When I was about ten years old I was incredibly into basketball. I had jerseys of my favorite teams and I would wear them with no undershirt and you’d see my pale, skinny boy arms but I thought it looked so cool, and I’d put that jersey on and watch my favorite teams on television and I would get so into it that if they lost the game it would ruin my day. I had a friend I used to watch games with and he loved Michigan basketball. One year, they lost during March Madness and when that happened he threw the remote control as hard as he could into the ceiling and it exploded. His mom came in with this certain look on her face that we were all to familiar with and I had to go home before the yelling started.
Have you ever had an uncontrollable urge like that? The irresistible urge to say something cutting to someone, or look at that attractive woman, or even eat ice cream. Well, that just means that you have emotions like all the rest of us.
In Catholic theology the emotions are called “Passions.” The Passions are neither good nor bad on their own, but what they can be is ordered to a good purpose or disordered to a bad purpose. When, as in the examples I just gave, they’re disordered, it causes major problems. This is what St. James is referring to when he writes about, “your passions that make war within your members.” He is warning them that their disordered passions such as jealousy and selfishness are causing conflict and making them unhappy. This selfishness happens, notice in our Gospel reading, even to the Apostles.
The problem of disordered passions is every bit as intense today as it was in the time of the early Church. In fact, we suffer from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the human soul, which is why so many of us are not at peace with ourselves. We feel lonely, or unfulfilled, restless. Our feelings pull us this way or that and we wonder what’s wrong with us. We do what we feel, allowing the Passions to control us, and then wonder why lives are broken apart.
The Latin word “passio” is really interesting. It comes from an earlier Latin word “pati,” which has the English cognate “patience.” In other words, the passions are states of emotion that happen to us against our will. Another derivation of the word is “pathos,” meaning “pathological,” referring to a habitual disease that works against us. One of the definitions of passion is “suffering.” Think of, “The Passion of Christ.” This is because disordered emotions cause pain. Exploring the meaning of the word reveals why emotions should never, ever be in charge of our decision-making.
When it’s in good order, the human soul is hierarchical: The Intellect is in charge, the Will or the faculty by which we make a free choice follows the intellect, and finally the Passions follow both the Intellect and the Will.
What this means is that God intends for us first of all to be rational, to use our minds to collect data and make good plans and goals based on reality. The Christian faith is the most rational, realistic way of approaching life that exists. We always follow the evidence, then we use it to act in accordance to what is right and true. Only after we have acted do our we then consult our emotions, which if we living in a habitual state of grace, will respond to a good decision with feelings of happiness.
Sometimes, though, that order gets mixed up, and we decide to do something simply because we feel like we want to and to hell with the consequences, and so feelings become more important than facts. It feels good to be selfish, to rebel. It is cathartic to yell at someone. Devouring an entire tub of ice-cream is comforting. When feelings get to be in charge, though, we act in accord with all sorts of temporary, harmful desires. Feelings don’t understand truth, or long-term happiness. So if someone feels that they’re not in love anymore, they get a divorce, or if they feel that school is boring they drop out. If they feel they’ve been wronged, they’ll lash out and destroy friendships or cause a feud in the family. Feelings are fickle and they are fleeting. Chasing them is a dead end.
[Just a quick aside, if you’ve ever wondered why musical styles that are predominantly about creating feelings, like with drum kits and overly emotional lyrics, are not appropriate for mass, it’s because the music we sing for Mass is rightly ordered and it appeals to the intellect first and the emotions second. It seems like an insignificant detail but it’s really important. That’s a digression, though.]
The real question is: How do we control our passions?
First we should not that, even though the passions are dangerous when disordered, they are a part of who we are. We wouldn’t be human without our emotions, so it is not our goal to destroy our ability to feel. God doesn’t want to set us free from emotions, he wants us to be passionately attracted to the right things so that we will flourish. He wants us to fall madly in love and get married, to come to Mass and have a feeling of being close to him, to go to a sad movie or see a beautiful work of art and cry a little bit, to hike to the top of a mountain and feel your heart expand for the sheer joy of being alive.
What we must do is train our emotions to love the right things. This is possible! Your emotions do not have to be in charge and as your intellect informs your decision-making and you begin to do the right things with a clear purpose in your mind, you will grow to love it. I know it seems crazy, but we can teach ourselves to love coming to Mass, and to love our spouses even when we’ve been married twenty years and the early, emotionally-charged courtship is long gone. We can teach ourselves to find sin distasteful and unappealing.
When put in good order, the passions lead us to seek and love virtue. Doing good actually becomes appealing to us. We get hooked on good deeds. One natural example for me is exercise. I’m a runner – I don’t know if you heard but I have to race and humiliate this Dominican in the Rosary Run in a few weeks – but the thing about running is that it is pure torture. It’s hard to breathe, your legs hurt, your knees feel like they’re going to fall off, every bit of moisture pours out of your body. It just feels bad. Until, that is, you keep going. It takes two or three months, but one day, your body just kind of adapts and suddenly running is pure joy. It is freeing, and you suck the oxygen into your lungs, the whole world goes quiet and it becomes a sort of physical method of contemplation. People who are runners, in fact, will get very anxious on the days they don’t run, because their bodies and emotions desire it.
It’s the same spiritually. Through practice, we can learn to love and desire good things. That’s why St. Therese says that for her prayer is a surge of the heart, and why St. Ignatius says “I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God.” The saints, the people who have properly ordered passions, they are the happiest of all people.
Our Lord was a human being just like us. He had passions, and he was in perfect control of each one. The creative force behind the Sistine Chapel, the Notre Dame Cathedral, the men and women who cleared forests and cultivated fields, who built cities and raise families, that sets explorers off into vast unknown wilderness, that gets us up each morning excited simply to taste that first cup of coffee and wanting to do something with our lives – that’s passion. That is the love that compelled Our Lord to the Cross, and a man into the priesthood or a woman into a convent, and men and women into marriage. Passionately love God with your whole heart. Don’t be lukewarm. Know the good, do the good, and deeply feel the happiness that bubbles up and overflows from the depths of your soul when heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.