St. Isaac And The Passions

In the comment section of a previous post, these questions were asked.  I thought I would address my response in a full blog post.  I hope it makes sense.

Two questions Father:

1) Can you explain more how the passions can never fully be uprooted from the soul? I tend to think of the soul as only having good qualities, and now becoming Orthodox I see that this is not what the Fathers say. It is more a garden that can have good or bad roots! Is that safe to say?

2) Very simply, and I know there are definitions I can find online or in other theological works Saint Palamas for instance, but can you in your opinion as a pastor define the meaning of the word “passion.” Is “passion” synonymous with “passionate?” I tend to think “passionate” and “fierce” can be used interchangeably. Although I have been Orthodox for three years, it still is difficult word (coming from a Lutheran background) to grasp.

My Response:

There is not just one definition of passion.  Different Church fathers have spoken of the passions differently.  This is because the human being is a mystery.  We have some terms and concepts that the Church has found helpful over the centuries to describe the inner life of a Christian—the word ‘passions’ being one of them.  However, the more closely you look at how words are used or defined by various Church fathers, the clearer it becomes that a word like ‘passion’ can be explained using very different metaphors and given quite different definitions depending not only on whom you read, but even by the same writer.  That is, in one context writing to one audience a saint may use a certain metaphor or definition, but writing to a different audience the same saint will provide a different image or definition.

I know this can be very frustrating to minds trained in the western academic system.  For my first several years as an Orthodox Christian, I was continually trying to nail down definitions.  And I was finding myself frustrated again and again as I would read a certain saint’s definition or explanation of a term or concept, only to find the same saint twenty pages later using the term or concept in a way incongruous to the definition or explanation he had earlier provided.  This all came to a head for me back in the 90s when I got a hold of Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos’ Orthodox Psychotherapy: The Science of the Fathers.  Here, my university trained mind thought it had finally found the book it was looking for, a book that would clearly explain the teaching of the Fathers on the inner life in a clear, straightforward and consistent way.  Boy, was I in for a headache.

As I worked my way through the text, I carefully scribbled down definitions for key words: heart, mind, nous, passion, desire/eros, soul, etc.  However, you don’t have to get very far into the text, before you find yourself going back to tweak the definitions you thought you had just nailed down.  And then, because the text abounds in quotations, not only from various Church fathers, but from many different contemporary Orthodox thinkers, you soon start to say things like, “Hey, wait a minute, you just used the word ‘soul’ to refer to what I thought was ‘mind.’”  And you find yourself saying things like, “So and so said passions were broken powers of our heart, and now someone else is saying they are not in our heart—ahhh what’s going on.”  Well, what’s going on is that the Fathers of the Church sometimes use terminology a little differently or sometimes a lot differently, to talk about the same inner experience.

In my university trained mind, I was used to learning terms and definitions first, and then seeking to apply them to my inner experience.  But in much Orthodox writing about the inner life, the opposite takes place.  That is, one cannot understand any terms or definitions (at least not very well) until one has the encounter or inner experience with God that the saint is referring to; then, it’s possible to recognize your own experience or something like it in various images or constellations of terms and definitions that the saint uses.  Now this does not mean that one has to have exactly the same experience that a holy man or woman has in order to understand them.  Spiritual experiences often come in levels or degrees.  A common Orthodox image is a ladder.  I may only be on the first or second rung of the ladder, and the holy man or woman may be fifty rungs above me, but we are on the same ladder.  The fact that I have had some light, maybe even superficial, encounters with God in my inner life is enough for me to begin to have a sense for what the holy Father or Mother is saying.  My ability to understand a little comes from my having experienced a little, not from a rational understanding of terms or images.

This long introduction was necessary before I try to answer your questions.  What I say about the passions will be largely influenced by the ancient and modern saints and elders I have read and the Spiritual fathers and mothers who have influenced me along the way.  And because for the past few years I have been reading and rereading St. Isaac the Syrian’s homilies, St. Isaac will be the dominant influence.  Even though St. Isaac is a near contemporary of St. Maximus the Confessor and bits of St. Isaac are included in the Philokalia, St. Isaac uses quite different images than do St. Maximus and most of the other writers of the Philokalia when it comes to talking about the passions—and other aspect of the inner life for that matter.  Part of the reason for this may be that most of the writers of the Philokalia wrote in Greek, while St. Isaac wrote in Syriac.  But who knows why.  The Orthodox Tradition is replete with different schools of thought on all sorts of matters.

Let’s begin.  St. Isaac says, “When we wish to give a collective name to the passions, we call them world.  And when we wish to designate them specifically according to their names, we call them passions.  The passions are portions of the course of the world’s onward flow;  and where the passions cease, there the world’s onward flow stands still.”  I like to think, based on this definition, that passions are what makes the secular world go around, what keeps commerce going, what motivates most people in the world most of the time.  ’The world,’ he equates a couple of sentences later with living “according to the flesh.”

For St. Isaac, the soul in it’s natural state is passionless.  Then St. Isaac quotes St. Basil the Great, “‘When the soul is found in accord with her nature, her life is on high; when she is found outside her nature, she is below upon the earth.  When she is on high, she is free from the passions; but as soon as her nature descends from its own state, the passions are found in her.’”  St. Isaac then identifies as naturally belonging to the soul both desire and anger.  You see, for St. Isaac, the word ‘passion’ is a sometimes neutral word.  That is, sometimes the word ‘passions” refer to good, God given urges, thoughts or feelings; they are naturally part of our human nature:  “passions of the body have been implanted in it for its benefit and growth, and the same is true with respect to the passions of the soul.”  However, most of the time the word ‘passions’ is used in contrast to virtue, meaning ‘sick’ passions: “If, therefore, virtue is the natural health of the soul, then the passions are an illness of the soul which befalls and invades her nature and despoils her proper health.”  So you do have to be careful when quoting St. Isaac that you are sure from the context what kind of passion he is talking about.

So, what goes wrong with natural passions, according to St. Isaac, is when either body or soul (or both) are deprived of what is natural to them and the soul begins to follow the body and/or the body is deprived by the soul of what is natural to it (an appropriate amount of sleep, food, exercise, etc. [at least this is what I think St. Isaac means]).  Then the soul or body becomes ill and begins to desire what is not natural to it.  So inappropriately directed, or fed, natural passions cause the soul to become sick which produces unnatural passions which also make the soul sick, or more sick: “the [sick] passions are an illness of the soul which befalls and invades her nature and despoils her proper health.”  It’s a vicious cycle: a sick soul produces passions which in turn make the soul sick.

St. Isaac makes quite a bit of use of the image of eating when he talks about what’s wrong with passions and how they can be healed.  When answering the question, “What are the passions?”  St. Isaac answers, “They are provocations that are planted in the things of this world and move the body to satisfy necessary functions; these cease not to assault us so long as the world stands.  But these assaults do not enter the heart of a man who has been deemed worthy of divine Grace.”  The heart of this person deemed worthy of divine Grace is dead to the ongoing assaults of passions because in his heart this person “lives in something else.”  This person remains in “watchfulness of discernment and works” but is not troubled by anything (even the continual nagging of passionate thoughts) “for his conscience is satiated with the delight of something else”:

“A heart that has received an awareness of spiritual things, and the divine vision of the age to come…is in its conscience with respect to…the passions like a man who, being satiated with sumptuous food, pays no attention to a dish of lesser quality that is set before him; he has no desire for it, but rather despises and recoils from it.”

St. Isaac then goes on to compare the prodigal son to every human soul.  When we leave (in our attention or contemplation) the riches of our Father’s house, although we may not immediately sense a fall, we begin to hunger: “For if [the soul] is deprived of that divine sweetness because [the person] disregards his duty and sleeps the slumber of carelessness [i.e. lack of attention to/on divine things] then he will turn again to abominable fare [i.e. the attention of our soul shifts to bodily things], befouled with all impurity and uncleanness, and his conscience will not hesitate for a moment, since his soul’s belly is empty.  In very truth, even bitter things are sweet to the hungry soul.”

But when we guard in our heart (through attention) the spiritual treasure entrusted to us (our spiritual inheritance, you might say), then our soul “feeds” on that sweet fare.  Then, whatever passionate thought or urges—like dainty snacks—assail our mind or body, we ignore them, we despise them as rotten food, because we are quite full already with the sweetness of our remembrance, attention, or contemplation of/on spiritual things.

I find St. Isaac’s metaphor of food and hunger very helpful as I struggle to understand and direct my own soul.  When I find myself tempted by passionate thoughts and feelings, I know that it is so only because my soul is hungry and my attention has wondered from the sumptuous banquet God has provided for me in my heart.  The answer to the problem of passions—or at least one way to think about it—is to return my mind to my heart.  There, in my heart, can be found all of the riches of heaven and more, much more, than enough to satiate my hungry soul.


  1. Wow, love it… these explanations make a lot of sense. Feed my sheep. Thank your Reverend and Happy Easter. Indeed he is risen and lives in his and her saints. I say his and hers, because it is HIS state as I understand it. Not sure about Orthodoxy, but it has GREAT INSIGHTS. Food is a good way to illustrate a concept after the experience, I agree. Once you’ve matured to chew on a steak your teeth almost need food to chew, or the teeth and gums become weak. Sometimes the trouble is finding good Steak. (spiritual food) and you can become heart-sick. Again many thanks, you bring it every time when my teeth and taste buds are longing (passion) for a good steak/food. That kind leaves no shadows. (earth/death from all kind of illness/sickness) Many blessings to you. A little humor, I am busy having supper. :-). God is good.

  2. Thank you Father for this…really helpful! This may be a bit off topic, but it has been rattling in my thoughts of late the idea that I hear constantly in the world to ‘follow your heart.’ That seems to me to be not the way to go. At least, not while my heart is only beginning to see the beginnings of healing. Is there anything to be said about ‘following your heart’ as I hear it in the world with regard to the passions?

  3. Father Michael,

    Thank you for such an honest and thorough response to my questions regarding the passions, their nature and definition (various in its forms!). There are several comments I could make, but perhaps someone else has a question for you today on another topic.

    A blessed Lent!
    In Christ,
    Luke Wagner

  4. I’ve noticed a lot of converts try to turn Church teaching into an intellectual, academic study. For three years I’ve trained “nailing down”, as you say, definitions and dogma. The more I read and try to understand, the more confused it makes me-the more I realize I know less than I thought. I’m not sure how to go about growing in my faith.

    1. Dear Genevieve, In the Western tradition, growth is often understood in terms of intellectual understanding. In Orthodoxy, growth is understood much more in terms of transformation—becoming like Christ. So growth in Christ comes as we live a lifestyle of repentance and humility and prayer, not as we intellectually understand. The fruit of this transformation is the fruit of the Spirit, or what are classically called the virtues. Spiritual disciplines are all about helping us “know” Christ, not intellectually, but in encounter.
      Fr. Michael

  5. Father Bless!

    I am especially moved by the idea I think you are expressing by means of the “heart living in something (or somewhere) else” as coming from a constant “watchfulness of discernment” (St. Isaac) as a work of slowed gratification, if you will. What I mean to grasp here is that reactive state that I find myself so often giving my self over to (Fr. Stephen Freeman talks about this) which often doesn’t know how to chew the cud of a “Christ encounter” and is programmed rather to suddenly burst in ecstatic reaction that perhaps gushes out, but leaves the soul suddenly empty, forgetful, and hungry for another emotional high. Being an adrenaline junky might be part of the struggle. But it is that learning to let “the flow” ebb through contemplation, an increased practice of silence, and trying not to have an opinion about everything which perhaps slows the reactive state. Maybe more obedience helps here? Of learning to feed on the sweetness imparted bit by bit through remembering internally–which is especially hard in a world which is pulling us to the next “newness” before we have time to get over the nano second of the present like.
    I am also loving the transposed word at the end of your article in “…my attention has wondered (wandered?) from the sumptuous banquet…” as an important clue to being content on what “God has provided for me in my heart.”
    The wandering soul is a wondering body–always in unsatisfied searching, while the
    soul in wonder (of God) slows the wandering body (in questioning)? A very nice interplay here, Fr. Michael, whether intended or not, I hope you do not correct it!
    Thank you Father Michael!

    1. Dear Andrew, Thank you for your thoughtful reply. It is taking me years to let go of the ecstatic reaction, or the expectation of such a reaction or the assumption that such an ecstatic reaction vouchsafes the real and true. Chewing the cud is a wonderful metaphor. I have gained so much from Fr. Stephen Freeman’s blog—although it is often over my head. As for as wonder and wander goes, it was just a spelling mistake. But as God uses even our brokenness (somehow), I’ll just let it stand.
      Fr. Michael

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