SPECIAL SERIES: The Seven Deadly Sins
Wrath: what a charlatan!
What a charlatan anger is! What a cad, a bully, a tart, a scoundrel. Is there a greater chameleon among the Seven Deadlies?
Red is the colour for anger — or Wrath, to use a more eternal sort of word. We speak of red rages, seeing red, having flaming cheeks.
It is also the colour of the Holy Spirit.
Now that's a lovely symbolic warning to anyone seeking a clearer understanding of Wrath. For in Wrath, we deal with two rather divine qualities — paradox and elusiveness! What you see is not what you get. When you think you have it boxed, think again.
I have reflected long and hard on anger — I have a rather personal interest! I have realised that it very often is a thief in the night, a manipulator, a schoolyard bully. No wonder Pope Gregory the Great included it among his list of Deadlies!
The fathers of Vatican II did us quite a favour in deeming that psychology had something to offer the Church. From that perspective there is usually something else at play when anger cuts loose. Cad that it is, it usurps a range of other emotions: Anxiety. Fear. Sadness. Frustration. Disappointment. A sense of injustice. Helplessness. Panic. It becomes the school yard bully, menacing and affronting. Often, a fraud, relying on brute strength to have its wicked way. Reason disappears and a sort of blindness takes hold. Poignantly, the reaction is affront when what is probably needed is understanding.
The pettiness of wrath...
I won't claim that all anger is a charade. Some anger has its roots in psychologically infantile behaviour. (It helps to have a four-year-old grandchild to follow my thoughts here!) C S Lewis, in Tales of Narnia exposes all the deadly sins. His characters Dugory and Polly trade insults and unleash anger on each other for only one reason: Each wants to get his or her own way. Lewis speaks of the pettiness of wrath as comic and tragic, a form of blindness. I agree. Psych 101 tells us that as infants we believe we are the centre of the universe. If we don't get our own way, we rage! Gradually through loving parental intervention we learn otherwise. True maturity comes when we can balance our own needs with the needs of others. If we remain psychologically infantile, then rage will always have a hold on us.
This perhaps is the only true, ego driven rage; the only time Wrath isn't being the Great Pretender. It's still a schoolyard bully though, all bluster and menace. And bloody hard to come to terms with.
My family is full of passionate types and anger is never far from the surface. Acting out one's emotional state is the norm for us. One of our celebrated family legends, pulled out at wakes or family get-togethers, is my father's temper. People laugh as they recall the day he pulled a car door from its hinges — Yes! — and hurled it down an embankment. Or remember the day he was fixing the engine in the garage, hurled the pliers and embedded them in the ceiling? And so go the tales. Remember how Granpa L hurled Dad as a youngster into Sydney Harbour from their Balmain shack's front yard for laughing at something he did? Hysterical!
...and its terror
Thing is, I was there in the garage that day Dad threw the pliers. It wasn't funny at all. It was terrifying.
But that's what we do with anger, isn't it? We speak of a 'dummy spit', or a 'tantrum'. Ho ho ho. We label someone 'feisty', or 'hot blooded'. We resort to humour to minimise something pretty bloody unpleasant. I don't juggle my own anger well; so I've invented a persona I call The Upstart and I make fun of myself with others, hoping they too will cope with my dummy spits by joining the joke. Don't take her outburst to heart — we all know she's an upstart!
I really don't like this Seven Deadly Sin take on anger. I can't cope with Sin as something we Do. If we see anger as an action, an outpouring of emotion where we lash out without reason, then controlling it becomes pretty insurmountable. We confess, we make a firm purpose of amendment, we try really hard, then we fail again with our next dummy spit. If we do keep the lid on our Wrath, sometimes we grow ulcers, have strokes, or worse, we become sweet and serene, passive and compliant — and seethingly hostile! Sooner or later if we don't erupt, we become depressed. Psychology 101 teaches us that depression = anger turned inwards.
We need to face down this bully. Left unchecked, the damage anger wrought is Deadly indeed: Violence, abuse, emotional damage, intimidation; often death and destruction.
Turning to our Christian story...
We can turn to our Christian story. Jack Myles, in a beautiful piece on anger speaks of the birth of death — the time when God tossed Adam and Eve out of the garden — in his Anger! The Hebrew Scriptures regularly record this God of anger. Myles speaks of God as having a complete change of character by the time of Jesus' arrival, and says that the epic of God's wrath ends when the lion becomes the lamb. The Lamb of God! — a nice succinct summary of the journey through Hebrew Scriptures to Good News!
Two things about our take on the anger of the Divine really bemuse me. The first is the wonderful Psalm 95, used in the Divine Office as the invitatory to Morning Prayer, said daily by clergy and increasingly by laity who enjoy this ancient and beautiful prayer ritual. We prepare for our prayer like this:
Come, ring out our joy to the Lord;
I used to wonder, am I missing something here? This is how every priest on the planet sets the scene for his daily encounter with God in prayer? Why this daily dose of an angry God? Gradually I came to realise how the ritual Morning Prayer then moved through psalms, scripture, intercessions, prayers of gratitude, to its finale: The Benedictus...
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
Presto! Day in and day out we move through the epic Jack Myles describes, where our perception of the God of anger becomes the incarnate, redeeming God of forgiveness and liberation.
The angry God of the Old Testament still pervades our spirituality...
Yet I fretted about that invitatory psalm for years. I do believe the angry God of the Old Testament still pervades our spirituality, which might explain why we just can't get on top of this anger thing. We, the people handed the beatitudes, have a loooong way to go in our understanding of the divine — of sin — of human frailty — of the enormity of the gift of Christ Jesus, the risen one, the Lord of all Life. We do need to banish this angry God and choose Life instead. In our guts!
...and let's have a fresh look at the anger allegedly displayed by Jesus...
The second of my 'things' is the way the story of Jesus driving out the moneylenders is trotted out as an excuse for anger — regularly, ignorantly, and increasingly by any Christian who needs an excuse to rationalise their anger. I remember in about third class, some of us sophisticates were playing poker in the playground. The teacher on duty grabbed the cards, tore them up, roundly chastised us and told us we were going to hell in a handbasket. All without losing her cool. Calmly and deliberately she exposed us to the sin of gambling. (it was the 50's! LOL). I saw no sign that this was a dummy spit; she wanted to teach us something. She might have even said something like "How dare you bring those things to school".
Upstart that I am, I never have a problem with upstaging the theologians. Maybe there was no anger at all in what Jesus did that day? Heat, yes; dramatic words, plenty of passion. But not Wrath. Relying on the Temple story as a get-out-of-gaol card for our dummy spits only serves to keep the bully safe from exposure and inhibits us from recognising a grace-filled opportunity to acknowledge and deal with it.
How do we expose and face down the bully, the cad, the charlatan…?
We re-connect cause and effect I think. The Church in its wisdom knew this at the time of the Fourth Lateran Council. When decreeing that we needed to confess our sins once a year, the Council exhorted priests thus: "Let the priest be discreet and cautious that he may pour wine and oil into the wounds of the one injured after the manner of a skilful physician, carefully enquiring into the circumstances of the sinner and sin, from the nature of which he may understand what kind of advice to give and what remedy to apply, making use of different experiments to heal the sick one."
And what of the anger of infantile rage? Richard Rohr has some thoughts. To paraphrase, he says that all negative emotion is preceded by a judgement in our mind about an event. We decide we are entitled to our own way; we have been treated injustly, we have a right to be offended. Then, the passion of anger takes over. We will find ourselves re-visiting the scene in our head regularly in order to feed the passion involved. We nurse our grudge. How Deadly it is to 'maintain the rage'. How appalling when it becomes a cultural construct. Think of the Middle East terrorists.
As for we Westerners — try this experiment: Turn on a daytime soap. I recommend The Bold and the Beautiful. Turn off the picture and just listen to the audio. Or, turn down the sound and just look at the faces. Note the malice, the spite, the combativeness, the constant anger! Whole generations of gullible Westerners avidly soak up these shows!
Even justified rage has its traps. A psychiatrist I once worked for was concerned when a woman whose son had been murdered announced that she'd joined one of those victim's advocacy groups. He said it would make her healing process so much harder, for she would become stuck in her anger, when what she needed was to name and deal with a whole range of very real emotions.
Ways through our anger ... finding a "Christ figure" ...
Both Rohr and my psychiatrist friend offer ways to get in touch with the real source of our anger — the frustration, the fear, the losses, the sadness, the sense of injustice, the unreal expectations of our ego maybe — and see where the wine and oil need to be poured. Rohr advocates an openness to God through contemplative prayer, a new consciousness, a decision not to feed the passion. Let go and let God, as they say! My psych friend's strategy works best in loving relationships. We need to find a Christ figure to walk the journey with us through what's seared us at our core.
Both ways are about standing naked before God. Cognitively, we learn there are other ways to deal with emotional pain besides giving anger free rein. The beatitudes give shape to that, in my humble opinion. Blessed are the pure in spirit … blessed are those who mourn.
In the last decade, there's a wonderful movement that has spread through schools here in eastern Australia. It helps kids deal with a range of losses, primarily divorce in the family. It's called Seasons for Growth. The kids are shown how they have choices other than anger to express the pain they're feeling. Pouring oil and wine into the wounds indeed! Blessed are the peacemakers…
So we re-connect with the 4th Century Lateran wisdom.
But just a question to finish: Can anger be righteous? Productive? I honestly don't know. Having grown up with my dysfunctional lot, I'd personally say there is no such thing as an act of righteous anger. Like mosquitoes, one does wonder why anger exists in the first place. Is there any worthwhile use for it? In an ideal world where we were all psychologically healthy, maybe anger could be a useful motivator. In a world where we Christians were centred, balanced, in right relationship with Christ and each other, anger might be the fuel that we need to campaign against a whole range of injustices against others. Anger might have a place in the building of the Reign of God.
No doubt about it, dealing with anger is a flamin' challenge. Is it truly a deadly sin — or the opportunity for grace par excellence? Certainly, paradoxical. It's enough to make you see red!
Pointsettias on the altar at Pentecost and all that.
Bibliography and further food for the journey:
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