Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Uses of Anger

The immense creature on the right is Roxy, nanny to the next-door neighbor's herd of goats. The little guy on the left is Ben, our two-year-old grandson. Like us, he was awed by the sheer bulk of this dog, who squirmed with joy and whimpered in delight when he stuck his hand through the wire and straight into her slobbery mouth. Roxy spends all day, every day, with her gang of goats, many of whom are pregnant or nursing mothers. I watch her lying in the pasture, head on paws, while goat kids gambol past her. There's something beatific in her gaze, as though she blesses these aggravating charges of hers--as though she blesses the world and all that is in it.

Unless you happen to be canine. Our two dogs, part Border Collie, part Catahoula, part Lab, are not small (Sam weighs ninety pounds), and they are used to thinking of themselves as pretty tough customers. The first time they approached the fence line in order to check out Roxy, however, they got the shock of their lives: the gentle white mountain in the middle of the wildflowers leapt to her feet and charged them, roaring and baring her teeth. If I hadn't been there, she might have easily gone over the six-foot fence and eaten them both. They slunk off with nary a peep.

Roxy has become my icon for discipline and self-control. Clearly, she is naturally affectionate and easy-going, and I believe she loves those goats of hers (though she can be hired out by other goat-owners, so it is clear she doesn't confine her loyalty to the animals she already knows). However, let any canine threat appear on the horizon--bored dogs, opportunistic coyotes--and she becomes Aslan, a lion-like defender of the weak and the dependent, a crusader for justice and goatish dignity. And she cannot be fooled. Our dogs might be friendly, even charming, but she knows the canine heart; she knows they cannot be trusted, particularly together, when one might talk the other into a little playful but deadly mayhem. So Roxy stands firm against evil in all its disguises. Yet when the crisis passes, she does not bear any grudge; neither does she brood and plot. Her vision is clear; that sudden swelling of frightening anger in the presence of evil does not linger on and on, and it has no lasting effect on her sweet-tempered nature.

Monastic wisdom has always listed anger as one of the "eight evil thoughts." The old monks warn again and again that getting angry is the fastest way to lose focus. "Armed as you are against anger do not submit to any powerful desire. For it is these which provide fuel for anger, and anger in turn is calculated to cloud the eye of your spirit and destroy your state of prayer" (Evagrius Ponticus). On the other hand, however, they believe that anger has a spiritual purpose: it is mean to be a good watch dog against our own evil thoughts: "Anger is given to us that we might strive against the demons. . . ." (Evagrius).

St. Hesychios the Priest has this to say about anger, "The incensive power [anger] by nature is prone to be destructive. If it is turned against demonic thoughts it destroys them; but if it is roused against people then it destroys the good thoughts that are in us. In other words, the incensive power, although God-given as a weapon or a bow against evil thoughts, can be turned the other way and used to destroy good thoughts as well, for it destroys whatever it is directed against. I have seen a spirited dog destroying equally both wolves and sheep."

Thank heavens for the good dog next door, ever on watch but never dominated by rage. This is my prayer--that I can become as spiritually disciplined about the uses of anger as the blessed Roxy herself.

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