Four Hundred Texts on Love 4

13. The person who loves God cannot help loving every man as himself, even though he is grieved by the passions of those who are not yet purified. But when they amend their lives, his delight is indescribable and knows no bounds.

Jesus did not modify the Sh’ma Yisrael simply by adding an extra little bit. No, when he altered the Sh’ma to incorporate love of neighbor, he was saying that you cannot love God without loving your fellow human beings. Traditionally, that has been the Christian understanding and we see it expressed again here.

I have a simple question. Are Christians in the United States today known for their outrageous love for other human beings? If we are not (and surveys certainly indicate that we are not so known), then how can we claim to love God?

In the context of patristic writings, a passion is not a strong emotion or love for some activity, the way we use the English word today. Rather a passion exists when we become so conditioned that when something happens or we encounter some trigger, it translates into a mental attitude and often action without a deliberate act of will on our part. That is what it means to be ruled by a passion or to be in bondage to a passion.

I used to be a pretty heavy smoker and that offers a good example. It was not uncommon at one point in my life to find myself smoking a cigarette with no conscious memory of lighting it. Or to turn to an ashtray to flick the ashes only to find I had another lit cigarette sitting in the ashtray. As part of the process of moving from a smoker to a nonsmoker, I began to establish boundaries for my smoking. When I had to get up and go to a specific place in order to smoke, I at least had to consciously invoke my will. I had to become aware of my desired and decide to act on it.

A passion could be many things. Perhaps there are some circumstances or events that, when you encounter them, trigger rage in you. Sometimes you can contain it. Other times it explodes from you in word or deed in ways you would never have intentionally acted. Your rage has become a passion that rules you.

I’ve heard people invoke silly examples as well to illustrate the point. For instance, an animal can be conditioned so that a trigger will cause them to automatically take a specific action. So if you were conditioned so that every time a light on your desk flashed you would eat a peanut without even being aware of your action until, perhaps you were swallowing the peanut, then that would be a passion.

A passion is basically anything that bypasses your will. Our human state in a broken and disordered creation is such that we are naturally ruled by our passions. I’ve discussed in many places what it means for us to be in bondage to death. Being ruled by our passions offers the best insight, I think, into what it means to be in bondage to sin.

Once you understand that, I think it’s easy to see what St. Maximos is saying. If we love our fellow human beings, we will not condemn them when they are ruled by passions. We will grieve for them and try to help them break free even as we strive to protect those who might be harmed. Christ has, after all, broken those chains for us all. In and through him, we can find freedom. And when people do break free from a passion, we’ll throw a party! I’m not sure we throw enough outrageous parties today.

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