Monday, May 18, 2015


Twelfth in a Series on Catholic Morality

 Fr. John H. Stapleton

Ira (Anger)
Hieronymus Bosch
Never say, when you are angry, that you are mad; it makes you appear much worse than you really are, for only dogs get mad. Rabies in a human being is a most unnatural and ignoble thing. Yet common parlance likens anger to it.

It is safe to say that no one has yet been born that never yielded, more or less, to the sway of this passion. Everybody gets angry. The child sulks, the little girl calls names and makes faces, the boy fights and throws stones; the maiden waxes huffy, spiteful, and won't speak, and the irascible male fumes, rages, and says and does things that become him not in the least. Even pious folks have their tiffs and tilts. All flesh is frail, and anger has an easy time of it; not because this passion is so powerful, but because it is insidious and passes for a harmless little thing in its ordinary disguise. And yet all wrath does not manifest itself thus exteriorly. Still waters are deepest. An imperturbable countenance may mask a very inferno of wrath and hatred.

To hear us talk, there is no fault in all this, the greater part of the time. It is a soothing tonic to our conscience after a fit of rage, to lay all the blame on a defect of character or a naturally bad temper. If fault there is, it is anybody's but our own. We recall the fact that patience is a virtue that has its limits, and mention things that we solemnly aver would try the enduring powers of the beatified on their thrones in heaven. Some, at a loss otherwise to account for it, protest that a particular devil got hold of them and made resistance impossible.

But it was not a devil at all. It was a little volcano, or better, a little powder magazine hidden away somewhere in the heart. The imp Pride had its head out looking for a caress, when it received a rebuff instead. Hastily disappearing within, it spat fire right and left, and the explosion followed, proportionate in energy and destructive power to the quantity of pent-up self-love that served as a charge. Once the mine is fired, in the confusion and disorder that follow, vengeance stalks forth in quest of the miscreant that did the wrong.

Anger is the result of hurt pride, of injured self-love. It is a violent and inordinate commotion of the soul that seeks to wreak vengeance for an injury done. The causes that arouse anger vary infinitely in reasonableness, and there are all degrees of intensity.

The malice of anger consists wholly in the measure of our deliberate yielding to its promptings. Sin, here as elsewhere, supposes an act of the will. A crazy man is not responsible for his deeds; nor is anyone, for more than what he does knowingly.

The first movement or emotion of irascibility is usually exempt of all fault; by this is meant the play of the passion on the sensitive part of our nature, the sharp, sudden fit that is not foreseen and is not within our control, the first effects of the rising wrath, such as the rush of blood, the trouble and disorder of the affections, surexcitation and solicitation to revenge. A person used to repelling these assaults may be taken unawares and carried away to a certain extent in the first storm of passion, in this there is nothing sinful. But the same faultlessness could not be ascribed to him who exercises no restraining power over his failing, and, by yielding habitually, fosters it and must shoulder the responsibility of every excess. We incur the burden of God's wrath when, through our fault, negligence or a positive act of the will, we suffer this passion to steal away our reason, blind us to the value of our actions, and make us deaf to all considerations. No motive can justify such ignoble weakness that would lower us to the level of the madman. He dishonors his Maker who throws the reins to his animal instincts and allows them to gallop ahead with him, in a mad career of vengeance and destruction.

Many do not go to this extent of fury, but give vent to their spleen in a more cool and calculating manner. Their temper, for being less fiery, is more bitter. They are choleric rather than bellicose. They do not fly to acts but to desires and well-laid plans of revenge. If the desire or deed lead to a violation of justice or charity, to scandal or any notable evil consequence, the sin is clearly mortal; the more so, if this inward brooding be of long duration, as it betrays a more deep-seated malice.

Are there any motives capable of justifying these outbursts of passion? None at all, if our ire has the two features of unreasonableness and vindictiveness. This is evil. No motive, however good, can justify an evil end.

If any cause were plausible, it would be a grave injury, malicious and unjust. But not even this is sufficient, for we are forbidden to return evil for evil. It may cause us grief and pain, but should not incite us to anger, hatred and revenge. What poor excuses would therefore be accidental or slight injuries, just penalties for our wrongdoings and imaginary grievances! The less excusable is our wrath, the more serious is our delinquency. Our guilt is double-dyed when the deed and the cause of the deed are both alike unreasonable.

Yet there is a kind of anger that is righteous. We speak of the wrath of God, and in God there can be no sin. Christ himself was angry at the sight of the vendors in the temple. Holy Writ says: Be ye angry and sin not. But this passion, which is the fruit of zeal, has three features which make it impossible to confound it with the other. It is always kept within the bounds of a wise moderation and under the empire of reason; it knows not the spirit of revenge; and it has behind it the best of motives, namely, zeal for the glory of God. It is aroused at the sight of excesses, injustices, scandals, frauds; it seeks to destroy sin, and to correct the sinner. It is often not only a privilege, but a duty. It supposes, naturally, judgment, prudence, and discretion, and excludes all selfish motives.

Zeal in an inferior and more common degree is called indignation, and is directed against all things unworthy, low and deserving of contempt. It respects persons, but loathes whatever of sin or vice that is in, or comes from, unworthy beings. It is a virtue, and is the effect of a high sense of respectability.

Impatience is not anger, but a feeling somewhat akin to it, provoked by untoward events and inevitable happenings, such as the weather, accidents, etc. It is void of all spirit of revenge. Peevishness is chronic impatience, due to a disordered nervous system and requires the services of a competent physician, being a physical, not moral, distemper.

Anger is a weakness and betrays many other weaknesses; that is why sensible people never allow this passion to sway them. It is the last argument of a lost cause: "You are angry, therefore you are wrong." The great misery of it is that hot-tempered people consider their mouths to be safety-valves, while the truth is that the wagging tongue generates bile faster than the open mouth can give exit to it. St. Liguori presented an irate scold with a bottle, the contents to be taken by the mouthful and held for fifteen minutes, each time her lord and master returned home in his cups. She used it with surprising results and went back for more. The saint told her to go to the well and draw inexhaustibly until cured.

For all others, the remedy is to be found in a meditation of these words of the Our Father: "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." The Almighty will take us at our word.

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