Part of a series of Lenten reflections on “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” by St. John Climacus
If you thought for a moment that mourning is not really necessary, all you need to do is look up at the next step on the ladder and see its usefulness. “As the gradual pouring of water on a fire completely extinguishes the flame, so the tears of true mourning are able to quench the flame of anger and irritability.” A life free of anger is something even the most hardened of us would think to be a something we should strive to attain. So, let us consider what it means to achieve a life free from anger.
What strikes me most about this chapter is the fact that no spiritual blessings are given us freely by God just because we want them. Spiritual growth seems only to be obtained by “struggles and sweat”. St. John confirms this truth and reveals that freedom from anger is not something that will come easily. “The beginning of freedom from anger,” he writes, “is silence of the lips when the heart is agitated; the middle is silence of the thoughts when there is a mere disturbance of soul; and the end is an imperturbable calm under the breath of unclean winds.” How easy do we suppose it will be to achieve even the first of these states, let alone the last? How can we grow in the Spirit of God while allowing anger to have free reign within us? The answer is simple – we cannot. “If the Holy Spirit is peace of soul, as He is said to be and as He is in reality, and if anger is disturbance of heart, as it actually is and as it is said to be, then nothing so prevents His presence in us as anger.”
But, how do we achieve freedom from anger? Again, it is acquired only by “struggles and sweat”. St. John has been teaching us the path all along. It begins with renunciation of the world and follows through detachment, exile obedience, repentance, remembrance of death and mourning. Now the journey moves onward and upward to our eternal battle with the anger that lies within us. John gives us three instructions to assist us in this work. The first is to remember that, “The beginning of blessed patience is to accept dishonour with sorrow and bitterness of soul.” The second, or middle stage, “is to be free from pain in the midst of these things.” But, perfection in this task, “(if it is possible at all) is to regard dishonour as praise.” This may be the hardest and longest struggle of our lives.
The tyrant anger should be bound with chains of meekness, beaten by patience, and dragged out by holy love, says St. John. Meekness and humility are its opposite and its enemy. The one who mounts this step will have conquered all eight steps that have gone before, and will wear freedom from anger as a crown.