St. John Cassian On Anger

On The Eight Vices

In my continued reading of the Philokalia, I have come to the writings of St. John Cassian’s writings. Upon reading On The Eight Vices, I was struck particularly by his section on anger. The below citations draw from it.

So long as he dwells in our hearts and blinds the eyes of the heart with his sombre disorders, we can neither discriminate what is for our good, nor achieve spiritual knowledge, nor fulfill our good intentions, nor participate in true life: and our intellect will remain impervious to the contemplation of the true, divine light; for it is written, ‘For my eye is troubled because of anger’ (Ps. 6:7. LXX). Nor will we share in divine wisdom even though We are deemed wise by all men, for it is written: ‘Anger lodges in the bosom of fools’ (Eccles. 7:9). Nor can we discriminate in decisions affecting our salvation even though we are thought by our fellow men to have good sense, for it is written: ‘Anger destroys even men of good sense’ (Prov. 15:1. LXX). Nor will we be able to keep our lives in righteousness with a watchful heart, for it is written; ‘Man’s anger does not bring about the righteousness of God’ (Jas. 1:20). Nor will we be able to acquire the decorum and dignity praised by all, for it is written: ‘An angry man is not dignified’ (Prov. 11 : 25. LXX).

Moreso than other sections in On The Eight Vices, St. John quotes copious amounts of scripture to make his point. Anger is a blinder of sorts that causes even good Christians to falter and stumble. From it we are deceived, blinded, and ultimately separated from the grace of God.

If, therefore, you desire to attain perfection and rightly to pursue the spiritual way, you should make yourself a stranger to all sinful anger and wrath. Listen to what St Paul enjoins: ‘Rid yourselves of all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamour, evil speaking and all malice’ (Eph. 4:31).

Of all bitterness, wrath, etc? This seems like an impossible standard. Then again, I am an angry person by nature, so I would say that. Unfortunately for me, and everyone else, this phrase St. Paul uses in his epistle to the Ephesians is not a stand-alone text that can be dismissed. It is pouring off the pages he writes to others as well. Furthermore, it is not only St. Paul, but numerous other apostles that echo this teaching in Scripture as we will read below.

In similar fashion to the other vices, St. John instructs us that anger distracts us from our spiritual journey towards God. Our only solution is to rid ourselves of anger and wrath.

Our incensive power can be Used in a way that is according to nature only when turned against our own impassioned or self-indulgent thoughts. This is what the Prophet teaches us when he says: ‘Be angry, and do not sin’ (Ps. 4:4. LXX)

Here the context for our solution begins to emerge: our anger should only be directed at our own sin. If we are to become irate, it must only be at our own sinful proclivities. In this way we may live out the words of Psalm 4. This is a contrast from what I was frequently taught even at the seminary level. In my old Reformed tradition, there was an emphasis on using anger as a tool for zeal, rather than as a passion to be directed only at mortifying my own sin.

St Paul agrees with this when he cites this passage and then adds: ‘Do not let the sun go down upon your anger: and do not make room for the devil’ (Eph. 4: 26-27), by which he means: ‘Do not make Christ, the Sun of righteousness, set in your hearts by angering him through your assent to evil thoughts, thereby allowing the devil to find room in you because of Christ’s departure.’

It is for this reason that the Lord commands us to leave our offering before the altar and be reconciled with our brother (cf Matt, s: 23-24), since our offering will not be acceptable so long as anger and rancor are bottled up within us. The Apostle teaches us the same thing when he tells us to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17), and to ‘pray every where, lifting up holy hands without anger and without quarrelling’ (1 Tim. 2:8). We are thus left with the choice either of never praying, and so of disobeying the Apostle’s commandment, or of trying earnestly to fulfill his commandment by praying without anger or rancor.

Here we see the first symptom of an angry heart: failing worship. As Paul’s words clearly illustrate, our worship must be free from the distractions of anger. It follows, then, that if we are to pray constantly, that we must always be without anger in our hearts.

We may find the same teaching in the Old Testament as well. As though in complete agreement with the Gospels, it says: ‘Do not hate your brother in your heart’ (Lev. 19:17); and: ‘The way of the rancorous leads to death’ (Prov. 12:28. LXX). These passages, then, not only forbid anger in what we do but also angry thought. If therefore we are to follow the divine laws, we must struggle with all our strength against the demon of anger and against the sickness which lies hidden within us.

John here describes the scope of our problem: anger does not only take hold of us as we act it out, but rather as we let it fester on the inside.

Self -reform and peace are not achieved through the patience which others show us, but through our own long- suffering towards our neighbour. When we try to escape the struggle for long-suffering by retreating into solitude, those unhealed passions we take there with us are merely hidden, not erased: for unless our passions are first purged, solitude and withdrawal from the world not only foster them but also keep them concealed, no longer allowing us to perceive what passion it is that enslaves us.

There’s an interesting contrast at play here. On the one hand, the monastic struggle is to escape the temptations of the world and practice greater asceticism to tame the passions, yet on the other hand, St. John warns us that unless such passions are healed through long-suffering, they will merely be hidden, not tamed. Perhaps this is what monastics often speak of when discussing their lives of spiritual warfare. Passions long-hidden still arise for even the most ascetic monks. Even those of us who are not monastics would do well to understand the fine line that is walked between asceticism and escapism.

That being said, while St. John is writing for all Christians, he does have monks specifically in mind.

Poisonous creatures that live quietly in their lairs in the desert display their fury only when they detect someone approaching, and likewise passion-filled men, who live quietly not because of their virtuous disposition but because of their solitude, spit forth their venom whenever someone approaches and provokes them. This is why those seeking perfect gentleness must make every effort to avoid anger not only towards men, but also towards animals and even inanimate objects.

Here we see another symptom of an angry heart: the fruit of such a life bottled-up anger towards those around them—which makes perfect sense for one who seeks to escape others over seeking to tame the passions. On a personal note, this hits me hard. I am a married man, and I seek to live out asceticism even in marriage. This means daily laying my life down for my wife. I am far often too short with her and grow irritable in response to her requests of me. Please, friends, pray for me.

When we have dug the root of anger out of our heart, we will no longer act with hatred or envy. ‘Whoever hates his brother is a murderer’ ( 1 John 3:15), for he kills him with the hatred in his mind.

Lord have mercy and grant that we may have such roots dug out from our hearts.

The blood of a man who has been slain by the sword can be seen by men, but blood shed by the hatred in the mind is seen by God, who rewards each man with punishment or a crown not only for his acts but for his thoughts and intentions as well.

I come from a background in Protestantism, which tends to minimize sins of the mind (at least more so than the Orthodox or even Catholics do). I have often been taught that sins in the mind are only in the mind and that sins of action are a worse degree because we actually do them. This does not seem to be the case with the Church Fathers, though, as sins in the mind are, in fact, done; they are simply done in a different manner. Further, the emphasis on the nous in Orthodox theology and the practice of asceticism to tame the passions put into perspective the severity of sins committed in the mind. St. John eloquently states that these sins are more sinister because they are not seen by man. In a sense, these sins do not show themselves and allow our elders to correct us, and so they can fester like described above. Indeed the point is brought home by Scripture itself:

As God Himself says through the Prophet: ‘Behold, I am coming to reward them according to their actions and their thoughts’ (cf Ecclus. 35:19); and the Apostle says: ‘And their thoughts accuse or else excuse them in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men’ (Rom. 2:15-16). The Lord Himself teaches us to put aside all anger when He says: ‘Whoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of judgment’ (Matt. 5:22).

And to bring his point full-circle, St. John reiterates his focus:

The Lord’s intention is that we should remove the root of anger, its spark, so to speak, in whatever way we can, and not keep even a single pretext for anger in our hearts.

Lastly, we are given some practical, if seemingly impossible advice: never become angry.

The final cure for this sickness is to realize that we must not become angry for any reason whatsoever, whether just or unjust. When the demon of anger has darkened our mind, we are left with neither the light of discrimination, nor the assurance of true judgment, nor the guidance of righteousness, and our soul cannot become the temple of the Holy Spirit.

Anger makes right judgment impossible. Well, then, so much for righteous indignation, yes? For years, I can speak to my own struggle in this arena. Many times did I feel that my hatred for my brother was justified because I had judged that they were acting in such a way or teaching such a doctrine that merited by vehement disapproval (in reality I was—and still am for the most part—just a jerk). Yet St. John’s proposition does not allow for this assessment. If anger takes root in our hearts, we are incapable of making sound judgments of right and wrong. Worse yet, if anger fills our hearts, there is no room for the Holy Spirit. Harsh words!

Finally, we should always bear in mind our ignorance of the time of our death, keeping ourselves from anger and recognizing that neither self-restraint nor the renunciation of all material things, nor fasting and vigils, are of any benefit if we are found guilty at the last judgment because we are the slaves of anger and hatred.

I have no final words that sum it up better.

St. John, pray for us angry sinners.

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