoughts upset the soul or not is not up to us. But whether they remain or not remain, and whether they are allowed to move the passions or not is up to us” (Praktikos 6, SChr 171, 508).
Scripture makes a similar point: “Be angry but do not sin,” Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians says (4:26). “Do not let anger upset your spirit,” the Book of Ecclesiastes advises (7:9). “A sinner holds on to anger” the Book of Sirach tells us (27:30 adapted). Similarly, Trappist monk Michael Casey translates St. Benedict’s admonition against anger in the Rule as “Do not go all the way with anger”— rather than “you are not to act in anger,” the translation I used a little earlier. “Anger will arise in certain circumstances,” he explains. “But it is up to us whether we go all the way with it.” I like that interpretation. We each have the ability (and responsibility) to avoid following our anger where it can so often lead us—to the point of sin. By employing our reason and will, we can choose not to go there. We can “be angry, but not sin.”
The trouble, it seems, is that humanity has become increasingly motivated by emotion or passion—without employing the gift of reason. Too often, when angry, we act without thinking. We follow our passions, and the cycle is repeated from one person to another.
It must be stressed, though, that there is such a thing as justifiable anger that can lead to good. Seeing or hearing about an injustice done to another person or group of people, for example, should make us angry. Such anger is how many of the world’s problems get solved. Once again, however, the key is how that anger is managed, and to what extent our reason is employed along with it in choosing to act appropriately and constructively.
OK, so how do we actually deal with our own anger at a real or perceived injustice to ourselves, so that we do not “go all the way with it”? How do we employ reason and then act appropriately and constructively for the good—thus resisting the “wicked zeal of bitterness” that afflicts our world?
First of all pray! As St. Benedict says in the Prologue to his Rule, “every time you begin a good work, you must pray to [the Lord] most earnestly to bring it to perfection” (4). In this way, you are submitting yourself to God, asking for his grace to harvest the goodness he’s already planted in your heart, so you may share its produce with the world. By beginning with humble prayer, you are acknowledging that only God is able to do this, and that you are willing to cooperate with his grace. Most importantly, you are seeking a reserve of grace to draw upon before your anger is aroused by someone or something.
Keep your prayer simple and to the point. There’s no need for a long-winded speech. In fact, expressing your desire to God in silence is just as powerful a prayer. In your own thoughts or words, your prayer could go something like this: “God, sometimes I get so angry with ______. Help me to be aware of and recognize this anger, to manage it and to think before I act or say something that will only escalate things. Help me to act only from your love for the good of all.”
Second, whenever you do become angry, acknowledge your anger. Don’t tell yourself or anyone else that you’re not angry when you are. Don’t repress it. And don’t let it do a slow burn while you act out in passive-aggressive fashion, or until you eventually explode in a totally inappropriate manner—most likely inflicting your wrath on someone who had nothing to do with the original cause of your anger. These are all dangerous ways to deal with anger. Instead, be honest with yourself — “I’m getting angry”— and keep the lines of communication open, if at all possible — “When you do that, I get angry …”
Third, take a timeout. Step back from the situation, at least momentarily. Thomas Jefferson once said, “When angry, count to 10 before you speak. If very angry, count to one hundred.” That specific tactic may not work for everyone, but the point is to reflect before responding to whatever has prompted your anger—to think before reacting. One needs to be careful here and not retreat in order to stew over everything and become even angrier. Instead, ask yourself some very simple but probing questions, such as: OK, what just happened? Why did it happen? Why does it make me angry? What might my anger reveal about my own deficiencies? Have I provoked this situation in any way? What might God be trying to teach me here? How much will this situation matter next week…next year…in view of eternity? What can I do to help resolve this and be reconciled?
Some other good questions to ask yourself: Is my anger justifiable? Or is it simply prompted by wounded pride? If it is justifiable, then how might God be calling me to act on it in order to produce some good?
The point here is not to immediately arrive at any answers or to reach a solution to the overall problem. Rather, the goal is to allow your reasoning ability to catch up with your emotion—to take the time to approach the situation reflectively rather than by instantaneous reaction.
This is where your prayer in the first step bears fruit, hopefully. It also is a good point at which to return to prayer—even if it’s something as short and simple as “God, I’m angry. Help me to deal with this in the right way, in a loving way.” And, as difficult as it may be, remember also to keep in prayer the person or circumstance which led to your becoming angry. Place yourself is his or her shoes before stepping back into the situation in order to resolve it.
Fourth, if this is a recurring situation or source of aggravation, then talk it over with someone. Don’t keep it bottled up and try to deal with it yourself. Find a trusted friend or spiritual director with whom you can share your burdens. Sometimes, simply expressing one’s frustrations to another in a safe, nonjudgmental forum can help provide some measure of relief or even reveal an insight or solution that had not been apparent previously.
Finally, reflect on your experience and be reconciled. As Fr. Keith McClellan has written (“A Spiritual Response to Anger,” Catholic Perspectives CareNote by Abbey Press), “Ask yourself: What can I learn from this? How might God be asking me to change through this (even if I am not in the wrong)? If I am the injured party, I must work toward forgiveness. If I have injured someone, let me seek forgiveness by acknowledging my fault.”
And, if reconciliation is not possible, then at least let us pray for one another.
So, be angry but do not sin.
Let’s conclude with a prayer based on the words of Scripture:
Good and gracious God, keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of our faith (cf. Hebrews 12:2). As the innocent victim of our redemption, he forgave from the cross, drawing all to himself, and offered to you his whole being. As members of his Body, guided by the good zeal of the Holy Spirit, let us do the same and be a light to the world. Help us each to examine our hearts, be renewed in the spirt of our minds, and put on the new self, created in your righteousness and holiness of truth. Remove from us all bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, reviling, and malice, and help us instead to be kind to one another, compassionate, and to forgive one another as you have forgiven each one of us in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen. (cf. Ephesians 4:23-24, 31-32)