CHAPTER IV. What are the Instruments of Good Works
19 Jan. 20 May. 19 Sept.
22. Not to give way to anger.
23. Not to harbour a desire of revenge.
24. Not to foster guile in one’s heart.
25. Not to make a feigned peace.
26. Not to forsake charity.
27. Not to swear, lest perchance one forswear oneself.
28. To utter truth from heart and mouth.
29. Not to render evil for evil.
30. To do no wrong to anyone yea, to bear patiently wrong done to oneself.
31. To love one’s enemies.
32. Not to render cursing for cursing, but rather blessing.
33. To bear persecution for justice’s sake.
34. Not to be proud.
35. Not given to wine.
36. Not a glutton.
37. Not drowsy.
38. Not slothful.
39. Not a murmurer.
40. Not a detractor.
41. To put one’s hope in God.
42. To attribute any good that one sees in oneself to God, and not to oneself.
43. But to recognise and always impute to oneself the evil that one doth.
Yesterday, I noted that the first series of the Instruments of Good Works begins and ends with charity. Today’s series makes explicit the exigencies of charity. It begins with an Instrument that from the time of the Desert Fathers has been considered as fundamental as it is indispensable: Iram non perficere, “Not to give way to anger” or, as Abbot McCann translates it, “Not to yield to anger.” There is a remarkable page in Douglas Burton-Christie’s book, The Word in the Desert, in which the author says that at the heart of the Desert Fathers’ world there was love. He goes on to say that nearly every saying of the Desert Fathers springs from Our Lord’s commandment to love one another: “A new commandment I give unto you: that you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34). We sing this very text—Mandatum novum do vobis: ut diligatis invicem: sicut dilexi vos—as an antiphon at the Vestition of a Novice. It signifies that the monastic journey is, from the very beginning, a life of love for one another. A brother once asked an old monk why in these latter days the monastic life was no longer bearing the marvelous fruits it had borne in earlier times. The old monk replied, “In those days there was charity.” This is the secret of a monastery that is supernaturally fruitful: charity.
Charity makes for unity, and unity makes for fruitfulness. If a monastery goes into terminal decline and becomes sterile, it may well be because, over time, hearts have grown cold and hard in resentment, in unforgiveness, and in the remembrance of old offenses. Forgiveness restores charity; charity repairs unity; and unity blossoms into fruitfulness. “In this is my Father glorified; that you bring forth very much fruit, and become my disciples” (John 15:8).
Saint Benedict says that we are not to yield to anger. Nothing so weakens charity in a community as the vice of anger. Abba Agathon said that an irascible man, even if he should raise the dead, is not acceptable to God. Anger may be expressed outwardly in words or in actions, or it may be turned inward where it seethes and becomes an invisible toxic vapour polluting and poisoning the whole atmosphere of the monastery. Abba Poimen said, “One who constantly complains is not a monk; one who is vindictive is not a monk; one who is easily angered is not a monk. Anyone who has these faults is not a monk, even if he thinks he is.”
A brother said to an Elder: “I want to become a martyr for God.” The Elder replied to him: “If one puts up with his neighbour in a difficult situation, this is equivalent to the martyrdom of the Three Youths in the furnance.”
Abbot Sisoes said: “We are in need of much prayer and understanding, if we are to repel the various machinations of the Devil. For, sometimes he makes someone upset over nothing, while at other times he offers him a plausible pretext for thinking that he was right to be angry, and he suggests all of these things to the soul out of his hatred for mankind. The man who truly desires to traverse the Way of the Saints is a complete stranger to anger against anyone. As Saint Makarios the Great says, ‘It is unbecoming for brothers to get angry at, or to cause anger in, another.'”
Out of my own experience, I would say this to you: if you would avoid the vice of anger, accustom yourself to forgiving every offense in the very instant that you feel it, ilico, that is, on the spot. The rumination of an offense always makes it bigger. This does not deny the reality of the offence, but it extracts the sting of it before the poison begins to take effect. Another habit that a monk must cultivate, if he is to live in charity with his brethren, is that of imputing good motives to the brother who has given offence in word, gesture, deed, or omission. Even if the offending brother acted out of wicked motives, or out of pride, stubbornness, or unkindness, the offended brother loses nothing by covering his brother’s sin, and by forgiving it before it metastasizes into a terrible rancour. Very often one discovers that a brother’s motives were not what one thought they were. It is altogether rare that one brother speaks or acts with the premeditated intention of offending another, but it has been known to happen. Be prepared always to forgive! Anger springs from unforgiveness.
Anger is a vice not easily overcome. It is a vice more difficult to overcome than impurity. (Impurity, more often than not, grows in the fetid swamps of anger and rancour, but that is another subject for another time.) Persevere in praying for meekness, even if you fall into sins of anger every day. Abba Ammonas said: “I have spent fourteen years in Sketis beseeching God, day and night, to grant me the grace to overcome anger.”
There is a particular kind of anger that afflicts men in the grip of perfectionism. What is perfectionism? It is the drive to keep outward things under control, to exercise a mastery over other men and over things. The perfectionist fears falling short of his own ideals. He dreads the disintegration of what he has cultivated and built up, sometimes at great personal cost and over many years. The perfectionist can fly into a rage—even if it is a contained rage—whenever the world order, as he thinks it ought to be, is threatened by human imperfections or whenever others do not play the part assigned them in his mind. Abba Isaac called this fanaticism. In Chapter LXXII, Saint Benedict calls it “an evil zeal of bitterness, which separateth from God, and leads to hell.” Abba Isaac says:
A fanatical man never attains to peace of mind, and one who is a stranger to peace is also a stranger to joy. Peace of mind both is, and is called, perfect health; but fanaticism is by nature antithetical to peace. One who is fanatical suffers from a grave sickness. O man, it is not good or beneficial for you to want to help others, yet to expose yourself to great danger. Fanaticism is not a form of wisdom, but a disease of the soul. If you want to heal the ailing, know that the sick need compassion and care, and not reproof. For Scripture says, “Ye that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak” (Cf. Romans 15:1); and again, the same Apostle counsels us to correct one who has fallen, not in anger, but “in a spirit of meekness” (Galatians 6:1; cf. Philippians 2:2-4).
This is where the Desert Fathers meet Saint Francis de Sales! By nature, Saint Francis de Sales was quick tempered and irascible; by grace he was the meekest of the meek. He writes here with reference to a popular home remedy of his time, a salve believed to be the antidote to the viper’s bite. The remedy was called “Saint Paul’s Grease,” an allusion to the episode of the viper recounted in Acts 28.
There is a popular belief that those who take the antidote commonly called “Saint Paul’s Grease,” do not suffer from the viper’s bite, provided, that is, that the remedy be pure; and even so true gentleness and humility will avert the burning and swelling which contradiction is apt to excite in our hearts. If, when stung by slander or ill-nature, we wax proud and swell with anger, it is a proof that our gentleness and humility are unreal, and mere artificial show. When the Patriarch Joseph sent his brethren back from Egypt to his father’s house, he only gave them one counsel, “See that ye fall not out by the way.”
And so, my child, say I to you. This miserable life is but the road to a blessed life; do not let us fall out by the way one with another; let us go on with the company of our brethren gently, peacefully, and kindly. Most emphatically I say it, If possible, fall out with no one, and on no pretext whatever suffer your heart to admit anger and passion. S. James says, plainly and unreservedly, that “the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.”