Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Nineveh lent: Let the anger go!

Lent is a perfect time for us to realise that there is immense anger inside us. Many a time anger is left to fend for itself, while we pray against enemies and wish for their downfall. Maybe a part of the anger is making us do what we do in the form of praying against enemies even though the gospel does not have the concept of enemies as everyone some day or the other will be open to the salvation presented by Christ Jesus.

Jonah refuses to go to Nineveh because he can’t deal with the anger he has against the people of Nineveh. And yet part of the same anger makes him go in another direction hoping that something bad will happen to the people of Nineveh. It is misplaced anger and unjustified anger. When God God’s self does not anger against the people of Nineveh, Jonah feels otherwise.

The three days and nights Jonah gets to spend in the stomach of the big fish is a time to deal with his anger. It was a time when he was alone and could think about what he should do. It was also a time when he truly called out to God. The time in the stomach of the fish keeps him thus because of the vulnerability he is in. This again changes when he is out of the fish and is angry that the people of Nineveh change and follow God. His anger is further expressed on the shade in the form of a bush which withers away. He tells God that he is angry enough to die. He is sad that the people of Nineveh don’t get to die too.

The book of Jonah reminds us that God is not a vengeful God. God does not want to kill to prove a point. Rather God wants to save at all times. He reasons with Jonah that if Jonah is concerned about the bush he did not toil for, should not God be concerned for the people of Nineveh. It is a reminder for all of us that the Nineveh lent is a time to deal with our anger and let it go rather than keep it burning inside us.

Yesterday I got an e mail from someone I do not want to name. The person wrote the following with the following pictures.St. Mark 13:1-2 was first quoted in which it says “As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Then the e mail went on to say “Kindly see the below pictures of Syriac (Jacobite) Churches destroyed in Syria. Isn't this also a curse from the Lord for creating schism in the Holy Orthodox Church in India by creating a rival Catholicate?” The pictures are supposed to be of churches destroyed in Syria.

The first reaction I had to seeing this was that of deep pain and anger. Pain of seeing the pictures of how sisters and brothers in Syria have suffered during the still continuing civil war, and anger that people in the church in India (whichever denomination) could even think that this is a punishment from God. The anger inside me was similar to the anger Jonah felt. It was an anger which made me sick to write and say anything. I had to deal with it and let it go. My post is one way of doing this.

I am not getting into who sent this and what kind of theological understanding about God they have. What concerns me is that anger makes us do insane things to the point of using disasters, wars and violence to say that God does all of this. The book of Jonah portrays a God who is slow to anger and who is full of patience and wants to save his people at any cost. This despite the fact that they were even worshipping other Gods. God's concern is that every single living organism should live because God created it. Jonah's anger wants annihilation while God tries to tell Jonah to deal with his anger and let it go.

The three day and night solitude in the belly of the fish is his first opportunity to deal with his anger. This tones him down a bit. But it continues despite this. After prophesying to the people of Nineveh he then again tries hard to deal with his anger. So much that if not the people of Nineveh, he wants God to take 'his' life. But time and again God tells him using the bush as an example that God cannot imagine doing something like that.

The Nineveh lent is a time for all of us to deal with our anger. This could be anger because of our spouse, child/children, colleagues, bosses, leaders, and even caused by church feuds and quarrels. As long as it is inside, it will come out in some form or the other. In some cases it will come out in installments. What is inside has to be dealt with and we have to use various ways to do this. Lent becomes an opportunity for all to deal with our anger through prayer and meditation. It is an experience whereby we isolate ourselves and think whether what we are doing is correct or not. The lent in Nineveh was for a common cause and everyone participated in it. It was not to take away life but to save life.

Church fathers have their own take on this. "A wandering mind is made stable by reading, vigil and prayer. Flaming lust is extinguished by hunger, labor and solitude. Stirrings of anger are calmed by psalmody, magnanimity and mercifulness. All this has its effect when used at its proper time and in due measure. Everything untimely or without proper measure is short-lived; and short-lived things and more harmful than useful." Abba Evagrius the Monk(Texts on Active Life no. 6). Further St. John Chrysostom says "For nothing is more grievous than wrath and fierce anger. This renders men both puffed up and servile, by the former making them ridiculous, by the other hateful; and bringing in opposite vices, pride and flattery, at the same time. But if we will cut off the greediness of this passion, we shall be both lowly with exactness, and exalted with safety. For in our bodies too all distempers arise from excess; and when the elements thereof leave their proper limits, and go on beyond moderation, then all these countless diseases are generated, and grievous kinds of death. Somewhat of the same kind one may see take place with respect to the soul likewise." St. John Chrysostom (Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew.)

Fr. George Morelli points out the "beast of anger" and quotes seven cognitive distortions relating to anger.

1. "Selective Abstraction is focusing on one event to the exclusion of others. A mother , for example, pays attention to the "D" on her son's report card while ignoring the "A's" and "B's." This "D" now becomes the focus of anger.
2. Arbitrary Inference is drawing a conclusion unwarranted by the facts in an ambiguous situation. For example, a parishioner says "Hello" to the Parish Priest in the Church Hall, the Priest doesn't reply, the person concludes the Priest doesn't like him or her and has a right to be angry.
3. Personalization, an event occurs that an individual concludes is directed to them personally. A patron in a busy restaurant perceives the waiter is purposely not waiting on his or her table. The patron never entertains the waiter may be under stress attempting to serve other patron's needs. The patron, concludes, they have a 'right' to be angry.
4. Polarization is the tendency to see things in all or nothing terms. 'Cynthia, Jack's wife misses making dinner one evening, because he 'categorizes' events into polarities he views her as a "bad" wife. All the categories between the absolute categories of good and bad are missed. He has the right to be angry at a "bad" wife.
5. Generalization is the tendency to see things in always or never categories. 'Jack' comes home late from work. His wife 'Jill' feels her husband will always be inconsiderate and never change. Not only is she angry at his lateness, but his future lateness as well.
6. Demanding Expectations, the belief that there are laws or rules that must or have to be obeyed. A mother believes her son should not talk back because she is his "mother." She has the "right" to be angry. (Note God gave us free will, He 'asks' us to obey His commandments. Like Christ, parents can 'prefer and constructively work' toward obedience from their children, but they have no guarantees their children will respect them.) Of spiritual help here is to reflect on the life of Our Lord. He was bruised, derided, cursed, defiled, crucified and died for our salvation. He Himself told us: No servant is greater than his master (Mat. 10:24) ---why would we expect to be treated any differently than Our Lord. It is a blessing if we are treated and honored, but we have no guarantee) A program of rewards for appropriate behavior and punishment, without anger, for inappropriate behavior would be constructive.
7. Catastrophizing, the perception that something is more that 100% bad, terrible or awful In the example above, the mother feels that it is terrible, the end of the world, her son answered back, which of course triggers increasing anger."

There are several ways to manage your anger. Lent can be used as one such way to know that we can never wish bad about someone. Rather it becomes a time when we deal with our issues and work for the benefit of others. In the process I watch the pictures again and know that my sisters and brothers in Syria are walking the talk and living in the true path of Christ while I do not experience even a small part of the struggle they are going through. This lent, I try to be with them. If as the e mail suggests, God has cursed and punished them, I urge the God mentioned in the e mail to curse and punish me too.

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