The Passions: How we get into this mess and how we get out
Kevin Allen · October 20, 2007
Mother Melania, stavrophor (little schema) nun at St. Barbara Monastery, Santa Paula, California and author of the series, "The Twelve Great Feasts for Children", and the series, "The 3-Day Pascha" (for Great and Holy Friday, Great and Holy Saturday, and Pascha) discusses purity (and impurity) of heart and overcoming the passions.
Kevin Allen: Welcome to this edition of The Illumined Heart radio program. I’m Kevin Allen, and today we’re going to be talking about the passions. How did we get into this mess? And with us to discuss this is Mother Melania.
Mother Melania is a member of St. Barbara Monastery OCA in Santa Paula, California and she has lectured on this very subject. She is also the author of a beautiful series of books for children called The Twelve Great Feasts and The Three-Day Pascha series, both published by Conciliar Press.
Mother Melania, welcome to The Illumined Heart program.
Mother Melania Thank you.
Kevin: It’s good to have you, thank you for coming.
By the way, for those of you who don’t know St. Barbara Monastery, it’s a beautiful monastery—in both physical and spiritual terms—near Ojai, which is between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, California. And St. Barbara’s Abbess is Mother Victoria, and many of our young women have benefitted from her counsel and her friendship over the years.
Well, Mother, you know, the subject of the passions, it’s a big subject. But let’s talk about it, and please, shed some light on the question. First, I want to begin by asking this: the Lord says the pure in heart shall see God, so am I to understand, are we to understand, that without being ‘pure’ you really can’t experience God in his fullness?
Mother Melania Sure. You can experience him a little bit, because he is gracious, and if we had to wait until we were pure before we had any experience of God we would be in bad trouble! But, you know, if you think of it that as baptized believers we have the Holy Spirit in our hearts, what sin does is to dirty the windows of our hearts. And as we sin more the windows get dirtier and dirtier and so the light inside us, which is the light with which we see, becomes dimmer and dimmer—in a sense, the way we’re experiencing it—and because I can’t see well because of the dirtiness of the windows of my soul, then I can’t see the world the way God meant it to be. So I can neither see him nor the world very well as long as I am in my passions.
Kevin: So, how does one understand the word ‘passions’ as the Church Fathers and as the patristic writers speak of them?
Mother Melania There’s quite a few varieties of this. There are the seven deadly passions, which many people from a Catholic background have heard, and those are commonly attributed to Gregory the Great. And then there’s a tradition that comes through John Cassian—at least he’s one person it comes through and it goes back to Evagrius—known as the eight ruling passions. And these are things, those particular ones, for English translations they would be gluttony, lust, greed, anger, dejection, despondency, vain-glory and pride.
And, you know, if you think of sin—as in the original sin or the ancestral sin—as the primary disease of mankind, then the passions are the secondary diseases. You know how in AIDS, if you get AIDS it’s not actually AIDS you die of, but you get these opportunistic diseases that you wouldn’t have had if you didn’t have AIDS. And in the same way because we are born broken into this world because of the ancestral sin, the sin of Adam and Eve, we are born, not guilty and not forced to sin, but we are born susceptible…
Mother Melania …prone to sin. And so certain of us would have certain passions that we’re more likely to have trouble with. Just the same way as two people may have AIDS and one person may die of a particular opportunistic disease and the other may die of another, but neither would have died of either one had it not been for the original primary disease.
Kevin: Are passions and sins, then, interchangeable?
Mother Melania Not exactly. The passions are the inclinations. The sins are the acts or the thoughts that you have dwelt on so much as to become sinful.
Mother Melania Yes. So if I spend all my time thinking, “Oh, I hate this person, I hate this person, I hate this person,” [then] even if I’ve never done anything about it that’s still a sin.
Kevin: Okay. Got you. Well, the subject is “how did we get into this mess”, so how did we get into this mess?
Mother Melania This again is something where there are a variety of versions of roughly the same thing and what I’m going to give here is just one of the more common. There is this progression of a passion&mdashand this would be any passion, you know, whether it’s anger or gluttony or pride or whatever it is—and it would start with a thought. And this isn’t just any thought, this is what some of you are familiar with as the logismoi—and forgive my very bad Greek pronunciation!—but these are tempting thoughts. And some of them are obvious, like, “Hit that person!” and others are much less obvious, like, “Why don’t you tell that person this very useful, very spiritual thing?” but maybe my real reason for it was so that they would think: wow! how spiritual I am!
Mother Melania Pride. Yeah, pride and vain-glory. Right. And so the first thought, we don’t have any problem knowing we shouldn’t be going there. The second thought? That’s a lot more subtle…
Kevin: So the subtler one is the trickier one because we were raised in a society and so on and so forth to know we don’t hit each other…
Mother Melania Right.
Kevin: …but it’s the more elevated, if you will, or more sophisticated of the passions perhaps that are the trickier ones.
Mother Melania Yeah. Often enough. Right. So then the next step would be what’s called ‘coupling’ or ‘toying’…
Kevin: Well, before you get to the ‘coupling’ and ‘toying’, where do these thoughts come from in the first place? Are they all self-motivated? Or are they coming from the demons or…? Tell us about where we get them in the first place.
Mother Melania I believe that they come from the demons originally. Now, I can take the thought and make it my own. But we’ve probably all had experiences of really horrible blasphemous thoughts that have come into our mind and sickened us, and we’ve thought, “Where in the world did that come from?”
Mother Melania And that is most likely not your thought.
Kevin: The tempter is tempting us.
Mother Melania Right. That’s right. Now, you can take that thought and make it your own. But just the thought that’s flashing through your mind, that’s not…
Kevin: So, stage one, if you will, is the thought. Whether you’re habitually thinking of that or whether it’s temptation from the outside. And then you mentioned the ‘coupling’, so please…
Mother Melania Right. And if I wasn’t clear on this: the thought itself is not sinful.
Mother Melania Right. And then there’s toying with the thought. And that, for somebody who is close to being a saint, he’s already in trouble because he knows better. But for those of us who have never heard about this, this is often really not sinful or at least not very serious, because we just don’t know yet, and even more so when it’s one of the more subtle types of thought. So, for instance, if the thought is, “Hit that man,” then coupling with it would be, you know, “Should I hit that man?” Or if the thought is, “Eat that 5lb box of chocolates,” then the toying or the coupling is, “Well, should I?”
Kevin: Dwelling on it. Continuing it. Participating in it.
Mother Melania Right. Then the next step would be assent. The idea then of: “Yes. I do want to do that. I really ought to slug that man,” and, “Yes. I really do want to eat that 5lb box of chocolates,” and that obviously is not the best place to be. And sometimes we’re at that point and we never go any further and we think we’re virtuous but what may be the case is we simply really don’t have the ability to act. For instance, you know, “I would love to have that 5lb box of chocolates, but I am too poor to buy it and too slow to steal it, so I’m never going do it.”
Kevin: But you’re still dwelling on it.
Mother Melania Right.
Kevin: And it’s distracting you and it’s an impure though, or whatever.
Mother Melania Right. So I’m still really having serious trouble, even though nobody else may know it except for God and me.
Kevin: Right. What comes after the assent phase then? When you’ve joined in, if you will, with the thought and made it your own, then where can it go from there in the progression of our passions?
Mother Melania Well, then you act upon it.
Kevin: Got you.
Mother Melania So, I have now gone from thinking that I really would love to hit this man to actually hitting him. And I really would love to have that 5lb box of chocolates and then, next thing I know, I’ve eaten the 5lb box of chocolates.
Kevin: And you’re a participating part of that passion or that sin.
Mother Melania Right. Yes. So I have gone from thinking about it, to toying with it, to thinking that I would like to and to actually doing it.
Kevin: Now, before we move into how we stop the progression, or what some of the general remedies or therapies are… this may seem like a strange question, but some of our listeners, maybe some of the non-Orthodox listeners that are listening, might say, “Now, Mother, come on, I mean, really, how pure do you expect our minds really to be here? I mean, for heavens sakes, we’re not perfect, you know, we’re not this, we’re not that…” So, I guess my point is, how serious is the non-monastic supposed to be about keeping his inner soul—the window, as you point out—clean?
Mother Melania He’s supposed to be every bit as serious about it as a monastic. How he does it is going to be somewhat different, because he’s in a different situation. But the fact is, for us to have any impurity in us is to make us less than what God made us to be; less than what it means to be human.
Now, on the other hand, we sometimes fall into despair, We look at, you know: here I am and I’ve got thousands of miles to go and so I’m not even willing to take the first step of the journey
Kevin: Or: I’m so sinful, there’s no possible way I could ever clean my act up, even with God’s grace. Right?
Mother Melania Right. Yeah. And so the question isn’t a matter of here I am and I’m out in the world and this is just impossible for me. The question is here I am and I’m out in the world and this is the state I’m in and so what is the first step I need to take from here?
Kevin: Well, you set yourself up for that! So, what is the first step that we are to take from there? Either I’m having the thought or I’m in the passion; what do you do to stop that if you are of a mind to?
Mother Melania If I have committed an action once it’s a whole lot easier to do it a second time and finally you have this well-trodden path, that you get anywhere near it and then you just automatically go the rest of the way. So if I have spent my life giving into anger, if somebody frowns because they’re having trouble balancing their chequebook, I’m ready to kick them because I’m sure it’s because they hate me. Or if somebody, you know, makes fudge in Europe, I’m smelling it in California and I’m done in. And so the problem with us, as I think we were talking about, is we’re all deeply in the passions, most of us, because we never heard of this when we were younger and our culture has led us to glorify many of our passions.
Kevin: And to create new passions.
Mother Melania Yes, that’s true. And so we’re in this situation where we’re already very deeply in our passions. But, thank God, you know, the Fathers are not surprised by this, God is not surprised by this and there’s much that they have to say.
So, for stopping this progression, first I would like to talk about when these thoughts are actually occurring: when somebody has said something that I respond to in anger or when the 5lb box of chocolates comes out and now I have to decide what I’m going to do about it. So the Fathers counsel us to ignore the thought. And frankly for most of us, when we’re first hearing this, that doesn’t seem very practical.
Kevin: Yeah, that’s hard. I can relate; it would be hard to do.
Mother Melania Yes. It is. But we’re never going to be able to do it if we don’t start trying. So we try to ignore the thought. And frankly, most of the time, the first few times that we try this we can expect to fail. And, you know, an important thing to say here is: don’t despair! Because we know in our own physical run-of-the-mill lives that there are lots of things that take time: if I break my leg and I’ve been off of it for months, the first time I try to walk if I fall I don’t turn to the physical therapist and say, “Hey, this didn’t work. Can you find some other way for me to walk?” No. I just keep trying. And it’s the same thing with the passions. We have broken our spiritual legs and we can only be healed by the grace of God and yet we do have to participate in that. So, we attempt to ignore the thought and probably at first it’s not going to work, but we keep trying.
The second thing would be we pray. And you could spend hours talking about prayer and not even have really started, but the Jesus Prayer is a very important prayer here.
Kevin: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Or: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, as it’s sometimes shortened.
Mother Melania Right. Yes. And, depending, sometimes the short is good: Lord, have mercy.
Kevin: Or: Lord!
Mother Melania Lord! Yeah. Or: Jesus Lord, you know…
Mother Melania …because of the power of the name of Christ.
Kevin: So ignore and/or start to put your armour on with prayer.
Mother Melania Right. Yeah. And it’s probably not an and/or, it’s… try all these. The prayer is very important.
And then distract yourself. This is not a cure, but it’s a very important band-aid, because sometimes you have to put the band-aid on so that you can keep from bleeding out. And maybe I’m very angry and I’m too angry to ignore it and I’m so angry that every time I pray I just find myself more and more angry. So just find something that takes all your thoughts.
Kevin: So a distraction would be, let’s say, I’m sure there are men listeners, so a lust… I’ve actually heard the counsel: pinch yourself, or something, as early as you can so that you’re reminding yourself that that’s happening and you kind of have the mini pain to distract and break the thought and then you start your prayers. Is that a kind of distraction?
Mother Melania That would be. I’m thinking, you know, conjugate Greek verbs or whatever…
Kevin: Think of your grand-daughter, say, when you’re thinking of anger, if that makes you feel joyful or whatever…
Mother Melania Okay. Sure. But it’s just something to get your mind somewhere other than where it is.
Mother Melania And, again, it’s a band-aid and don’t ever think it’s going to cure it. But it’s an important band-aid. Another is to counter the tempting thought with a godly thought, and usually that would be something from Scripture, something from the Fathers. You know, every time I do this I never have the Bible in front of me to get the quote exactly, but the quote, you know, if you have trouble with gluttony: the Kingdom of God is not meat nor drink but righteousness, peace and joy.
Kevin: Blessed are the meek, say, or…
Mother Melania Yeah, for pride or… So whatever it is, you have that countering thought.
What we’re told not to do is argue with the thought. And now, that’s different from countering it. Countering it is [where] it’s telling you one thing and you’re just saying, “This is what God says.” But then arguing with the thought is, you know, trying to get into a nice intellectual proof. And for one thing we can be leading ourselves into pride and vain-glory, but the other thing is, we’re dealing with the demons who have thousands of years of tempting saints and they’re not going to have any trouble with us. And so if we are attempting to prove why we’re right we’re looking for trouble.
Kevin: So really throwing yourself, if you will, on the mercy of God in humility is a strategy, but a good strategy.
Mother Melania It’s a way of life!
Kevin: Because it’s really more than a strategy, it’s the way of life.
Mother Melania Yeah.
Kevin: Yeah. Do the saints ever become passionless?
Mother Melania They do, but they don’t consider themselves finished until the last minute. While you’re here on this Earth there is still that possibility.
Kevin: I mean, the demons can always continue to tempt the saints, correct?
Mother Melania Sure they do.
Kevin: So at least there could be the initial tempting thought that a blessed St. Seraphim or someone like that might have been tempted by, no?
Mother Melania Sure. And you hear stories of saints who say to people who are struggling with thoughts: “If you had to deal with the thoughts that come through my mind all the time you would be crushed.” I forget who it is, some quite contemporary Greek saint, I think it was an Athonite monk, talked about that thoughts are like airplanes flying around.
Kevin: Elder Paisios?
Mother Melania Is it Elder Paisios? Okay, yeah. And so as long as they don’t have a landing place they’re not going to harm you.
Kevin: Right, yeah, he said treat your thoughts—and another, I think Elder Joseph the Hesychast said—treat your thoughts as if they’re birds flying around in the air. You hear them but they’re far away from you.
Mother Melania Okay, yeah.
Kevin: Same, I think, sort of the same sort of an idea
Mother Melania This first set of things that I was talking about for stopping the progression of the passions occurs when you’re actually dealing with the thoughts. But even if we’re deeply in our passions God in his mercy gives us times of respite, you know, where I don’t feel like hurting anybody and where I can say no to the box of chocolates or whatever my particular passion is. And so in that case what we’re doing is a little bit different.
The first is a vital prayer life, this isn’t just a prayer you’re saying right now, but it’s my whole life of prayer. In The Screwtape Letters at the end where the young man dies and his soul is saved, but of course from the viewpoint of Wormwood his soul is lost to him and Screwtape is chastising him and he says to him something on the lines of if he’s dealing with temptations it would be like an addled harlot put in front of a man who has seen his long lost true love. And for us our passions are like that, they’re like the addled harlot. And our passions are wrong-headed desires instead of desire where it ought to be, which is towards God. And as we develop our prayer life, as we develop our love of God, we start seeing these passions for what they are. And to do this, to try to fight the passions and not increase our love for God, is really fighting a losing battle.
Kevin: And what’s the last stop on the progression list of stopping them?
Mother Melania Okay. I sometimes call this kindergarten remedial measures and that’s because most of us are so far gone that we need some rather simple things for those of us who are still having trouble with the thoughts. It’s important to keep fighting the thoughts, because you’ll never stop the progression until you stop that at the front. But this is from Abba Poemen and he says, he was asked: “What does it mean ‘see that none of you repays evil for evil’?” And he says passions work in four stages: first in the heart, secondly in the face, thirdly in words and fourthly, it’s essential not to render evil for evil in deeds. When you can purify your heart passion will not come into your expression. But if it comes into your face take care not to speak. But if you do speak cut the conversation short in case you render evil for evil.
So there’s always a point where I can stop and if I’m deeply in the passion, okay, I did it, but I don’t have to do it the next time. And I can also use my being deeply in my passions to come into humility and love as I see this is where I’m at, this is how deeply I am in all these passions and yet God loves me. And that humility can help me to love him and it can help me start loving the people I have trouble with as I see, well, how can they be much worse than I am and yet they put up with me and God loves me and then we can grow and slowly become more and more Christ-like, so that the light of God that is in our souls becomes brighter and brighter.
Kevin: Well, Mother Melania from St. Barbara Orthodox Monastery in Santa Paula, California, thank you very, very much for being with us today and shedding light on this subject of the passions. How we got into them and, with God’s grace and God’s mercy, how we can both stop the progression and hopefully live blamelessly in his sight. Thank you.
Mother Melania: Thank you.