Fascinating and insightful talks by Rowan Williams, drawing on the Desert Fathers such as Evagrius and Cassian, and linking the eight ‘passions of the soul’ with the eight Beatitudes.

From the description:

In his introduction Rowan describes the passions, and the goal of apatheia (from Greek, ‘without-passion’), as one of the ‘great governing themes of early Christian spirituality’. Still foundational within Orthodoxy and Western monastic culture to this day, they are perhaps better known to Latin Christianity – somewhat unhelpfully – as the seven deadly sins.

We found these talks to be enormously helpful and inspiring summaries of those diagnostic tools for the maladies of the spirit, developed in the crucible of the Egyptian desert among the first Christian monks. Here, unusually and boldly, Rowan pairs and contrasts each of the eight passions with the Beatitudes found in the Gospels.

The talks were delivered during an Easter Retreat for the Community of the Holy Cross at Costock in 2017. Worth listening in full, but here are my notes…

  1. Introduction. When we respond to the world around us in an unhelpful way, this is driven by the so-called ‘passions’. Broadly, these unhelpful responses involve being greedy or aggressive. Being ‘without the passions’ gives us the freedom to respond in love. God does not relate to his creatures in a greedy or aggressive manner, but with love. Being aggressive (associated with the chest) is about pushing the world away in fear and panic. Being greedy (associated with the belly) is about wanting to take the word inside and control it, or treating the world as a supermarket.
  2. Outlining the Passions. Temptation is a reality. When it happens, we should acknowledge it, give it to God, then move on. We shouldn’t enter into fantasies: dwelling on thoughts about what I wish I had said or done, or what I would like to happen. There are eight passions of the soul. These formed the basis of the seven deadly sins, which may be remembered by ‘PLAGUES’: pride, lust, anger, gluttony, usury (avarice), envy and sloth (acedia). The eighth ‘passion’ is despair. As ‘passions’ they are a tool for pastoral practice; as ‘sins’ they are turned into a list of wrong sorts of action. The ‘passions’ are essentially risky impulses. Sin is ‘a deliberate, conscious repudiation of what we know to be for our health and well-being’. Sin is both deeply serious and somewhat beyond our control. This is where language of demons is helpful: we are vulnerable to forces outside our world.
  3. Pride and Acedia
    • Pride is often taken to be at the root of the passions. It is a failure to accept our dependence. But we are, because God is. To be fully ourselves is to grow into an awareness of God. Pride involves seeing God as a rival. But he is our life. The opposite of pride is to be poor in spirit. ‘How blest are those who know their need of God’ (NEB).
    • Acedia is a the state of being listless, bored or apathetic. (It is pronounced uh-SEE-dee-uh in English, according to the internet, but Rowan Williams pronounces it following the Greek as uh-KAY-dee-uh.) If pride is a refusal to admit dependence, acedia is a refusal to admit vulnerability. The opposite of acedia is to be those who mourn. People who mourn are people who care. It involves a willingness to suffer, rather than escaping from the pain of life through fantasy.
  4. Anger and Gluttony
    • Anger has positive uses, but this makes it dangerous. It is properly used against our own corruption and against injustice and suffering. It enables us to have an energetic response to these things. But anger ‘blinds the soul’s eyes’ (Cassian). Even the most righteous anger needs to be watched carefully, lest it become self-righteous anger. ‘Whom does your anger serve?’ The passions of the soul do not need to be denied or repressed, but do need to be understood and managed. The healthy partner to anger is to be meek. Meekness, righty understood, involves an inner stillness. If anger pushes away, then meekness welcomes.
    • Gluttony is the search for more than is necessary. It involves losing touch with the basic truth of our dependence on God as created beings. The passions of the soul are not just about us as individuals, but about our relationships. The opposite of gluttony is being hungry and thirsty for justice. What we need, just as much as food and drink, is the wellbeing of our neighbours. We have a famine of the soul as our neighbour has a famine of the body. This hunger and thirst allows us to become what God wants. The passions of pushing away (anger) or stuffing in (gluttony) are healed by reconnecting with who we are in relation to God and the world around us.
  5. Avarice and Desire
    • Avarice is a longing for control. It is a failure to trust the providence of God. It comes from fear of being at the mercy of others, or fear of the future. It includes wanting be in charge of my image, and how others see me. Its opposite is being merciful. Mercy involves forgiveness and letting go. Avarice wants people to be in our debt; mercy lets go of debts.
    • Desire (lust), such as the desire to enjoy the body, is natural. But it goes wrong when it becomes the insistence that I be satisfied. Desire for God is healthy, and it is a desire that can never be exhausted. False desire longs for the end of desire, assuming that when I have that, I will be satisfied. The corresponding beatitude is to be pure in heart, with our desires directed towards God. It is a desire not to stop desiring. This makes happiness possible, even today.
  6. Envy and Despair
    • Envy tends to see the human world as a zero-sum game. This lies at the heart of most conflicts. Compare the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Jesus emphasised God’s love for the undeserving. God, in favouring one, does not disfavour another. God’s gifts are given for the sake of all. Blessed are the peacemakers: peace comes about when we get beyond the zero-sum mentality.
    • Despair (dejection) is the absence of hope. Peter repents, and Judas despairs. Despair looks at our sin from our perspective, rather than from God’s perspective. We fail, but God has not failed. We are liable to see ourselves as total successes or total failures (both are totally wrong). Those who are persecuted are blessed, because they know there is a truth that goes beyond our point of view. Being free from the passions is about God’s perspective shaping our lives.

Let me try to summarise all of that briefly, using the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10, NIV) as the basis of a ‘diagnostic tool for the maladies of the spirit’…

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Am I living in denial of my dependence on God? (Pride.)

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Am I trying to escape pain and suffering? (Acedia.)

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Do I lack inner stillness, and do I push others away as a consequence? (Anger.)

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Do I desire things for myself more than I desire the wellbeing of my neighbour? (Gluttony.)

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Am I seeking to be in control (of other people), rather than letting go? (Avarice.)

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Do I want my desires to be exhausted through something created, or never to be exhausted in being directed towards God? (Desire.)

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Do I see the wellbeing of others as a threat to my own wellbeing? (Envy.)

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Do I see things from a merely human perspective, or from God’s perspective? (Despair.)