Another Look at the Passions

I have recently been reading Fr. John Chryssavgis’ In the Heart of the Desert, an excellent introduction to the teachings and spiritual practices of the desert monastics. His comments are interwoven with sayings from the Desert Fathers (and Mothers). I share here some of his work on the passions, very apropos of our conversations here over the past week or so.

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When passions are distorted, then our soul is divided and we are no longer integrated, whole. The understanding in the desert was that a single vivid experience of authentic, passionate desire for God was sufficient to advance one much more in the ascetic life than any extreme feat of fasting or vigil. In fact, such purified passion, or pure passion, could never be checked or quenched. It could only be filled or fulfilled. True passion and desire does not seek to be stopped or satisfied. It can only grow endlessly.

Abba Zosimas said: “Our free will is not passionate. If it were passionate, then by the grace of God everything would appear simple for our free will. As I have frequently told you, a small inclination of our desire is able to attract God for our assistance.”

The Desert Fathers and Mothers recognized that it takes a long time to become a human being. It takes an infinitely patient waiting to put together all the variegated parts of the human heart. Moreover, in the unnoticeable changes toward ever-growing perfection, it is the things that we love that reveal to us who we are. It is the things to which we are most attached that show us where our priorities lie. It is our very imperfections – what they like to call passions, and what we invariably call our wounds – that lead us to the way of perfection.

Therefore, if we want to honestly discern the passions of our heart, we should consider what we actually like to do and even need to do, or what most characterizes our way of handling life. Some of these passions might be the desire to gossip or be judgmental; the desire to control or manipulate; the desire for perfectionism; the need for constant approval; the distrust of others or mistrust of ourselves; the fear of stillness or of silence; the tendency toward irritation or agitation; an attitude of impurity or darkness; a lack of self-control; and cravings or addictions of many kinds. In brief, that which makes us feel “high,” where we do not have to face reality; that is where our passions often lurk. These are the passions we may need to admit and address.

Then, knowing our passions becomes not a crushing but a healing experience. Then, we no longer excuse bad behavior, but accept our self without delusions. Then, fresh possibilities are discovered in our life and in our world. We perceive new dimensions of reality; we see the same things as before, but now with new eyes. This is why the desert elders, both fathers and mothers alike, prayed not to be rid of passions, but to be strengthened in their struggle to know them. For passions reveal that we are innately equipped, and by our very nature endowed, with qualities through which we may be healed and renewed in order to move on.

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16 Responses to “Another Look at the Passions”

  1. Kathy Lu Says:

    Wow! I really like this. It nails what the Orthodox struggle for spirituality and theosis really is about.

  2. Michael Bauman Says:

    “…it takes a long time to become a human being” Of course, the journey cannot even begin until we want to be human. That in itself can become quite a struggle.

  3. Karen Says:

    Thank you for this clarification and amplification, Father. I hope you will continue on the theme of rightly ordering the passions for a while. I think there’s a lot to glean here.

  4. Karen Says:

    Dear Father, bless!

    With regard to the struggle against the passions, I also recently read the following:

    http://orthodoxwayoflife.blogspot.com/2010/07/way-of-love-is-easiest-path.html

    I believe you had a post a couple of years ago the substance of which was a quote from one of the Fathers (maybe the same one) making the same point. I found that post very helpful, too.

  5. Margaret Says:

    This is great, Fr. Stephen, thank you! I’ve read through it three times and now will read again. I believe this is what my heart has needed!

  6. Sally Brower Says:

    You have always been a spiritual father to me and I continue to treasure your wisdom. Brent and I are going to Egypt in October with Iconofile for a tour of biblical and Christian Egypt focusing on Christian art. Seeing the Christ of the Sinai at St. Catherine’s is something I have long awaited. The other icon I most wanted to see was the Virgin of Vladimir which we saw while on an Orthodox tour of Russia several years ago. Blessings to you, Beth, and family.

  7. Paul Says:

    Fr. Stephen:
    I am an elder in a evangelical church. Our church elders have increased our efforts to mentor our young men; i.e. spiritual direction. We have sporadically had spiritual directors in our own lives and we have some very experienced shepherd in our group. So we are not starting from scratch, but we know we need to improve our shepherding abilities.

    Could you briefly recommend a path forward to increase our abilities in spiritual direction? Helpful literature, like the book you mention in this post?

    Thank you for your blogging ministry. Your thoughts have been very challenging to my heart.

    Sincerely,
    Paul J

  8. Robert Says:

    Father Stephen,

    I am not sure if I understand. “This is why the desert elders…. prayed not to be rid of passions, but to be strengthened in their struggle to know them”. Do you mean to say purification is a matter of knowledge? Most addicts know their vice, however they can’t or won’t let go of their addiction. So what then is this process of admission and addressing?

  9. fatherstephen Says:

    Robert,
    It is the path of purification. Battling with what you know, by God’s grace.

  10. Torey Says:

    “True passion and desire does not seek to be stopped or satisfied. “Phenomenal quote.

  11. Seraphim Says:

    Robert,

    Christ is risen!

    Addiction is a product of consumerism and like all the isms is a collective effort to engage Truth but from the distorted perspective of self (an ontological impossibility, hence the addiction).

    Pilate’s question should really have been: “Who is Truth?”

  12. Anna Says:

    Father Stephen,

    Thank you very much for this post. Could you go into a bit more detail about what you mean by acknowledging the passions and beginning a healing process. I feel like I am aware of some of my passions and I try to suffocate them or ignore them, what would be a proper response. Could you give an example?

  13. Karen Says:

    Anna, good question. Rereading this post, I find that is something that intrigues and confounds me as well.

    In reflecting on my experience I realize that (as I think Fr. Stephen has said elsewhere) when I have stopped trying to suppress and control my urges/needs–where they reveal my sins and infirmities–to get rid of them by my own will and strength, but instead have brought them into the light through confession (before someone who can reflect the love and forgiveness of God for me), they begin to lose their strong control over me, and begin to be transfigured, through being submitted to God (a long process), into something through which God can be glorified. If nothing else, my struggle with my passions serves to humble me again and again, so that (as with the experience of the Apostle Paul), what is a “thorn in my flesh” defeats my vainglorious pride and brings me back to the only real place of sanity–that of throwing the whole weight of my dependence upon God’s care and mercy. Then He has something to work with and can begin to fill the legitimate need I have for His love, and for which I have, in my woundedness, sought an inferior substitute, with Himself. I think the Fathers’ and Mothers’ desire to know their passions (self-knowledge) speaks of learning to grapple with reality, rather than fall into denial through suppression of the truth of who and what we are without God’s grace (even though this is deeply painful and ugly). ISTM, this corresponds with St. Silouan’s understanding that he was to “keep thy mind in hell, yet despair not.” What is known can be effectively struggled with and brought into captivity to Christ by His grace. By hiding from our passions and deluding ourselves that we have got rid of them or that they do not operate in us, we become complicit in our own captivity to sin.

    I am deeply indebted for some of the deepest insight God has given me about Himself and the reality of our human nature to the gift of friendship I had with a profoundly courageous Christian woman who had experienced severe spiritual, emotional and physical abuse in childhood. Memories of this erupted while she was in Bible college, and she spent long years in therapy with a gifted and compassionate Christian therapist. She confided in me some of the process of her healing, and I remember marveling that essential to our healing from really terrible perversions of our will and nature is our humble and loving embrace of the human need (weakness, vulnerability) in ourselves that is at the root of our wounded and perverted urges to satisfy it with something corrupt. This involves developing the ability to perceive even in the sinful inclination or addiction, the pure passion that it is a distorted expression of and embrace that pure passion. An example would be to embrace and love ourselves as sexual creatures with all the possibilities and vulnerabilities in us this includes, yet without falling into sexual sin by expressing and using that sexuality in a way God has not ordained. This is a profound paradox, but there is no healing without such an embrace, for this is the true self (our vulnerable, needy self that is miserably incomplete and naked without God, the self that longs for the love of God) that God longs to enfold in His embrace, His light, and His glory.

  14. aaroneous Says:

    This post reminds me of a phenomenon observed in psychiatric treatment known as a “repetition compulsion”. In a nutshell, when people have gone through a traumatic experience in a relationship some will continually (unknowingly our unconsciously) create circumstances around them that causes the trauma to be repeated, fleeing from one relationship to the next.

    Some believe it is an attempt to continually confront the situation in order to master it and become free of the compulsion, though until it is known (made conscious) and confronted it continues to cause damage and destruction in the person’s life. In the context of this post, it is the repetition of the bad situation that continually pushes someone towards eventual healing.

  15. Robert Says:

    Truly He is risen!

    The ontological impossibility Seraphim references, the inability for that which is broken to heal itself, this is what concerns me. If the healing process is to be truly genuine, not merely yet another manifestation of our delusion, then it has to come from beyond ourselves, it has to be in a very real sense objective. This can happen by God’s grace alone as we struggle with Him. I took Fr. Stephen’s reference out of context, my apologies.

  16. Robert Says:

    Aaroneous,

    Based on the frequency of repetitions, I must be well on my way to healing. 😀

    But seriously, this idea of “mastering” and being “free from compulsion” – this raises some questions – what is my motivation to accomplish these? Is this yet another obsession of my fragmented self? Am I driven by guilt, fear or pride perhaps? Am I unknowingly inflicting damage and destruction to myself?

    By understanding sin not as sinful behavior that needs to be corrected, but rather as a symptom of brokenness and fragmentation – this makes the world a difference. The focus shifts from the sin itself to that which is causing it. May the Lord who loves mankind help us speedily!

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