Wednesday, February 29, 2012

On the Passions

I hope you are all having a Blessed Lent! Remember, Lent is not just sorrow and somberness. It is a “Bright Sadness” as Father Alexander Schmemann calls it. Amid the remembrance of the Crucifixion and our own lowliness we have the celebration of the Annunciation, which heralds the beginning of our Salvation, and the Feast of Feasts, the Resurrection at our journey’s end! “Be of Good Cheer, I have overcome the world!” (John 16:33)

Passions. I have mentioned these before, and I felt it might be good to clarify exactly what I mean by them. First off, this is no novelty of mine, but is a term used by many of the Holy Fathers concerning disordered desires. Passion comes from the Greek word Pascho, which means to suffer. In a sense, we suffer because of our passions (perhaps not all that noticeably either, which is part of their insidiousness). But isn’t passion a good thing? It’s good to have a passion for something, says the guy two offices down from you who bikes to work. Hiking, volunteering, or working, these are all good passions... But the term predates our relatively recent recycling of the term for something good or neutral.

Briefly looking at an English dictionary entry for passion I found the following definitions :
1. any powerful or compelling emotion or feeling, as love or hate.
2. strong sexual desire; lust.
3. a strong affection or enthusiasm for an object, concept,

What do these tell us about the word passion? All have the connotation of being bold. These are not tiny inclinations. And secondly, they are emotive, base, primal. They come from a very raw part of psyche. Drive is another word that comes to mind. They come from down deep within us, like the fires that fuel a steam engine in a great ocean liner. Sometimes, we may not even be fully aware of them.

Think of those very strong desires that are often marred by missing the mark. Love is mixed up with Lust. Overeating grows from a desire of cheap all you can eat buffets. Resentment is birthed from withholding forgiveness. Laziness, Sloth, from apathy for whatever task is at hand. They often start as subtle mixups, but overtime become ingrained and powerful pulls that drive a wedge between us and our ability to grow closer to God.

The 8th century monk, Saint Peter of Damascus tells us that every virtue lies between the straits of two passions:

“Each virtue lies between two unnatural passions. Moral Judgement lies between craftiness and thoughtlessness; self-restraint, between stubbornness and debauchery; courage, between overbearingness and cowardice; justice, between over-frugality and greed.” - St. Peter of Damascus

Our Holy Father, Saint Maximos the Confessor says, it is because of the fall, that we are subject to these disordered desires that rob of us of our divine glory. Otherwise all desire, all passions would be of a good design: 

“Impurity of soul lies in its not functioning in accordance with [divine] nature. It is because of this that impassioned thoughts are produced in the mind. The soul functions in accordance with the [divine] nature when it remains dispassionate in the face of provocations both from [worldly] things and from conceptual images of those things.” - St. Maximos the Confessor

The Great Ascetic Saint Theodore speaks of passions being aroused by logisimoi. Those thoughts that if allowed to linger in the mind become great tempters toward sin. It is in our best interest (even duty, if we can muster the strength to call it that) to fight these, and not let them stir our passions toward sin: 

“It does not lie within our power to decide whether or not the passions are going to harass and attack the soul. But it does lie within our power to prevent the impassioned thoughts from lingering within us and arousing the passions to [shameful] action.” - St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic

Saint Neilos of Sinai, a priest friend of John Chrysostom, says we should always be watchful of our heart and mind. Even if we have successfully fought and overcome a passion of say, lust or avarice, perhaps some new thing will creep in and arouse it. Say a new paycheck and the recent release of some new smartphone, whereby one purchase quickly becomes many more. Or a confrontation with scantly clad woman, soon becomes a brief fantasy involving many terribly shady situations. As Saint Anastasios the Persian says: "We Christians, fall, but we get up. And we do this until we can die standing on our feet."

“For if someone does not watch his mind attentively, he will find that, after he has cut down the passions, the images of past fantasies begin to emerge like young shoots. If he constantly allows these images to force their way into his mind and does not bar their entry, the passions will once more establish themselves within him; despite his previous victory, and he will have to struggle against them once again.” - Saint Neilos of Sinai

And lastly, Saint Mark the Ascetic confesses the prime injunction for Christians and the only 100% security against falling into sin; the acquisition of the Spirit of Peace. By the indwelling of One of the Holy Trinity, we are preserved from death. That spiritual death, that Christ says leads to total despair. 

“Peace is deliverance from the passions, and is not found except through the action of the Holy Spirit.”  - St. Mark the Ascetic

This my friends, is GRACE! The ministry/action/indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our lives, in our hearts, in our minds.

Festal Pairing:

Today, March 1st, is the Feast of St. David of Wales (St. Eudocia if you are a Byzantine). He's a baller dude, who was ordained in the Holy Land and was a great ascetic. He convoked a synod in the 6th century that stamped out the last vestiges of Pelagianism in the British Isles. Have an Amber or Red Ale in his Honor!

Glory to God for All Things!

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