Faith, when actualised, leads us to fear God, which leads us to make some attempt to introduce order into our lives. And it is this attempt which shows us what is wrong with us. And it is here that we need to be attentive. The demons will, for instance, try to get us into a frame of mind in which we think that we are entitled to be annoyed at somebody. If we succumb to this, then we shall devote our attention to the thought of the person with whom we are annoyed. What the ascetic needs to do is to focus his attention instead on the fact that he is annoyed. Instead of seeing some other human being angrily, he tries to see his own anger. He can then begin to fight against it. And at first he has to use any device for restraining anger that he can think of. But gradually we should become more adept at wielding our own powers, even if at first this only means “using a nail to drive out a nail”, that is to say, playing off one passion against another. For instance, pride and unchastity are reckoned to be incompatible, so we can play off the thought of one against the thought of the other.
But more essentially we need to reclaim anger for its proper purpose. It is always a waste of good anger to get annoyed with other human beings. Instead we should turn our anger precisely against our thoughts and against the demons who deploy them. Evagrius suggests that we should address an angry word to any thought which is troubling us, even before praying for help against it, since it is the nature of anger to disperse thoughts.
In this way we shall be using anger in accordance with its true nature, to clear a way through the thoughts which swarm all around us, so that we can gradually come to a clearer perception of what it is all about. Thus we move from a fairly blind lashing out against whatever seems to be getting in our way to a position where we are fighting in the daylight.
The desired goal of this whole exercise is a state in which we are no longer at the mercy of inappropriate reactions. And this is a profound state of balance and harmony.
FATHER SIMON TUGWELL, O.P.
Father Tugwell is a Dominican priest, the author of several books on theology and spirituality, and a member of the Dominican Historical Institute.