“Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God.”— James 1:19-20
Do you have a fierce temper? If so, you’re in good company: some of the saints were known for this — a characteristic that, with God’s help, they overcame. The Gospels tell us that Sts. James and John were called the “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17) — perhaps because of their impetuous nature, as when they wanted Jesus to call down fire from Heaven to destroy an inhospitable town (Luke 9:51-56). Other saints known for expressing anger include St. Basil the Great, whose hot-blooded temperament made it difficult for him to exercise tact in his dealings with others.
A more contemporary example is the nineteenth-century French religious brother St. Benildus, who once remarked of his difficulties as a teacher, “I imagine that the angels themselves, if they came down as schoolmasters, would find it hard to control their anger.”
When it comes to a reputation for anger, few would argue that St. Jerome deserves anything other than first place. This great Scripture scholar had a brilliant but prickly personality and was famous for his arguments with other Church figures, including St. Augustine, conducted through letters that were often vitriolic or sarcastic. St. Pammachius, a former Roman senator, corresponded with Jerome, and tried to get him to tone down his language, without notable success; the Roman widow St. Marcella also corresponded with Jerome, sometimes challenging his ideas and once scolding him for his trigger-quick temper. It should be noted on Jerome’s behalf, however, that in addition to being gentle with the poor and downtrodden, he was well aware of his weaknesses and performed great acts of penance (such as living in a cave) because of them.
Some saints who are known to us for their gentle nature — notably the great bishop St. Francis de Sales and the holy French priest St. Vincent de Paul — had to work very hard to overcome their tendency toward anger and contentiousness. St. Vincent said that, without the grace of God, he would have been “hard and repulsive, rough and cross,” and St. Francis once claimed that it took him more than twenty years to learn to control his temper.
In the fourteenth century, Bl. John Colombini was a rather greedy merchant, particularly known for his bad temper. He flew into a rage one day because dinner wasn’t ready when he arrived home. Hoping to shame him into better behavior, his wife handed him a book about the saints. John threw the book onto the floor, but then — ashamed of his temper — he picked it up and began to read. He became so engrossed in reading about the saints that he forgot his dinner; indeed, he was completely converted by the experience. He subsequently gave away most of his wealth, turned his home into a hospital, and personally cared for a suffering leper. When his wife urged him to be prudent in his charities, John —who was no longer easily offended by rebukes — gently reminded her that she was the one who had hoped for his conversion (to which she is supposed to have responded, “I prayed for rain, but this is a flood”).
Learning to control our temper takes time and patience — and some of the saints were willing to make extreme efforts in this regard. For instance, when a storm interfered with his harvest, St. Nathalan angrily complained against God. Immediately repenting, he vowed to gain control of his anger and took a radical step to remind himself of this vow: he bound his right hand to his leg with an iron lock and threw the key into a river, promising that it would never be unlocked until he made a penitential pilgrimage to Rome. Years later Nathalan arrived in Rome; he purchased a fish from a boy there, and inside the fish’s stomach was a key — which, of course, opened the lock.
Although the Lord probably doesn’t expect such unusual efforts from us, He does want us to control our anger, and He gives us opportunities to do this— especially in daily life: bearing patiently with others’ annoying habits, correcting others’ mistakes with kindness and courtesy, refraining from blaring the horn when someone cuts us off in traffic, refusing to yield to the temptation to judge others’ motives rashly.
When we have to speak to someone with whom we’re angry, we should first pray for the Lord’s guidance and help. Asking the Holy Spirit to give us the right words can help defuse a potentially explosive situation.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux advises us, “When you are angry with someone, the way to find peace is to pray for that person and ask God to reward him or her for making you suffer.” We don’t usually think of it this way, but those people who anger us are doing us an unintentional favor by allowing us to grow in patience, so we should try to be gentle with them.
Similarly, says St. Alphonsus Liguori, “When it happens that we commit some fault, we must also be gentle with ourselves. Getting at ourselves after doing something wrong is not humility but a subtle form of pride. . . . To be angry at ourselves after the commission of a fault is a greater fault than the one just committed, and it will lead to many others.” Thus, God wants us to control our tempers — even when we ourselves are their target. His healing mercy and peace are offered to everyone, but we’ll miss out on them if we allow our anger to get in the way.
Something You Might Try
☩ St. Francis de Sales advises that, to avoid the sin of anger, you must quickly ask God to give peace to your heart when you’re angered and then turn your thoughts to something else. Don’t discuss the matter at hand, or make decisions, or correct another person while you’re angry. When a person angers you, St. Francis advises, consider the person’s good qualities, rather than the words or actions you find objectionable.
☩ If you wish to control your temper, become aware of the circumstances in which you’re most likely to be angry: in certain settings (such as rush-hour traffic), with certain people (perhaps a particular neighbor or acquaintance), or at certain times of the day (maybe just before the end of the workday, when you’re scrambling to clear your desk). Once you’ve learned from experience what things can anger you, prepare for these moments with a short, silent prayer — for instance, “Lord, help me avoid losing my temper,” or “Dear Jesus, let me stay calm.”
☩ It’s also helpful to recall, when you’re in a peaceful mood, a recent situation when you lost your temper. Ask yourself, “Was my anger justified? How will I respond to this situation in the future?” You can even “practice” responding properly by pretending this situation is repeating itself; by letting yourself feel angry when you’re alone, you can rehearse possible responses and evaluate which ones might help you.
This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Esper’s book, Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems. It is available from your local Catholic bookstore or online at Sophia Institute Press.
Check out Fr. Esper’s other articles, here on Catholic Exchange.
Photo by Dimitry Anikin on Unsplash