A young associate pastor once told me that when he would go to adoration or attempt mental prayer he would often see the angry face of his pastor in his mind. I suggested he forgive his pastor for whatever offenses he had committed and, obstacle removed, his prayer would be freed up to make progress.
Why this intimate connection between forgiveness and mental prayer?
When we love something, we discover a good in it. When our Lord decided to create us, we did not exist yet, there was no good for Him to discover in us. Rather in creating us, he poured that goodness into us.
This divine magnanimity is the beginning of our understanding of Divine Mercy. Just as our existence is gratuitous, even more so is His Mercy. Forgiveness begins to make us whole again after we have effaced the image and likeness we bear. The problem is we often think it easier to co-exist with dysfunction than allow our Lord to penetrate our hearts with all of His conditions and demands. One of those conditions for receptivity of Divine Mercy is not only to interiorize it (how many are forgiven in confession, yet torture themselves later, asking if they are truly forgiven, thus insulting His Mercy yet again?), but also to interiorize it so much that it recalibrates our identity, matching it up with God’s.
The superhuman demand to be divine is placed upon us to be divine if we are to continue in this relationship. This makes sense. If we are to participate in divine nature through grace, ought we not also carry out divine actions? Most certainly. Primary amongst them are the theological virtues and the requisite for maintaining the state of grace is the divine act of forgiveness of others. We already know this and repeat our awareness of it every time we pray the Our Father, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. We tell our Lord to condition His Mercy towards us according to the degree of our living of it. That’s daunting.
There are a few conditions for being forgiven by God: amongst them is that we have offended Him – we’ve all got that part mastered; we also have to repent of our sin, have a firm purpose of amendment, confess our sin. How many think to do this yet continue to harbor grudges, even as they go to confession, thus rendering their absolution questionable. Here too, there is often some misguidance. People frequently mistake the feelings produced by of an offence or its memory as a lack of forgiveness. This is not the case.
Everyone says “forgive and forget”, but no one forgets. And that’s not a problem. What I do with that remembrance of a past offence, though, that will determine if I choose to live in the hell of bitterness or the heaven of mercy already in this life. Much like a temptation against purity, our response completely commits us to Christ or compromises our relationship with Him. It’s an opportunity for growth in virtue or the possibility of perdition. And as often as we remember the offence, we are compelled to forgive it, even to seven times seventy times.
Consequently, our forgiveness of those who have done us wrong opens up the floodgates of Divine Mercy to us and ushers us into His embrace while a grudge makes our worship impossible.
How does this work?
Along with the concupiscible appetite we have the irascible appetite. Its very name comes from the Latin word ira (anger) while irasci means “to be angry”. When anger rises from the sensitive part of man into the intellective part, it becomes an actual passion of the soul. Such a passion is aroused when the intellect judges that something is to be resented, or that a person inflicting an injury is to be punished. The will backs up this judgment of intellect. And this type of anger is therefore said to require an act of reason (intellect and will). Thus, as an appetite, it is morally neutral. As an act it has a moral content, either virtuous or vicious.
When our Lord condemns anger, He is speaking about a moral problem, not the feeling of anger or even all acts or attitudes of anger, much less the memory of a past injustice. He shows Himself angry when he cleanses the Temple, when He rebukes the self-righteous, but His is a holy wrath. We, too, are enjoined to have anger at the right moments. St. John Chrysostom said this regarding anger: “He who is not angry when he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is a hotbed of many vices” (Homily 11). St. Thomas Aquinas says, “Consequently, lack of the passion of anger is also a vice, [for it is] a lack of movement in the will directed to punishment by the judgment of reason” (S. Th. II, IIae, Q. 158, a. 8). Thus, there are moments when anger is required.
The problem with the passions is that they, like the theological virtues, demand totality when unfettered from right ordered reason. Our Lord says,
“You have learned how it was said to our ancestors: you must not kill; and If anyone does kill he must answer before the court. But I say to you: anyone who is angry with his brother will answer before the court; if a man calls his brother raqa (fool) he will answer for it before the Sanhedrin; and if a man calls him ‘renegade’ he will answer for it in hellfire. So then, if you are bringing your offering to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, go, be reconciled with your brother first, and then come back and present your offering. Come to terms with your opponent in good time while you are still on the way to the court with him, or he may hand you over to the judge and the judge to the officer, and you will be going to prison. I tell you solemnly, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny” (Matt 5:21-26).
Notice that our Lord speaks of a particular action when He discusses the prohibition of killing and ensuing punishment. On the other hand, he does not refer to an action – here translated as “is angry” – but to a habitual attitude of anger: orgitzomenos (“the angry man”). The sinful habit overtakes the angry man, and his reason is then held captive to a habit that began through venial sin but has become mortal, preparing the soul for condemnation. So, anger may become a mortal sin or habitual sin unto death if it is practiced and then formative of the sinner’s attitude. Further, it may become mortal if a man, through reason, desires vengeance against another excessively or inappropriately. This last instance reveals the demonic attempt at becoming like gods when the angry man appropriates what is divine, since vengeance is proper to God, not man: Vengeance is mine, says the Lord (Deut 32:35).
When we allow the passions to take over, we forget God and our true selves. Instead of the passions being elevated by infused virtues of God’s grace present in the soul and serving His purposes in the order of our sanctification, they blind and consume us. We end up serving them in a demonic act of false worship.
Such a man has an inward habit of mind – an unfettered passion that has claimed the intellect and become an idol in the same way disordered sexuality becomes an idol. The angry person enters into false worship inasmuch as he sacrifices his reason to the blood of passions. Perhaps this is why Moses Ben Maimonides, the most prolific Torah scholar, says:
“Whoever angers is as if he has performed idolatry.” Further, it is said that one who angers, if he is a scholar, his wisdom will depart from him, and if he is a prophet his prophetic spirit will depart from him. [The Sages also say] “People who have tempers — their lives are not lives.” (Mishnah Torah, Hilkhos Dei’os 2,2).
Indeed, the Book of 1 Samuel calls rebellion a form of witchcraft and stubbornness akin to idolatry (15:23). The disintegrated man who does not submit his passions to reason ends up serving them and the demons who direct the passions.
Notice, too, how our Lord explains the incongruity between true worship and the false worship of anger, enjoining his followers to repair the damage done by sinful anger before making the offering at the altar. Further, we note the role of remembrance in Christ’s words. In the attempt at worshipping while in the wrong, the Holy Spirit acts on the soul of the man who was forgetful of God and self and enlightens his memory. Much like the priest referred to above who found it impossible to pray, the man our Lord describes would have offered an empty sacrifice at the alter had he continued on his way to the temple.
The angry man opts for the totalizing irascible passion, nullifying his attempts at worship. If St. Paul tells us to not let the sun go down on our anger lest the devil gain a foothold (Eph 4:25-26), it is because he understood the consequences of unfettered anger. Therefore, it is not hyperbolic to claim that attempts at prayer and sacramental practice made by a man who has opted for the idolatry of anger become superstitious acts given the impossibility of serving two masters. If such attitudes and actions are incompatible with the everlasting liturgy of Heaven, as St. Paul says:
“The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:19).
So too, are they incompatible with the Divine Liturgy that joins this world to Heaven.
If we are to be grow in the way of prayer we need to grow in the ways of divine actions and forgiveness received and extended is no small part in this adventure.