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(September 2016)

On Our Passions

By Anthony of the Desert, from his pamphlet “On Depression.” For more of this author’s writings see http://www.churchfathertheology.com/.

A major constituent of passion is that as long as the soul is sick with passions—the word passion not only means an intense or overpowering emotion but also comes from the Latin passionis, meaning “to suffer”—not only are we more susceptible to the illness of depression but the soul can only learn about what is spiritual from secondary means (e.g., hearsay, reading, etc.). Thus, to both compel a return from depression’s evil clutches and to pursue what is godly we must be healed from the disease of passion, a recovery that requires knowledge of God existing as our freedom from enslavement to passion as well as an exact understanding of passion’s nature.

In order to apprehend passion’s anatomy, we must recall how disobedience to God infected man with passion and initiated the expulsion from Paradise as well as the falling into a state contrary to nature (one that is subject to sin, ambition, love of worldly pleasure, etc.). This bespeaks of how humanity became mastered by and enslaved to passions, a circumstance wherein ignorance of God becomes the norm. It was the Lord Jesus Christ who rescued us from this depravity, who provided the capacity to restore our corrupted senses and defiled human nature to the condition intended by God—which was to deliver us from the power of the Evil One, a conservancy that includes liberation from the infernal poison that is depression. As such, the Lord has provided us with the potential for purification from passion (for a freedom from those tendencies that lead us toward evil and into depression).

Moreover, to understand the nature of passion, and the passion of depression in particular, we must realize that, while interrelated, sin is one thing and passion is quite another beast. That is, sin functions as the gratification of passions such as pride, anger, sexual desire, hatred, and greed. This discordant state of affairs (one wherein man is motivated by irrational desire rather than by love for, or pursuit of, God) exists as an acquiescence to passion that culminates in the turning of what is natural into passion; such as the perversion of child-bearing into fornication or anger against Satan into rage toward neighbors. Thus, passion exists as an exaggeration or distortion of something natural, as a transference of what God intended for our purification into that which belongs to fallen human nature.

Now, it must be said that this understanding of passion’s nature intends to illustrate that in order to achieve a life that is free from depression we must first and foremost cultivate that part of the soul which discerns and discriminates. This can be accomplished as we gain an awareness of the three movements that lead to passions:

1. Natural movement, that which is inherent in the body and produces nothing sinful or burdening; hunger is an example.

2. Movement that has been excited by far too much food and drink, this stimulates the body to fight against the soul (urges us toward sin).

3. Movement prompted by evil spirits, those infernal beings who try to tempt us, to weaken us, and to lead us astray.

Thus, movement toward passion emanates from an innocent expression of the body’s natural appetites, to involuntary thoughts that come from having overfilled the appetite, to acting upon the thought (a consent of the will that gives birth to passion). Once we mentally or bodily indulge in a passion then evil spirits seize upon our absence of vigilance to suggest even greater sins and to steer us into the darkness of depression.

Moreover, it must be understood that out of all the demons who work against us the three who stand at the forefront of the battle are lust, gluttony, and greed (of both love of money and human glory); other demons follow behind and continue the assault. Aiding these three passions are the demons of ignorance, forgetfulness, and laziness (indifference)—through these all of the other passions (including depression) grow and strengthen. Overall, the Holy Fathers generally agree that there exist the eight principle passions of: gluttony, fornication, covetousness (love of money), anger, dejection, despondency, vainglory, and pride. With this in mind, let us now embark upon a discussion of four of these passions and their antidotes (the understanding and curing of passions being our key to healing depression).

Gluttony: This is the door of passions; remember, the Evil One seduced Eve with food. As such, gluttony does not have to involve large quantities (viz., Eve and merely one piece of fruit), it often encompasses the temptation to have just a “little taste,” that which can succeed in enslaving us to the devil and lead to being captured by depression. This evidences how gluttony proceeds from the heart, poisons all senses, and makes the soul a den of evil.
Also of import is that there exists two kinds of gluttony: (1) the seeking of only pleasing food without desiring to eat too much (only consuming what pleases the appetite) and (2) being overcome by a compulsion to eat a lot, that is, wanting to eat and eat without any care for what food is being consumed. Either form of gluttony causes blindness to the things of God; as one panders to the belly so too, in the same measure, will he deprive himself of purification and become susceptible to the demon of depression.

Antidotes for gluttony include realizing that our objective with food must be to simply sustain life, pleasure ought not to be our end. Also, we must never omit thinking of God while eating, we must keep in mind that God provides food for sustaining nutritional needs and focus concentration on thanks to Him. To achieve these curatives it helps to choose whatever food is easy to obtain and is cheap, and whenever a lust for food arises then we should confine ourselves to bread and water for a while (this will make us grateful for even a thin slice of bread).

Lust: One consequence of the Fall involved the perpetuation of the human race via physical means (sexual intercourse); meaning that sex is a function of fallen human nature, as is hunger (the precursor to gluttony). Neither sex nor hunger are evil when exercised as God intends, however, just as hunger can become gluttony so can sex become ungodly lust; interestingly, there exists a direct cause and effect relationship between gluttony and lust in that overeating can stimulate lust and lust can activate gluttony.
Consequently, the antidote to lust resides in keeping the stomach hungry so that shameful thoughts will not enter the heart. This foreclosure of licentious thinking occurs because the commonplace shameful urges and unseemly fantasies that accompany overeating have been cut off. Assuredly the antidote to a pandering of the flesh is fasting, lust is extinguished by hunger.

Vainglory: There exists a glory that comes from God (cf. Gen 22:15-18) and there is a “glory” that follows us diabolically (viz. Lk 6:26), one that most often manifests as hoping that others are watching our “good” actions (the passion of desiring recognition from others). This effort to have our deeds acknowledged by others is clothed in piety, is quite subtle and extremely hard to detect; that is, vainglory as a precursor to depression evidences how quickly we can become blindsided by its (depression’s) blackness.

Vainglory initially springs from a lack of faith and is then followed by envy, hatred, flattery, jealousy, quarrelling, hypocrisy, and other dark passions; all of which culminates in depression. The result can only be our detachment from heaven, our being chained to earth and unable to look up and see the True Light (the dark clouds of depression obstruct the mind’s ascent to God). This demonstrates how vainglory is intimately connected with countless other passions; for instance, as we puff ourselves up with vainglory we are led rapidly to the constant presence of carnal thoughts (lust), a quick temper (anger), and the desire to immediately possess everything that we crave (covetousness), all of which ends in a mind that has gone completely astray. Of course, once our desires remain unfulfilled we fall prey to additional passions, such as despondency and dejection, which results in deep depression. This sordid state of affairs cannot be destroyed in a short time, these infernal passions must undergo the excruciatingly painful process of being torn out by the roots from the depths of the soul.

Antidotes to vainglory include looking straight up to God, rather than to seek the praise of created beings, as well as taking control of the mouth, calling to mind repeatedly the multitude of our sins, and maintaining a remembrance of death.

Anger: This passion results from a lack of self-control and is the quickest passion of them all, hardening the soul more and more. Some of anger’s results involve the nursing of grievances, an itching for vengeance, the constant pursuit of “repayment” from those who have offended us, and so on. Quite simply, nothing noble can be produced while the pernicious serpent of anger eats us inside and all too often an overwhelming depression is the result.

Furthermore, once anger has successfully banished our pursuit of God it then gains dominion over the soul and makes us completely bestial. The tongue becomes unbridled and speech is unguarded, physical violence likely results, and the one who is angry and/or the victims of such a person suffer untold injury. The angry person has been deeply wounded in his heart, argues bitterly, speaks with arrogance, and thusly provides the serpent with added strength to further infect inner space; one who has become enslaved by anger eventually lives for sin and becomes totally dead to the truth, the soul has been devoured.

It must be said that nothing is more ruinous and harmful than an uncontrolled tongue, and once our tongue has inflicted offense upon others at some point we experience regret and then begin to slip down the slope and into the pit of depression; obviously, this is wholly destructive and robs us of the soul’s treasure. Whatever one manages to build is destroyed by anger, whatever has been collected with great labor the soul dissipates through anger.

The antidote for anger requires taming and transforming it into gentleness (meekness) by courage and mercy. We achieve this virtue by counting our sins and by mourning and weeping over them (there can be no anger where there is mourning). We can also repress the violent and frenzied movements of the soul by emulating the examples of saints and by humbling the heart via prayer.

Further antidotes involve not thinking that we deserve any rewards or acclamations and not perceiving anyone else as inferior. This is to humble the heart when it howls with rage and compels the passions to honor humility (we curb anger by keeping it bridled to humility). Anger has been designed to help us in waging war with the devil and his demons and to aid our struggle against sin so is beneficial when allied with humility; that is, as with other passions, the passion of anger serves a salvific and purifying purpose when employed for the reasons intended by God.

Having considered several specific passions, let us now turn to some Church Father teachings on warfare against passion. To begin with, our struggle against passion and depression will be furthered as we recognize that the Lord Jesus Christ (1) showed us by His life on earth how to be cleansed from passions, (2) provided examples of how to judge between what is edifying and what is hurtful, (3) awakened our consciousness from sleep, and (4) revealed the causes of sin. Moreover, as Christians we have been set free by Holy Baptism and have had our sins forgiven, that is, Christ Jesus has provided us with the medicine needed to be able to obey His commandments and to thusly become free from enslavement to passion. Truly, Christ Jesus is the Physician of Souls, He knows all and applies the correct remedy for every illness; for instance, for vainglory He prescribes humility, for love of pleasure He commands temperance, almsgiving is applied for avarice ... each disease has its proper remedy via a particular commandment of the Lord.

Also of great import to the struggle with passions is the Body and Blood of Christ, which when received with full confidence has the power to extinguish every disease. This weapon can then be combined with the careful hearing of Sacred Scripture and the giving of alms so that we can battle every passion.

Yet another weapon against the passions is acquiring zeal and this may be done through (1) fear of losing the blessings that we have gained, (2) concern about an ability to generate watchfulness in all directions, (3) diligently guarding against hostile attacks within and without, and (4) an intense longing for virtue. We can then labor toward applying sobriety in all things so that whatever we confront will not become a cause of harm and/or deception—an objective that requires trusting in the Lord and not in ourselves. To sobriety we then add patience because when we possess long-suffering then the darts of the enemy will not wound us. Along with these virtues comes remembrance of death as a way by which to generate the exclusion of all cares and vanities. In these ways we are able to nurture a guarding of the mind, ceaseless prayer, non-attachment to bodily desires, and an abject hatred of sin. This will lead to the practice of continence, to the complete avoidance of everything that tends toward the harmful pleasures or passions.

Please know full well that the struggle against passions and depression is the most difficult warfare that any one of us can experience and has been likened to the bearing of a cross; an ordeal that must involve both enduring bodily privation and meditating on God (an abiding in prayer)—bodily cross bearing purifies the passionate part of the soul while contemplation brings light to it. However, be forewarned that the great temptation for beginners is to skip the bodily struggle, a pitfall that the Church Fathers sternly warn against by instructing that anyone who pursues contemplation without having first perfected training in bodily struggle is merely attracted to delights and is motivated by laziness.

Additionally, to avoid discouragement at the outset of our struggle against passions we must not allow memory of past sin to arise (this is because no passion can be born without a movement of thoughts). Also, please be advised that trials during our battles against passions will tempt us toward despondency and will inflict a sense of weariness; thus, we must ever remind ourselves that there exists a longing for an impure and shameful life, a condition that is born out of the demonic temptation to avoid repentance. We combat these disruptive tendencies by cultivating an orderly and thoughtful approach to our warfare against passions, one that must include not trusting in self but which instead seeks to learn from and to obey a spiritual father.

In more specific terms, and by way of example, one proven way to confront passions is by first endeavoring to not swear or speak evil and then by learning not to give in to a chosen passion (such as envy or lust) so that instead, things of the spirit can be pursued via the practice of continence, temperance, neglect of the belly, and righteousness—we join these one with another and thusly write them upon the soul. So initially practice something basic, such as not swearing, and then progress to passions and no matter how many setbacks never despair or give up; simply persevere!

The goal of warfare with passions, in addition to thwarting depression, is to foster dispassion (apatheia). Dispassion is pursued by first renouncing self-will so that we become lovers of God and participate, however imperfectly, in His passionlessness. This requires striving toward guiding thoughts far away from every passion at the very moment of provocation and toward contemplation of the Divine with greater clarity. However, it must be remembered that no matter how successful we become on this path we will always possess a fallen nature, one wherein temptation toward passion will ever remain as an integral part. That is, passionlessness does not mean never being attacked by demons but rather involves not being conquered whenever we are attacked.

In conclusion, dispassion exists when the mind no longer seeks to keep attention on passions and is instead filled with divine pursuits and contemplation. This is a state wherein whenever passions begin to move (are excited) the mind is immediately lifted away from them via the perception of the Divine. Thus, dispassion is the inner heaven of the mind—the kingdom of God is within you (Lk 17:21). The truly dispassionate person has raised his mind above created things and has subdued all senses, which is to keep the soul in God’s presence; in such a state passion and depression cannot exist.