Thursday, 1 December 2005

Combating the Passion of Anger 1 — The Tempting Thought of Rancour

In our last post, we described an interior condition free from tempting thoughts, one in which the Jesus Prayer continues—with great personal intensity, certainly—in an empty mind. This condition is close to the guard of the mind. The guard of the mind is the goal of the Hesychast, and it is from the guard of the mind that the Hesychast is raised by Grace to contemplation.

Let us suppose that in praying in this way, the monk observes an image in his field of consciousness. Let us suppose that this image attracts him, so that he wants to look at it, examine it, talk to it. If the monk gives in to this temptation to consort with the image that appears in his consciousness, thus deflecting his mind from the practice of the Jesus Prayer, then he has begun to consent to a tempting thought.

Let us now suppose that the monk is praying the Jesus Prayer in the way we described in the last post, although he is not dispassionate. That is, he is still subject to the passions. (Indeed, if he is still subject to the passions, he must be careful not to make too much of an ability to pray in the way that we have described: the demons that initiate the tempting thoughts might have withdrawn for a time, without for all that the monk being free of his passions.) Let us also suppose that having finished his vigil at night alone before God, the monk goes about his daily business, during which he falls into a disagreement with someone. Since he is not dispassionate, the monk might very well get angry at the other person. Let’s assume that he does, that he gets angry.

Let’s suppose that the monk calms down in an hour or two, finishes his day and gets up to do his cell vigil again, alone before God.

Now, when he begins to bring his mind into his heart practising the Jesus Prayer, the monk finds that things are not the way they were the day before. He sees that he is continually being distracted by a memory of the altercation he had earlier in the day. He keeps being drawn to a recollection of the event, of the person who offended him. He might begin to ‘act out’ in thought what he should have said and what he should have done in the episode but didn’t think of at the time.

We now say that the monk has a tempting thought of rancour. It is quite possible to have a tempting thought, of exactly the same nature as the thought of rancour just described, for any of the eight passions. The monk might have a thought of a pretty girl he knew 35 years ago, a thought of money and what he is going to do with it, a thought of honours that will accrue to him for his holiness and so on. In each case, however, the thought is distracting the monk from the practice of the Jesus Prayer in the way we described in the last post.

Mental ascesis is the practice of rejecting such tempting thoughts.

Now here we are interested in combating the passion of anger. Hence, we are interested in the tempting thought of rancour which is disturbing the monk’s practice of the Jesus Prayer. How does the monk get rid of this thought? At the most basic level, as with all of the tempting thoughts, he rejects it. He does not dally with it.

In general, in order to combat the passion of anger, the monk must strive to attain to meekness. This meekness is very similar to spiritual love, and should be distinguished from a sentimental meekness that verges on obsequiousness or unctuousness. It requires an honest humility to accomplish this meekness, and some spiritual maturity in how to deal with other people when they have grown angry or difficult.

In his everyday behaviour, so as to avoid in his prayer the distracting thoughts of rancour that we have just described, the monk must be careful not to give in to anger. There is nothing in the Christian monastic tradition that encourages expressions of anger. Instead, the Christian monastic tradition takes a more behaviouristic approach: avoid expressions of anger and your anger will diminish. Express meekness in your behaviour and your meekness will increase and your anger diminish.

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