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.