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The Three Degrees of Anger

The Monks of Norcia – July 21, 2011

By Rev. Cassian Folsom, O.S.B. – Prior, Monastery of San Benedetto, Norcia, Italy

Today’s Gospel speaks of anger in the context of a debate against those who observe the Law of God superficially and exteriorly, but sin in their heart. He who lives superficially protests by saying “I’ve never killed anybody”, and therefore I’m not guilty of breaking the fifth commandment. But Jesus responds: “Look at the intentions in your heart: have you ever had feelings of anger or hatred towards your brother? The crime of murder has its roots in the heart!”

Therefore, the Lord directs this appeal to us, so that we can be more sensible to the presence of sin in our life—not only big sins, but especially those small ones.

MonksNorcia-RevCassianFolsom_1.jpgNote how the Gospel distinguishes three degrees of anger, and assigns to each degree a suitable penalty.

  1. He who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment, i.e. a trial.
  2. He who insults his brother saying “Raca”—a word in Hebrew which is pejorative and strong—shall be liable to the council (a panel of judges)
  3. He who says “you fool”—another word similar to “Raca”—shall be liable to hellfire.

It seems like a disproportionate punishment for so little! But the point is that the heart speaks through the mouth. Wrath that spreads throughout the heart and soul must be confronted and healed—so that our actions might be free from the consequences of anger.

The patristic tradition takes these considerations seriously. Let’s look at what St. Augustine and St. John Cassian have to say.

St. Augustine interprets these three degrees of anger in a psychological sense (cf. Breviarium Monasticum, V dominica post Pentecosten). In other words, by his acute observation of human behavior, Augustine makes this diagnosis:

  1. Anger begins with an interior turmoil.
  2. This turmoil is unleashed on the outside with a cry of wrath, a sound—but not yet articulated in words.
  3. Finally, a cry rises from the wrath of a word—as, for example, “raca” or something similar.

Parallel to these three degrees of anger are three degrees of the judicial process.

  1. The first degree is the meeting of the judges, St. Augustine says, where the case is discussed. There is still the possibility to exonerate the accused, because it deals with interior turmoil, which has not yet been expressed exteriorly.
  2. The second degree presumes that the accused is guilty, and the council discusses the sentence, the punishment.
  3. The third degree carries out the sentence with the fire of hell.

Summarizing the thought of St. Augustine, one notes the various stages of anger from the interior turmoil to the explicit appearance in sounds and words. The punishment is very severe, as if it were not only a wrathful word, but actually homicide.

St. John Cassian, too, describes three species of anger (Conf. V,11).

  1. The first is that which glows interiorly—here he repeats the concept of St. Augustine.
  2. The second is that which breaks out in words and gestures—here he unites the second and third degree of St. Augustine.
  3. The third is that which is not disposed of in a short time, but is cultivated for days and days. This third species, Cassian continues to develop, saying that such people who prolong their anger “for several days, and nourish rancorous feelings against those against whom they have been excited, they say in words that they are not angry, but in fact and deed show that they are extremely disturbed. For they do not speak to them pleasantly, nor address them with ordinary civility, and they think that they are not doing wrong in this, because they do not seek to avenge themselves for their upset. But since they either do not dare, or at any rate are not able to show their anger openly, and give place to it, they drive in, to their own detriment, the poison of anger, and secretly cherish it in their hearts, and silently feed on it in themselves; without shaking off by an effort of mind their sulky disposition, but digesting it as the days go by, and somewhat mitigating it after a while” (Institutes, VIII, 11).

MonksNorcia-RevCassianFolsom_2.jpgIn this precious description of the three species of anger, we can recognize ourselves and, with compunction and repentance, realize the negative consequences of our anger both for us and for those with whom we live.

What is the cause of anger? Normally, our wrath is provoked because we cannot have what we want. Our ego encounters an obstacle; our own will, in some way, is denied: and then boom, anger. To heal the wounds of wrath, according to this analysis, we must examine our desires: what do we want? That which we want: is it more or less reasonable? Should I change my expectations?

The opposing virtues are patience and meekness. Patience undergoes an injury and accepts the suffering experienced in the midst of the difficult situation. Meekness renounces the aggression of its own will, and says with St. John the Baptist: “he must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). In this way, we will become like the disciples described in today’s Epistle: “All of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind” (1 Pet 3:8).

Our model, as always, is our Lord Jesus Christ, who comforts us with these words: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart…” (Mt 11:28-29).

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