In our struggle 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 our heart with his sombre disorders, we can neither discern what is for our good, nor achieve spiritual knowledge, nor fulfil 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 the 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 discern 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” (James 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).
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). 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 the words of the Gospel now apply to you: “Physician, heal yourself” (Lk. 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?” (Mt. 7:3).
No matter what provokes it, anger blinds the soul’s eyes, preventing it from seeing the Sun of Righteousness (Christ). Leaves, whether of gold or lead, placed over the eyes, obstruct the sight equally, for the value of the gold does not affect the blindness it produces. Similarly, anger, whether reasonable or unreasonable, obstructs our spiritual vision. 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 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. God has spoken of this Sun in the words of His prophet: “But upon you that fear My name shall the Sun of Righteousness arise with healing in His wings” (Mal. 4:2). If we take Paul’s saying literally, it does not permit us to keep our anger even until sunset. What then shall we say about those who, because of the harshness and fury of their impassioned state, not only maintain their anger until the setting of this day’s sun, but prolong it for many days? Or about others who do not express their anger, but keep silent and increase the poison of their rancour to their own destruction? They are unaware that we must avoid anger not only in what we do but also in our thoughts; otherwise our intellect will be darkened by our rancour, cut off from the light of spiritual knowledge and discrimination, and deprived of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
It is for this reason that the Lord commands us to leave our offering before the altar and be reconciled with our brother (cf. Mt. 5:23-24), since our offering will not be acceptable so long as anger and rancour are bottled up within us. The Apostle teaches us the same thing when he tells us to “pray without ceasing” (1Thess. 5:17), and to “pray everywhere, 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 rancour.
We are often indifferent to our brethren who are distressed or upset, on the grounds that they are in this state through no fault of ours. The Doctor of souls, however, wishing to root out the soul’s excuses from the heart, tells us to leave our gift and to be reconciled not only if we happen to be upset by our brother, but also if he is upset by us, whether justly or unjustly; only when we have healed the breach through our apology should we offer our gift.
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. 19:28. –LXX); 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. When we are angry with others we should not seek solitude on the grounds that there, at least, no one will provoke us to anger, and that in solitude the virtue of long-suffering can easily be acquired. Our desire to leave our brethren is because of our pride, and because we do not wish to blame ourselves and ascribe to our own laxity the cause of our unruliness. So long as we assign the causes for our weaknesses to others, we cannot attain perfection in long-suffering.
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. On the contrary, they impose on us an illusion of virtue and persuade us to believe that we have achieved long-suffering and humility, because there is no one present to provoke and test us. But as soon as something happens which does arouse and challenge us, our hidden and previously unnoticed passions immediately break out like uncontrolled horses that have long been kept unexercised and idle, dragging their driver all the more violently and wildly to destruction.
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 isolation through not being exercised. 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.
I can remember how, when I lived in the desert, I became angry with the rushes because they were either too thick or too thin; or with a piece of wood, when I wished to cut it quickly and could not; or with a flint, when I was in a hurry to light a fire and the spark would not come. So all-embracing was my anger that it was aroused even against inanimate objects. If then we wish to receive the Lord’s blessing we should restrain not only the outward expression of anger, but also angry thoughts. More beneficial than controlling our tongue in a moment of anger and refraining from angry words is purifying our heart from rancour and not harbouring malicious thoughts against our brethren.
The Gospel teaches us to cut of the roots of our sins and not merely their fruits. When we have dug the rot of anger out of our heart, he 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. 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. 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 judgement” (Mt. 5:22). This is the text of the best manuscripts; for it is clear from the purpose of Scripture in this context that the words ‘without a cause’ were added later. The Lord’s intention is that we should remove the root of anger, its spark so as to speak, in whatever way we can, and not keep even a single pretext for anger in our hearts. Otherwise we will be stirred to anger initially for what appears to be a good reason and then find that our incensive power is totally out of control.
The final cure for this sickness is to realise 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 discernment, nor the assurance of true judgement, nor the guidance of righteousness, and our soul cannot become the temple of the Holy Spirit. Finally, we should always bear in mind our ignorance of the time of our death, keeping ourselves from anger and recognising 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 judgement because we are slaves of anger and hatred.