I know it is a bit “old-fashioned” and it may be hard for those of this generation to understand, but the timeless message of the Faith is that we are called to battle and tame the passions SO THAT they are our servants and never our masters! So what are the passions? Some may say “I thought being a passionate person was a good thing.”
Well, as usual, it depends on definitions. As an aside, this is why a passive practice of the Faith is so very dangerous. It’s just too easy to let important truths slip away when you’re not paying attention to details!
An ancient understanding of “passion” is the idea of “suffering.” The Lord’s crucifixion is said to be His “Passion.” Passions are those forces in your life that desire to run your life. They are “feelings” and “desires” and “hungers” and habits that are just waiting for the moment to cause you to suffer the consequences of allowing these passions to master you. A traditional list of the passions are:
Look at our lesson today in Matthew 14:1-13:
At that time, Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus; and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist; he has been raised from the dead; that is why these powers are at work in him.” For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison, for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife; because John said to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” And though he wanted to put him to death, he feared the people, because they held him to be a prophet. But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod, so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” And the king was sorry; but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given; he sent and had John beheaded in the prison, and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. And his disciples came and took the body and buried it; and they went and told Jesus. Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a lonely place apart. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.
Of course, we know the story of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist well, but what a powerful lesson of the prison and danger of unbridled passion! Herod was mastered by his passion and was enslaved to do what he really didn’t want to do. But that’s the nature of untamed passions. They enslave us, master us, when the reverse is the intention and the purpose we were made to experience.
Listen to this quote from Fr. John Chryssavgis: “Passions are our inner sounds, those deep marks in the space of our heart that require healing… our passions indicated not so much that we are doing something wrong, but that we are not in control.” (In The Heart of the Desert) That’s spot on! The passions aren’t so much us doing bad things or having bad thoughts as much as their being our master shows us that we are out of control. We become the slaves of our passions when we fail to appreciate how to properly discipline our passions. Just like a powerful and beautiful horse isn’t very helpful when it’s wild, so our passions, meant to be our servants, run roughshod over us when we don’t discipline them. What was meant to serve us becomes our master and destroys us!
It is why the whole of the Faith is geared to training us how to tame these passions so that they will be for our good and not our destruction. The fasts, the disciplined prayer rule, the cycle of liturgies, the theology, the moral wisdom, the Divine Mysteries, all work to help us bridle these wild passions and make them what they were meant to be – gifts that enrich us rather than addictions that destroy us.
Today, are your passions under control? Are you actively learning how to master your passions and watch as these passions are transformed into gifts? All of this wisdom lies within your grasp. It’s time to proactively embrace the wisdom of the Faith to enable you to be who you really are, not as the passions make you appear! It’s time to be Orthodox on Purpose!
P.S. Dear Lord, my passions and habits want to own me. They are undisciplined and fierce at times. And when they master me, my life goes in deadly directions. Please help me embrace the life-long work of allowing the wisdom of the Faith to teach me how to cooperate with Your grace through repentance so that my passions serve me instead of enslaving me. Through the intersessions of the Theotokos, save us. Amen