There is a name for the Orthodox way of life. It is hesychia. In Greek, the word means “silence.” It could also be rendered “stillness,” or “quiet.” Far more than simply refraining from speech, it is the quiet of the heart, the stillness of the mind at rest in God, dwelling in peace. It is in this place that we primarily encounter God. Now, God certainly makes himself known even in stormy circumstances, but when the soul is in a storm it does not see what is being made known to it. All it sees is storm. The Orthodox way directs us and gives us the means of stilling the storm.
The mind is a noisy place, and for some the noise is an artifact of brain dysfunction. But for everyone, the noise seems to increase with our involvement in the modern lifestyle. As consumers we are constantly prodded one way or another, towards one desire or another. And the consuming model extends into almost every area of our lives. Christiansconsume their religion, such that we could be asked: How do you like your church? How do you like your priest? How do you like your congregation? We also consume one another and the ideas that float through our world. The 24/7 news cycle shuttles hours of “talking-heads,” that is, arguing panels, on any subject that can hold our attention. And as soon as one topic fades, another is found to take its place. “How do you feel about…?” has become the word of the moment and the question asked at every event in our culture. “How do you feel about it?”
The message that is not so subtle, is that we should feel something about everything. An informed person, we are convinced, is thus an intelligent and a discerning person. An informed person will have an informed opinion, meaning feeling, about any topic at hand. We are being trained to feel.
But what journalists call “feelings,” our faith calls “passions.” The passions are not matters of sexual desire per se, as in “he was filled with passion…”, but are rather the energies of the soul and body wrongly directed and in an unruly state. Both body and soul are created with desires—desires are necessary to our well-being. But the desire to eat in no way tells us what to eat, when to eat, or how much to eat. When “what,” “when,” and “how much” tell us what we are doing, the desire has been hijacked and becomes a passion. We are enslaved. Any desire can be taken captive, and most of them are. A primary goal of spiritual struggle, of ascesis, of self-denial, is freedom from hijacked desires, that is, the passions, and a return to sanity and a properly ordered existence.
Fr. Dumitru Stăniloae wrote:
The passions represent the lowest level to which human nature can fall. . . In fact, they overcome the will, so that the man of the passions, is no longer a person of will; we say that he is a person ruled, enslaved, carried along by the passions. (Orthodox Spirituality, p. 77)
Most people readily understand the nature of the passions when we speak of gluttony or sexual promiscuity. However, the passion ofopinions seems to be unknown to them. You think: How can opinions be passions? Aren’t they just what we happen to think about any given thing?
The fact that we can use the word “feeling” for an opinion does much to explain its passionate character. The thoughts that are saving thoughts, that is, thoughts that are of benefit to the soul and its salvation, generally need no level of feeling in order to bolster their value. But our culture, driven by consumerism, majors in the means of motivation. Advertisers and politicians, the shapers of public opinion, learned long ago that reasoning based on the facts is the least reliable motivator. Getting someone to feel that they are reasoning based on the facts is much better—but getting them to feel is the key.
These feelings—thoughts, or thoughts as experienced as feelings—regardless of how noble or innocuous, are actually and simply noise in the soul. In their presence there can be no hesychia, no stillness, no quiet. Prayer is overwhelmed, and true prayer rarely reaches the surface: it is drowned in the sea of passions.
Passions are also described as habits—they are addictions of the soul and body. In service to its own economic interests, the culture has found it useful for people to be addicted to feelings. They are easily the most malleable aspect of the soul, particularly vulnerable to manipulation. The addiction to feelings is a hallmark of the modern soul. We think that we are our feelings, or that they somehow express something important, when in truth, our feelings are so distorted through addiction and manipulation that they are generally only barometers of the cultural pressures that surround us.
Ascesis, such as fasting and prayer, in the modern world necessarily includes fasting from feelings, particularly of the sort that comprise opinions. We not only do not need opinions, they are a cancer on the soul. We do not have opinions—opinions have us.
Conduct an experiment. Watch a news program or spend an hour on Facebook, and try not to react. Watch a news program on the network you do not like—and try not to react. Such news programs are to feelings what pornography is to sex. When the experiment is complete, consider the nature of the fast. If you want peace, hesychia, the decision will be obvious.
I’ll close with this little story.
A hermit advised, “If someone speaks to you about a controversy, do not argue with him. If what he says makes sense, say, ‘Yes,’
If his comments are misguided, say, ‘I don’t know anything about that.’ If you refuse to dispute with his ideas, your mind will be at peace.”
Glory to God.