Jan 23, 2011

John Cassian on Anger (part 1 of 2)

John Cassian is of the lesser-well-known but historically influential theorists who stakes out an interesting and (to some) attractive position on anger.  An important 5th Century monastic Father (particularly in the West), Cassian traveled from his home in the Latin-speaking West to take vows in a monastery at Bethlehem, and then with permission (and accompanied by his fellow monk and childhood friend Germanus) traveled to monasteries in Egypt to study their ways of life through observation and conferences with abbots.  Back in the West, settling at Marseilles, he set down the fruits of this experience and his reflections in two works: the systematic Institutions, which sets out the practices, insights, rules of the eastern monks, adapting them to a new European milieu and climate; and the more topically organized (still, in sections fairly systematic)  Conferences, reconstructions and recollections of his discussions with the abbots of the East.

Cassian's works played a very important role in the development of Western monasticism.  Since monasteries, institutions oriented by a common and deliberate way of life, were spiritual, cultural, intellectual, and often political centers, the influence of what we might call "Cassian's doctrine" could be more widely extended than just to monks who read him or who heard his books read, e.g. during their common meals (The Rule of Saint Benedict recommends Cassian by name for this).

The centrality of themes of monastic practice and community raises an important issue.  Should we assume that the ethical standpoint Cassian reports on and elaborates is one solely for monks?  Are his insights only for those on the path of perfection, retired from the world and its cares, closer to God than us laypeople living -- and getting angry -- in the midst of things?  He does have several things quite relevant to say bearing on such worries, revealing to us that the human heart, beset by the temptation to and habits of anger remains just as much of a battleground for monks and hermits as it is for clergy and laity.

He cautions against attributing our anger to the presence and failings of others: "we complain that we need solitude, as if we should find the virtue of patience there where nobody provokes us."  But, so long as we continue to "lay the blame of our fault on others, we shall never be able to reach the goal of patience and perfection."

In the Institutes, the desert, the hermetic life, are not refuges to run off to in order to escape oneself:
For whatever faults we bring with us uncured into the desert, we shall find to remain concealed in us and not to be got rid of. . . . it generally not only preserves but intensifies the faults of those who have undergone no correction.  for a man appears to himself to be patient and humble, just so long as he come across nobody in intercourse; but he will presently revert to his former nature, whenever the chance of any sort of passion occurs
He uses his own case as an example, a common enough state (certainly one I can relate to myself), and draws a key lesson:
we recollect that when we were living in solitude a feeling of irritation would creep over us against our pen because it was too large or too small; against our penknife when it cut badly. . . . we could not remove and get rid of our perturbation of mind except by cursing the senseless matter, or at least the devil. . . . it will not be any good for there to be a dearth of men against whom our anger might be roused; since, if patience has not already been acquired, the feelings of passion which still dwell in our hearts can equally well spend themselves on dumb things and paltry objects, and not allow us to gain a continual state of peacefulness.
He does point out one advantage, however, of getting angry with inanimate things:  they don't respond to us as people do:  "inanimate and speechless things cannot possibly respond to our curses and rage, nor provoke our ungovernable temper to break out into a worse madness of passion."

Remaining in community with fellow monks, Cassian notes with example after example, confronts one with the same challenges of anger faced by those in the outside world.  Where the monk differs is in having committed to a way of life in which, ideally, excuses are seen through, discarded, replaced by efforts on the path to perfection -- a term, one ought to note, quite relative, qualified for human beings in monastic literature.  Monks lose their tempers, take offense and give it in return, they lapse into outbursts.  They also at times, angry in their hearts, but unwilling, afraid, perhaps even ashamed to allow it a direct expression, engage in passive aggression, which Cassian and the abbots whose words he reported knew well and saw through. He writes of those who:
say in words that they are not angry, but in fact and deed they show that they are extremely disturbed.  they do not speak to them pleasantly, nor address them with ordinary civility, and they think that they are doing nothing wrong in this because they do not seek to avenge themselves for their upset.  
Their anger seduces them, subverts their rationality, conceals from them its harmfulness and the wrongness of its disguised expression.  In the Conferences, the Abbot Joseph speaks to Cassian about monks who fast out of rage, living off the nourishment of their wrath, and he discusses examples of feigned patience, monks who
incite [quarrels] with irritating words so as to get themselves smitten, and when they have been touched by the slightest blow, at once they offer another part of their body to be smitten . . .  they fancy that they are practicing evangelical patience through the sin of anger.
A similar pretense of patience employs the "silent treatment," intended to provoke another person to anger, to wound, to goad, to inflict pain on them.  Very effective, Abbot Daniel points out:  "often a feigned patience excites to anger more keenly than words, and, a spiteful silence exceeds the most awful insults in words."

These considerations introduce a very interesting point.  It is true that Cassian unequivocally condemns anger, saying, "we ought to banish it not only from our actions, but also entirely to root it from our inmost soul."  Among the means for rooting anger out, he sets down a sort of zero-tolerance policy:
we make up our mind that we ought never to be angry at all, whether for good or bad reasons; as we know that we shall at once lose the light of discernment, and the security of good counsel, and our very uprightness, and the temperate character of uprightness if the main light of our heart has been darkened by its shadows.
Complicating the picture, it is not only one's own anger that one bears and must learn to take responsibility for, but also that of one's neighbor.  This makes good sense if you think about it.  If anger is such a bad thing, not only a bad thing to the one who is affected by its effects in the angry person, not only one who is hurt, deprived, attacked by the one enraged, but also a bad thing to the one who suffers it in the soul, who feels the anger, who is gripped and driven by it, then angering one's neighbor is to do him or her harm.  To give offense is to offer a noxious gift of anger to the offended one. 

One might bring up an objection here, one which Cassian does not address, but which he would certainly have the intellectual resources to answer.  If a person is entirely responsible for their own anger, if seeing things rightly and making progress depends on grasping this very truth that one cannot displace the blame for one's anger onto another, onto the towards whom one feels angry -- doesn't that go for me too?  Why isn't my neighbor also entirely responsible for his own anger?  Does not his or her responsibility absolve me then of mine?  Going further, if there is some responsibility still on my side, well then, what of God, if He made me angry -- or certainly made people angry with Him as recorded in Scripture?  Would not that line of reasoning make God also responsible.  I will end here on that set of seeming paradoxes.  There is considerably more to say about Cassian's very interesting position on anger, but his works will keep until another post