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.
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.