“Whoever is angry…”

Fr. Nathaniel Dreyer, IVE
Friday, First Week of Lent



Today’s Gospel gives us some beautiful insights into the nature of anger. Christ says, “I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” An ancient commentary on this text from the Gospel of Matthew says that Christ’s commandment is even more perfect than the law, since “often an individual does not kill because he fears punishment, but nonetheless he is angry,” [1] and wishes evil on his brother; we could say that anger would kill if it could get away with it. There is, of course, such a thing as righteous anger, and we can find a test in the last chapter of the book of Jonah. After God spares the citizens of Nineveh, Jonah throws a fit. Although translations vary, often God’s question to Jonah is rendered “Do you do well to be angry?” This is a question that, very often, we must answer “No,” since our anger doesn’t usually fulfill God’s righteousness, as Saint James writes (cf. 1:20). However, many times we try to convince ourselves that it does.

Saint Francis de Sales notes that “anger is nourished by a thousand false pretexts; there was never an angry man who thought his anger was unjust.”[2]Even if we don’t display our anger outwardly, there is always someone who suffers. Saint Catherine of Siena wrote that “there is no sin or wrong that gives a man a foretaste of hell in this life like anger and impatience.”[3] As Aquinas explains, anger results from the perception of a present evil. This in itself isn’t bad, but it easily becomes a foretaste of hell when that anger occupies our thoughts and feelings so much that it blinds us to the goodness around us; it taints our vision, and often blows our neighbor’s defects and their severity out of proportion. Our judgments become harsh, in so doing, we hurt ourselves, since no one likes to live with bad company, and we’ve convinced ourselves that our neighbors are bad people.

So, if we “don’t do well to be angry,” then our only recourse is to simply bear with the faults, failings, and insults of others, without allowing that anger to fester. Saint Alphonsus Ligouri says that in this way we resemble spikenard, the smelly, flowering plant used as perfume. “While the king was at his table,” says the Bride in the Song of Songs (1:12), “my perfume spread its fragrance.” The plant smells nice, but only when its leaves are torn and broken. In the same way, although our pride and desires, our likes and our feelings might be damaged by what others do, when we bear with them.

Saint Francis de Sales offers the following advice: “When we find that we have been aroused to anger we must call for God’s help like the apostles when they were tossed about by the wind and storm waters. Prayers directed against present and pressing anger must always be said calmly and peaceably and not violently. Correct the fault right away by an act of meekness toward the person you were angry with. It is a sovereign remedy against lying to contradict the untruth on the spot as soon as we see we have told one. So also we must repair our anger instantly by a contrary act of meekness. When your mind is tranquil and without any cause for anger, build up a stock of meekness and mildness. Speak all your words and do all your actions, whether little or great, in the mildest way you can. At the first attack you must immediately muster your forces, not violently and tumultuously but mildly yet seriously. When overcome by anger [many people] become angry at being angry, disturbed at being disturbed, and vexed at being vexed. By such means they keep their hearts drenched and steeped in passions. We must be sorry for our faults, but in a calm, settled, firm way. In patience and peace, our good deeds and our harmony spread like a beautiful fragrance.” [4]

Of course, in this self-restraint we have the perfect example in Jesus Christ who, even when righteously angry at the moneychangers, overturning tables and kicking out the animals, refuses to release the doves, the sacrifice that the poor would offer, and instead tells their sellers to take them and leave. Today, let us pray for the grace, through the intercession of Mary, Mother of Sorrows, for the grace to learn in this Lenten season to control our anger and impatience, and so spread Christ’s peace to those around us.

[1] Incomplete Commentary on Matthew (Opus Imperfectum), Eleventh Homily on Matthew 5
[2] Introduction to the Devout Life, III, ch. 8
[3] “Letter to Monna Agnese”
[4] Introduction to the Devout Life, III, ch. 8

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