The Problem of Less than Righteous Anger

Today’s gospel of Christ’s cleansing of the Temple (John 2.13–25) always makes my heart sink a little. It is not so much that the message of the signs tends to be overlooked in favour of the upsetting of the money-changers’ tables as that many choose to see in it a justification of their own anger. To identify one’s own anger with that of Christ seems to me at best questionable and at worst blasphemous. Just think for a moment what made His anger righteous:

  • full knowledge of grave wrong
  • the right and duty to correct
  • appropriate action

How does our own anger measure up to that?

We often assume full knowledge when it might be more accurate to say we have partial knowledge, enhanced by speculation on our part. That doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t be angry, but it does mean we should proceed with caution, aware that we may not be judging matters as we ought. Then, as to our right and duty to correct, we may need to reflect a little. There is no doubt that we must act when we see a wrong being done or some evil being perpetrated, but where does the emotion of anger come into it? What are the limits, the parameters within which our anger is justifiable? The third point, appropriate action, is often, in practice, the most difficult. Words tend to run away with us when we are angry, hostile gestures come too easily. We end up insulting or condemning the other. Shouldn’t we be asking ourselves whether destructive anger of this kind can ever really be righteous?

The problem, of course, is in the emotion which takes over and clouds our vision even as it stirs us up. St Benedict has quite a lot to say about anger, urging us never to act in anger or nurse a grudge; never to feign peace or swear falsely, but always to speak the truth, heart and tongue. (RB 4.22–28) He is drawing on a much older tradition which identifies anger as one of the principal ‘thoughts’ that can lead us into sin. Cassian is particularly readable on the subject. In chapter 8 of the Institutes (one of the books specifically recommended by St Benedict), he not only analyses the causes of anger and the ways in which it manifests itself, he also emphasizes the importance of controlling it if we are to be at peace. That doesn’t mean repression, it means choosing an appropriate way of controlling the energy anger releases in us and directing it to improving the wrong or evil situation.

Sometimes one sees in Social Media intense and destructive anger at work, or one is aware that someone is displaying disproportionate or misplaced anger (think road rage, for example). One of the gifts that monastic life has to offer the world is the realisation that anger doesn’t have to run away with us or be destructive. Very few of the monks or nuns I know would ever claim to exercise righteous anger. There is always a hesitation, an awareness that God’s view may be different from ours. That doesn’t mean we don’t get angry or say or do things we ought not to do, but I think it does ensure that we remain open to the possibility that we may be wrong, and that we have a duty to set right whatever we can. St Benedict, like so many before him, advocated always making peace with anyone we’ve had a difference with before sunset. That takes humility and courage, but one cannot pray with a raging heart. Anger squeezes God out, especially when it is less than righteous; and there’s the rub.

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A Starry Sky

One of the joys of living in rural Herefordshire is the beauty of the night sky. We don’t have street lights — or many houses, come to that. Step outside the door on a clear night and the sky is velvety black, studded with silver. Stars I could never see in Oxfordshire are here visible with a brilliance and definition that make one gasp. It reminds me of an evening in Cambridge during one of the power-cuts of the 1970s when I cycled down Castle Hill and saw the whole city spread out in the moonlight, rather as I imagine Newton must have seen it: soft and shadowy, quivering with a life it did not possess during the daytime.

Night transforms many things. Fears may grow, but the mind often sees with a clarity it lacks at other times. Distractions fall away. It is the time of sleep, of abandonment, of trust. In the monastic tradition, it is also a privileged time of prayer, of keeping vigil while others sleep, a time for God alone.

Looking up at the night sky and seeing the promise made to Abraham glittering from every corner, one can but marvel. We are so very small, the universe so very great, and there are worlds beyond worlds we have no knowledge of, yet God holds all things in being — not as a remote and indifferent spirit but as a Father, intimately involved in every aspect of our lives. The beauty we see is a reflection of his unseen Beauty. As Hopkins said,

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

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Feasts, Fasts and Fasting Diets

The rhythm of feasts and fasts is so central to the Church’s year and her understanding of the spiritual life that it may be worth gathering together a few thoughts on the subject. At the outset, we ought to distinguish between fasting in the traditional Christian sense and the popular ‘fasting diet’.

At its simplest, fasting means going without food and drink in order to remind ourselves of our creatureliness and enable us to focus on God more clearly. One might say that it has nothing to with us, but everything to do with God; and the fast of Jesus in the desert is the model for all our own fasting. The Lenten fast makes this very clear. The current discipline of the Church prescribes that on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday we should limit ourselves to one meal and two collations (snacks). This is both a penance (denying ourselves some good thing to show sorrow for our sins and ask grace for amendment in the future) and a preparation for what is to come. In the monastery, of course, the fasts are more frequent and more rigorous (for example, we fast every day during Lent, Sundays excepted) but the intention is the same. We seek the spiritual freedom that will enable us to follow the Lord more closely. Our fasting is meant to help us forget ourselves and our own comfort so that we are more open to God and others. The money we save is given to the poor. Any physical and psychological benefits are incidental. We might say that fasting as the Church understands it is essentially altruistic. The ‘fasting diet’ by contrast is primarily concerned with the health benefits for the dieter and, as a practice, has no larger end in view (though the individual may well have other motives for dieting in this way.)

When we come to feasts, the difference between Christian practice and secular custom becomes even more marked. The liturgical calendar highlights different occasions that throw light on our understanding of the central tenets of our faith. Sometimes, these seem to put us at odds, or at least out of step, with the people around us. During Christmastide, for example, we are still celebrating when others have taken down their Christmas decorations because it is Epiphany, rather than Christmas Day itself, which opens the way of salvation to gentile Christians. The greatest feast of all, that of Easter, is ushered in by a fast so that we feel in our own bodies the movement from darkness to light, but it is a feast that has very little razzmatazz surrounding it. The great mystery of the Eucharist is a feast in which we share by means of a morsel of bread and a sip of wine transformed into the sacred Body and Blood of Christ.

As we approach the last few days of the Christmas season and the thought of Lent begins to appear on the horizon, perhaps we could spend a few moments reflecting on the nature of feasts and fasts and the way we ourselves live them. The Rule of St Benedict is written around the feast of Easter. Everything is referred to that, and the joy and spiritual gladness that should accompany our every action should ensure our lives have a continual Lenten quality. As our American friends would say, go figure.

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The Monastic Habit

Today I must repair my winter habit. It is more than twenty years old —patched, darned, with several new panels inserted into it over the years where the girdle (the long leather belt we wear) has rubbed against the middle or my knees have worn holes. It is the work of many hands: the original habit-maker, and successive darners, repairers and general lookers-after, of whom I am the last and least competent. It is, in its way, a collaborative work, rather like community itself. It has adapted itself to the changing shape of my body and the different activities I’ve undertaken in response to obedience. It is worn and shabby, at the opposite end of the spectrum to the gorgeous vestments some clergy like to wear when officiating at the altar. But it is not just a set of clothes. It is, I would dare to say, my Wedding Garment for the Kingdom, my armour for the battle, a constant reminder of my vows.

Like the vocation it symbolizes, the monastic habit is not something we choose for ourselves or assume at will: it is always given, its colour and form determined by the community which confers it. When I was clothed in 1981, I was given the habit by D. Elizabeth Sumner. From her I can trace backwards, by name and date, the way in which the habit was bestowed and received as far as 31 December 1623, when the first nuns of the Cambrai community were clothed. I can go back further still, though there I would trace a double course, through the English Benedictine Congregation to Dom Sigebert Buckley and beyond, to the pre-Reformation English Benedictine houses, and through the three nuns of Brussels who helped the nascent Cambrai community. There is thus a long chain of being symbolized by my habit.

‘How romantic,’ sigh some, but to me there is nothing romantic about the monastic habit. It is too serious for that. From Evagrius onwards, many have attached an allegorical meaning to its several parts, but the real point is the commitment it signifies and the obligations it entails. They are what matter. In the old Clothing Registers we find against many a name ‘Shee went away.’ I often wonder what became of those who had worn the habit for a while then found that monastic life was not for them. Many, perhaps the majority, took from their brief experience of the cloister something valuable, something that changed the way in which they viewed the world henceforth. Perhaps they learned more quickly than those of us privileged to wear the habit every day that the real change takes place underneath.

Maybe I should look on my habit not so much as a Wedding Garment or battle armour as a school tunic, a sign of my willingness, indeed my need, to learn? That fits the Schola Dominici idea rather better, doesn’t it? Life-long learning, here we come!

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Through Lent with St Benedict: 2

RB 49 continues with these lines:

During these days, therefore, let us add something to the usual measure of our service, such as private prayers and abstinence from food and drink, that each one, of his own free will and with the joy of the Holy Spirit, may offer God something over and above the measure appointed for him. That is to say, let him deny himself some food, drink, sleep, pointless conversation and banter, and look forward to Easter with joy and spiritual longing.

Notice that, after the general introduction he gave yesterday, Benedict offers some  practical guidance. He is an ‘adder on’ rather than a ‘giver up’. He assumes, correctly I hope, that our lives are already free from excess and focused upon God, for he is aware that ‘giving up’ can become a kind of ascetical contest, full of pride rather than humility.

So, the first thing he advocates adding is ‘private prayers’. This phrase has caused whole forests to be felled and oceans of ink to be expended in its elucidation. I think myself that its meaning is clear. It is a direct reference to the ‘prayer with tears’ and ‘compunction of heart’ he mentioned earlier. This gift of compunction is often misunderstood as though it were some strange mystical phenomenon reserved for the great saints alone. It is nothing of the sort and is found again and again in monastic tradition.

We are not all spirit; we have bodies, and they too respond to the nearness of God. As we grow in prayer, we see more keenly what a terrible thing sin is. The knowledge punctures us and our pride and causes us to weep, gently and in a way, joyously. It is an intensely painful experience, but it is also peaceful, for we are held by God. It is also, emphatically, not for display. Benedict is suspicious of any public manifestation of the workings of grace in the soul, knowing that they can be a source of pride and presumption.

Next Benedict gives us a motive and a context for our Lenten observance. We are to embrace our Lenten disciplines freely, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, looking forward to Easter with joy and spiritual longing. Could there be any clearer statement of what we are about? We run towards Easter as we run along the way of God’s commandments, with a love beyond telling. This note of joy occurs again and again in the Rule and, as you read on, you’ll find that everything is ordered in relation to the paschal feast, from the times of meals to the formularies for prayer. Easter is at the heart of all Benedict’s prescriptions for monastic living.

That is why when Benedict spells out the ‘giving up’ side of things he inserts two we might not have thought of: sleep, and what I have translated as ‘pointless conversation and banter’, the kind of conversation that is often just noise.

Sleep is, of course, the opposite of wakefulness. Spiritually, it implies sloth, indifference, self-indulgence. There is a long monastic tradition of prayer during the night so that we are awake to greet the Resurrection. Keeping vigil is part of what we do. Restraint from idle or needless speech is another common monastic theme. We keep silence so that we may hear the Word of God more clearly. Here Benedict is suggesting that both in our keeping vigil and in our silence we prepare for the explosion of joy and life that is Easter.

Long before Benedict wrote, one of the desert fathers remarked that a monk’s cell is like Easter night, it sees Christ rising. That is precisely what we are about this Lent: allowing Christ to take form in us that when Easter comes we may take our place in the Resurrection.

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