“He who has mastery over his incensive power has mastery also over the demons.” – St. Evagrios the Solitary, On Discrimination (section 12, p. 46 of the Philokalia vol. 1)
I do not have mastery over my incensive power. One would normally not expect a pastor to be easily-angered, but I can have a bit of a temper. Usually only a select few see this side of me: my wife, my co-pastor, an occasional friend or family member. But one day at work (at my other job) that anger went public.
I was working at the 61C Cafe on Good Friday of this year. It was a busy day. Customers had come and gone in a steady stream since I’d arrived at 3:00, and by the middle of my shift I was exhausted. In between running the register, making espresso drinks, and blending countless smoothies, I had barely had a chance to catch my breath.
The line had finally subsided when three high-school age boys came in whom I’d never seen before. They were not regulars, and did not look like they were from Squirrel Hill either. Two sat down at a table. One came and ordered a drink from me. I turned my back to him to make the drink, then turned back the register to face him and ring him up. And then I saw it.
A gun. Pointed at me. In the same hand as the money he was handing me.
I paused. Am I being robbed? I thought. I stared at him. He didn’t say anything. He just handed me the money and kept the gun pointed at me.
I said nothing. Counting the change, I half-expected him to tell me to give him all the cash in the register. But he didn’t. I handed him his change and watched him walk to the table with his friends. When he sat down and put the gun on the table I realized what it really was.
A toy. Complete with a laser-pointer that looked like a laser-sight. But just a toy.
I walked to the dishwasher and started putting away clean dishes. My initial shock and momentary fear quickly turned into anger. Inwardly I fumed. What was this kid thinking? Does he think it’s funny to point fake guns at people? Doesn’t he realize that if he’d pointed that at a worker in a store that kept a gun behind the counter he could be dead by now?
The customers started coming again, and as I made smoothie after smoothie I continued to rant inwardly about the kid’s stupidity. An hour later, I looked out the window and saw him standing outside. He held up the gun and pointed it at people in the cafe, using the laser-pointer on it to project a little red dot on people’s books and computers. I stormed out the door and charged at him.
“You idiot! Get out of here! You’re not funny with that thing. Don’t you realize you’re scaring people?” I screamed.
“It’s a toy,” he said plainly, clearly surprised that he had provoked this response.
“Yeah well it’s a toy that looks a lot like a real gun and if you held that up in a store that had been robbed before and had a gun behind the counter you could be dead right now. Get out of here!” I continued yelling at him, threatening to call the police, and using language that no one at the cafe had ever heard me use. After returning a few choice words in my direction, he walked away defiantly.
I walked back into the cafe only to be greeted by the curious looks of customers who couldn’t believe I’d just exploded and cussed out a teenage boy.
Then it hit me: I’d just exploded and cussed out a teenage boy. And I’d done so over a toy gun. What was I thinking? How could my anger have gotten so out of control?
The incensive power is the part of the soul that experiences extreme emotions. As the glossary to the Philokalia puts it, the incensive power “often manifests itself as wrath or anger” but “can be more generally defined as the force provoking vehement feelings.” It can be positive or negative. The positive use of the incensive power is to repel evil thoughts or rebuke demonic attacks. To put it another way, we use the incensive power correctly when – and only when – we are angry at the things that anger God.
For the writers of the Philokalia, the incensive power was given to us as a defense against sin. Using the example of temptations to unchastity, Evagrios writes, “Our incensive power is also a good defence against this demon. When it is directed against evil thoughts of this kind, such power fills the demon with fear and destroys his designs. And this is the meaning of the statement: ‘Be angry, and do not sin’ (Ps. 4:4)” (On Discrimination, section 15, p. 47). To “be angry and not sin” is to be angry at sin, beginning within oneself. This is why St. Isaiah the Solitary could write, “Without anger a man cannot attain purity: he has to feel angry with all that is sown in him by the enemy.” (On Guarding the Intellect, section 1, p. 22)
What would have angered God in this situation? My internal fuming and my uncontrolled reaction, surely. Would God be angry the boy? Maybe. But I think there were many other elements in this situation that anger God: The fact that a toy had been made in the image of an instrument of death. The racial and economic oppression this young man has already experienced in his short life. The fact that the color of his skin made me more likely to assume the gun was real. A proper use of my incensive power would have meant for me to rebuke the angry response within me, to rebuke the fear and insecurity that I felt, to rebuke my latent prejudices, to take the log out of my own eye before attempting to point out the speck in this young man’s. Lord have mercy.