Every day offers an opportunity to either grow closer to God or to give into the temptation to sin. This battleground and interior journey is full of passions, feelings, and emotions – and there’s nothing wrong with that. After all, passions give us our energy and life purpose.
It’s impossible to look a the lives of the saints and find a single saint who didn’t live passionately. We read about Augustine’s passionate conversion, and Saint Francis’ passion for the poor. Saint Gianna’s passion for life allowed her to sacrifice her life for that of her child. The children at Fatima passionately fought for the cause of Our Lady. All the saints that we venerate as Catholics knew their mission and passionately strove to fulfill it.
So just what are the passions? And why do we need to control them?
There are 11 passions total: love, hatred, desire, aversion, joy, sorrow, hope, courage, despair, fear, and anger. If you want to strive for perfection in the moral life this Lent, and be truly happy, you have to harness your passions. Want to learn more? Here are five facts about the passions to help you learn more about gaining control of them in your interior life.
1. Passions are Switzerland
When it comes to morality, the passions are neither good or evil in and of themselves. They are “morally qualified only to the extent that they effectively engage reason and will,” the Catechism tells us.
So love, hatred, sorrow, hope, and the rest of the passions are not good or bad by themselves. It is our will and actions that define their morality. The problem comes from the disordered nature of the passions. If you let them, the passions will devolve into interior warfare.
The saints have written about the neutrality of the passions. In the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas addresses the neutrality of the passions. He suggests that when thought of in themselves, secundum se, the passions are morally neutral. Another Doctor of the Church, Saint Augustine, once said, “They [the passions] are evil if our love is evil; good if our love is good.”
2. Harnessing our passions leads to perfection in the moral life
A classic analogy when it comes to exploring the passions is Plato’s story of a man being pulled along in a chariot by two horses. The horses are full of passion and life, but they’re at constant war with each other. The horses pull in opposite directions, and the man driving the chariot attempts to control them. Reason (the mind) is the charioteer. It is his job to have a vision for the passions and to harness them to work with his vision. The charioteer doesn’t ignore the horses (the passions), but instead he harnesses them. Together they can work towards a common good.
As Christians, we’re called to harness our passions and integrate them into God’s will for our lives.
“You want to destroy yourself?” asked Bishop Robert Barron, “Cling to your warring emotions. They will devour you. Do you want to save yourself? Hook those passions on to the infinite purposes of God. You’ll find yourself elevated, transfigured, enlightened, and pressed in the direction of sanctity. You will save your life.”
3. Christ is the perfect example of integrated passions
Want to find an example of the passions perfectly integrated into the human life? Look at Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, or on the way to Calvary. Love, hatred, desire, aversion, joy, sorrow, hope, courage, despair, fear, and anger were all present during the Passion. But Christ controlled His passions with wisdom, and the passions helped propel Him onward towards His mission of salvation.
We see examples of Christ’s integration of the passions throughout His life here on earth as well. “It sufficed that He should show His apostles and disciples, who were constantly observing and scrutinizing His life, how every thought, word, and action should be ordered, every impulse moderated, every passion controlled and directed, that they might afterwards know how to form themselves and others” (This passage explaining Christ’s integration of the passions was found in The American Catholic Quarterly Review, Volume V, published in 1880).
4. Mortification is the antidote to unruly passions
So, if passions have the ability to help bring us to Heaven or to our demise, how do we harness them? The answer is found in mortification – a fitting topic for Lent. When our senses and passions are disordered, mortification can help restore order in our interior life.
“Mortification aims at the rectification of this disorder in our fallen nature, so that it may be replaced by that order in which sense is subject to reason and reason to God,” writes Father Edward Leen. “Mortification aims at replacing disorder by order, revolt against God and reason by subjection to Christ and His faith, disordered nature by vivifying grace, and self-indulgence by purity and justice. The ultimate effect is to reduce our senses to the control of our reason, our imagination to our will, and our will to God.”
Lent offers a time for us to take a close look at which passions have become unruly in our lives. Through prayer, fasting, and alms-giving, we can work throughout these forty days to integrate our passions with our will, and align our will with the will of God.
5. Sin happens on the two extremes of each passion
We’ve already addressed that passions can be morally good when they contribute to our good, and evil when they contribute to our fall. “The upright will orders the movements of the senses it appropriates to the good and to beatitude; an evil will succumbs to disordered passions and exacerbates them,” the Catechism says. “Emotions and feelings can be taken up into the virtues or perverted by the vices.”
For an example, we’ll examine the passion of hope. Taken to one extreme of abundance, hope can be transformed into presumption – when a soul hopes for salvation without doing anything to deserve it, or for pardon for one’s sins without having repented of them. On the other extreme, a lack of hope leads to the sin of despair, when the soul abandons all hope of salvation.
Integration of the passions is found in the middle. Do you desire to ask Christ for assistance when you struggle to integrate the passions into your own life? Try praying this Litany of the Passion during those moments.