From The Cloister Walk
His abba, taking a piece of dry wood, planted it, and said to him, “Water it every day with a bottle of water, until it bears fruit.” (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers)
If it is true that the Holy Spirit is peace of soul, and if anger is disturbance of the heart, then there is no greater obstacle to the presence of the Spirit in us than anger. (John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent)
One night, many years ago, I was angry at my husband. He’d had good news – the galleys of his second book of poems were coming in the mail – but he’d responded to it by growing more distant and then driving off to God-knows-where. When he hadn’t returned by evening, although I was worried about him, it was anger that woke me up in the middle of the night. Hoping I could get back to sleep, I lay in bed, my mind suddenly racing with all the things, great and small, that I held against my husband. As good as it felt to review this little catalog of slights and injuries, it brought me no satisfaction; instead, I soon found that I was in a stew over someone else, a man who had treated me with contempt. Then it was someone else that I fussed and fumed over, a grudge I thought I’d forgotten. I was building an impressive storehouse of grievances, and I thought to myself, sleepily, this could go on forever.
I sat upright, suddenly wide awake. Of course it could go on forever; that was exactly the point. I’d recently come upon the writings of a monk named Evagrius and realized that I had rapidly moved beyond any justified frustration with my husband, and was becoming possessed by what Evagrius would have called the “bad thought” of anger. If my husband was in trouble, anger was the last thing either of us needed. I got out my breviary and prayed the compline Psalms 4 and 91, with their talk of peaceful sleep and angelic protection. Despite all I’d read in the desert monks about how prayer causes demons to flee, I was amazed to discover how quickly the anger dissipated. In its place, I found that what I was really feeling for my husband was fear. Somewhere in my reading of monastic literature, I had found the statement that anger is the seed of compassion; I began to realize the truth of it.
The inner voice that had warned me – this could go on forever – now brought to my mind a poem I’d completely forgotten, one that I’d forsaken as hopelessly muddled years before. I wasn’t even sure I could find that old manuscript, but the inner voice asked me to find it and work on it, and so I went. It was a love poem, of course, and if I ever needed proof of Saint John’s assertion that “love casts out fear,” I had it. I spent the rest of the night reviving that dead stick of a poem (no doubt watering it as well; weeping is an ordinary but valuable part of the writing process). In the morning, when my husband telephoned – he was feeling better, he said, and would be home soon – I was ready to rejoice at the sound of his voice. I was able to welcome him instead of sniping at him. I’d been worried about him, I told him, and he said that he’d been worried about himself. “Say,” I said, “remember that old poem I began years ago, when we first lived together in New York? I got it out last night and finished it. Want to hear it?”