Friday, June 7, 2013

Ladder of Divine Ascent - On Placidity and Meekness

           It is only through attaining the virtue of mourning spoken of in the previous step that placidity and meekness may be achieved.  For it is mourning which destroys all anger and any desire to be spoken well of in this life.
            Placidity, or freedom from anger, begins when one keeps silent even when the heart is moved and provoked.  Slowly the virtue develops as one learns to control and silence his thoughts during an angry encounter.  Eventually one is able to remain calm even when a tempest rages about him. 
            Freeing oneself from anger, however, requires great humility and meekness.  For to be free from anger necessitates that one be calm, peaceful and loving to a person who has treated him wrongly.  This is what makes a monastery such a wonderful training ground in John's eyes.  For it is there that one is purified through the constant reproofs and rebuffs of his fellow monks.  Such reproof gradually cleanses a soul of this passion. 

1-8            Placidity and Meekness and their opposites are defined. 

            As the gradual pouring of water on a fire puts out the flame completely, so the tears of genuine mourning can extinguish every flame of anger and irascibility.  Hence this comes next in our sequence.
            Freedom from anger is an endless wish for dishonor, whereas among the vainglorious there is a limitless thirst for praise.  Freedom from anger is a triumph over one's nature.  It is the ability to be impervious to insults, and comes by hard work and the sweat of one's brow.
            Meekness is a permanent condition of that soul which remains unaffected by whether or not it is spoken well of, whether or not it is honored or praised.
            The first step toward freedom from anger is to keep the lips silent when the heart is stirred; the next, to keep thoughts silent when, the soul is upset; the last, to be totally calm when unclean winds are blowing.
            Anger is an indication of concealed hatred, of grievance nursed.  Anger is the wish to harm someone who has provoked you.
            Irascibility is an untimely flaring up of the heart.  Bitterness is a stirring of the soul's capacity for displeasure.  Anger is an easily changed movement of one's disposition, a disfigurement of the soul.

9            The great spiritual damage that even a moment of anger can bring.

            A quick movement of a millstone can grind in one moment and do away with more of the soul's grain and fruit than another crushes in a whole day.  So we must be understanding and we must pay attention, for a strong sudden wind may fan a blaze that will cause more damage to the field of the heart than a lingering flame could ever manage to achieve.  Let us not forget, my friends, that evil demons sometimes leave us unexpectedly, with the result that we may become careless about these strong passions within us, thinking them to be of no consequence, and become, therefore, incurably ill.

10-12            The common life and overcoming anger.

            Take are hard stone with sharp corners.  Knock it and rub it against other stones, until its sharpness and hardness are crushed by the knocking and rubbing and, at last, it is made round.  So too, take a soul that is rough and abrupt.  Put it into the community and company of tough short-tempered men.  One of two things must happen: Either it learns through patience to cure its wound, or it will run away and, by so doing, it will learn its weakness, its cowardly flight showing it up as if in a mirror.

13-14            Signs of true meekness and its absence.

            A sign of utter meekness is to have a heart peacefully and lovingly disposed toward someone who has been offensive, and a sure proof of a hot temper is that a man, even when he is alone, should with word and gesture continue to rage and fulminate against some absent person who has given the offense.

15-30            Anger and its causes must be studied carefully.  The wrong response can actually worsen the problem. Their are many causes for the passion of anger.  Each case must be diagnosed and dealt with individually.  Again, John stresses that some forms of life are better suited for those who struggle with anger.  In his mind the communal life offers the greatest hope in overcoming this vice.

            . . . I have seen men who appeared to be displaying stolid patience, but who, in reality, were silently harboring resentment within themselves.  These, it seems to me, were much more to be pitied than the men prone to explosions of temper, because what they were doing was to keep away the holy white dove with that black gall of theirs.  So this is a serpent that has to be handled carefully, for, like the snake of sensuality, it has nature as its ally.
            I have seen angry men push food away out of sheer bitterness.  And yet by this kind of unreasonable abstinence they merely added poison to poison. 

            You will note that many irritable persons practice vigils, fasting and stillness.  For the devils are trying to suggest to them, under cover of penance and mourning, what is quite likely to increase their passion.

            Someone who notices that he is easily overcome by pride, a nasty temper, malice, and hypocrisy, and who thinks of defending himself against these by unsheathing the double-edged sword of meekness and patience, such a man if he wishes to break free entirely from these vices ought to live in a monastery, as if it were a fuller's shop of salvation.  In particular, he should choose the most austere place.  He will be spiritually stretched and beaten by the insults, injuries, and rebuffs of the brothers.  He may even be physically beaten, trampled on, and kicked, so that he may wash out the filth still lying in the sentient part of his soul.  There is an old saying that reproof is the washtub for the soul's passions, and you ought to believe it, for people in the world who load indignities onto someone and then boast about it to others like to say, "I gave him a good scrubbing."  Which, of course, is quite accurate. 

            The fever suffered by the body is a single symptom but has many causes.  Similarly, the seething movement of our anger and our other passions arises for many different reasons, so that the same cure cannot be offered for all of them.  Hence I would propose that each sick man should very carefully look for his own particular cure, and the first step here is the diagnosis of the cause of the disease.  When this is known, the patients will get the right cure from the hands of God and from their spiritual doctors.  Those who wish to join us in the Lord should therefore come to the spiritual tribunal where we can be tested in various ways and find out about the passions referred to above as well as their causes.

 31-32            Concluding remarks and exhortation.

            So, then, anger the oppressor must be restrained by the chains of meekness, beaten by patience, hauled away by blessed love.  Take it before the tribunal of reason and have it examined in the following terms: "Wretch, tell us the name of your father, the name of the mother who bore you to bring calamity into the world, the names of your loathsome sons and daughters.  Tell us, also who your enemies are and who has the power to kill you."  And this is how anger replies: "I come from many sources and I have more than one father.  My mothers are Vainglory, Avarice, Greed.  And Lust too.  My father is named Conceit.  My Daughters have the names Remembrance of Wrongs, Hate, Hostility and Self-Justification.  The enemies who have imprisoned me are the opposite virtues - Freedom from Anger and Lowliness, while Humility lays a trap for me.  As for Humility, ask in due time who it was that bore her."
            On the eighth step the crown is freedom from anger.  He who wears it by nature may never come to wear another.  But he who has sweated for it and won it has conquered all eight together.