Imagine a world of passionless people and you'll come up with a pretty dreary sight. Without passion -- without something more than intellect and will -- we would be a species of couch potatoes.
We wouldn't have enough spunk to reach for the remote control and change the channel . . . except there would be no TV because no one would have had the driving interest to invent TV in the first place or to produce the programs which are aired on it.
Without people of passion, there would be no marriages, no education, no music and no religion. We would be a blah people.
Passion, therefore, can be a powerful force for good.
And yet, . . . there are few things sadder than a person of great ability whose life has run awry because of a wandering eye. Passions are capricious. They can focus one day on one object and another day on something else.
The sensitive appetite, as scholastic theologians called it, seeks to consume one object and then, when it has had enough of that, it moves on to something else. Of itself, it pays no attention to morality. It seeks only its own interests. Someone or some thing needs to bring order to these unruly passions.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the situation this way: "In themselves passions are neither good nor evil. They are morally qualified only to the extent that they effectively engage reason and will. Passions are said to be voluntary (quoting St. Thomas Aquinas), 'either because they are commanded by the will or because the will does not place obstacles in their way.' It belongs to the perfection of the moral or the human good that the passions be governed by reason" (no. 1767).
Our growing tendency in the Western world is to isolate reason and passion. The intellect is so often characterized as "cold reason" while passion is seen as warm and vibrant. There is a glamorization of passion untouched by reason. And in that glamorization of passion, moral licentiousness is sometimes held forth as a great human achievement.
Of course, the movies and literature which so glorify the person who has allowed passion to "rise above" moral reason gloss over the heartache and other human devastation which often flow directly from uncontrolled passion.
Growth in spiritual freedom involves a process quite different than the total liberation of the passions. While freedom does not mean extinguishing passion, it does mean bringing it under the control of reason. One early 20th century theologian, Jesuit Father Henry Davis, describes moral education as "a process of gaining command by repeated acts over all the movements of the sensitive appetite" (Moral and Pastoral Theology, p. 24).
Davis notes that even the saints were subject to violent and sudden attacks of temptation stemming from their passions. The difference between them and characters in Hollywood movies? The saints struggled mightily for a lifetime to bring their passions under control and re-channel them towards the achievement of good. They developed a sacred energy which was played out in a sort of divine madness.
Another, more recent, theologian writes that "It is precisely because they have given up the battle against their own passions that many persons abandon the struggle for sanctity" (Jordan Aumann, Spiritual Theology, p. 187).
Conversely, we have the Catechism's statement that "Moral perfection consists in man's being moved to the good not by his will alone, but also by his sensitive appetite" (no. 1770). Passion, in short, is essential to the quest for holiness, but it can also wreck that quest.
Uncontrolled passions do not serve us well. Neither does repression. So what are we to do?
Each of us has a unique personal vocation to which we are called by God. Such a vocation orders our lives by giving a framework into which our talents, our commitments and, yes, our passions can be ordered. If we try to chase up every blind alley that our passions drag us, we will accomplish little of value. But if we harness them and redirect them in the light of basic morality and our unique callings, we may indeed make a full and lively contribution to the building up of Christ's Body in this world.
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