My good friend Ben wonders about dispassion. By dispassion we do not refer to sloth (acedia; lack of caring about the world due to laziness) which is one of Aquinas’ seven deadly sins (rightfully so), but we speak of apatheia. However, before we talk about dispassion, we must first talk about an Orthodox understanding of passion itself.
While there is some disagreement within the Fathers (John Climacus especially), the majority of Orthodox theologians hold that the passions were actually created by God. For instance, God created:
- Love so that we may love Him and others
- Hatred so that we would hate evil
- Hunger so that we would hunger after the Bread of Life
Yet, the very nature of Satan’s temptation in the garden was to take these passions and corrupt them:
- True love becomes love of myself
- True hatred becomes hatred of God and others
- True hunger becomes a quest to fulfil my own desires
This is not just a problem of a singular fall event but, as Orthodox believe, the events in the garden were the catalyst for a continual denigration of humanity. St. Athanasius echoes this well in “On The Incarnation” and further ties it to the passions:
When this happened, men began to die, and corruption ran riot among them and held sway over them to an even more than natural degree… Indeed, they had in their sinning surpassed all limits; for, having invented wickedness in the beginning and so involved themselves in death and corruption, they had gone on gradually from bad to worse, not stopping at any one kind of evil, but continually, as with insatiable appetite, devising new kinds of sins.
Thus, the problem of our passions is not that they are evil but that we use them for evil, even “devising new kinds of sins.” Further, the passions have become so noisy that they drown out our ability to hear God. St. Irenaeus says that, because of our passions, we could behold nothing apart from our own flesh, necessitating the incarnation: that we might behold God in our own flesh. Christ then, through the Holy Mysteries, invites us to partake of His flesh (Eucharist) and of His death (Baptism), that our own flesh might be renewed.
We have now come to the heart of the matter: in Christ, dispassion is the “renewing of our minds” so that the passions would be silent before God and in beholding God (in His divine energies) we would once again become the image in which we were created: Christ Himself. Thus, Orthodox prayer services are hard as one often finds the mind wandering. Their purpose is not to “stir us up,” as in a football game or Icthus, but to “quiet us down.” Before communion we pray:
Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim and sing the thrice holy hymn to life-creating Trinity, now lay aside all earthly cares that we may receive the King of All who comes mystically upborne by the angelic hosts. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.
In the Greek (which is unfortunately not rendered well in English), the statement “lay aside all earthly cares” is literally “apatheia” or dispassion. The call is to quiet the passions so that we may receive the King of All. If we do not quiet the passions, we may miss Him! What a frightful thought! But this is the nature of the passions: they blind us to God. This is why Fr. Seraphim Rose warns us, in “The Religion of the Future,” his great polemic against modern religion:
The life of self-centeredness and self-satisfaction lived by most of today’s “Christians” is so all-pervading that it effectively seals them off from any understanding at all of spiritual life; and when such people do undertake “spiritual life,” it is only as another form of self-satisfaction. This can be seen quite clearly in the totally false religious ideal both of the “charismatic” movement and the various forms of “Christian meditation”: all of them promise (and give very quickly) an experience of “contentment” and “peace.” But this is not the Christian ideal at all, which if anything may be summed up as a fierce battle and struggle. The “contentment” and “peace” described in these contemporary “spiritual” movements are quite manifestly the product of spiritual deception, of spiritual self-satisfaction – which is the absolute death of the God-oriented spiritual life. All these forms of “Christian meditation” operate solely on the psychic level and have nothing whatever in common with Christian spirituality. Christian spirituality is formed in the arduous struggle to acquire the eternal Kingdom of Heaven, which fully begins only with the dissolution of this temporal world…
The difficulty that Orthodox have with something like Icthus is that when our passions run wild through our flesh, how can Christ reorient them to Himself without stillness in our heart? For truely the goal of our regeneration in Christ is to once again set our hearts aflame with love for Him: this is the healing of our passions. Yet how do we do this without fasting, prayer, stillness, service and obedience?