I would like to continue with you this evening on the series that I began last Friday on the three basic elements of what it means to be a real human being. For those of you who missed it last Friday, I began by talking about what I called Passion, which is a fundamental element of the human person. And Passion refers to specifically those things, those circumstances, whether they are historical to do with the time, whether they are to do with the environment, ie the space in which we live, whether they are to do with genetics, or with our upbringing in our community in which we find ourselves, those forces that compel us to behave in certain ways. And I said that it was essential, if we are going to be true human beings, that we have to confront passion, and we have to some extent accept the fact of passion if we are going to finally transcend and ultimately be freed from passion.
So, tonight I’d like to continue with that series and talk a little bit about a second element of the human person because passion, of course, itself is not enough. Passion is an element that, in fact, we share with all of created living creatures.
On my daily walk every day I pass by this property, and there are two dogs who, no matter how many times I pass by there, they always seem to feel the need to rush up to the fence barking madly, and I don’t even look at them, I keep on walking, and they bark and they bark until I’m outside of their territory. And no matter how many times I pass by, no matter how many times that they see me, it’s not as if they say to themselves, Oh yeah, I know, I’ve seen that guy before, I know him, he doesn’t want to come in so I’m not going to bark at him. No, no. As you know, and it’s true about all dogs in general, that they have to bark. They’re compelled to bark. In fact, it’s part of their nature to bark.
So, in this respect animals, all living creatures, are passionate beings. They are driven by forces that they themselves don’t understand. They don’t sit and reflect upon what it means to be a dog or what it means to be a bird. They don’t sit and talk about bird-ness and dog-ness and all of those sorts of things. They have no particular understanding of what it is that they’re doing. They’re simply driven by these forces that are beyond their control.
Now, we too are driven by these forces, and we are often tempted to allow ourselves to succumb and be subject to these forces. But we possess a different element, a second element that really distinguishes us from other living creatures that are purely passionate beings. And that element I would simply call Dis-passion.
Ok, I talked last week about passion and this week talk about dis-passion. And dis-passion is my translation of the Greek word apatheia which can also be translated apathy. Of course, these are horrible translations because they don’t convey anything like the real meaning of that particular word. They suggest that you have no emotion, that you’re cold and that you’re indifferent, and that’s not what apatheia means. apatheia simply means that each and every one of us has a God-given gift, the God-given potential to transcend, to rise above those things that would subject us, and ultimately to become free from them.
A good way to think of apatheia is to imagine that your life is kind of like a river, ok. And most of the time we’re caught up in the river, it tosses us, it turns us, it carries us downstream, and those are the passions, the river of passion as it were, that we’re just carried along in the river tossed this way and that way by our emotions all over the place, going this way and that way. Well, apatheia, dis-passion, is the potential for us to not stay in the river. To swim to the side of the river, to get out of the river, and to stand on the bank and take a step backward and to take a look at the river, and to simply regard and contemplate it, and notice the fact of our passion and be able to transcend that passion. That’s what apatheia really is. It’s the ability to step back from the river of passion, step back from those things that would compel us and drive us and toss us around, and be able to simply stand back and observe them and contemplate them. And that, in fact, is the goal, ultimately, of the ascetic life — to achieve apatheia. To not be swayed and tossed about by the passions but to be able to step back and contemplate them.
In fact the world, though, would have us stay in the midst of the river. If you look around at the world, what they want us to do is simply be caught up and tossed about. Look at any advertising you want. It depends upon its ability to sway our emotions and to get us to act on our emotions by reaching into our pockets, pulling out our wallets and handing over our credit card or our debit card. That is, in fact, what the advertisers are looking for. They want us to be compelled, they want us to be subject to those emotions.
Politicians, same thing. They want us to have those knee-jerk emotional reactions when it comes to election times so that we can make votes that are, perhaps, not based on reason, not based on calm thought, but based upon emotional reactions to powerful words of rhetoric that they have spoken. In other words, our entire society wants us to remain subject. It wants us to remain subject to passion and, in other words, it wants us to remain sub-human.
And so, our challenge in Lent is to make a profoundly counter-cultural move. And by counter-cultural I don’t mean some of the more obvious external formalities such as changing our diet or the amount of church time that we spend. By counter-cultural I mean that we can respond and we have the potential to be able to say, No, and to refuse to be caught-up in the river of passion. We have the ability to take time when we are tempted to be caught-up in our emotions, caught-up and driven by whatever circumstances surround us, whether those are genetic, whether they are related to our upbringing and the habits of our childhood, whether they have to do with our culture and our societal biases. Whatever the case may be we have the potential, we have the gift, by God’s grace, and it is a gift, and we’ll talk about that next time, but we have the gift to be able to say, No, I choose to step back from this moment, I choose to step back and allow myself to observe how I’m feeling, observe the kinds of things that are driving me, observe the things that would compel and subject me.
And that’s when we take a crucial step because then, and only then, do we participate in what we refer to as the Passionless Passion, the Passionless Passion of our Lord. Because, although we are subjected to things in the world, we are subjected to things that will compel us, we are also passionless. We can stand back, we can contemplate them, we can be transcendent over them, we can be free from them finally. And then, and only then, can we take the second step towards being really and truly human.
The third step next time.