Anger in the Writings of John Cassian (with ten remedies)
(as seen in The Institutes & The Conferences)
By posting this article, am not attempting to explain away the Scriptural exhortation to “Be angry, and do not sin,” but I only want to remind myself and others that the Apostle Paul also said, “do not let the sun go down on your wrath” (Eph 4:26). In fact, according to Scripture and the teachings of the early Christians, anger (whether it is a short eruption or a long, slow burn) is spiritually dangerous. However, we plainly read of God being angry, and of Jesus having anger (Mk 3:5). We also read of incidents in Jesus’ life where His zeal for righteousness & justice cause Him to act and speak in such a manner that it is hard to imagine Him doing it with a big smile and with His face lit up with joy (cleansing the Temple; rebuking the Jewish leaders, etc). I am inclined to believe that we, the adopted sons & daughters of God, are more prone to err in this particular passion than Jesus, but this article is not an exhaustive Scriptural study on the subject of anger. Instead, in order to fulfill a requirement for a seminary class I once enrolled in, I had to “Compose a research paper on a particular topic from the readings in John Cassian,” and so I am sharing the results of it. Other Christians who desire to purify themselves as He is pure (1 Jn 3:3) might be interested in this subject. Maybe they’ve had some of the same struggles I’ve had, and might benefit from what John Cassian had to say on this matter, because after completing the first block of reading that was assigned for the class, it became VERY obvious what topic would be most fitting for me to write about because it kept jumping off the pages of The Institutes, clamoring for my attention.
As someone who is interested in Church History/Historical Theology for more than academic reasons (I believe it has practical value), I became captivated by the topic of anger in the writings of John Cassian. I hoped to learn things about it that could not only be put to use in teaching & preaching, but that could also be put to use in the ongoing endeavor of personal reformation of character.
Even as a Christian, even after having (by the Spirit) put to death what I would have classified as my ‘gross sins,’ the most dominant vice that remained in my life was the spirit of anger. It was a vice that had been present for a very long time. Although there were seasons in my life where the spirit of fornication, or a sin (such as drunkenness) that is not explicitly included in the eight principal vices named by Cassian, may have ranked number one, anger definitely had seniority. However, after learning what the intellectual leaders of the pre-Nicene church believed on the subject of violence (which is one of the uglier manifestations of anger), and also after a life situation arose in which I learned a lesson from my son about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, I made the resolution to forsake the use of violence.
But simply resolving to no longer either seek to justify or personally resort to violence is something like merely pulling the top off of the dandelion that is growing in the yard; you can still see the stem of the dandelion (i.e. you can still see signs of anger and the potential for it to flower into violence). Yet, even if a person both refused to resort to violence and was able to avoid displaying any visible signs of anger, it would still, at best, only be like cutting the dandelion off at ground level. But God looks at the heart, therefore it is necessary to dig down deeper in an effort to get at the roots of the anger weed. This is serious business because the disease of anger is a deadly one. It is something that far too many Christians accept as being a normal part of life and therefore do not give much thought to just how serious and deadly it really is. Although it is a “disease” that is not as easily or as quickly cured as a person might like it to be, there is hope because, as Abba John told Germanus: “For those who are concerned about a cure for their maladies a salutary remedy cannot be lacking.” And he also said:
“In truth, curative remedies cannot be lacking to those who look for healing from that most true Physician of souls. This is especially the case with respect to those who do not disregard their ill health out of despair or negligence, or hide their dangerous wounds, or reject the medication of repentance with an impudent mind, but, once having gotten sick through ignorance or error or necessity, have recourse with humble yet cautious mind to the heavenly Physician.”
DISCUSSION OF THE ‘DISEASE’
- Where does anger come from?
In trying to sort, interpret and harmonize all of the information on anger that Cassian includes in his books, he seems to say that ultimately anger comes from the devil. He says:
“…the mind…must not be extinguished by the vice of anger. Otherwise, when it goes down and the darkness of disturbances—along with their author, the devil—occupies all our heart’s understanding and we have been possessed by the darkness of anger as if we were in the depths of night, we shall not know how we are to act.”
But taking note that the qualification given above was that Cassian seems to attribute anger’s ultimate or primary source to Satan and his minions, anyone who reads Cassian’s writings will find that he names other sources of anger as well, and this writer understands these other sources to be secondary or derived sources of anger. For example, in sections XV and XVI of the conference on mortification, Cassian records Abba Abraham as teaching on the three powers (or parts, portions, members, dispositions, etc) of the soul which are planted in every human being by their very nature. Abba Abraham seems to say that when any one of these three powers become corrupted by the evil spirits, certain vices unique to each part, power, member, or disposition of the soul will spring forth from them. Different vices will spring forth from a person’s soul depending on which power/member of the soul has been corrupted, infected or wounded. Therefore—although Satan and his minions seem to be understood as being the primary “single source and wellspring for all the vices,”—Cassian can also write about these three powers of our own soul, if corrupted, as being sources of vice as well. Cassian reports Abba Abraham as teaching that…
“…we should believe that a certain evil force inhabits the parts or what I might call the members of our soul. Since some very wise persons understand this…that either the…reasonable—or the…irascible—or the…concupiscible—will be damaged by some assault. When, therefore a harmful passion seizes forcibly upon someone in one of these dispositions, the name of the vice is also used for the pathology. If the plague of vice…wounds the irascible disposition, it will bring forth rage, impatience, sadness, acedia, faintheartedness and cruelty.”
Therefore, Cassian records Abba Abraham as teaching that the “source and origin” of certain vices—including anger—is whatever part or member of the soul that those vices spring from once one of the three parts of the soul has become corrupted. In the case of anger, it springs from the corrupted irascible power, portion or member of the soul.
The various teachings on the subject of anger in Cassian’s writings seem to conflict at times, and therefore the overall message on the subject needs to be taken into consideration before coming to any definite conclusions as to how to interpret what exactly is being communicated. For example, concerning whether or not anger is naturally rooted in us, there seems to be two different answers being given: yes and no. There are some places in Cassian’s writings where we are seemingly told that anger is naturally rooted in us and will be with us as long as we are in this body. But then, in many other places in his writings, we are emphatically told that we both can and must completely uproot this noxious and deadly vice so that it is totally eradicated from our souls.
The only way that I could harmonize what appears to be two very different messages was to understand that when it is taught that anger is naturally rooted in our being so that it will always be with us, and that it is even to our own benefit that it will always be there for us to struggle with until the end of our earthly pilgrimage, is that what is being expressed in such sentiments is more properly referring to the irascible power of our soul. This power of our soul will always be with us, and therefore there will also always be the potential for it to become corrupted so that an evil anger arises within us, but having the irascible power within us benefits us in a couple different ways. First of all, when we know and accept it as a reality that our soul’s irascible power could become corrupted through the influence of an evil spirit, it should motivate us to be continually zealous and vigilant to “tend our garden” so as to keep the tentacles of the spirit of anger out of our souls. Secondly, this power of the soul can be used for good. It can be used both for our good and for the good of the kingdom of God if it is kept pure and controlled and directed by godly means and used for godly purposes, such as in doing battle against the evil spirits and the vices that threaten to distract us and darken our souls, and in striving to acquire the virtues and attain to purity of heart so that we might experience and have ongoing fellowship with God even while we are still on our earthly pilgrimage. It does not happen automatically. Our virtues are formed by fighting our vices.
- What are the effects of anger?
Anger is described as having various effects upon the human being (too many to mention here), and almost always these effects are described as being negative. But the most important thing to keep in mind concerning the effects of anger, is that Cassian repeatedly represents the teaching of the church as being that anger, and by whatever other name it might be called, is deadly (as are the other vices as well). Lest the reader mistake what is meant by the term “deadly,” the following three quotations should make it clear. First, after quoting Job 5:2, Cassian comments that the person who becomes angry “…is not unjustifiably declared to be a fool for willingly bringing death upon himself by letting himself be provoked by angry urges,” and then the next two quotations come from the 8th book of The Institutes, which is entitled “The Spirit of Anger.” In the first of these next two quotes given directly below, Cassian begins his book on anger with the following words:
“In the fourth struggle it is the deadly poison of anger that must be totally uprooted from the depths of our soul. For as long as it resides in our hearts and blinds our mind’s eye with its harmful darkness, we shall be able neither to acquire the judgment of a proper discretion nor to possess a good contemplative vision or a mature counsel, and we shall not be sharers in life,”…
Then, in this next quote, in concluding his arguments against the excuse that some people would make in saying that since God Himself gets angry and exercises wrath against wrongdoers, then that justifies Christians in doing the same, Cassian writes:
“The present work would be too long if we chose to explain everything in Scripture that is said figuratively and in human terms about God. Let it suffice to have said this much with respect of our current concern, which is directed against the vice of wrath, so that no one may, through ignorance, derive the wherewithal [i.e. the means] for sickness and everlasting death from the very place [i.e. the Scriptures, through erroneous interpretation] where holiness, immortal life, and the medicine of salvation are obtained.”
DISCUSSION OF THE REMEDIES
Listed below are some of clearest instructions in Cassian’s writings concerning remedies a person should consider if they truly want to rid themselves of the spirit of anger, which can be expelled “by mental effort alone” because it arises “at the prompting of the soul alone,” rather than from the “enjoyment and feelings of the flesh.” It is the remedies to this disease that this writer is particularly interested in. Ten of them are described and listed below.
Remedy #1: Realize, Understand & Reflect—Cassian ends his book on “The Spirit of Anger” by giving the following three or four recommendations on things we need to realize, understand and reflect on in order to prepare and exercise our minds so that we can uproot the anger weed:
“Hence it behooves the athlete of Christ, who is contending lawfully, to root out the movements of wrath. The perfect medicine for this disease is that we realize, first, that in no way are we permitted to get angry, whether for an unjust or a just cause, knowing that we shall at once lose the light of discretion and firm and correct counsel, as well as goodness itself and the restraints of righteousness, if the guiding principle of our heart is obscured by darkness; and then [2nd], that the purity of our mind will soon be driven out and that it can never become a temple of the Holy Spirit as long as the spirit of wrath dwells in us. Lastly [3rd], we should understand that we are never allowed to pray or to make petition to God when we are angry. [Then, as if adding a summary to this recommended medicine, he says…] Above all, we should keep before our eyes the uncertain state of our human condition, daily realizing that we shall depart from our bodies and that our chaste abstinence, the renunciation of all our property, the contempt of wealth, and the toil of fasting and keeping vigil will confer nothing on us if eternal punishment is being readied for us by the Judge of all on account of wrath and hatred alone.”
Remedy #2: Forgiveness, not Flight; Reconciliation, not Running Away—Cassian reports that it helps to heal the disease of anger if we purposely live and work among other people rather than avoiding people. He says that the problem is inside ourselves, and that once we fix ourselves we will be able to get along with anybody. He advises that we practice reconciliation rather than running away. He recommends forgiveness rather than flight, “uprooting both anger and sadness” by praying and practicing “the formula” Jesus gave in Matthew 6:12 in the Lord’s Prayer. This teaching that living in community is a spiritual discipline that helps to heal our anger problem is given more than once in Cassian’s writings.
Remedy #3: Apply the Opposite—Cultivate, apply and practice all of the virtues that are opposed to the vice. Just as the vices are interconnected and closely related, so are their opposing virtues. If we want to be rid of anger, then we will—as much as possible and to the best of our ability—practice virtues that tend to throw water on the fire of our burning, smoldering anger. In order to practice all of the related virtues that are prescribed, a person would have to become a good monk who has both renounced all (i.e. taken a vow of poverty) and who lives in complete and utter subjection to the abba of his monastery. But even non-monks can do their best to practice Christian love, patience, forbearance, humility, meekness/gentleness, simplicity of heart, obedience, and poverty. This advice is given more than once. These virtues are repeatedly mentioned and extolled as cures for anger and vices in general, but concerning extinguishing or uprooting anger, the virtues of patience and humility seem to receive special emphasis as the route to peace and tranquility.
Remedy #4: Redirect and/or Make a Substitution—Similar to the medicine described above with a slight twist. Concerning the irascible power of the soul from which anger springs, we give it something else to fight against or be angry at (i.e. the evil spirits and our vices); we turn it to good use. We substitute the worldly sadness that brings death with godly sorrow; trade fleshly pleasure for spiritual ones.
Remedy #5: Pray Psalm 70:1—Cassian reports Abba Isaac as prescribing this:
“If I am disquieted by the urges of anger, avarice, or sadness, and if I am being pressed to cut off the gentleness that I have proposed to myself and that is dear to me, then, lest the disturbance of rage carry me off into a poisonous bitterness, let me cry out with load groaning: ‘O God, incline unto my aid; O Lord, make hast to help me.’”
Remedy #6: Mighty Motivators—Cassian records Abba Chaeremon as listing three things that would restrain people from vice in general if they kept them in their minds as motivating forces: “There are three things that restrain people from vice—namely,  the fear of Gehenna or of present laws; or  hope and desire for the kingdom of heaven; or  a disposition for the good itself and a love of virtue.”
Remedy #7: A Meditation Exercise—In prescribing a meditation exercise that might help a person respond appropriately when trials come, Abba John recommends the following:
“Placing before himself various kinds of misfortunes and setbacks, as if they had been brought on him by someone else, he should accustom his mind to submit with perfect humility to everything that wickedness can inflict, and, frequently imagining certain difficulties and intolerable situations, he should meditate constantly and with an utterly contrite heart on what great gentleness he should face these things with. Thus, with an eye to the sufferings of all the holy ones and of the Lord himself, and admitting that every dishonor and even punishment is less than he deserves, he will prepare himself to bear every sorrow.”
But Abba John goes on to say that when it comes to pass that we are in the company of others, and the person who desires to be free of anger…
“…perceives then that his mind is silently disturbed even by some insignificant things, he should at once, like a severe censor of his own hidden emotions, blame himself for those hard sorts of offenses…and reproaching and reprimanding himself he should say: …’Was it not you who recently believed that you were strong and unyielding enough in the face of every tempest, when you pictured for yourself not only the most bitter dishonors but even unbearable punishments? 4. How did that unvanquished patience of yours get upset as soon as the most trivial word was said? How has a light breeze shaken your house, which seemed to you to be built so massively on the most solid rock’…5. Condemning himself, then, by reproaching himself with compunction of this sort, he should not let this unexpected turmoil go unavenged. Rather, chastising his flesh still more rigorously with the corrective of fasting and vigils and torturing his blameworthy fickleness with the constant punishment of abstinence, he should…destroy with the fire of these practices what he ought to have completely burned away…”
Remedy #7: A Doubtful Remedy—One remedy for anger that Cassian records as being proposed by Abba Serapion is that a person who has an anger problem should begin their efforts to uproot it by way of attacking the vice of avarice. He makes the assertion that anger springs from avarice, and then says that “we must always attack the ones that follow by beginning with those that come before.” He says this because, in his system, his listing of the vices is not done in a random order. Serapion tells us that the first six vices (gluttony, fornication, avarice, anger, sadness, and acedia) “are connected among themselves by a certain affinity and, so to speak, interlinking, such that the overflow of the previous one serves as the start of the next one. For from an excess of gluttony there inevitably springs fornication; from fornication, avarice; from avarice, anger; from anger, sadness; and from sadness, acedia.”
While this writer does not deny that the vices are related, what is doubted is the truthfulness of this scheme that Serapion (or Cassian) has put together involving the six vices listed above in which he asserts that one necessarily springs from the other in the precise order in which he lists them. Whether or not it is true that “Fornication is allied by a special relationship to gluttony, anger is closely yoked to avarice, acedia to sadness, and pride to vainglory,” or that anger will best be defeated by first attacking avarice, each reader will have to judge on their own. However, for those (such as this writer) who are willing to try anything that might help defeat anger, it would certainly not hurt anything to give Serapion’s system a try, even if he may have gotten a little carried away with his systematizing and ended up overstating things a bit.
Remedy #8: A Truth to Be Maintained & Negative Consequences to Reflect On—Cassian reports Abba John as dogmatically stating that we must have one truth forever settled and established in our minds if we desire to make patience one of our personal virtues: “namely, that it is not permitted us, to whom the divine law forbids not only the revenge of wrongs but even their remembrance, to be moved to anger because of some unpleasantness or irritation.” He says that anger blinds us and makes it impossible for us to contemplate Jesus Christ, who is meek and humble of heart. He tells us that anger makes us unable to judge things accurately; it takes away our powers of discretion. Further, he says that anger not only puts us in the dark spiritually speaking, it also takes away and warps our mental capacities so as to, for all practical purposes, make us insane and drunk. In stressing how determined we ought to be to avoid getting angry, Abba John says that the person who…
“…reflects on these unpleasantnesses and others like them…will easily endure and disdain not only all kinds of losses but also whatever mistreatment and punishments can be inflicted upon him by the most cruel persons. He will esteem nothing more of a loss than anger and nothing more precious than a peaceful mind and a heart that is always pure. On their account are to be spurned the advantages not only of carnal things but even of those that seem to be spiritual, if they cannot be acquired and perfected other than by disturbing this tranquility.”
Remedy #9: The Sufferings of the Holy Ones and Our Rendezvous with Them—Cassian gives the following remedy as being good for whatever vice ails you. Although the benefit of keeping in mind the shortness of life and our own impending death was mentioned in the first remedy we identified above, the element of remembering the sufferings of Jesus and the saints is added here. Cassian writes:
“We shall…endure these things with great ease…if we keep ever in mind the sufferings of our Lord and of all the holy ones, consider that we are being tried with lighter pains because we are that much further removed from their deserts and their way of life, and realize as well that in a short while we shall depart from this world and soon, having put a quick end to this life, be their companions. 2. The contemplation of this is deadly not only to pride but to all the vices in general.”
Remedy #10: Get Your Mind Right and Submit to the Way of Suffering Love—Abba Abraham teaches that until we make the paradigm shift of looking at the things of this life through the eyes of eternity and thinking as citizens of the kingdom of God that Jesus’ yoke will not seem easy, nor will His burden seem light. He says that when we struggle against Jesus’ yoke we make it hard on ourselves. Therefore, we need to get our minds right if we ever hope to uproot the anger weed. We must embrace Sermon on the Mount Christianity or “Kingdom Christianity,” which accepts the upside down values of Jesus—all of them—or at least it does its best to accept and practice them.
In conjunction with Abba Abraham’s teaching, in another conference, Abba Theonas makes it very clear that the ancient Christian doctrine of nonresistance is directly related to, or rather, directly opposed to the spirit of anger. He makes it sound as if unless a person adopts a lifestyle of suffering love (i.e. literally following the nonresistant, nonviolent, “pacifist,” non-retaliation, “enemy-love” teachings of Jesus Christ while forsaking the way of anger, wrath, hatred, aggression, violence, etc) that they are still under the Law and living under the Old Covenant. Let the reader note that Abba Theonas quotes two key Scripture passages (Heb 7:18-19a & Ezek 20:25 LXX) that have been omitted for the sake of clarity in the interval of the ellipsis that is used in the excerpt given below. Theonas says:
“In the same way, whoever chooses to tear out an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth, in accordance with the precept of the law, or to hate his enemy cannot but be enslaved under the cruel domination of sin, because he is inevitably always aroused by the disturbance of wrath and anger when he decides to revenge mistreatment by meeting it with retaliation, and in that he is the slave of his bitter hatred for his enemies. But whoever lives in the light of gospel grace and overcomes evil not by resisting it but by putting up with it, not hesitating of his own will to offer his other cheek to the one who is striking his right; who gives his cloak as well to the one who wants to go to law against him for his coat; who loves his enemies and prays for those who slander him—this person has put off the yoke of sin and broken its fetters. 7. For he does not live under the law, which does not destroy the seeds of sin. …Rather he lives under grace, which not only cuts off the branches of wickedness but completely tears up the very roots of an evil will.”
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
The subject of anger in the life of a professed apprentice of Jesus—the Man who invites us to “…learn of me, because I am meek [or gentle], and humble of heart,”—is just one more theological topic on which there is a large degree of ignorance in the Christian world. How does it happen that two Bible-believing Christians who were raised in Christian homes and received Christian educations not have formed any strong convictions that being angry is forbidden to disciples of Christ by the time those same two people marry each other and themselves become parents who are responsible to not provoke their “…children to wrath, but [to] bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord”? How is it that they then not only fail to teach their children that anger is not acceptable in the life of a Christian, but they even go so far as to purposely train their children to be aggressive and war-like? They encourage them to use anger and even violence in standing up for themselves and others, and also for their “rights” and their stuff. It is a cycle of ignorance that is being perpetuated generation after generation.
According to the teachings in the writings of John Cassian, neither anger nor violence is compatible with the teachings of Jesus. Anger is spiritual poison that will cause eternal death for us unless a timely cure is found. We must rid ourselves of the anger weed—flower, stem, roots and all, and then we must teach others that these sorts of things have no place in the lives of those who name the name of Christ and whose daily walk is supposed to be characterized by such virtues as meekness, patience, humility, peace, joy and the most excellent virtue of love.
 Because there is such a large amount of information in Cassian on this subject, there is not enough room in a 12-15 page paper to deal with, analyze, and document all he says on the topic in an exhaustive and detailed manner. This would be a task more properly reserved for a master’s thesis or a PhD dissertation. Suffice it to say that anger is a subject that Cassian comes back to again and again, dealing with it both directly and indirectly in all of its aspects while also dealing with all of the other vices it is both related to and interconnected with, and the opposing virtues as well. In places, he deals with the subject of anger at length and at other times he touches on it in passing, but it is a pervasive topic in his writings, which clearly demonstrates its importance. Therefore, choices must be made in determining what to include in this paper and what to leave out, and this writer has chosen to focus on the more practical aspects of his teachings on the topic, rather than to take up space with details of the more theoretical and speculative intellectual analysis that he engages in at times—as helpful and interesting as this may be.
 John Cassian, The Institutes, translated and annotated by Boniface Ramsey (New York: Newman Press, 2000), 198 (all emphasis mine). In this quote, Cassian understands the mind as going down as does the sun according to his interpretation of Amos 8:9.
 While it is common to read in Cassian that we are to eradicate anger, Serapion expressly says that “We can cut out the roots of these vices which have been added to our nature [including anger],” (Conf., 199-200). Serapion teaches that “…the Lord did not assign by nature the possession of our heart to the vices but to the virtues. After the fall of Adam they [the virtues] were thrust out of their own region by the vices that had grown insolent…and when they [the virtues] have been restored to it by the grace of God and by our diligence and effort, they must be believed not so much to have occupied foreign territory as to have received back their own” (Conf., 202).
 In his argument, Cassian not only spoke against the anthropomorphite interpretations, but he also argued for the idea that God is passionless or immovable or not subject to emotions, meaning that He does not truly get angry; Cassian believes that God is “free of all disturbance”—which is different than what Lactantius (c. A.D. 250-325) says in his book A Treatise on the Anger of God.
 Institutes, 203-204 (comments in brackets and all emphasis mine). Also, see the expanded version of this teaching on pages 561-562 of The Conferences where Abba Joseph says similar things in connection with the six rules that he gives on page 560 concerning the foundations of true friendship.
 Ibid., 681 (all emphasis mine). The “unpleasantnesses” being spoken of are all of the negative effects of anger that he has just mentioned earlier on the page. Also, it seems that, in the mind of the monk, one of the main benefits of tranquility is that it enables a person to maintain pure prayer and spiritual contemplation.
 In The Conferences, Abba Nesteros basically says the same thing about the virtue of humility—that it is good for what ails you in the sense that it aids the growth of all virtues. On page 542 of the 15th conference: “On Divine Gifts,” he says: “Humility, then, is the teacher of all the virtues; it is the most firm foundation of the heavenly edifice.”