Saturday, October 13, 2012

Indulging Unnatural Passions

Unnatural passions are destructive of holy thoughts, spiritual knowledge, and pure prayer. What does that assertion bring to mind? Or, for that matter, when Paul warns, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions” (Romans 6:12) what comes to mind? I suspect that in both cases the first thought for most of us has to do in one way or another with sex.

But, the New Testament and the early church have a more expansive idea of what constitutes sinful passion. In the early church, ‘passions’ was a technical term that refers to the spiritual agitations that well up from within us that lead us from the love, joy, and peace of God and from sharing that love, joy, and peace with one another. And many in the early church believed that things we have come to take for granted were in fact unnatural passions. For example:

The love and accumulation of possessions is unnatural:
Our third struggle is against the demon of avarice, a demon clearly foreign to our nature, who only gains entry into a monk because he is lacking in faith. The other passions, such as anger and desire, seem to be occasioned by the body and in some sense implanted in us at birth. Hence they are conquered only after a long time. The sickness of avarice, on the contrary, can with diligence and attention be cut off more readily, because it enters from outside. If neglected, however, it becomes even harder to get rid of and more destructive than the other passions, for according to the Apostle it is 'the root of all evil' (1Tim. 6:10).
– John Cassion, On the Eight Vices

Anger towards others is unnatural
Anger is by nature designed for waging war with the demons and for struggling with every kind of sinful pleasure. . . But the demons, enticing toward worldly lusts, make us use anger to fight against men, which is against nature, so that the mind, thus stupefied and darkened, should become a traitor to virtues.
– Evagrios, Directions on Spiritual Training 1. To Anatolius: Tests on Active Life (From the Russian Rendition)

The first virtue is detachment, that is, death in relation to every person or thing. This produces the desire for God, and this in turn gives rise to the anger that is in accordance with nature, and that flares up against all the tricks of the enemy [Satan]. Then the fear of God will establish itself within us, and through this fear love will be made manifest.
– St Isaiah the Solitary, On Guarding the Intellect

Gluttony is unnatural
Food was created for nourishment and healing. Those who eat food for purposes other than these two are therefore to be condemned as self-indulgent, because they misuse the gifts God has given us for our use. In all things misuse is a sin.
– Maximos the Confessor, Four Hundred Texts on Love, Third Century

All this is contrary to nature, for the Creator has ordained the same natural way of life for both us and the animals.  . . . The animals remain within the boundaries of nature, not altering in any way what God has ordained; but we, who have been honored with the power of intelligence, have completely abandoned His original ordinance. Do animals demand a luxury diet?
– St Neilos, Ascetic Discourse

Of course, lust ,or unchastity, is also unnatural

Let us look at it in this fashion. Movement occurs in the sexual organs not only of young children who cannot yet distinguish between good and evil, but also of the smallest infants still at their mother's breast. The latter, although quite ignorant of sensual pleasure, nevertheless manifest such natural movements in the flesh. Similarly, the incensive power [the energy created in us to resist evil] exists in infants, as we can see when they are roused against anyone hurting them. I say this not to accuse nature of being the cause of sin - heaven forbid!- but to show that the incensive power and desire, even if implanted in man by the Creator for a good purpose, appear to change through neglect from being natural in the body into something that is unnatural. Movement in the sexual organs was given to us by the Creator for procreation and the continuation of the species, not for unchastity; while incensive power was planted in us for our salvation, so that we could manifest it against wickedness, but not so that we could act like wild beasts towards our fellow men. Even if we make bad use of these passions, nature itself is not therefore sinful, nor should we blame the Creator. A man who gives someone a knife for some necessary and useful purpose is not to blame if that person uses it to commit murder.
– John Cassion, On the Eight Vices

These ‘passions’ are unnatural for several reasons. They are a deviation from the peace for which we are created. They reflect a lack of faith and trust in God’s provision and an ingratitude for what has been provided. They create sort of spiritual static that interferes with our communion with God and one another.

And they are each a surrendering to self-indulgence and a lack of self-control. Indulging in excess beyond what is necessary is unnatural and appears to be a fundamental obstacle to holiness. Thus both the New Testament and the early church insist that self-control is the foundation of holy living, i.e., communion with God.

No virtue makes flesh-bound man so like a spiritual angel as does self-restraint, for it enables those still living on earth to become, as the Apostle says, 'citizens of heaven’ (cf. Phil. 3:20).
– John Cassion, On the Eight Vices

But, being self-indulgent, they do not realize how their soft living constantly breeds new and extravagant desires.
– St Neilos, Ascetic Discourse

He who always concentrates on the inner life becomes restrained, long-suffering, kind and humble. He will also be able to contemplate, theologize and pray. That is what St Paul meant when he said: ‘Walk in the Spirit’(Gal. 5:16).
One ignorant of the spiritual path is not on his guard against impassioned conceptual images, but devotes himself entirely to the flesh. He is either a glutton, or licentious, or full of resentment, anger and rancor. As a result he darkens his intellect, or he practices excessive asceticism and so confuses his mind.
– Maximos the Confessor, Four Hundred Texts on Love, Fourth Century

We live in an affluent, indulgent society. Christians in this society are not much less self-indulgent than our secular neighbors. We show little sign of being less gluttonous, less consumed with the accumulation of money and stuff, or less given to expressions of anger toward others (and one another). We are, in short, out of control and living unnaturally.

I am convinced that this is the root of our spiritual torpor. If we want to experience and live more of the love, joy and peace for which we were created and that God desires for us, we will want to commit ourselves to the cultivation of those classic virtues and disciplines like simplicity and generosity, patience and gentleness, moderation and fasting – as well as chastity. All of these are rooted in a kind of mastery of self that is quite counter-cultural. But, they only seem unnatural because we have indulged for too long in forgetfulness of who we are meant to be and indulged in what is unnatural.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Is sex before marriage wrong? Sorry to ask this here, but it is something I have been struggling for a while as to whether it is truly something God wants from us? Thanks, India