Anger & Its Remedies

Fr. Roberto Cano, FSSP

AMDG

For the anger of man worketh not the justice of God. – Js. I, 20

             There is not a man, woman or child amongst us here today who at some point in their life has not been angry.  For many of us this may be an understatement, as we may spend a majority of our time brooding thoughts of anger towards others.  While for others it seems that very few things if any can ever make them angry.  The point is: anger is very much part of our human experience, it affects everyone at one moment or another and this is not without reason.  We might dare to say that if such a person existed who never got angry he would hardly seem human.  And so we see even in the life of Christ, Who is perfect God and perfect Man, that when He cleansed the Temple from the moneychangers and vendors He manifested a “holy anger” — which was really a zeal for the house of God.  What is clear then is that if in the life of Christ Who is absolutely sinless there was anger, it cannot be said that all anger is sinful.  Hence, the difference between godly/holy anger and the anger of man which according to St. James “worketh not the justice of God.”  Let us then discuss anger in further detail and the virtues which serve as its remedy.

            First and foremost, it must be said that anger is a passion or what is more commonly called an emotion.  Anger as a passion causes a bodily transmutation in the person who is undergoing the action due to the presence of the sensitive object.  This is why say we feel “anger” towards certain persons who may have caused an injury towards us when they are in our presence.  Anger always considers two objects, namely, vindication and the bad or harm of the one causing the sorrow.  Reason is what announces the cause of the anger because it judges the injustice or harm done.  Although an act of reason is necessary for anger to be present, the emotion of anger does not always listen to the command of reason.  The emotion may not always cease when the vindication is being fulfilled and so even if one may correctly judge the injustice, the passion may go beyond what justice requires.  It is here where we get into the realm of sin.  If we are driving on the highway and someone is about to cut us off, our natural reaction is to become angry because our intellect recognizes an evil present namely the danger of crashing and of our bodily life.  Reason would dictate for us to grab the attention of the other driver by honking or some other method, but if we begin to curse, yell and berate the other driver then we have certainly exceeded what is just and therefore have sinned.  On the other hand, if we see someone physically harming one of our loved ones, and here again the natural reaction would be to become angry because we recognize the evil being committed against the person we love.  In this case, reason would dictate to act in a manner in which the culprit would stop even if that means physically hurting the other because what we are doing is defending the innocent.  It should be kept in mind that in this instance, only that force which would stop the threat is permissible and to go beyond that is to certainly sin. 

            The whole discussion on anger is so important because we must realize that the emotion or feeling in and of itself is not sinful.  Nor is to seek the vindication sinful unless we try to usurp the authority of God Who has said that, “Vengeance is mine.”  We usurp the authority of God when we ourselves become the judges of what is just and what is not and then seek out the vindication in accord with our subjective standards.  As Catholics, we know what is just by following the law common to our nature that is the natural law, but also that law which has been revealed by God through the Church.  Simply put, anger is sinful when either because of the object such as when a person wishes to exact vindication against the order of right reason or out of hate desires an end in and of itself evil or by the mode or manner when anger boils up exceedingly in the individual either interiorly or exteriorly.  Moralists tell us that when the anger is disordered on account of the object it is generally speaking a mortal sin because it goes against the order of justice while disordered anger by the mode or manner tends to be a venial sin.  Therefore, what should be clear is that to return an evil with an evil is wrong no matter what the circumstances may be or how justified we may feel.  This is a point that cannot be overlooked by parents and spouses.  In the case of parents, it is often the experience that the children will disobey and that as a result the emotion of anger may arise and rightly so.  However, the pitfall with most parents does not come in recognizing the need in disciplining the children because of their disobedience, but rather the manner in which they do it.  All too often, parents become angry and lose their control when they have failed in their past to be consistent with the discipline of the children.  At times it seems that they feel compelled to shout louder or spank harder in order for them to be heard even if the offence continues being the same.  However, what is really necessary is a discipline that is consistent and which seeks to inform the child that what they have done is wrong and therefore intolerable.  In most cases, this should not require an increase in force or in shouting.  In the case of spouses, there are any number of reasons it seems to become angry at the other whether it be the grave instance of infidelity to the lesser instance of pride and stubbornness of one of the spouses.  And here again there may be legitimate reasons to be angry, nevertheless, this does not excuse the offended spouse to treat the other spouse like an enemy or some expendable part of the family.  By the holy bond of matrimony the two have become one flesh and the souls of the couple are spiritually united to one another when they have received the Sacrament.  Therefore, to be angry and harm the other spouse by coarse words and indifference really only serves the purpose to hurt oneself.  We should heed the words of St. Augustine who said, “It is better to deny entrance to just and reasonable anger than to admit it, no matter how small it is.  Once let in, it is driven out again only with difficulty.  It comes in as a little twig and in less than no time grows big and becomes a beam.”  It is precisely here where the remedies for anger become so important not only for the common good of spouses and the family, but also of the individual.

            Christ, the 2nd Person of the Blessed Trinity, when He assumed a human nature unto Himself never ceased being God.  And as God he is Omniscient, that is all-knowing, and thus it was fitting that His disciples would call Him Teacher because indeed He was and is the Perfect Teacher for He knows all that can be known.  Ironically, however, but one time in Scripture do we read these words, “Lean of me, because I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt. XI, 29).  This is the one time that Christ said, “learn of me” not that the other things He did and taught were not to be followed, but especially in this point where His disciples to learn from Him.  For as the spiritual authors remind us humility is the foundation of the spiritual life.  It is the fertile ground which makes the other virtues flourish in our souls.   And it is particularly these two virtues of meekness and humility which temper the anger we find ourselves often combating.

            Meekness is the moral virtue which moderates anger according to right reason.  In other words, it tempers within our soul the desire for vengeance or revenge so that its desire never becomes an end in itself or becomes so great that we harm the order of justice.  According to St. Thomas Aquinas, “meekness makes a man master of himself.”  This is because the anger that might be felt never exceeds what is right and just and is manifested as such in our actions towards others.  We see this in a perfect manner in the life of Christ, Who as the Scripture tells us “came as a king, meek and sitting upon an ass” (cf. Mt. XXI, 5), in His desire for the salvation of sinners corrected and at times rebuked them severely not for an end in itself but because of the evil they were committing, namely, rejecting Him as the Son of God.  The question arises: we should we do when our anger becomes inordinate?  Here the counsel of St. Francis de Sales proves to be so valuable, “I constantly advise you that prayers directed against present and pressing anger must always be said calmly and peaceably and not violently.  Moreover, as soon as you see that you are guilty of a wrathful deed, correct the fault right away by an act of meekness toward the person you were angry with.  We must repair our anger instantly by a contrary act of meekness.  Fresh wounds are quickest healed, as the saying goes.”  And although practicing meekness towards others is always laudable we must be willing to practice this virtue with ourselves.  What do I mean?  That many souls often get upset with themselves when they see that they have sinned or acted in a disordered manner.  Thus, a person gets angry at the fact that they became angry or angry that they continue to commit the same sin over and over again.  And this serves no purpose whatsoever as it steeps our hearts in passion and if anything causes anxiety and lack of peace in our souls.  Here again our patron St. Francis de Sales has the adequate insight, “We must not fret over our own imperfections.  Although reason requires that we must be displeased and sorry whenever we commit a fault, we must refrain from bitter, gloomy, spiteful and emotional displeasure.  Many people are greatly at fault in this way.  When overcome by anger they become angry at being angry, disturbed at being disturbed, and vexed at being vexed…It may seem that the second fit of anger does away with the first, but actually it serves to open the way for fresh anger on the first occasion that arises.  Moreover, these fits of anger, vexation and bitterness against ourselves tend to pride and they spring from no other source than self-love, which is disturbed and upset at seeing that it is imperfect.”

            It remains now to say a few things about the virtue of humility.  Like meekness it is a moral virtue by which a man considering his own defects holds himself in the lowest place according to its mode.  Humility has basically two functions: 1) to restrain an inordinate desire of our own excellence, in other words, to think of ourselves more than we are 2) to subject us to God by acknowledging all the goods we have received whether material or spiritual have their source from God.  To admit that we possess certain talents or gifts is not necessarily a lack of humility, unless we hold ourselves as the source and reason for these gifts as if we had not received them from God.  Humility has truth at its very center for the virtue allows us to see things as they truly are and not as they appear or we think them to be.  Humility is entirely opposed to pride which is the inordinate desire of our own excellence and this is where anger fits into equation.  What is often the cause of our anger is the insult or injury our self-love receives.  As we said earlier, not only is humility the sine qua non (the indispensable principle to grow in sanctity) of the spiritual life, but also the very foundation of it.  There is a great need to practice this virtue because we have received a command or precept from the Our Lord Who said, “learn of me.”  We can be assured that in Heaven there are saints who do not have the same excellence in all the virtues.  For example, no one has the same purity of the Blessed Virgin Mary nor can everyone fast like St. Catherine of Siena, practice poverty like St. Francis of Assissi, or detachment like St. John of the Cross, however, every saint we know has practiced the virtue of humility and to a heroic degree.  There is no saint in Heaven that is not humble!  We must convince ourselves that although we might be destitute of some of the virtues the saints possessed, we can never attain eternal glory without the virtue of humility.  Humility like all the moral virtues is not only infused into the soul in the state of sanctifying grace, but is a virtue that can be acquired through the assistance of actual grace.  Which leads to a very important principle: if we wish to be humble, we have to be willing to be humiliated.  There is no other way.  This does not mean that we become a door mat or a kick me sign to others, for every man has a right to a good name and to be respected because of his dignity as a creature of God.  But it does mean accepting and bearing the humiliation when it comes and with an intention that is supernatural meaning for the sake of God’s glory.  In humiliation we have the perfect opportunity to resemble Jesus Christ, Who though entitled to all the honors and praise the world could offer Him, nevertheless, bore humiliation and scorn for the salvation of souls and the glory of the Father. 

            Non nobis, Domine, non nobis—not to us, O Lord, not to us but to thy name give glory (Ps. 113, 1) this indeed is the cry of the humble man.  And we must ask ourselves when we are angry: are we angry because God is insulted or are we angry because our love of self has been wounded?  If it is the former then there is room for authentic zeal to do an arduous action, in this case, to defend the rights of Almighty God as did Christ when He cleansed the Temple.  However, if we grow angry due to self-love then we only seek to protect our own honor and to glorify ourselves.  The saints are quick to point out that of the numerous merits of the Blessed Virgin Mary that which made her most suitable to be the privileged Mother of God was her humility.  To use the words of St. Bernard, “By her virginity she pleased God, by her humility she conceived Him.”  What is clear from all our discussion today is that we need to grow in humility and meekness if we seek to work the justice of God.  Indeed, we must be as St. James admonishes us, “swift to hear, but slow to speak and slow to anger.” (Js. I, l9).  For truly it will be as Christ said, “unless we are converted and become as little children, we shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. XVIII, 3).

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