Like most people, I have a new vigilance these days for the presence of viruses (and one virus in particular). I’m cleaning my doorknobs and asking my daughter to clean our sink handles daily, among other new precautions. These actions are reasonable and responsible -- the informed steps we all take can make a difference for us and for others. But I’m aware, as we all are, that I don’t want to become obsessed. I don’t want to lose my freedom to love through a distorted obsession with cleaning, or daily news-consumption.
As we continue to make our way through To Love as God Loves, by Roberta Bondi, we encounter a whole category of attitudes and behaviors that can take away our freedom to love, and which we are taught to be en guard against. The ancient monastics called these “passions” but we have to throw out most of what we associate with that word to hear them properly. The most important thing is to think about those things which have as their "chief characteristics the perversion of vision and the destruction of love.”*
The perversion of vision and the destruction of love. These are things I don’t want in my life, any more than I want COVID-19 in my house. Thankfully, wise men and women have thought a lot about these “passions” that distort our vision and destroy love, and they offer practical advice about how to name them and recognize their presence. I’m sharing a brief and incomplete list, with a few thoughts on how these “passions” might manifest themselves now. (This is obviously just a starting place.)
- Avarice: “Being unwilling to share your resources with others. It stems, at first, from a fear of the future. Are we willing to share? Do we forget the poor when faced with a newly pressing sense of uncertainty? And on the flip side, “the other element of avarice for the monastic was shame at receiving charity.” If we are the ones who need help, can we remember and recognize that “an independence that is too proud to ask for or receive help is never praised” in the New Testament?
- Anger: The danger for self-deception that runs with anger is the notion that “we are correcting others for their own good.” This feels especially tempting for me as a parent sometimes! Refreshingly, ancient teaching on anger acknowledges that anger does not go away on its own: “If a problem arises with a person with whom we are intimate, we must talk with the person toward whom we feel that anger.” What could be more relevant to a time when those of us with roommates and families are with them more than ever?
- Acedia: This is not laziness, but rather restless boredom. Again -- how timely! If the monks were in the media business, it seems like they would be issuing these headlines: “Coronavirus lockdown? Watch out for acedia!” Here’s what it looks like: our ordinary tasks seem too dull to bear. Nothing seems right. “Life has lost its savor and it all seems somebody else’s fault, so that the only alternative is to leave everything and go off somewhere else.” The prescription (thankfully, for those of us on lockdown): stay where you are! “Sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” Well, no problem there. But where does this restless boredom come from? Here we find insights that might be even more helpful for enriching our acedia-prone days. This "passion" usually comes from two places: 1) Exhaustion from too little sleep or not enough (real, restorative) leisure. (This acknowledges that we can move from thing to thing without ever taking the time for the kind of “recreation” that really offers renewal. Without intention, this is possible even when we are home all the time.) 2) Trying to find meaning in life from things that do not give ultimate meaning, including “work, marriage, friendships, hobbies, material possessions." These are good and important, but not ultimately sustaining. As one Abbot warns us, “Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy the heart.”
As Bondi puts it, “Only God, finally, can satisfy our bored and restless hearts so that we are able to love.” This is where we turn for help in seeing and addressing the passions: to prayer and introspection. More on that soon. But in the meantime, I’m going to try to be on guard against more than just the virus, paying attention to other elements that take away my freedom to love, even when I remain in good health.
*All quotes taken from the chapter on “The Passions” in To Love as God Loves, pages 57-77 (Bondi, Fortress Press, 1987).