There is a certain underlying murmur of anger that now pervades modern society. We see this daily in the impatience we routinely experience in people at work, at school, at the grocery store, in the gas station lineup. We see it in the ever increasing violent nature of sports, in road rage, in various protests, in mass shootings, in the worldwide proliferation of terrorism, in the increasing consolidation and exercise of political and governmental power, in the hardened liberal prejudice of the media, in the vast array of radio shock jocks, in the vulgar and violent music videos, TV shows and video games, in the noisy and raucous outdoor beer parlours, rock concerts and decadent street parades that permeate just about every major city. One look around and one can see that we are no longer living in Bedford Falls. We live in Pottersville.
What is anger? There is anger of passion and a sentiment of anger. Anger considered as a passion is a violent need of reaction caused by physical or moral suffering or annoyance. This vexation excites a violent emotion which arouses our energies to overcome the difficulty. We are then prone to vent our anger upon persons, animals, or things.
Anger as a sentiment consists in a vehement desire to repel and punish an aggressor. Such anger is lawful when there is a righteous and rational desire to visit upon the guilty a just retribution. Such was the case when Our Lord drove the money-changers, who were defiling His Father’s house, out the Temple.
To be legitimate, anger must be just as to its object; it must seek to punish only those who deserve punishment and in the measure in which they have merited it. It must also be tempered by moderation in its execution and animated by motives of charity aiming solely at the restoration of order and the amendment of the guilty. Anger is not only lawful but at times a duty when it is in the interest of defending the common good and preventing the ascendency of the wicked, for there are men who kindness fails to move and whom the fear of punishment alone can touch.
Failing these criteria there is moral guilt. Anger amounts to a capital vice when it involves a violent and inordinate desire to punish others. Often it is accompanied by hatred which seeks not only to repel aggression but take revenge.
There are various degrees of anger. First there is the impulse of impatience which is often brought on by the least annoyance or failure. This is followed by agitation which manifests itself in uncontrolled gestures. Then comes violence which can be expressed in either words or blows. If this is not checked it can lead to fury where one is no longer master of self but breaks into incoherent speech and such wild gesticulations that it would seem the person is insane. Lastly, there is hatred and vengeance where one might go so far as to desire the death of an adversary.
When anger simply consist in a transient impulse of passion, it is of itself a venial sin since there is no violation of charity or justice. When, however, anger deliberately and wilfully leads to a loss of self-control that results in some grave insult to the neighbor it constitutes a grievous fault. When it deliberately and wilfully ends in hatred it is a mortal sin since it violates charity and oftentimes justice. Our Lord thus says: “everyone who grows angry with his brother shall be liable to judgement; any man who uses abusive language toward his brother shall be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and if he holds him in contempt he risks the fires of Gehenna” (Matt. 5:22).
Anger, when not repressed, can lead to the most horrendous faults. When not curbed it becomes a great obstacle to spiritual progress causing us to lose good judgement, mental poise, gentleness, the sense of justice, and the spirit of recollection which is so indispensable to an intimate union with God, to peace of soul, to a ready compliance with the inspirations of grace.
Because of the close union that exists between body and soul there are both physical and moral remedies at our disposal to help us overcome the passion of anger and the sentiment of hatred. Physical remedies include a correct diet and abstention from stimulants and intoxicants. These combine to prevent or soothe anger. Moral remedies are even better. A good preventative of anger is to acquire the habit of reflecting before acting so as not to be swept away at the first onslaught of passion. When passion has already taken our heart by surprise it is better says St. Francis de Sales “to drive it away speedily than enter into parley; for, if we give it ever so little leisure, it will become mistress of the place, like the serpent, who easily draws in his whole body where he can once get in his head…You must at the first alarm speedily muster your forces; not violently, not tumultuously, but mildly, and yet seriously” (Introduction to the Devout Life, P.III, C.VIII). Otherwise, while trying to repress anger with impetuosity we will only add to our perturbation. To check anger it is useful to divert our minds by turning our thoughts to something not liable to excite it. Hence, we must banish all thoughts of past injuries, suspicions etc. Finally, we must invoke the assistance of God in imitation of the Apostles when they were tossed by the storm upon the sea; for He will command our passions to cease and a great calm shall ensue.
When anger gives way to hatred we can uproot it only by charity based on love of God . At such times we must remind ourselves that we are all children of God and we are all called to the same eternal happiness that excludes hatred. God’s mission is to bring salvation to all men and women, excluding no one. His salvation is not imposed but reaches us through acts of love, mercy and forgiveness that we ourselves can carry out. Hence we should recall the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We should also not lose site of Our Lord’s example when he still called Judas His friend at the very moment of his treason and when He prayed on the Cross for His executioners. We too should forgive and forget. Perfect souls pray for the conversion of their enemies therein finding a wonderful balm for the wounds of their souls.