Passions Happen

Emotions are not bad, but they can be directed towards the wrong things

BY: Deborah Belonick

 

Great Lent has enveloped Orthodox Christians, and we are concentrating on the ascetical efforts of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, remorse for our sins, and spiritual reading. However, ascetical feats are not the objective of the season; we are not imposing suffering on ourselves in gratitude to God for his own suffering on our behalf. The goal is reunion with God, an indwelling of the Holy Spirit. To accomplish this, we wage a cosmic battle against what the Fathers of the Church call "the passions."

Passions have earned a varied reputation. To straight-laced, puritanical types, they are cause for self-deprecation and flagellation. To poets, they are inspiring muses. To therapists, they are parts of the individual that have been squelched and need resuscitation. To many Orthodox Christians, passions are cravings that need to be tamed for a while in order to concentrate on the spiritual realm and feel pious--they are then let loose so the "pious" can feel normal again, that is, pagan. Taming passions during Great Lent puts us in the cozy position of thinking we can achieve sainthood if we continue our efforts, but affords us the deadline of Pascha so we never have to test the theory.

In fact, according to patristic sources, passions are merely natural desires run amok. St. John of the Ladder said, "We have taken natural attributes of our own and turned them into passions." How does this mutation occur?

A human being is tripartite, that is, made up of spirit, soul, and body (I Thes 5:23). Thus, when a person neglects the spirit, he or she will be obligated to depend on the body alone for happiness. Sensual pleasures and instincts detached from a soul connected with the God of Love morph into passions. When God-given appetites are misdirected because of a rupture in relationship with the Lord of Life, passions happen. And animalistic passions on the loose degrade the person.

Instead of eating to live, we live to eat. Instead of enjoying a glass of fine wine in the company of friends, we use booze to either uplift our spirits or deaden our emotions. Instead of enjoying right sexual relations, we delight in perversions. Instead of using our money wisely, we gamble. Instead of employing righteous anger against evil, we beat our spouses.

To cure the passions, therefore, we must not just abstain from them; we must unite our spirit with God's Spirit. We must unite our mind with the mind of Jesus Christ (I Cor 2:16) so as to redirect the desires. Spiritual disciplines were developed by experienced masters of the ascetic life to break an unhealthy relationship with food, sex, romance novels, or racetracks, emphasize union with God, and then rekindle a new relationship with the material world--now seen through the Creator's eyes.

Armed with our own will power, we will defeat passions only for short-lived periods. Armed with God's grace, we will transform those passions into virtues. We are psychosomatic beings, meant to live in a vibrant Garden of Eden. So we reverse the steps of Adam and Eve. We spit out the fruit. We say no to temptations of the flesh. We walk in the cool of the day with God. Lent is the path of re-entry, not into Nirvana, but into Paradise.

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