Feast of Sts. Christina the Great Martyr of Tyre and Athenagoras the Apologist
THE FATHERS used to say it is foreign to a monk to be angry, or to annoy other people. And again: The man who masters anger masters the devil, but the man who is worsted by this passion is a complete stranger to the monastic life. What ought we then to say about ourselves who give way to violent anger and even bear malice to the point of animosity toward one another? What else can we do but bewail our pitiable and inhuman condition? Let us control ourselves, brothers, and with God’s help come to one another’s assistance so that we may be delivered from the bitterness of this pernicious passion. There are times when, with apparent sincerity, a man asks forgiveness of his brother after some discord between them or for some quarrel which has arisen, and yet after the reconciliation he still remains troubled and has hard thoughts against his brother. He ought not to dwell on such thoughts but to cut them off immediately, for this is remembering evil. It needs much self control not to prolong such thoughts and fall into danger. Asking pardon in the way the commandment lays down should heal past anger and so combat thoughts of revenge, and yet because of this disagreement there remains a certain irritation with the brother. Now remembrance of evil or rancor is one thing, loss of temper or rage another, annoyance another, and disturbance of mind yet another.
I will give you an example so that you understand this clearly. Someone who is lighting a fire first sets a spark to the tinder; this is some brother’s provoking remark, this is the point where the fire starts. Of what consequence is that brother’s remark? If you put up with it, the spark goes out; but if you go on thinking, “Why did he say that to me and what do I have to say to him?” And, “If he did not want to annoy me he would not have said that, and he must think that I also want to annoy him.” So you add a small bit of wood to the flame, or some bit of fuel, and you produce some smoke, that is a disturbance of mind. This disturbance floods the mind with thoughts and emotions which stimulate the heart and embolden it to attack. And this boldness incites us to vengeance on the person who annoyed us and this becomes that recklessness which the blessed abba Mark talks about: The heart is stirred up to rashness when the thoughts are set on malice, but malice taken upon itself by prayer and hope leaves the heart at peace. If, therefore, you put up with a sharp retort from your brother, the little firebrand is extinguished, as I said, before it causes you any trouble. Even if you are a little troubled and you desire promptly to get rid of it, since it is still small, you can do so by remaining silent with a prayer on your lips and by one good heartfelt act of humility. But if you dwell on it and inflame your heart and torment yourself with thoughts about why he said this to me, and what do I have to say to him, you are blowing on the embers and adding fuel and causing smoke! From this influx of thoughts and conflicting emotions the heart catches fire and there you are in a passion. St Basil calls this passion a boiling up of the blood around your heart: this makes you what is called irascible. But even this commotion can, if you wish, be put out before it becomes rage. If you allow yourself to remain disturbed, however, you will begin to let fly at others—you will be like someone piling logs on a blazing hearth and fanning the fire and so making more firebrands. This is how you get into a rage. [. . .]
At the beginning of this conference we were talking about the man who apologizes to another but retains a slight irritation against his brother, and we were saying that through his apology the ‘anger’ was healed but he had not yet conquered resentment. Another man, if someone should happen to annoy him and apologize and be reconciled, is at peace with the other person and he no longer retains in his heart any remembrance of it; but if it happens that the same brother, some days later, says something to trouble him, he begins to remember the first offence and begins to be troubled not only about the second but about the first. This man is like a person who has a wound and puts a plaster on it; after a while, through the plaster, the wound heals and forms a scar, but it still remains a weak spot and if someone throws a stone at him, this place is more easily damaged than the rest of the body and begins to bleed. This is what happened to him: he had a wound and he put on the plaster, this is the apology and the reconciliation; soon the wound is healed as in the example, i.e. the anger is cured; he began to take care about the resentment through being zealous not to cling to the remembrance of evil in his heart, and this is the scar of the healed-up wound. But he was not perfectly healed, he still had a slight resentment left behind, this is the scar from which the skin can easily be removed and the whole wound opened up again by a slight blow. He has to make a great effort that the scar is completely blotted out and hair grows again and no disfigurement is left behind, so that the place where the wound was cannot be discerned. How then can this be put right? By prayer right from the heart for the one who had annoyed him, such as, “O God, help my brother, and me through his prayers.” In this he is interceding for his brother, which is a sure sign of sympathy and love, and he is humiliating himself by asking help through his brother’s prayers. Where there is sympathy and love and humility, how can wrath and other passions develop? As Abbot Zosimos says, “Even if the devil and all his evil spirits were to set in motion all their cunning tricks to promote evil, all his efforts would be in vain and be brought to nothing by that humility which Christ enjoined on us.” Another of the Elders used to say, “The man who prays for his enemies is a man without rancor.” Work at this and understand clearly what you hear, for unless you work you will not absorb it by word alone. For what man wishing to learn a trade can master it by verbal instructions alone? No! Always he has to start by doing—and doing it wrong—making and unmaking, until, little by little, working patiently and persevering, he learns the trade while God looks on at his labor and his humility, and works with him. And do we wish to master the trade of all trades by word alone, without practical experience of the work? How is this possible? Let us fortify ourselves and work with enthusiasm while we have time. May God give us to remember and keep what we have heard, lest it bring us a heavy sentence on the day of judgment.
—St Dorotheus of Gaza, On Rancor or Animosity