Hope’s Children

Robert Maloney, C.M., former superior general of the Congregation of the Mission has a piece in the current issue of America Magazine on hope.

In it, he cites a quote attributable to Augustine of Hippo: “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” Expounding on the quote, Maloney writes

Anger, Hope’s first daughter, reacts spontaneously in the face of evil, refusing to accept unjust social and economic structures that deprive the poor of life: unjust laws, power-based economic relationships, inequitable treaties, artificial boundaries, oppressive or corrupt governments and numerous other subtle obstacles to harmonious societal relationships. Then Hope’s second daughter, Courage, standing at Anger’s side and singing out persistently, searches for ways “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield,” as Tennyson put it.

The union of the two is important. Too often, we see one daughter – Anger – unaccompanied by the second – Courage. After all, the anger part is a lot easier. It doesn’t take much effort to sit around and talk about how angry things make us. But anger without the courage (and energy) to act is unproductive.

By all means, be angry at the injustice in the world. But then ask yourself: what can I do to help address it?

Anger Doesn’t Have to Be a Problem

In the current issue of Shambhala Sun, which I referenced in yesterday’s post, there is a short piece by Sylvia Boorstein which reports something the Dalai Lama said.

Asked once “Do you ever get angry? the Dalai Lama laughed, saying, “Of course! Things happen. They aren’t what you wanted. Anger arises. But it doesn’t have to be a problem.”

A simple but very important point. We can’t stop anger from rising, any more than we can stop other feelings from rising. We have no choice about that.

What we do have a choice about is what to do when anger arises. It is our choice whether to grasp onto that anger and act out of it, or to let it go, responding with wisdom and compassion.

Mindfulness helps tremendously in this. If I am aware of the anger at the moment it arises, I can recognize it for what it is and remind myself that I need not follow it.

Boorstein, commenting on what the Dalai Lama said observes, “the momentary constriction that blurs the mind when anger arises is quickly eased by the wisdom that anger is a normal neuronal reaction to displeasure, and not a mandate for any response other than clarity and kindness.”

We have no choice about what feelings arise. We do have a choice how we respond.

Whoever is Angry with his Brother

All Christians are familiar with the “Great Commandment,” Jesus’ command that “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind…Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Today’s Gospel from St. Matthew is one that addresses quite directly and forcefully the relationship between loving God and loving one another.

Jesus refers to the commandment of the “ancestors” that “You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment,” and then tells his disciples that following the old command is not good enough:

But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother
will be liable to judgment,
and whoever says to his brother,
Raqa, will be answerable to the Sanhedrin,
and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.
Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar,
and there recall that your brother
has anything against you,
leave your gift there at the altar,
go first and be reconciled with your brother,
and then come and offer your gift.

Jesus is quite clear: our relationship with God cannot be separated from our relationship with one another. Put simply, if we are on bad terms with each other, we can not approach God with an open and loving heart. There is an act of fraud in offering gifts to God with hearts full of anger for another.

We don’t have the ability to stop anger from arising, any more than we can top ourselves from experiencing any other feeling or emotion. But it is our choice what to do with that anger when it arises. It is our choice to keep that anger alive in our heart or to let it go. But if we do hang onto it, it affects not only our relationship with each other, but our relationship with God.

Note: Chapter 15 of my Growing in Love and Wisdom: Buddhist Sources for Christian Meditation offers some meditative practices to help in overcoming anger and developing patience.

The Path to the Dark Side

I don’t tend to cite fictional movie characters for wisdom, but someone put on Facebook the other day a line spoken by Yoda in one of the Star Wars movies. The quote was: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”

I think there is much truth in that statement. Fear rises for many reasons. But often it is a response, not to an actual source of danger, but to something that is beyond our understanding: what we don’t understand we often fear.

Fear is not an easy emotion to accept. And so a not atypical response to fear is anger.

If we are sufficiently mindful, we see the link between lack of understanding and fear and between fear and anger. In the absence of mindfulness, however, all we realize is the experience of anger which, if left unchecked, can become hate. And the hate means suffering not only for ourselves, but for the object of our hate.

In the absence of mindfulness, that progression – fear…anger…hate…suffering – is, if not the, certainly a path to the dark side.

PS. My other favorite Yoda quote in the second Star Wars movie was: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

Be the First to Give Way in a Squabble

I don’t always read the Meditation of the Day contained in Magnificat, but last night I happened to notice yesterday’s meditation, which came form the Jerusalem Community Rule of Life. (As described on their website, the Jerusalem Community consistes of “two religious institutes of brothers and sisters whose vocation it is to provide an oasis of prayer, silence and peace in the ‘desert’ of modern cities.”)

What drew my attention in the excerpt from the rule of life was this:

You should be intelligent and holy enough to be the first to give way in a quarrel; and never let squabbles over trifles harm your deep union with your brothers. You may be in the right but your duty is not to let the sun go down on your anger.

When I read those lines, what came immediately came to mind was a similar expression by Shantideva, an eighth century Buddhist philosopher. In his Eight Verses of Thought Transformation, which I first read some years ago, Shantideva writes: “When, out of envy, others mistreat me with abuse, insults or the like, I shall accept defeat and offer the victory to others.”

The wisdom of the advice seems sound to me. What matters most, especially in community, is restoring harmony, allowing love to flow. What matters is to not allowing “squabbles over trifles harm [our] deep union” with each other.

Sound as it is, the advice is not all that easy to follow. I don’t find it particularly difficult to acknowledge my mistakes or to apologize when I believe I’ve acted badly. But “giving way” when I think I’m in the right, “offer[ing] the victory” to one I feel has mistreated me – that’s a challenge.

And so I pray for the grace to give way more easily…to be willing to accept the defeat and offer victory to others, even when I feel I am in the right.

Bend My Anger

This week was the last session of the fall semester of Soma Worship at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. Soma is an ecumenical Christian prayer service held weekly during the semester during our noon common worship period. In one of the prayers included in today’s service, there was a line asking God to “bend our angers into your peace,” a line that stayed with me well after the prayer service was concluded.

If we are honest, we are forced to admit that we all get angry at times. Sometimes that anger is justified; we should, for example, get angry at injustice in the world, wherever we find injustice.

We could, of course, simply pray to God to help our anger dissipate and there are times that may be appropriate. But there is a lot of energy in anger, energy that perhaps could be harnessed and used. It can’t really be used effectively in the form in which it arises in us.

Hence my attraction to the line in the prayer. Our anger needs to be transformed and channeled into something productive, something that can have some positive effect in one way or another on the source of our anger. And so it seems to me that the better prayer is to ask God’s help in bending and shaping our anger, in taking the energy in that anger and turning it into something that can be a positive force for good.

I have to admit that there have been a number of things lately that have generated anger in me. And so I fervently pray, Lord, bend my anger.

Motivation for (Social) Change

I read an article in Insight Newsletter, the Newsletter of the Insight Meditation Society, talking about efforts of various people involved in social justice work. The article began by pointing out the obvious, that “[w]hen you look at what’s going on in the world, it’s a challenge not to be extremely angry and harrowed.”

There are sufferings of the world that just make me sad – a tsunami that kills many people. But there are also many things generate not only sadness at the results, but anger at the behavior of people or institutions that contributed in one way or another to the suffering that saddens me.

Anger may be a completely understandable reaction. But, as the article suggests, trying to effect change from a place of anger, rather than a place of compassion, is bound to be ineffectual. One problem is that we run the risk of burnout when we are “fueled by reactivity.” Another is that anger blinds us to the perspective of the person or institution with whom we are angry, making it much less likely that we will bring sufficient awareness to come up with workable change.

There is a role for prayer in helping us transform our anger into compassion, regardless of what faith tradition we follow. The person who wrote this article, a Buddhist meditator, observed, “I keep going back on retreat to get grounded, to understand how reality operates. The clearer I am, the more effective I’ll be at making change in a world that needs it.” The same is true for Christians, for whom the central command is love. We need prayer, and God’s grace, to keep us grounded in love so that everything we do in the world is motivated by that love.

Hard Sayings

What are we to make of certain Gospel teachings? Sometimes Jesus gives us instructions that seem to be utterly impossible for us to follow. Today’s Gospel passage from Matthew is one of those.

If someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.

If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well..

Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles.

What are we to do with statements like these? The tempting thing, of course, is to say, “Well, you know, Jesus didn’t really mean that literally. He doesn’t really expect us to turn the other cheek….or hand someone our cloak as well.”

We have a funny way of deciding that Jesus only meant literally those things we like and find comfortable. Give us a really challenging instruction, however, and we can come up with all sorts of reasons we don’t really have to worry about it.

I’m not someone who takes everything in the Gospels as literal truth. But I have a funny feeling Jesus actually did mean what he said here. I say that with something of a shudder because I’m having trouble imagining myself handing over my laptop or some other possession to someone who has just stolen my wallet. And (wimp about pain that I am) I’m not doing a whole lot better imagining myself allowing someone who has just hit me to do it again.

So I don’t have any particularly helpful advice or brilliant (or even semi-brilliant) observations to make here. My invitation this morning is simply to consider that maybe Jesus really did mean what he said here: that this is how he expects us to deal with each other. And when you do that, to spend some time reflecting on what that might mean to you and your dealings with others.

Dealing with Anger

The third of my major writing projects during my year-long research leave (the first being the book about my conversion from Catholicism to Buddhism back to Catholicism and the second being a book of prayer reflections on growing in discipleship and love) is a book that adapts Buddhist meditations for Christian prayer. Many of the analytical meditations I engaged in during my time as a Tibetan Buddhist, especially those aimed at developing equanimity and compassion are easily made suitable for prayer by Christians.

As I’m beginning work on this project, I’ve been going through some of my notes from teachings I took from various lamas during the time I lived in Tibetan Buddhist communities in Nepal and India. Yesteday I came across my notes on some teachings relating to the core delusions and “antidotes” to those delusions.

Anger is one of those “core delusions” from a Buddhist perspective. Some of the things recommended for dealing with anger strike me as useful for everyone, regardless of whether they are Buddhist.

One instruction for anger is to begin by developing an awareness of the arising of anger – of the physical sensations and the thoughts that appear in the mind. Once you have the feeling, one contemplates the fruits of anger – the fact that it causes physical and mental suffering to the self, that it disturbs the peace and happiness of all around you; that it causes one to say or do things they will later regret and are ashamed of, etc.

Another invitation is to allow a strong feeling of anger to arise, recalling perhaps some recent situation in which one was very angry. Then the instruction is to apply one or more of the “antidotes.” One of those is to recognize that the real villain in the story is delusion, not the person whose act or words generated your anger. Just as you would not get angry at the stick that hit you under the control of another, if you recognize that delusion is operating, it is easier not to get angry at the person under the control of delusion. A second is to put oneself in the other person’s situation and try to consider their feelings and what was operating in them. Another is to try to view the person as a precious teacher because they allow you to practice patience. Another is to reflect on impermanence – situation will change, so why get upset.

None of these are necessarily easy. By they are worth keeping in mind. And it is worth spending some time contemplating the points during a time when one is not feeling angry, which may make it easier to call them to mind in a situation where anger does arise.