If you’re like me, you tend think of Francis de Sales as a man of moderation, someone who by personality, as well as by principle, avoided extremes. After all, he did offer as a motto, “Moderation in all things except the love of God.” But there is at least one area of human experience where he is absolute – giving into anger. He writes, “I state absolutely and make no exception, do not be angry at all, if that is possible. Do not accept any pretext whatever for opening your heart’s door to anger.” Later he explains why: “If anger can only gain the night on us and if the sun sets on it, which the apostle forbids, it turns into hatred from which we have hardly anyway of ridding ourselves. It is nourished by a thousand false pretexts; there never was an angry man who thought his anger unjust.”
I have a suspicion that one reason Francis is so firm on this point is that he is reflecting on his own experience. That may sound strange; after all Francis de Sales is known as the gentleman saint, one who treated even those whom he debated with civility and respect. There are a few reported occasions where he displayed anger, but they are few and far between.
On the other hand, there is the story of his response when he and Jane de Chantal were building the first real Visitation monastery. The prior of the neighboring Dominican community thought the new monastery was too close to his community. He protested, but Francis, as bishop, ruled against him. So the prior then sent over Dominican scholastics at night to tear down the walls of the monastery that had been built during the day. Jane was furious and wanted Francis to respond to this outrage with all the ecclesiastical weapons of mass destruction at hand. But he refused, saying: “Would you have me lose in fifteen minutes what I have labored 15 years to achieve?” The point is that he had been struggling for 15 years to maintain an interior peace, even when confronted with blatant and arrogant disobedience and disrespect.
Corroborating my suspicion about his natural tendency towards anger is the report that after his death, the underneath of his desk was found to have grooves, grooves from his fingers pressing and scraping the wood as he struggled to maintain his tranquility.
Francis lived in an angry world. People were angry about many things: about religion, about national politics, about slights to their honor; and often the anger exploded violently: quarrels, duels, assassination and massacres were the order of the day. It is little wonder that Francis wrote so strongly against anger, that he was reluctant to admit even a just anger. As he said, “There never was an angry man who thought his anger unjust.”
Like Francis, we live in an angry world. The most extreme examples of anger are suicide bombers, men and women who are so angry that they are willing to kill themselves and dozens of innocent others in an act of violence. But there are many other examples of anger in our world, less extreme but nonetheless real. Political talk show hosts and talking heads who make no pretense at rational discourse, but instead revel in outrageous and vicious attacks on those with whom they disagree. Politicians who find that generating and harnessing the anger of the electorate is often an effective way to win an election. Within our church, the often bitter divide between liberals and conservatives. And there is the ever present reality of road rage that seems to be a regular part of our driving experience
For most of us, anger in others begets an angry response in us. At least I know it does in me. And so it is all too easy to be angry in our world. It is true that often we are in situations where we can’t express the anger we feel. Any successful teacher knows that exploding at an unruly class means the kids have just won. A parish priest really cannot tell the obnoxious, hypercritical parishioner exactly what they can do with their list of complaints about the way he presides at Mass. And most of us have the presence of mind not to flip off the person who cuts us off on the interstate. But the anger we feel in those situations is real and although we may not express it at the moment, it doesn’t go away. It tends, as we say in pastoral work, to come out sideways. And too often it comes out at home, directed towards those with whom we live.
The technical term for that phenomenon is displacement. When it happens, we respond with disproportionate anger at real or sometime imagined slights or the natural friction that comes from living with other people. The displaced anger we release at home sours our relationships with those with whom we live and it can make a home an uncomfortable place to be. Certainly it is not what Francis de Sales would have us be: followers of Christ who have no bond but the bond of love.
So it would seem that Francis’ advice, “Do not be angry at all if that is possible,” is profound wisdom. Except that we all know it is not all that easy.
After all, most of us don’t decide to become angry, we certainly don’t try to be angry. It comes upon us and overwhelms us. And while we have the example of Francis grabbing that desktop to control his anger, we also remember that he died of a stroke at the age of 56. Now there is no way we can know what contributed to that stroke, but we do know that repressed anger can express itself in high blood pressure, ulcers, depression or other illnesses. So we are left wondering what we ought to do.
Well in Part Three, Chapter Eight of the Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis gives some practical advice on dealing with anger:
First, he tells us that when we feel anger welling up in us, we should resist it, but we should do so mildly as well as seriously, not violently and tumultuously. In other words, take a deep breath and exhale slowly
Secondly, he recommends prayer. While it may be difficult to pray at the moment anger strikes, it is certainly worth the effort of doing so. And if we find ourselves prone to anger, petitions to the Lord to give us a gentle heart ought to be part of our daily prayer regimen
Francis recommends that as soon as we are aware that we have acted in anger towards another person, we should perform an act of meekness toward them. In other words say we should say we’re sorry. The humility required to acknowledge our own fault is a good remedy for anger.
Francis also suggests using those times when we are not angry “to build up a stock of meekness and mildness.” I suspect what he means is that even in situations of harmless emotion – watching a ball game, for example – we need to be on our guard not to get carried away with our emotions. If we can learn to control and moderate them there, we will have a better chance of keeping our cool when confronted with a real issue.
Beyond what Francis suggests, I would like to make a few additional suggestions. Now Francis is a doctor of the church and I certainly am not, so take what I say with a grain of salt. However much of what I have to offer are techniques that are used in Retrouvaille, a program for troubled marriages, so on that basis they may have some validity.
In my own case, it is relatively rare – any more — that I will lose my temper; it is much more likely that I grouse to myself about offenses real or imagined. When that happens, a couple of strategies have tended to prove helpful.
I name my feeling to myself – as in, “Wow, you’re really angry!” For some reason identifying the feeling takes some its force away.
It also helps if I can laugh a little at myself, as in “Boy just listen to you: grouse, grouse, grouse, grouse!” You see, I can say these things to myself; if someone else said them, I might deck them.
I ask myself, where this anger is coming from? Is it really generated by the person/persons to whom it’s directed, or is it misplaced? Once I identify the source of my anger, I ask myself, okay what can you do about this situation? Is it something that can be addressed? After all anger generates energy; can I channel this energy to change a problematic situation? On the other hand, is it worth the emotional energy needed to address it? Sometimes I get angry over really trivial issues that are not worth dealing with. In these cases, I need to tell myself to get a life.
If the source of my anger is another person, especially a person with whom I live, do I care enough to confront. That is, to calmly speak to the other person, name what happened (at least as I see it) and let them know how I feel about it, being careful not to call names, being careful not to bring up issues from the past, being careful not to hit below the belt, i.e. using a person’s weaknesses as a weapon against them, being careful to keep my voice and demeanor serious but calm.
I don’t know if these will all work for you; to be honest they don’t always work for me, or perhaps more accurately, I don’t always think to use them, especially in the heat of anger. But whatever means we find, it is important that we find ways of dealing with anger, of controlling it rather than letting our anger control us.
I think, as usual, Francis de Sales puts it best: “This wretched life is only a journey to the happy life to come. We must not be angry with each other on the way, but rather we must march on as a band of brothers and companions, united in meekness, peace and love.”
Fr. Donald Heet, OSFS