Monday, July 28, 2008

Let go and let God

The story is told of a monk who had a very short temper and who made life extremely difficult for his community. One day, for some unspecified but very trivial reason, he lost his temper and was so angry that he actually died in the midst of his rage. His community, having been at the receiving end of his wrath for so many years, had a discussion. Of course their brother must have gone straight to hell because nobody could possibly have held so much anger inside and still be forgiven by God. The result was that the community decided that it was a waste of time praying for the monk and continued on their daily routine somewhat more peacefully than usual as he was not around to disturb their peace.

A couple of nights after the monk’s death, the abbot woke from his sleep.
“Why are you not praying for your brother?” asked the Lord.
“Well with a temper such as his, we presumed that you could never forgive him for such an outburst and so we did not want to waste our time or yours”, responded the somewhat confused abbot.
“Ah,” replied the Lord, “That is where we see things differently. You think he died because he lost his temper. I know his death was the result of his efforts to control it!”

One of the beauties of a Retreat is that it gives the opportunity for a little bit of healthy self-examination. Recently, in the quiet of my room, I listened to some lovely Spanish instrumental music that I recorded during my Retreat last year. Out of the blue and, as I thought, with no trigger, I thought, “I was so angry!”

Stunned by the suddenness of something that had apparently come from nowhere, there was nothing I could do but take it to the Lord in prayer and try to sort it all out with Him. Eventually pinpointing the cause of last year’s anger, part of me declared, “But I had every right to be angry!” God tends to have an unanswerable response to such declarations. “Yes, you had a right to be angry, but with every right, there is also a corresponding responsibility. If you had a right to be angry, what was your responsibility?” Ouch!

Anger is part and parcel of being human. If life were smooth and unprovoking, it would be wonderful. Yet that is not the way in which things operate. There are events in the course of every single day that are more or less irritating and, sometimes, give more than enough reason for a cataclysmic explosion of wrath.

There are times when anger has an external cause, such as injustice towards myself or others. There can be a delightful sense of justification after letting fly with a few choice and potentially devastating words, aimed at reducing the object of my frustration to a little blob of quivering jelly. For sure, it is often then followed by agonised repentance and hours of wondering how I might make good the harm that I have done.

However, there are also frustrations that do not result in an explosion. Instead they fester inside, like a boil that will not ripen. The infection slowly builds up, perhaps over the course of many years. Often it is anger that others can see but I cannot, so deeply is it buried inside me. Instead, I re-live and re-live the harm done to me, picking at the unseen wound and making it worse, failing to see that the incident that sparked my reaction is over and done with. Certainly, it might have caused pain at the time, but now, is it not only the memory that is painful? The event is over and done with, part of past history. Yes, it might have been something that caused, not just pain, but indescribable agony and perhaps damage, but in holding on to my anger, who is really being hurt? Am I not causing my own pain by not shoving my injuries out of the window and letting them go away? What gain is there in hugging them close to my chest? A festering boil is very painful, but once it has erupted and the pus drained away, then the soreness goes. There might be a scar that will stay for the rest of one’s days, but the infection is over and gone forever.

Letting go of anger is not easy. In fact it can be incredibly difficult, especially if I have been a helpless victim of circumstances or of someone else’s nastiness. It is all too easy to say ‘forgive and forget’. There are times when it is possible to do both, times when it might be possible to do one or the other, but there are also those things which are unforgettable… and that is where memory is what is really the injured party. It is memory that is aching and sore, cracked and sometimes bleeding.

So, if I have a right to be angry, what is my responsibility?

There are people whose anger leads to great things: Fr James Nugent looked at the widespread greed, poverty, drunkenness, destitution, immorality and injustice of Victorian society as expressed in his native Liverpool. Justifiably angry, he took on the responsibility of setting up orphanages, training programmes for men, women and children. Instead of containing his anger, he went out to meet its causes and, in so doing, became an Apostle, the ‘Apostle of Liverpool’.

There are those who try to do good, but are knocked back at every step. Recently I read the life story of Pauline Marie Jaricot, the foundress of the Association for the Propagation of the Faith (APF) and was astounded by the amount of suffering she underwent as a result of all she was attempting to accomplish on behalf of others. She encountered betrayals, cruelty and hardship that I could never have survived, and neither would many others, and yet Pauline initiated a worldwide organisation for the support of the missions.

Some of the most beautiful people in this world are those who have had every right to be angry, but who have taken the responsibility of their anger and, instead of allowing their hearts to be broken, have, instead, allowed them to be broken open to love. Sometimes, those who have been hurt most are also those who have learned to love most. They had every justification for anger, with agonising memories to spur on a cataclysmic outburst of wrath, but, with God’s help and a great deal of personal hard work, they managed to turn anger into peace, hatred into love.

If, at this moment, I have anger inside me, however deeply, how can I handle it? How might I go out to meet it? How might I allow it to dissipate and vanish for ever?

Can I let go and let God?

God bless,

Sr Janet