This year throughout Lent I am writing about the desert monastic tradition and the way they understood thoughts and feelings, our relationship to them, and how we can approach them in a contemplative way. In another article, which you can find by clicking HERE, I talked about the imagery used by these early Christian monks which describes unwanted thoughts and feelings as demons. This is a different way of understanding demons than is often presented in modern Christian circles. It is a psychological understanding which uses the imagery of demons to describe thoughts and feelings which seem to come from outside of us and happen without our consent, and that’s why they are considered to be entities other than ourselves. Much in the same way that mindfulness techniques help us to distance ourselves from our feelings, this ancient technique helps us to not identify with them by naming them angels and demons – they are something which we are experiencing, but they are not who we are.
In modern language we would likely say that these are subconscious thoughts that come from our past experiences or from our biology and animal nature. Not everything which comes from our subconscious or biology is automatically unwanted or bad and in this article I want to talk about how anger fits into this and whether it is an angel or a demon. To start with, let’s look at how Evagrius describes anger in general:
“The most fierce passion is anger. In fact it is defined as boiling and a stirring up of wrath against one who has given injury – or is thought to have done so. It constantly irritates the soul and above all at the time of prayer it seizes the mind and flashes the picture of the offensive person before one’s eyes. Then there comes a time when it persists longer, is transformed into indignation, and stirs up alarming experiences by night. This is followed by a general debility of the body.”
The first thing I want to draw attention to here is that anger interferes with prayer. When Cassian introduces the vice of anger in his book Institutes, he goes over this in great detail. Contemplation and anger are like oil and water, they don’t mix. Cassian described it like this:
“The deadly poison of anger must be totally uprooted from the depths of our soul. For as long as it resides in our hearts and blinds our mind’s eye with its harmful darkness, we shall be able neither to acquire the judgment of a proper discretion nor to possess a good contemplative vision or a mature counsel, and we shall not be sharers in life, tenacious of righteousness, and certainly not receptive to the spiritual and true light, because it is said ‘my eye has been disturbed by anger.'”
People often make a distinction between righteous and unrighteous anger, and there is a difference, but whichever kind of anger you may be experiencing, it is always a stumbling block to contemplation. I often see people who are angry about genuinely awful things, like systemic racism or rape culture, who suffer from the blindness of anger despite their anger being righteous. Maybe you know someone like this who is so enraged about something genuinely awful that they develop a kind of pride which prevents them from hearing others and this becomes an obstacle to genuine resolution of the issue.
Cassian compares this phenomenon to a blindness in which our eyes are covered over by metal. “It is irrelevant whether a layer of gold or one of lead or of some other metal is placed over the eyes; the preciousness of the metal does not change the fact of blindness.” Even if you are angry about something which is legitimately evil, and therefore your anger could be considered to be good like a precious metal, it will still l blind your eyes from the light of Christ and at the time of prayer you will find yourself unable to be a dwelling place of God’s love and wisdom.
However, this doesn’t mean that we should just be positive all the time and avoid conflict. Part of this conversation which often trips people up in our modern world is the false idea that saying anger interferes with contemplation is the same thing as saying that we should passively accept evil in the world or in our personal lives. We need to have courage in the face of injustice and we are called by God to care for the oppressed and to hate sin.
But, we can respond to injustice with courage without allowing our inner eyes to be blinded by anger. In our modern language we like to simplify things, sometimes to our own detriment. We like to talk about feelings, which are incredibly nuanced and complex, with simple terms like mad, sad, and glad. The ancients, however, preferred to use a variety of detailed terminology for the inner experiences of human beings. We have nuanced terminology for these things in English but we don’t often utilize it. Anger, in the ancient sense, is about rage, vengeance, and accusation. It is something which overpowers us, clouds our vision, and makes us violent – either physically, verbally, or otherwise.
There is a capacity in the human soul which identifies when things are wrong and it is not the same thing as anger. It rises up in us to tell us that we should not accept what is being presented to our faculties. If you realize that someone is cheating you, this realization typically comes with an emotion. Let’s call that emotion irritation, because it is a sense that something is rubbing you the wrong way. Just like a pain in our leg tells us to be careful how we walk, this irritation of our spirit tells us that we need to proceed mindfully. This immediate emotional response to something which is not right does not last long and is essentially neutral in character, it isn’t an angel or a demon. But it leads us into one or the other.
When we experience this kind of irritation there is a split moment decision (often one we are not consciously aware that we are making) which leads us either into the demon of anger or the angel of courage. If anger is a rage which clouds our judgement, then courage is a clarity that reveals the truth. This courage lifts us out of subjection and gives us the ability to talk back to the demons of the world. It also gives us the ability to talk back to the demons inside of us. But it is impotant not to conflate courage with anger, because anger can corrupt courage very easily and turn it into something destructive rather than life giving. If you want to read more about that, you can check out an article I wrote a little while ago which talks about the dynamic between anger and courage called How Our Hearts Are Works of Art.
But let’s move on past courage and focus specifically on anger. In another article in this series which addresses the demon of sadness, I talked about how sadness has a spiritual side which is beautiful and an important part of the contemplative life. There is a kind of sadness which is not a demon at all but rather the angel of compunction. But not all sadness is good for us, and when it isn’t we usually tend to hide it in shame. We often find that underneath anger, the true issue at hand this is sadness and fear, which our anger protects and hides. Like a dog with an injured leg that snaps at anyone who comes near, the vicious behaviour is protecting the pain and injury. In order for us to help heal our dog, we must first get past their anger by calming them with gentle assurance. In the same way, in order to get to the sadness and fear which is hidden underneath our anger, we must first let go of the anger by replacing it with patience.
Unlike sadness and courage, there is no need for anger in the spiritual journey. Yet, because anger distorts our vision it always makes us feel like the anger we have is good, it may even try to pass itself off as courage and we are typically reluctant to let it go. No one ever feels angry about something that doesn’t seem to deserve their anger. Anger feels important – but it’s not. Anger is a rage that comes with a sense of injustice and offense. It is dependent on the thought that we are right, or at the very least that someone else is wrong.
Anger is destructive by nature. When we allow this demon to reside within us, we are committing an act of self destruction. The angels, on the other hand, come into this chaos bearing on their wings eyes unclouded by hate. They remind us of the spiritual pleasure which is contrary to our anger and encourage us to turn our anger in on itself.
If we allow anger to live within us and if we come to love it, which many people do, we will destroy ourselves. However, if we turn it back on itself and hate the demon of anger, the demon will destroy itself instead of us and we will be left with peace and no anger in sight. This does not mean that we should be angry with ourselves, but only that we should be angry with the demon of anger, which is not who we are but is something that afflicts us. Evagrius described it like this:
“Anger is given to us so that we might fight against the demons and strive against every pleasure (read every unhealthy pleasure). Now it happens that the angels suggest spiritual pleasure to us and the beatitude that is consequent upon it so as to encourage us to turn our anger against the demons. But these, for their part, draw our anger to worldly desires and constrain us – contrary to our nature – to fight against our fellow men to the end that, blinded in mind and falling away from knowledge, our spirit should become a traitor to virtue.”
Notice how the angels are not angels of anger, like there are angels of sadness, but rather the angels of beatific vision come to encourage us to turn anger against itself. Notice the reference to courage in the word en-courage. We transform our anger into courage when refuse to let the demon reside within us. The angels bring a deep seeing and the demons bring blindness. While the angels invite us to turn anger in on itself, the demons draw our anger outwards and into the world. They encourage us to go against our nature, which is to love creation, other people, and ourselves. It makes us less like ourselves because anger is self destructive. It makes us turn away from the virtues which were placed inside us by God from the very beginning. It makes us traitors to our true selves.
Anger not only destroys the person who it infects, but it also destroys the people around them. Anger leads to violence, disharmony, conflict, and strife. It is a vice which is rarely self contained and almost always bleeds out into the community. The contraries to this vice, therefore, are peace, harmony, patience, and forgiveness. So if we want to resist the demon of anger, we must do things which create peace despite our urge to destroy. We must do that which unites people despite our desire to ostracize the other. We must be patient with others faults and forgive them despite the fact that we feel like punishing them.
Anger begets anger. The more we indulge anger the greater it grows. Evagrius goes on to say that “both anger and hatred increase anger. But almsgiving and meekness diminish it even when it is present…Do not give yourself over to your angry thoughts so as to fight in your mind with the one who has vexed you.” If we allow ourselves to have heated arguments inside our minds then we only deepen the hold anger has on us. This is why Jesus calls us to pray for our enemies. When we change our inner dialogue we cast this demon out of our souls. Anger cannot live where forgiveness is present.
But that’s not always easy to do. It is one thing to acknowledge that forgiveness is good and another to be able to forgive. We must never mistake ignoring our anger for healing it. Forgiveness does not mean pretending we’re not angry, rather it is about coming to terms with our anger and addressing the issues which surround it, both interiorly and exteriorly.
Forgiveness is a kind of generosity and so, if we find ourselves unable to address our anger inwardly by developing a generosity of spirit, we may find it helpful to do outward acts of generosity such as making dinner for the person whom we are angry with. If we cannot do something for the person we are angry with directly, perhaps because they are violent or otherwise toxic and dangerous, then we can do acts of generosity for others in their place. Go out and serve the poor and needy. Show generosity and kindness to a stranger and dedicate it in your heart to the one whom your anger is against.
In your time of prayer, you can speak back to this demon of anger using the verses below. You can repeat them silently in your mind like a mantra or use them with prayer beads. It may help to align them to your breath, breathing in with the first part of the verse and out with the second. These are entries 31 and 46 in the section on anger in Evagrius’ book Talking Back.
Against the demon that seeks through many temptations to extinguish our love for the brothers:
‘Much water will not be able to extinguish love, and rivers will not drown it’Song of Songs 8:7
To the soul that is swiftly angry but wants to find within itself the frontier of the knowledge of truth:
‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.’Galatians 5:22-23
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