Be Ye angry, and Sin Not: Let Not the Sun Go Down Upon Your Wrath
Cognitive therapists and the ancient fathers would agree that misdirected anger causes much human misery, destroying relationships, smothering compassion, and bringing about untold suffering in the form of emotional wounds and even physical injuries. Both classes of healers would also agree that there are therapeutic interventions that can be applied in order to bring relief to the scourge of anger. However, before I discuss similar therapeutic interventions in future posts, it’s important to note that cognitive therapists and the ancient fathers understand anger in quite different terms.
In their cognitive therapy manual entitled, “Anger Management for Substance Abuse and Mental Health Clients,” authors Patrick M. Reilly, Ph.D and Michael S. Shopshire, Ph.D. define anger in the following fashion: “In the most general sense, anger is a feeling or emotion that ranges from mild irritation to intense fury and rage. Anger is a natural response to those situations where we feel threatened, we believe harm will come to us, or we believe that another person has unnecessarily wronged us.” This definition makes sense from a biological and cognitive perspective, fitting equally well for human beings and wild beasts.
The fathers, however, define anger in a theological way, meaning on the basis of the revelation of Christ, the New Adam Who calls us, His children, to purification, illumination, and deification. Thus, in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Saint John Climacus describes anger as “an easily changeable movement of one’s disposition and disfiguration of soul,” emphasizing the life of the Spirit. For the fathers, anger is understood of in terms of a passion which I have characterized in anearlier post as “that which persistently nestles in the soul for a long time, forming therein a habit, as it were, by the soul’s longstanding association with it, since the soul of its own free choice clings to it.’ Several important notions are contained in this passage. First of all, passions are habitual modes of responding over time, which indicates that they are learned or, to be more precise, overlearned ways of reacting. Second, since a person chooses to invest himself in the passions, they adhere to him in a profoundly individualized way.”
The distinction between a primarily biological and a chiefly spiritual perspective will necessarily result in a divergence between therapeutic goals. For cognitive behavioral therapists, the emotional, cognitive, behavioral responses of anger are to be managed and controlled for easier interpersonal relations, while the ancient fathers believe that the insatiably pleasure-loving, sickly self-loving (philautia — love of self), insanely proud passion of anger must be rooted out of the soul that desires to love God and neighbor with all her heart. Thus, on the one hand, the authors of the Anger Management Therapy Manual view the problem of anger as a matter of degree writing, “anger becomes a problem when it is felt too intensely, is felt too frequently, or is expressed inappropriately.” On the other hand, fathers such as Saint John Climacus maintain that there can be no quarter given to the passion of anger, because human beings are called to the perfection and holiness of Christ. Hence, the Saint writes, “If the Holy Spirit is peace of soul, as He is said to be and as He is in reality, and if anger is disturbance of heart, as it actually is and as it is said to be, then nothing so prevents His presence in us as anger.”
In spite of these admittedly vast differences, there are important points of convergence in terms of helpful therapeutic interventions. In the first chapter of Ancient Christian Wisdom I address this issue and provide the guiding methodology employed in my book as well as in this blog: “An Orthodox Christian theological worldview can be outlined and serve as a standard for evaluating the implicit Weltanschauung of cognitive therapy. Relevant pastoral advice and ascetic teachings by the fathers can be selected and arranged in order to form a patristic context for examining discrete components of cognitive therapy. In this way, we can strive to follow along the bold path of those conquerors of death into the promised land of the Church where ‘the mystical trumpeters of the Spirit’ proclaim the truth of the faith: ‘all things are possible to him that believeth’-Egyptian gold can be forged into a censer by the Christian hand.”
Such will be my goal in the next few posts on the therapeutic interventions offered by cognitive therapy and the ancient wisdom of the ascetical tradition with respect to the universally human problem of anger.
—Hieromonk Alexios of Mount Athos