Friday 1 July 2016

Down With Agitation!

There is no sin nor wrong that gives a man such a foretaste of hell in this life as anger and impatience.
(St Catherine of Siena Letter to Monna Agnese)

The 5th Century Greek Bishop St Diadochos of Photiki wrote "those pursuing the spiritual way must always keep the mind free from agitation." Those of us living in tumultuous times for ourselves, for our country or for the world may ask- is this true? Is this possible? It is perhaps the obviously right course of action for those living a contemplative life in monasteries but for those whose spiritual way includes an active struggle for justice and peace in the world  is it not a counter-intuitive piece of advice?

I think that if we are seeking change we ourselves must become the change we are trying to bring about. Aiming to reduce injustice in the world we must ourselves be just. Struggling against greedy materialistic societies we must be frugal in not only our use of resources but in our very desire for possessions. So too with anger and impatience, if we long for a kinder, gentler, more patient world when we encounter situations where none of these things are present we should be kindness itself, gentleness itself, patience itself.

This is fine in theory you might say but can it really be done while we are still engaged in the storms of life? And those who know me might add "physician heal thyself" since I am not always noted for calmness and conciliatoriness in the heat of political disputes. In her letter to Monna Agnese St Catherine wrote "by displeasure against itself the soul will drive out displeasure against its neighbour." Self-awareness is a necessary prelude to a mind free from agitation. As soon as we recognise within ourselves symptoms of conducts or attitudes which we would condemn in others then we need to pause for reflection.

An ancient Catholic practice which has somewhat fallen into disuse is the daily examination of conscience at the end or beginning of the day. This gives us the chance to notice what may have been hidden from us by the dusts stirred up in our whirlwind everyday lives. If that includes, as it surely will, moments of agitation, anger and impatience then we need to acknowledge that, sincerely repent of it seeking forgiveness from God and from our neighbours and firmly resolve to avoid future occasions of sin. This requires not only an act of the will but also small practical resolutions which we can immediately put into action.

One such resolution might be to get into the habit of asking ourselves "what is the most likely outcome?" before we start a conversation, on social media or elsewhere, about some matter of controversy. If the answer is that at the end of the process everyone will be more convinced than ever that they were right and they will have added several layers of anger to their pre-conversation state of mind then we would do well not to embark upon this discussion at all. We should also regularly ask ourselves "why am I doing this?" when we are carrying out a course of action or find ourselves unexpectedly involved in a controversy. And if the answer is, again, "in order to prove myself right" then we need to immediately cease and desist.

None of this means that we are obliged to shy away from the struggle to make the world a better place. It means that we should use our energy positively and constructively, and thus calmly, not negatively and destructively, and thus agitatedly. Looking at our two questions, if the likely outcome is that people will be persuaded to change their minds then go ahead with the conversation. If we are acting because there is a good chance of success then keep on acting. Even so, another key idea to frequently call to mind is "magnanimous in victory, gracious in defeat." Triumphalism on the one hand or bitterness on the other are both negative energies which will defeat our own inner peace more than they will achieve any benefits for our own cause. Magnanimity and graciousness moreover are not enemies of spiritual wholeness but manifestations of it.

Of course these things are difficult to achieve and easy to forget. This is why the daily examination of ourselves in the mirror of Christ Crucified is so crucial to attaining the balance of a life committed to bringing Christ to the world outside and to our own heart within. Writing to William of England St Catherine said "we must be illumined to know the transitory things of the world, which all pass like the wind. But these are not rightly known if we do not know our own frailty, how inclined it is, from the perverse law which is bound up with our members, to rebel against its Creator." Only by holding fast to that which is, Christ, Christ Himself, can we effect change in that which is not, that is, ourselves and the world around us. And, as well as self examination we have another important weapon at our disposal as St Catherine reminded Monna Agnese "when thou canst empty thy time for prayer, I pray thee to do it. And love tenderly every rational being." We should not be daunted by the difficulty of the challenge nor by our own repeated failures for as the Sienese doctor wrote to her correspondent Brother Antonio "to the true servant of God every place is the right place and every time is the right time." It is up to us to make it so.

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The picture is Mary Magdalene in Meditation by Massimo Stanzione.


  1. I enjoyed your article. An examination of conscience is essential for me.

    1. Thank you. It is essential for all of us but so few of us actually do it.

  2. You have good blogs. Thank you.

    1. Thank you 😀 I'm very glad you like them.