Three Degrees of Anger

I had an email from the Benedictines at Norcia in Italy. They sent the text of a sermon given some time ago by Fr. Cassian Folsom, OSB. Given recent events and the sermon’s topic, it occurred to me that we could benefit from it:

The Three Degrees of Anger
by Fr. Cassian Folsom, O.S.B.
Monastery of San Benedetto, Norcia, Italy

Today’s Gospel speaks of anger. The context is a debate against those who observe the Law of God superficially and exteriorly, but sin in their heart. He who lives superficially protests by saying “I’ve never killed anybody”, and therefore I’m not guilty of breaking the fifth commandment. But Jesus responds: “Look at the intentions in your heart: have you ever had feelings of anger or hatred towards your brother? The crime of murder has its roots in the heart!”

Therefore, the Lord directs this appeal to us, so that we can be more sensible to the presence of sin in our life—not only big sins, but especially those small ones.

Note how the Gospel distinguishes three degrees of anger, and assigns to each degree a suitable penalty.

1. He who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment, i.e. a trial.
2. He who insults his brother saying “Raca”—a word in Hebrew which is pejorative and strong—shall be liable to the council (a panel of judges)
3. He who says “you fool”—another word similar to “Raca”—shall be liable to hellfire.

It seems like a disproportionate punishment for so little! But the point is that the heart speaks through the mouth. Wrath that spreads throughout the heart and soul must be confronted and healed—so that our actions might be free from the consequences of anger.

The patristic tradition takes these considerations seriously. Let’s look at what St. Augustine and St. John Cassian have to say.

St. Augustine interprets these three degrees of anger in a psychological sense (cf. Breviarium Monasticum, V dominica post Pentecosten). In other words, by his acute observation of human behavior, Augustine makes this diagnosis:

1. Anger begins with an interior turmoil.
2. This turmoil is unleashed on the outside with a cry of wrath, a sound—but not yet articulated in words.
3. Finally, a cry rises from the wrath of a word—as, for example, “raca” or something similar.

Parallel to these three degrees of anger are three degrees of the judicial process.

1. The first degree is the meeting of the judges, St. Augustine says, where the case is discussed. There is still the possibility to exonerate the accused, because it deals with interior turmoil, which has not yet been expressed exteriorly.
2. The second degree presumes that the accused is guilty, and the panel of judges discusses the sentence, the punishment.
3. The third degree carries out the sentence with the fire of hell.

Summarizing the thought of St. Augustine, one notes the various degrees of anger from the interior turmoil to the explicit appearance in sounds and words. The punishment is very severe, as if it were not only a wrathful word, but actually homicide.

St. John Cassian, too, describes three species of anger (Conf. V,11).

1. The first is that which glows interiorly—here he repeats the concept of St. Augustine.
2. The second is that which breaks out in words and gestures—here he unites the second and third degree of St. Augustine.
3. The third is that which is not disposed of in a short time, but is cultivated for days and days. This third species, Cassian continues to develop, saying that such people who prolong their anger “for several days, and nourish rancorous feelings against those against whom they have been excited, they say in words that they are not angry, but in fact and deed show that they are extremely disturbed. For they do not speak to them pleasantly, nor address them with ordinary civility, and they think that they are not doing wrong in this, because they do not seek to avenge themselves for their upset. But since they either do not dare, or at any rate are not able to show their anger openly, and give place to it, they drive in, to their own detriment, the poison of anger, and secretly cherish it in their hearts, and silently feed on it in themselves; without shaking off by an effort of mind their sulky disposition, but digesting it as the days go by, and somewhat mitigating it after a while” (Institutes, VIII, 11).

In this precious description of the three species of anger, we can recognize ourselves and, with compunction and repentance, realize the negative consequences of our anger both for us and for those with whom we live.

What is the cause of anger? Normally, our wrath is provoked because we cannot have what we want. Our ego encounters an obstacle; our own will, in some way, is denied: and then boom, anger. To heal the wounds of wrath, according to this analysis, we must examine our desires: what do we want? That which we want: is it more or less reasonable? Should I change my expectations?

The opposing virtues are patience and meekness. Patience undergoes an injury and accepts the suffering experienced in the midst of the difficult situation. Meekness renounces the aggression of its own will, and says with St. John the Baptist: he must increase, but I must decrease (Jn 3:30). In this way, we will become like the disciples described in today’s Epistle: All of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind (1 Pet 3:8).

Our model, as always, is our Lord Jesus Christ, who comforts us with these words: Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart… (Mt 11:28-29).

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. StWinefride says:

    Thank you for posting this, Father. This quote from St Bernadette has often been of help:

    The first impulse does not belong to us, but the second does”.

    St Bernadette of Lourdes

  2. JonPatrick says:

    Isn’t there sometimes justifiable anger though? For example, when we read about Nancy Pelosi, or after attending the Church of Nice down the street and experiencing liturgical abuse. After all, our Lord did overturn the tables of the money changers in the Temple.

  3. snoozie says:

    Thank you Jon…my thoughts also.

  4. Konstantin says:

    Here is more on anger:

    Not all anger is sinful, but I think this is a thing where you have to be extremely careful not to make up any excuses for yourself.

  5. StWinefride says:

    Righteous anger is acceptable but St Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians says:

    Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil”. Eph 4:26-27

  6. Francesca says:

    This was a very helpful sermon on understanding the degrees of anger.

    The problem is getting rid of the anger. I can go days and days without thinking of it–but then something will happen and the whole thought process swamps right over me.

    I wish there were some concrete steps you could take to get rid of the fulminating anger–times when you can no longer address the person[s] who wronged you- or the instances (such as now) where there’s no way to stem the prevailing tide.

  7. idelsan says:

    “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” jose · Yoda

  8. chantgirl says:

    How do the maledictory psalms fit into all of this?

  9. Priam1184 says:

    @JonPatrick and @snoozie There is anger and then there is anger. If one is truly angry that an offense has been done against God or Our Lord or the Blessed Mother or something like that it will take on an entirely different character than being angry at somebody else for not getting something that you wanted from them. The first kind will lead, I think, to prayer and deeds to correct the person committing that offensive act while the second will lead to the sort of internal self destruction that the homilist speaks about.

  10. StWinefride says:

    Francesca, I hope this can be of some help – Dawn Eden was on Women of Grace, EWTN, all last week. A lot of what she was saying is widely applicable. I found it very helpful.

    She mentioned, amongst other things, that forgiveness is the work of the Holy Spirit. Here’s one of her quotes from an article on the internet:

    The good news is that forgiveness, being an act of grace, does not depend on our own efforts. It is a work accomplished not by us, but in us, through the Holy Spirit that we received in our baptism. Our job is to ask the Spirit to forgive through us, turning our will to make us want God’s best for the offender.

    You can watch the EWTN episodes here (episodes 10545-10549):

  11. Priam1184 says:

    @chantgirl I believe the maledictory psalms have been regarded throughout Christian history as curses heaped upon the enemy of mankind and his minions.

  12. aquinasadmirer says:

    There is a VERY goog cd from lighthouse on this topic called “Anger and Forgiveness.” I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s given by a Canadian deacon, psychiatrist.

    Some nuggets i remember:

    Anger is the disordered desire to correct a wrong or hurt. he pointed out that it is by definition disordered.

    The passage from st paul about be angry but sin not is sn inaccuraye translatipn from the greek. its more properly translated as righeous indegnation.

    A easy way to tell the difference is that anger is focused on defending ourselves and our actions. Rightoues indignation is focused on defending someone else who is suffering some injustice. The response to righteous indignation is also measured and tempered. Anger is dispropprtionate in its response.

    After making this crucial distiction, the deacon’s conclusion is that anger is always sinful.


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  14. Fr. Z., how does this tie in with Summa Theologica?: lack of the passion of anger is also a vice, (…) the lack of anger is a sign that the judgment of reason is lacking.

    Also, Fr. Dylan James on his blog has two excellent Examinations of Conscience, one for laypeople and one for priests. In the one for priests he says: Lack of due anger: “unreasonable patience is the hotbed of many vices, it fosters negligence, and incites not only the wicked but even the good todo wrong” (II-II q158 a8). Note the just anger of Christ cleansing the Temple:’Zeal for thy house will consume me.’ (Ps. 68:10): “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” (John 2:15-16)

  15. Kathleen10 says:

    Yes but what about menopause?

  16. Kathleen10 says:

    Fr. Z. that was my hopefully one inappropriate comment for 2013. I couldn’t resist.

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