The Personalist Project

Mad at Mass

You have probably had this experience as well: attending a mass said in such a way that one’s hair stands on end. Not just that it is turned into the kind of social event I would never dream of attending if it were not mass, but that there is no piety, the sense of the supernatural having gone out of the window a long time ago, and the priest’s sermon and interjections are wishy washy at best and heretical at worst. Add some pop music and one’s misery is complete. It is easy to get upset and angry, and it often feels right to do so. After all, God is being offended. In those situations, we like to remind ourselves of Christ’s holy anger. He chased the vendors out of the temple. The emotions we experience, therefore, feel right. Yet anger is most often destructive, unfruitful, and yes, of the devil. I think we should be wary of calling our anger holy.

Anger has a way of eating us up from the inside and of radiating, making the people around us miserable. Sitting next to somebody who is mad and ready to burst, is an awful experience, especially during mass. One can feel his waves of anger, and that, I find, is almost worse than sitting through the priest’s inane sermon. The ranting after mass at how terrible it was ruins the Sunday as well as family peace, even if all agree. Anger may feel right and freeing to the person who is experiencing it, but it is poison to those around, as well as to the individual in question, whether he is aware of it or not.

When I allow myself to get mad at the priest, I am no longer directing my attention at God nor am I in a prayerful attitude. The priest, one might object, has already made this impossible. But can I really blame it all on him? What are my options? Instead of anger, I could, for example, be deeply saddened. I could mourn the fact that Christ is not treated with the reverence He deserves and that the congregation is led astray rather than edified. I actually have a choice, at least to some extent. Anger is not the only option. Others don’t react that way, and not necessarily for lack of judgment.

Instead of settling into my anger, I could feel shattered at the thought that the priest who is there in persona Christi is offending him, and I could start praying for him. Not just intending to, but really, from the bottom of my heart, ask God to touch him. I have no idea how his education, background and the culture have brought him to this point. The instruction he received at home, at school and in seminary might have been such that he carries no responsibility in God’s eyes, or very little. But even if he does, I should greatly desire his conversion, and my prayers during mass for him could contribute to that. There too we need to be wary, however, because self-righteousness can enter the picture so easily, and we can find ourselves thanking God that we are not like this priest.

The problem, as I mentioned, is that my anger feels right, for anger always does. The choleric is convinced that he is justified to blow up. Only in hindsight does he (perhaps) realize that he was in the wrong. Anger is tremendously destructive. It is violent in its own right, even if I do not hurt people physically. It acts like a punch in the other’s center, reducing her to whatever I see in her that makes me angry. My anger says that “you are nothing but obtuse, irreverent, annoying” and I condemn this with a kind of inner energy that sends shockwaves through the other, sizing him down to what he has done or failed to do.

It is very difficult for us to be angry merely at a state of affairs and not at the person(s) involved. But while the first is all right, the second, it seems to me, is not. For we do not know the responsibility of the other, his inner state, while Christ does. He could throw the vendors out of his Father’s house, for He has that authority as the Son of God. Christ seems harsh, when He calls the Pharisees whitewashed tombs; but He can do so because He knows that they were precisely that and this was His call to conversion. They withstood His call to Love; and those who reject Love itself cannot be saved. Then God’s anger can be the last pedagogic means at His service.  

Since we are sinners, does this mean we cannot speak forcefully about wrongdoings? Yes, of course, for the point is not to emasculate oneself nor live in a dream world out of which I shut everything that happens to be wrong, unjust and unpleasant, just in order to be positive. One needs to live in the truth, which includes the truth about the wrongdoings of others as well as my own; but that also comprises the truth that I cannot read the other’s heart and therefore cannot assess his responsibility. Condemning a situation or action is different from condemning the other. But very quickly this anger has a way of turning against the people involved, and that’s where the danger lies.

What then should I do when I get angry during mass? It seems utterly out of my power to stop doing so. The first step is to realize that anger is not a good thing. I tend to get so fixated on what the priest does wrong, that I don’t see what I’m doing wrong myself. Then I might grasp that both the priest and I need grace to be transformed. Now is the time to pray humbly for him and for me. If I put my whole heart and mind into it, I might be surprised at how quickly I get out of my anger. I can’t shake it off myself, I cannot pull myself out of it by my own bootstraps, nor should I merely repress it, for then it will hide behind resentment, sarcasm and passive aggressiveness. But I can do something to undermine it, namely pray. The point is to make this situation into something spiritually fruitful rather than my own moral undoing. God is not asking me to change something I can’t, namely convert the priest, or free myself by my own means from my anger, but He does expect me to take responsibility for my own attitudes and heart, and pray for myself and the priest rather than judge him. 

Of course, I should try to avoid this situation in the first place, if possible. But in some countries and areas it is very difficult to find a mass that is said with reverence. Being in Germany myself at the moment, I know what I am talking about. The distance one would need to cover can simply be too great given one’s circumstances, and one therefore has to make do with the masses offered close-by. Other options than driving could be putting earplugs in, as a friend of mine does during the sermon, which allows her to pray.

When asked what needs to change in the Church, Mother Teresa said “you and I”. We always need to start with ourselves. We cannot replace the priests, bishops and the congregation. We can only begin with our own transformation. Saints have a way of leavening through others and have an impact on the Church as a whole. If we become saints, then this will bear fruit for the whole Church, even if it is not noticeable to us in our parish. We know that a single man, St Francis of Assisi, reformed the Church through his radical obedience to God’s call.  If we try to follow in his footsteps, then we will do more to help the Church than any amount of anger ever will. For anger corrodes, while love builds up.


Comments (22)

Jules van Schaijik

#1, Feb 16, 2015 10:56pm

I'm not sure I see eye to eye with you on this post, Marie, but I can't put my finger on where the trouble is.

For one thing, I wonder whether anger is not essentially directed at a person.  (You seem to imply otherwise when you say that "It is very difficult for us to be angry merely at a state of affairs and not at the person(s) involved.")  To me it seems impossible to be angry at a state of affairs.  It is the person (or persons) responsible for that state of affairs that arouses anger.

Second, there is not only the danger of "stewing" in our anger, but also that of trying to overcome it before we have properly understood it. Emotional responses, including those we don't want to feel, or those we think it inappropriate to feel, tend to reveal something about ourselves and the situation we find ourselves that is worth paying attention to. The effort to turn it into prayer may be premature. Perhaps it means we should act. Go to another mass, talk to the priest, write to the bishop…

Jules van Schaijik

#2, Feb 16, 2015 10:56pm

Previous comment continued:

The two points are connected in some way. If anger is essentially directed at another person or persons, then it may indicate that something about the relationship with that person is wrong. Something needs to be addressed, rather than just taken to prayer.

Am I making any sense? 

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Feb 16, 2015 11:02pm

Marie, we have been busy all day, so I haven't had the time yet to give this post the attention it deserves.

You touch on issues that are at the very heart of things Jules and I have been mulling and talking over for the last several years.

I will try to articulate my own reservations and questions tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I will just confess that I am one of those who has often been angry at Mass.

And I'm with you in finding the anger mostly wrong and destructive. (Mea culpa.)

Marie Meaney

#4, Feb 17, 2015 4:15am

Thanks for the good points you raise, Jules! It seems to me, however, that I can be angry merely at a state of affairs though I do believe it can very easily get “personal”.  To use some mundane examples, I can be angry that the nice vase of my great-aunt is broken. If I broke it, then I could, of course, get angry at myself. But it seems to me that I can also simply be mad that the beautiful object is no longer whole – and then, of course, I can also become sad. If an avalanche kills my spouse, I can –other than being very sad - get very angry that this happened. The temptation, of course, is to find a scapegoat. But if there was no human error and I happen to be an atheist, then I can’t get angry at anybody in particular. Similarly, it seems to me that I can be angry at the fact that God is treated irreverently during mass and that people are led astray. At least, that’s the way it seems to me, and I may, of course, be wrong.

Marie Meaney

#5, Feb 17, 2015 4:18am

Regarding your other points: I guess I assumed (having the German example in mind) that one had gone to the priest and bishop, but that these things have proven to lead nowhere. Perhaps your experience in Holland has been similar, but the ecclesiastical culture is such that attempting to explain what is offensive is like speaking Chinese. So one is back to square one, namely having to deal with one’s anger since one cannot change what is making one angry.

I guess the main points I wanted to highlight in this piece was that a) anger is very destructive and b) we do have a choice regarding it at least in some respects. It is very easy to overlook both these aspects, when one is “in” it. It feels right and we therefore often see no reason to try to get out of it. I do agree with you it is fruitless to try to get out of it by oneself; and it is also important to understand it as an expression of something else, perhaps of some unresolved pain or conflict which is expressing itself through this.

Marie Meaney

#6, Feb 17, 2015 4:19am

 One should therefore be gentle with oneself – and I agree with you on that – not try in a hasty or repressive way to get out of it.

But I think that prayer at mass is a very gentle and indirect means. It acknowledges that I out of my own effort cannot get out of this and that trying to snap out of it is futile, that I do need God’s grace for that. It helps me see that not just the priest is at fault (whose responsibility I cannot judge), but me too. We are both in the same boat – both sinners needing redemption. That, to me, hollows out the anger in an important way. And once I care for the priest in this way by wholeheartedly praying for him, then I will find myself less prone to get angry at him. I've noticed how much this has helped me, at least.

So I’m not saying that prayer is the only way, but I think it is an important one.

Katie van Schaijik

#7, Feb 17, 2015 8:46am

Thinking about your two examples, I wonder.

If one of my children broke the vase, because, say, he threw a ball in a room where he'd been told not to play, I'd be angry at him. If I broke it through my own carelessness, I'd be angry at myself. But if the brake came through sheer accident, I think my emotions would be very different—sorrow and distress, but not anger.

Same goes if I were to lose someone I love through sheer accident. Grief, for sure. But anger?  Perhaps. But then, I highly suspect it would be anger at God. "Why did you You do this? Why didn't you protect him?"

Katie van Schaijik

#8, Feb 17, 2015 9:07am

My main point of resistance on this issues comes from something I learned from the talk Dr. Peter gave for us a few years back. Referring to the "first remove the log in your own eye, then attend to the speck in your neighbor's eye" passage of Scripture, he proposed that when I'm attending to another person's moral failings, there's always a log in my eye. He meant, I think, that our own moral being is handed over to us as our sovereign responsibility. When we are busying ourselves with our neighbor's moral business, we are both interfering with him and neglecting our own business.

At first I thought this claim exaggerated. But the more I've thought it about since in connection with my own experience, the truer it seems to me. 

If I'm at mass and consumed with indignation over the way it's being celebrated, then, as you say, my attention is not on God; I am not worshipping, as I came to Mass to do. And that is my responsibility. To worship God; to be present to Him; to open my soul to His grace.

Katie van Schaijik

#9, Feb 17, 2015 9:19am

If I am angry at the priest and the liturgical committee and the bishop or whomever, then I am failing to do the one and only thing I actually can do to improve the religious atmosphere of the Mass: attending to the business of self-purification and worship.

Instead of doing my part, I am making matters worse. And then, I'm compounding that wrong with my finger pointing and denial.

Marie Meaney

#10, Feb 17, 2015 9:22am

Hm, well actually, I could see myself (or have seen other people in similar situations) getting angry that the vase, or whatever precious object was broken, the mess this entailed etc (and whatever conditions made this worse) rather than at themselves or others. Similarly, I used the example of losing my spouse in an avalanche and being an atheist – therefore not being able to be angry at God whose existence I deny - but still being angry (and sad as well) for having to live without my spouse. Now, one could put things differently and say that there is an implicit addressee contained in anger, that there must be a God out there whom I am blaming at least implicitly, even if I theoretically deny His existence. That would be an interesting point and I think there might well be some truth to that. Even if I think there is only pure chance or bad luck out there, my getting angry at the universe would therefore mean that I am somehow implicitly admitting there is a God and that I’m blaming Him.

Marie Meaney

#11, Feb 17, 2015 9:24am

A person I once met and who was in the undertaking business said that the prevailing sentiment she had encountered with the families of the deceased was anger. I was very surprised at the time, since I had imagined it was sorrow. And I guess one can assume that some of these people who were angry were atheists, given the laws of probability. So either they were angry at the state-of-affairs that they now had to live without this person or they were implicitly angry with God. Perhaps one could develop a proof of God from anger?! That could be interesting!

Originally my post had continued saying:

But for the sake of the argument, let’s say we can only get angry at a person, I’d be interested to hear what thoughts you have then about how to deal with one’s anger.

 Now you've posted another comment which I will address in a few seconds. 

Marie Meaney

#12, Feb 17, 2015 9:35am

I'm actually in full agreement with Dr. Peter and you here, Katie, and my essay was supposed to go in the same direction - and certainly not contradict this point. But I think I've already made clear in my response to Jules that there must be a realization that I am at fault here (perhaps much more than the priest for all that I know), that my attitude is my business here since I cannot change that of the priest (except perhaps by praying for him), and that I need to take responsibility for my heart and attitudes. My anger at him  implies that I am putting myself above him, and therefore the realization of my sinfulness is absolutely key.  

Marie Meaney

#13, Feb 17, 2015 9:36am

So my prayer should be (as I said) not just for the priest, but just as much, if not more for myself. But if my prayer even is at first mainly for the priest, if it is wholehearted, genuine prayer, it will have a way of turning the issue back on myself as well as being genuinely concerned for the priest rather than condemning him. I will get out of the position of condemning from above, to sorrow and concern, and feeling that I can't judge him since I am myself in the wrong.

It is an interesting paradox regarding anger, since I can control my anger only to a very limited degree, and yet I have to take responsibility for it in some sense. As you say, it is part of the sovereign responsibility that has been handed over to us.

Jules van Schaijik

#14, Feb 18, 2015 2:30pm

I agree with both of you, Marie and Katie, that anger is morally and spiritually dangerous. The question is what to do when we are angry.

I don't think “the first step is to realize that anger is not a good thing” and then try to undermine it by praying for ourselves and for the person we are angry with. I'm afraid that that method tends to alienate us from ourselves by trying to replace what we really feel with what we think we ought to feel. I also think it undervalues the truth contained in our experience in favor of a theory.

As I see it, we are not just responsible for our anger, but also present or embodied in it. We are in some way one with our anger. If so, that means that we can't simply disapprove, undermine or reject our anger, without also disapproving, undermining or rejecting ourselves. Instead we need to tend to it and examine it. We need to find out what is wrong in the relation between me and the person/situation that arouses my anger, and then try to fix it.

I'm still not saying this very well.

Katie van Schaijik

#15, Feb 18, 2015 3:53pm

Jules, your comment helps clarify it for me.

I agree that if I am angry, I don't so much want to realize that the anger is bad and therefore "disavow" it—to use the von Hildebrandian term—and try to choose another emotion, like grief. I agree that that will tend toward self-alienation, denial, and unreality.

Rather, I want to realize that the anger in me indicates a problem that needs addressing—something I am responsible for.  In other words, rather than disavowing it, I have to own it.

Marie Meaney

#16, Feb 19, 2015 5:15am

I agree with everything you say, Katie and Jules. Let me just clarify that I did not mean that grief was an option I was free to choose when angry, as if I could snap out of it. I was focusing on the experience of anger and the impression one tends to have when in it that this is the right and only response. The first step I still think is to realize that anger is a problem (even though I shouldn’t try to disassociate myself from it, since that doesn’t work and as you rightly point out makes one lose touch with reality) – and that can be very hard. By seeing that other people are sad in that situation, for example, I’m simply realizing that other responses are possible and perhaps more appropriate. Anger has a way of claiming to be universally right, and by looking at other responses, I can come to realize that this is not so. This is just the first step, and still a long way off from grasping how destructive and violent anger is, and seeing what to do with it.

Marie Meaney

#17, Feb 19, 2015 5:16am

Furthermore, I think you are attributing to prayer a kind of intention to disassociate oneself from one’s anger. The kind of prayer I was thinking of was not this one, but rather one where in going to God I am seeing who I am, thereby owning up to my attitudes, and in a way fully being put in touch with them. In the light of God, I see who I am and this puts a different perspective on the way I see the other – whom I then realize I am in no way qualified to judge or be angry at. So my intention is not on combatting the anger, but to focus on God.

Marie Meaney

#18, Feb 19, 2015 5:17am

This may seem quite simplistic, but I guess I was also starting off from my own experience in this, having struggled with this during mass often. My half-hearted prayer during mass didn’t go anywhere, and my anger was very much alive and kicking. But when I did realize fully that my anger was a problem and started wholeheartedly praying for the priest and myself, things got turned around completely. But you are right that this needs to be brought out more and you are doing this through your points, and hopefully I through my clarifications.  

P.S. And I am, by the way, not coming from the Hildebrandian idea of dissociating oneself from one's emotions which I didn't even have in mind.

Jules van Schaijik

#19, Feb 19, 2015 10:12am

Marie Meaney wrote:

P.S. And I am, by the way, not coming from the Hildebrandian idea of dissociating oneself from one's emotions which I didn't even have in mind.

That's helpful. To me, your post sounds a lot like that Hildebrandian idea. Perhaps the difference is that I hear it as advice for others whereas you mean simply to relate your own experience in the hopes that others might find it helpful.

Katie van Schaijik

#20, Feb 19, 2015 11:15am

It sounds like we agree.

I used to work in a "sanctioning/disavowing" mode, in which I first judged whether my emotional response was "adequate" to the objective state of affairs and then either "sanctioned" or "disavowed" it with my will. In this mode, as you say, Marie, anger over a badly-done Mass feels right.

Over time, and through reading and the gentle correction of friends, I began to recognize that this approach led to bad outcomes.

1) Chronic anger; 2) alienation from my real self; 3) judgmentalism and denial; 4) depression and "learned helplessness".

The (still ongoing) change of heart and mind in me has been gradual, but it included, among other things, a recognition that 1) anger involves a "whom" (in this sense, I think it is indirect proof of the existence of God), 2) that, in a certain sense, I am my emotions, so that the question isn't so much, "What do I do with my anger?" as "What do I do with myself?" And then the answer is, first and mainly: throw myself on God's mercy. This helps me live from an attitude of solidarity with myself and other sinners around me, rather than an (all unfitting) attitude of righteousness and accusation.

Katie van Schaijik

#21, Feb 19, 2015 11:28am

Lately I find that when I feel myself getting annoyed or angry at Mass, I treat it as a red flag. 

I ask myself, is there something I can or should do about the thing that's bugging me? (An inane homily, say, or the person in front of me chewing gum.) If the issue is, objectively, none of my concern, then I take it as an occasion to make acts of contrition and reparation for the state of the Church and the state of my own soul. I make a point of reminding myself how undeservedly blessed I am to be able to receive the Sacraments at all. I think how amazing it is that people are still coming to Mass; that priests are sticking with their vocations, despite everything. I remember that anyone who went through seminary in the decades after Vatican II and well into the JP II papacy got a horrible formation....

And then I remind myself, "You have no such excuses. Thanks to your parents and teachers and countless wonderful comrades, you know what you are about here, and yet, look at your own wretched lack of faith."

Katie van Schaijik

#22, Feb 19, 2015 11:40am

And then I find my "Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa" is much more heartfelt. I am less inclined to accuse and correct the people around me than to seek mercy and attend to my own "interior terrain". Also, I am more genuinely grateful for whatever good appears—a beautiful hymn out of the blue, for instance.

None of which is to say that it's always wrong to get angry or to raise a grievance. I did it myself just recently over the burdensome and clericalistic approach to Confirmation in our parish. I thought, as a parent of a Confirmand, who knows a little about the relevant Canon Law, I should protest and encourage change. So I did, for my sake, for the other parents, who don't have the education I do, and for the good of the parish.

Acting thoughtfully and responsibly on my concern (rather than stewing in irritation) meant both that a step toward positive change was taken, and my anger subsided.

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