Friday, November 07, 2008

Confession & the Evangelism of the Faithful: Understanding the Angry Penitent

You may be wondering why it is important to consider how spiritual fathers minister to different classes of penitents in confession. While it might be useful for clergy, why would lay people care?

The simple answer is this: Confession is an essential part of the spiritual life of the all the faithful—laity and clergy. While we ought not to reduce the spiritual life to our participation as penitents in confession, it is important to keep in mind that confession is one very important part of what we are preparing to do. Confession is in a real sense a goal or teleos of all of the Church evangelistic and educational ministry. We are forming people not simply for various ministry, but for confession. In fact I would argue that as an essential part of the Church's prophetic ministry confession is the ordinary context within which we all of us come to understand ever more fully what the Father in Christ and through the Holy has called us to do.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the angry penitent.

We are accustomed to thinking of anger in terms of affect, of emotion. But in the Church's spiritual anthropology, and I'm thinking here especially of St John Cassian, affect is only one possible manifestation of anger.

Before it is emotion, it is according to Cassian a vice, a habit of thought and action that he describes as a "somber disorder" in the soul. Just as "regret" is the absence of gratitude (and specifically, gratitude to God for one's life), anger (again according to Cassian) is the absence of "discernment of what is for our own good, . . . [ and of] spiritual knowledge." ("Eight Vices," Philokalia, vol I, p. 82)

When gripped by anger we unable to "fulfill our good intentions, nor [can we] participate" in divine life. All of is rooted in a blinded intellect that has become "impervious to the contemplation of the true, divine light." (p. 82)

The angry person then is not only ineffectual in his attempts to do good, he behaves in a manner that is ultimately, and sometimes proximately and even immediately, self-destructive. And all of this because "No matter what provokes it, anger blinds the soul's eyes, preventing it from seeing the Sun of Righteousness." The saint continues,

Leaves, whether of gold or lead, placed over the eyes obstruct the sight equally, for the value of gold does not effects the blindness it produces. . . . [Anger] whether reasonable or unreasonable, obstructs our spiritual vision." (p. 83)
As well as a description of anger, Cassian offers us an understanding of both its developmental roots and consequences. Cassian, as with many of the writers found in the Philokalia, holds to a dynamic understanding of the human person that anticipates in broad strokes the later finds of developmental psychology.

In "Eight Vices," we learn that anger is the rooted in gluttony, unchastity and avarice. Of these three, it is gluttony which is the developmental origin of anger. In a nutshell, what is for the infant a virtue, or at least a necessity is for the adult a vice. And it is from anger that there develops other, increasingly more serious vices: dejection, listlessness, self-esteem (less in the modern sense and more in the sense of autarkic self-aggrandizement of pathological narcissism or even sociopathy), and pride.

But it is anger I think that is the lynchpin between the (relatively) minor sins gluttony, unchastity and avarice and the increasingly more deadly sins which follow. At its core anger arise when the person's desires are frustrated. Anger is the announcement that I have encountered, and rebelled against, the limits of my own life and most now decide either to accept the limits imposed upon me or withdrawn into a life of increasingly deadly and death deal fantasy.

In my next post, I want to reflect with you briefly on how as a confessor I respond to the angry penitent (at least in my better, more grace-filled moments).

For now, and as always, your comments, questions and criticism are not only welcome, but actively sought.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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