Part 5 in our weekly series on the vices.
This week we consider the vice of wrath. The first three spirits we faced, gluttony, lust, and avarice, were about things outside of us; the next, acedia or sloth, was about ourselves; the next two, wrath and envy, are about other people. The last one, pride, will be directly about our relationship to God.
One way to think of the difference between wrath and envy is that envy is toward those who are in some way better than us, while wrath is about those in some sense beneath us. Envy is “angry” that other people are better than us; wrath is angry that people are not good enough. Funny, isn’t it: seems like they can’t do anything right.
The Desert Fathers sometimes said that the only one we should ever really get angry with is ourselves. Perhaps the deeper point is that the only one truly subordinate to me is me. If we rage against sin, or any kind of imperfection, let it be our own.
This is one of the many ways the Psalms are a remarkably helpful form of prayer. The Psalmist is always fighting. He has enemies everywhere. Praying with the Psalms, I find something wonderful happen, time after time. The Psalmist starts talking about enemies, asking God to smite them (the Psalmist never smites his own enemies: he always asks God to do it). And, I don’t know about you, but I always have plenty of people whom I can fit into that role. Ah, yes, him – that guy at work, my friend I am fighting with, the family member who is bothering me – ah, yes, that’s my enemy!
But my first reaction to the Psalmist’s violence is to say, gosh, I guess I don’t really want him to be smitten that badly. I mean, it’s not like I want my coworker to die. But then the other thing that starts to happen, even in the shorter Psalms, is that I quickly begin to realize that my coworker is not my real enemy. Somehow the Psalms turn a mirror on us . . . and we realize that the real enemy is spiritual, not material; inside me, not outside. The cause of my frustration is not him, it’s me.
Medieval art likes to depict devils. They are always kind of silly looking: goofy little guys with bird heads, or something. And it’s helpful to realize: that is my enemy. “The words of his mouth were smoother than butter, but war was in his heart: his words were softer than oil, yet they were drawn swords,” says one Psalm. No, that’s not my colleague. That’s the little voice whispering in my ear that I should drag myself into this fight. And it’s the little voice whispering in my ear, afterwards, that I should continue to dwell on the fight, that I should fill my interior life with attacks on other people.
When we pray, in the same Psalm, “let death seize upon them, and let them go down quick into hell,” we don’t mean our family members. We mean those hellish spirits that are always sowing discord.
Does this mean the real problem is devils? Well, maybe. But it’s nice to notice that the “spirits” we are battling against can refer both to real, external spiritual powers, and to sinful aspects of our own selves. It is both the devil and my own sinful self who cause me problems. And both spirits, the devil and the my own emotions, or selfishness, or whatever: I want all these spirits to be crushed. That is the real battle. That is who I should really be angry with: both the devil, and the part of myself that is so full of hate.
We should be most angry at our own anger.
The Psalms have some horrifying lines: “O daughter of Babylon . . . happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” Are we talking about infanticide? No: because the children of Babylon are not other people’s children. They are sins rising up within me. Kill them in their infancy. Crush the serpent’s head, before he can climb all the way into your soul.
The Psalms are awfully violent! But the point is, emotion has its place. We are not meant to be cool as a cucumber. We are meant to fight, to rage against the rage within us, to hate our hatred, with violence! To love the Lord, and the neighbor he gives us, with passion.