Tuesday, December 12, 2006

St. John Cassian's "On the Eight Vices": Wrath

Well, here it is. So sorry it took me so long to post this, but the end of term is quite difficult, with Don Rags taking up much of my time.

I started this series of meditations based on St. John Cassian's "On the Eight Vices" (or the Seven Deadly Sins) back in Lent, and am now taking it up this Advent for the purpose of "making the way straight" for our God, by rooting out all that should not be in us.

We now take up what the Holy Father Cassian calls the "fourth struggle": Wrath. The first two vices-gluttony and lust-play on what is according to our nature. That is why, in the Divine Comedy, this grouping of sins are identified with the loepard, who is portrayed by Dante as a romping,frolicking and jovial beast. With avarice and anger, we are now dealing with things that are contrary to our nature. This grouping of sins are identified in the Divine Comedy as sins of incontinence.

With wrath, St. Cassian is very uncompromising: "We must, with God's help, eradicate this deadly poison from the depths of our souls."

To what lengths must we go to destroy this unnatural passion? Well, St. Cassian is quite clear, and most uncompromising, on this point: : "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)." ("On the Eight Vices", Philokalia, p. 83)

"All", for St. Cassian, means ALL. Unlike some of today's politicians, whether Republican, Democrat, Tory, Labour, etc., there is no confusion for him as to what words mean. When he says eradicate all anger, he means ALL ANGER: "In saying 'all' he (St. Paul) 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' (Luke4:23), 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) (p. 83)

It is clear why St. Cassian does not allow even "righteuous" anger to his monks. Anger "blinds the soul's eyes, preventing it from seeing the Sun of Righteousness." Anger works on our incensive power, which is classified as a part of the appetetive, or desiring, aspect of the soul, that part of us that "provokes vehement feelings". (Glossary, Philokalia, p. 358). When used correctly, it may lead us to fight against sin, and "intensify our desire for God." (p. 358) When used wrongly, however, it leads to anger, which is the root of hatred and violence. Thus, we can see how it is that anger, no matter how "righteous" or "justified," puts us in danger of obstructing our soul's power to reflect the divine light. It prevents us from "seeing the Sun of Righteousness."

Anger, then, is the use of that incensive power in a way that is contrary to nature. But what of the Psalm, "Be angry, but sin not" (Psalm 4:4)? St. Cassian gives this peace of wisdom: "Be angry with your own passions and with your malicious thoughts, and do not sin by carrying out their suggestions." The battleground, of course, is the human heart, that field of battle where, as Solzhenitsyn once said, draws a line not between good and evil. When we realize that this line cuts through our very hearts, it forces us to look into ourselves, and not our brother, to find the cause of our anger and grief. From the Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian: "Yea, O Lord, grant that I may percieve my own transgressions, and not judge my brother." From St. Paul: "Quia non est nobis conluctacio adversus carnem et sanguinem sed adversus principes et potestates, adversus mundi rectores tenebrarum harum, contra spiritalia nequitiae in caelestibus." (Eph. 6: 12 Vulgata: For our fight is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, against the dark rulers of this world, against the vil spiritual forces in the heavens). It is on tis level that we engage the passion of wrath: in our own hearts and souls.

This is why St. Cassian enjoins his monks to to not only fight wrath in action, but also in thought, "otherwise", he says, " our intellect will be darkened by our rancour, cut off the light of spiritual knowledge and discrimination, and deprived of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit." (p. 84) Even more than lust and gluttony, wrath blinds the soul to the divine light to such an extent that it renders us unable to make proper judgements, devoid of malice. No matter how "righteous," it always has that ability to make us blind to the true goal of correction: the encouragement of a brother to forsake sinful passions. Again, how can we encourage a brother towards virtue, when we ourselves are blinded by sinful passions, especially of anger? For St. Cassian, the answer is quite clear and uncompromising-cut it off at the very root, making no concessions to it.

Because it is a sin which affects our relationships, St. Cassian commands his brethren to take up the fight not in solitude, but in community. He discourages seeking retreat to deal with this sin, since "our passions grow fiercer when left idle through lack of contact with other people. Even that shadow of patience and long-suffering which we thought we possessed while we mixed with our brethren is lost in our isoaltion through not being exercised." (p. 85) Here is the key: the virtue of continence must be worked out in community with our brethren, not in isolation. For St. Cassian, virtues are best exercised when we interact with our brethren. Drawing from his own experience, he relates how, when he lived in the desert as a solitary, he would at times get angry at a piece of wood which he wished to cut quickly, but was not yielding so easily to his strikes, or a flint which would not light fast enough. (p. 86)

While I'm still wrestling with his rejection of righteous anger, I must also be quick to add that when I ponder this more deeply, and am honest with myself, many of ny own bouts with anger (justifiable or otherwise) leave me with an uneasy feeling of satisfaction for the "rush" that it provides. At such times, my mind is on everything BUT God-it is scattered in a million directions, as I obsess about the injury done to me, or to a loved one. Sometimes it takes place at rush hour on the way to work, driving on the I-5, reacting in a way that is, as my students would have it, "ugly". "After all, there are classes to teach, great thoughts to discuss and communicate to my students, dissertations to write, and all the while I'm stuck in this @#$*%$@! traffic!" Now I can see where road rage begins. At such a time, I have been instructed by my Father Confessor to pray for those around me Praying the Jesus Prayer, both for myself and those around me, goes a long way in reining in my passions.

I can see most clearly, at such times, why St. Cassian is relentlessly uncompromising in his attitude against wrath and anger. This is a passion where the will is actively involved, with a demonic level of intentionality that very easily leads to violence, and fraud. This is why, in the topography of Dante's hell, the circle of the incontinent, containing that of the wrathful, is just above the circle of the violent, which includes, interestingly, heretics, and the level of the violent is just above that of the fraud. As we descend further into nether-hell, our relationships become ever more estranged, souls become more self-directed. With wrath, we are that much closer to the "slippery slope" of the descent into the nonth circle-traitors to their lords. Here Dante shows wrath's ultimate end-an isolated existence, where the only relationship between Satan and anyone else is a consuming one. This is the ultimate violence: the breakdown of all relationships, between humanity and God, and humanity with its self. Contra Sartre, hell is not other people, but my own narcissistic self. These are the wages of wrath.

As we await the advent of our Incarnate God and King, let us be done with this malady, that we may recieve Him who comes invisibly upborn by the heavenly hosts! May He, who knew no malice, direct our steps in meekness and love so that, at His glorious and dread judgement seat, He may find us worthy to partake of his Kingdom, now and always, et in saeculam saeculorum. Amen.

Next meditation: On Sloth (Dejection and Listlessness)


Lynn said...

Thank you! I hope that Don Rags, and your own duties as a student, go smoothly.

I've been thinking this afternoon about the injunction to get rid of "all" anger . . .

Peace of Christ be with you.

D.A. Silvestri said...

I think it's D.L. Sayers who comments that in the polyvalent symbolism of the Commedia, the sins of the Leopard (the sins of youth as well as incontinence)become the sins of the Lion (middle age) which in turn become the sins of the wolf (old age). So that the 'light hearted' sins(gambolling and skipping and hindering Dante's way Inf.I:24)harden if not dealt with (Dante's attempt: the much disputed monastic belt?) and take a firmer hold becoming strong and overpowering in middle age (the lion), and ravenous, insatiable, and self-consuming in old age (the wolf). So perhaps we can see a picture of how for instance, anger could start as flashes of righteous (and not so righteous anger) in idealistic youth,eventually becoming an outlook, an angry attitude or worldview in middle age, eventually even become a deep bitterness a corosive sullenness(Inf VII:121)which can be found in some elderly people.
- sorry for the length of this comment.

Benedictus said...

Lynn-Thank you for the post. All went smoothly, Deo Gratia, and now I'm taking on the task of writing the first words of my dissertation.

D.A.-Again, welcome, and thank you for the insightful comment. I think it illuminates the connection between the three levels of hell (sins of the leaopard, lion and wolf) and the varying degrees of anger much more lucidly. No apologies for the length.