virtue

On anger

“Our fourth struggle is against the demon of anger. We must, with God’s help, eradicate his deadly poison from the depths of our souls. 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).”

St John Cassian
THE DEMON OF ANGER

The evil of anger for St John Cassian is that it blinds our souls and cuts us off from true life. ‘Anger is a desire for revenge.’ [CCC no. 2302] That is, it is to desire destruction or harm upon someone or something in response to a perceived injury received. It therefore blinds our souls because we see the other as evil/as an enemy, when in truth and in God’s eyes they are fundamentally good and beloved. It cuts us off from true life because we set ourselves against God’s beloved, and therefore against God Himself. Experience confirms that anger destroys reason and opposes prayer, without fail. I am sure we have all experienced “seeing red” and doing something we shouldn’t have.

Righteous anger?

“Listen to what St Paul enjoins: ‘Rid yourselves of all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamour, evil speaking and all malice’ (Eph. 4:31). In saying ‘all’ he leaves no excuse for regarding any anger as necessary or reasonable. If you want to correct your brother when he is doing wrong or to punish him, you must try to keep yourself calm; otherwise you yourself may catch the sickness you are seeking to cure and you may find that the words of the Gospel now apply to you: ‘Physician, heal yourself’ (Luke 4:23), or ‘Why do you look at the speck of dust in your brother’s eye, and not notice the rafter in your own eye?’ (Matt. 7:3).”

St John Cassian

St John is unequivocal: the only place for anger is against our own sins. However, the idea of righteous anger goes back at least to St Thomas Aquinas, and so deserves respectful consideration. What does St Thomas say, and can we reconcile the two saints?

“It is unlawful to desire vengeance considered as evil to the man who is to be punished, but it is praiseworthy to desire vengeance as a corrective of vice and for the good of justice”

ST II-II, Q. 158, art.1, reply obj.3

The difference between St Thomas and St John is just that St Thomas is willing to call this anger and St John is not. This desire for justice, for restitution and correction of vice, is utterly different to the desire for vengeance upon an enemy, to the point where we need another word for it. Righteous anger is as different to anger as chaste sexual desires are to lust.

The point I would like to emphasise here is, that we ought to keep calm even when we must correct or confront a brother. We may feel outrage over the transgression, but we must be calm and contain ourselves, and insist upon viewing our brother as a brother, and if we must confront a brother we must do so in charity.

The purpose of anger

“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) – that is, be angry with your own passions and with your malicious thoughts, and do not sin by carrying out their suggestions. What follows clearly confirms this interpretation: ‘As you lie in bed, repent of what you say in your heart’ (Ps. 4:4. LXX) – that is, when malicious thoughts enter your heart, expel them with anger, and then turn to compunction and repentance as if your soul were resting in a bed of stillness.”

St John Cassian

Our incensive power, our internal power of destruction, is of itself good, and is to be placed at God’s service. The issue is that we think our friends (our fellow creatures) are our enemies, and that our enemies (our vices and sins) are our friends. We must study the passions and learn to know and fight our true enemies.

We shouldn’t be kind or gentle on our vices or malicious thoughts. We should expel them with anger. We should dash their heads against the rock, that is, Christ. We must be patient with ourselves, but absolutely merciless with vice.

This brings us back to the question of righteous anger. This anger against our own sins is certainly righteous anger, and I would argue that righteous anger in the larger sense is actually the same thing, only within a community rather than an individual. That is why it belongs especially to those in positions of authority.

It is right for a community to have anger at its own injustices and sins, and so to root them out and purify itself. But it must never be a matter of seeking revenge against others. It must be an act of love for the community as a whole as well as for each of its members, desiring to free us all, and it must be as part of the community. But again, and I must emphasise this, it must be done out of love, and be consistent with love; if it is not, then you are in danger of judgment (Mt 5:22).

How to conquer anger

“The final cure for this sickness is to realize that we must not become angry for any reason whatsoever, whether just or unjust.”

St John Cassian

Anger will always pretend to be justified. Always. No one is ever angry without feeling they have a right to be.

But you do not have a right to be angry, ever. How do I know? Because Jesus Christ Himself, when mocked, slandered, tortured and executed unjustly, did not respond in anger.

If, therefore, you continually recall this with all your heart, the passion of bitterness, anger and wrath will not master you. For when the foundations constructed of the passion of pride are sapped through this recalling of Christ’s humiliation, the whole perverse edifice of anger, wrath and resentment automatically collapses. For can anyone keep perpetually in mind the humiliation that the Divinity of the only-begotten Son accepted for our sake, and all the sufferings that we have mentioned, and yet be so hard and stony-hearted as not to be shattered, humbled and filled with remorse? Will he not willingly become dust and ashes, trampled underfoot by all men?

St Mark the Ascetic

God bless you!

On Lust

“The inordinate craving for, or indulgence of, the carnal pleasure which is experienced in the human organs of generation.” – the Catholic Encyclopedia

What is so terrible about lust? Lust reduces something which was made for connection and creating new life, into a sterile, lifeless pleasure, devoid of all meaning. We are left with an empty shell of sexuality. It is a pleasure separated from the real good it corresponds to, and so it is a mere illusion, and produces only the illusion of happiness, an experience only skin deep. Seeking after pleasure for its own sake hollows out a person, as they live for images and not for reality.

It also generally involves reducing another person to an object of our own pleasure, and not regarding them in their full humanity. It thus hollows out the lustful person, and their image of the other also, so that the humanity and reality of both is denied. I should note however, that there are degrees of lust, and they dehumanize to different levels.

Lust is extremely powerful, because it feeds off of our most powerful natural desire – to love and to be loved, and to have children conceived out of that love – and because it is so much cheaper to satisfy lust than the real desire. Chaste love is heroic, putting oneself on the line, taking risks and making sacrifices; lust is lazy, cowardly, and stingy, refusing risk, vulnerability, and gift, in order to ultimately remain alone.

How do we fight lust? Fighting gluttony is an important part, as mentioned in my previous post On Gluttony, and fasting in particular is recommended. St John Cassian adds:

‘Bodily fasting alone is not enough to bring about perfect self-restraint and true purity; it must be accompanied by contrition of heart, intense prayer to God, frequent meditation on the Scriptures, toil and manual labour. These are able to check the restless impulses of the soul and to recall it from its shameful fantasies. Humility of soul helps more than everything else, however, and without it no one can overcome unchastity or any other sin. In the first place, then, we must take the utmost care to guard the heart from base thoughts, for, according to the Lord, ‘out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, unchastity’ and so on (Matt. 15:19).’

St John Cassian, ‘On the Eight Vices’ (emphasis mine)

I would add, avoid the near occasion of sin, e.g. don’t go to a nude beach if you struggle with lust. I don’t think this was such an issue for the monks St John was writing for though.

‘If we are really eager, as the Apostle puts it, to ‘struggle lawfully’ and to ‘be crowned’ (2 Tim. 2:5) for overcoming the impure spirit of unchastity, we should not trust in our own strength and ascetic practice, but in the help of our Master, God. No one ceases to be attacked by this demon until he truly believes that he will be healed and reach the heights of purity not through his own effort and labour, but through the aid and protection of God. For such a victory is beyond man’s natural powers. Indeed, he who has trampled down the pleasures and provocations of the flesh is in a certain sense outside the body. Thus, no one can soar to this high and heavenly prize of holiness on his own wings and learn to imitate the angels, unless the grace of God leads him upwards from this earthly mire.’

Only God can deliver us from this demon. Only grace can grant to our nature its wholeness, and restore us to reality. Only the supernatural desire can overcome our most powerful natural desire, and order it to our good rather than our destruction.

God bless you.

P.S. Writing about vices is easier than writing about virtues, because virtues are living and vices are dead. Slavery can be summarised neatly, but to know freedom it must be lived. Chastity is so much more than a lack of lust, but it cannot adequately be spoken of. The best I can do for now is provide the above image.

On gluttony

What is gluttony? According to its Catholic Encyclopedia entry, gluttony is ‘the excessive indulgence in food and drink. The moral deformity discernible in this vice lies in its defiance of the order postulated by reason, which prescribes necessity as the measure of indulgence in eating and drinking.’ It is also one of the seven deadly sins/cardinal vices, and yet it seems to be widely forgotten today.

‘Food is to be taken in so far as it supports our life, but not to the extent of enslaving us to the impulses of desire.’ (St John Cassian) Food was made to nourish us as its primary purpose, and to deny it this is to twist it out of its own nature, and into something that is both harmful and wasteful.

What’s more, gluttony subverts the created order in which the mind rules over the body, managing its needs and desires, and lets the body and its desires instead rule the mind. It attaches us to bodily/earthly realities, and so prevents us from rising to spiritual/celestial realities.

Gluttony also feeds the next cardinal vice, lust. This vice we hear about all the time. St John Cassian said, ‘No one whose stomach is full can fight mentally against the demon of unchastity.’ Indulgence spills out to indulgence. First the flesh demands its basic good and pleasure of food, and then it goes on to its higher good and pleasure of sex.

According to St Thomas, there are five ways to be gluttonous: too soon, too expensively, too much, too eagerly, too daintily. While growing obesity levels are visible and concerning, gluttony is much more than getting fat, and likely affects most people in the western world. Being excessively fussy is itself a form of gluttony.

So how should we oppose this vice? St John Cassian: ‘A clear rule for self-control handed down by the Fathers is this: stop eating while still hungry and do not continue until you are satisfied.‘ I’m not sure how hungry/unsatisfied this requires, but at least try to leave some room (and not just for dessert!).

Speaking of dessert, I won’t say anything against that, nor against enjoying life generally. But we do need to learn moderation, and eat with the end of nourishment in mind. Food should absolutely be enjoyed as a gift from God, but we have to watch not to abuse it.

God bless 🙏