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Purge Your Heart of Anger


“Prayer is the flower of gentleness and of freedom from anger” (St. Evagrius).


“We must, with God's help, eradicate the deadly poison [of the demon of anger] from the depths of our souls. So long as he dwells in our hearts and blinds the eyes of the heart with his somber 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” (St. John Cassian).


A boy once became a saint for his gentleness and forgiveness. Young Peter was born in a pious home in Southern Russia, and enlisted in the Tzar’s army. At the Prutsk Campaign of 1711, he and fellow soldiers were captured by Turks. They were sold into slavery and subjected to cruel torture for their Christian faith. Some were martyred. Others apostatized to Islam. Peter resisted: “You cannot turn me from my holy Faith by threats, nor with promises of riches and pleasures,” he said. “I will obey your orders willingly, if you will leave me free to follow my religion.” He was bold, but also meek and humble, happy to live as a faithful servant so long as he could worship Jesus Christ. The master was moved by his nobility and gave Peter what he asked.


Years went by. In cold and heat, barefoot and clothed in rags, the servant labored for his master and never complained. He was mocked and beaten at times. Yet, he never became angry. His fellow servants often cursed the master behind his back, but Peter refused to join in. Eventually, the household became so impressed by his kindness and gentleness, they invited him to live in the mansion. He declined. He preferred to sleep in the hay loft, where he could pray through the night. Little Peter was no great preacher. He did not have degrees and education. He did not found hospitals or build monuments. He became saint for his gentleness and forgiveness.


“Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’” (Matthew 9:5).


Our Gospel takes us to Capernaum, where Christ encounters a cripple, paralyzed and bedridden, carried in by his friends. He was moved by their faith and spoke to the paralytic: “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” The religious onlookers were indignant. Who does this Rabbi think he is? And Christ taught us a lesson.


“Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’” (Matthew 9:5).


Our sins and sickness are closely related. The evil in our heart eats away at us, body and soul. Psychology, Neurology, Biology, all the medical sciences, closely interpenetrate. A lot of our physical problems are caused by our spiritual struggles, whether from anxiety, fear, or self-indulgence. Jesus Christ shows the crowd that to heal the paralytic of his disease is the same as to forgive him his sins.


This does not mean that the holier you become the healthier you get, or vice versa. God allows us to suffer physically because we need our pain to grow spiritually. Nonetheless, in the end, Christ died on the cross to restore the whole person, our soul, heart, mind, hands, feet, skin, everything.


“Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength” (1 Corinthians 15:43).


“He then said to the paralytic—‘Stand up, take your bed and go to your home’” (Matthew 9. 6).


There is one illness, in particular, which works havoc on our body and soul: anger.


Psychology Today reports that sustained anger injures our cardiovascular system (our heart, arteries, and veins), and our immune system (our cells’ ability to fight disease), and will even destroy neurons in our brain. Alcoholics Anonymous has a saying: “Resentment is like taking poison . . . and waiting for others to die,” and the Buddhists teach: “Anger has a honeyed tip . . . and a poisoned barb.”


We all know anger harms us, but I was recently struck by the emphasis the Church Fathers place on anger. Page after page of the Philokalia talks about anger. It insists that every trace of anger dulls our ability to pray. Anger makes us spiritually sterile. It clouds our heart. It cuts us off from God. It makes us our soul blind, deaf, and dumb.


We share a lot in common with this paralyzed fellow in the Gospel. Do we not?


But are we not justified in our anger? That is how we feel. Is it not? When the anger boils in our blood, we are confident that our anger is righteous?


The Holy Fathers would certainly not agree.


“Thoughts will come to you which make you feel that you have a real right to be angry,” St. Evagrius says. “But anger with your neighbor is never right.”


Righteous anger is only righteous when directed against our sin and the devil, he continues. Anger is never righteous or justified when directed against another human person. It is always a trap.


“No matter what provokes it, anger blinds the soul's eyes,” St. John Cassian teaches. “Anger, whether reasonable or unreasonable, obstructs our spiritual vision . . . we must struggle with all our strength against the demon of anger and against the sickness which lies hidden within us.”


A couple weeks ago, I woke up filled with anger over something someone had done. I stewed in it for a long time. I even enjoyed it. I felt not only justified, but righteous and noble for flirting with the angry thoughts. I prayed through it for over an hour, but could not shake out of it. Then I remembered all these teachings by the saints about anger. I was harboring these thoughts, even enjoying them, as though they were mine. But that is not so. All angry thoughts come from a demonic spirit. That cloud of anger that chokes us — there is nothing private or personal about it. It is a demon — a malicious and odious demon at that. Do we really want to flirt and snuggle up with a demon?


We become free when we recognize our struggle for what it is. Anger cripples us. So Christ is speaking to us personally. He is speaking to us in our struggle with anger, when he tells us: “Your sins are forgiven . . . Stand up, take your bed and go home.”


The Scriptures are clear.


“Rid yourselves of all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, evil speaking and all malice” (Eph. 4:31).


In the end, what is a good life? How many today would look at St. Peter the Gentle and see his life as a waist. He could have gone off to go to college? He could have gotten married? He could have become a businessman or entrepreneur. Instead, fate dictated that he would become a slave. But what is the measuring rod of success? St. Peter became forgiving. He became gentle. He learned to love everyone, even the slave driver who beat him. He acquired the Kingdom of God in his heart. That is a successful life.


How can we become more like St. Peter? How can we learn to forgive, to become gentle? We have to learn to rejoice every time we are offended. Every offense is an opportunity to forgive. We have to learn to rejoice when things go wrong. Every inconvenience is an opportunity to become gentle. We have to strive to set aside our hurt and anger and to love. Our Lord’s final words on the cross were: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He spent his life loving others and died with a heart overflowing with gentleness and forgiveness. May we follow him to the last.


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