Most of us struggle with one of more of our passions: anger, love, sorrow, desire for food or drink, desire for sexual intimacy, desire for possessions, desire for popularity, and so forth. None of these is inherently wrong; indeed, they are good as they come from the hand of God. They become sinful when focused on the wrong object or when they become excessive. The key is to learn to master them through moderation/self-control and by focusing them on the purpose for which they are intended.
This year’s John Lewis Christmas commercial features a young fire-breathing dragon who, though not fierce, has an ability that he cannot seem to control. He must learn to use it only at the proper time and for good purposes. Allow his ability to breathe fire to represent a passion (e.g., anger, love). Observe the damage caused when this passion is uncontrolled or focused on the wrong things, but also observe the blessing brought when the young dragon learns to master it and use it for a good purpose.
I was at the Kennedy Center last night with friends to hear a performance of the popular cantata Carmina Burana. It was composed by Carl Orff in the mid-1930s and consists of a collection of poems from the Middle Ages (set to music). The poems, mostly of a secular nature, were found in Benediktbeuern Abbey in Bavaria in the early 1800s.
Among the poems is Estuans interius (Seething inside), a lament on the price one pays for indulging the passions (e.g., lust, greed, gluttony). Satisfying our passions can provide temporary gratification, but eventually there is a price to be paid.
Lines from the poem are shown in bold, black italics while my comments are in plain red text.
Burning inwardly with strong anger, in my bitterness I speak to my soul; created out of matter, ashes of the earth, I am like a leaf with which the winds play.
Indulgence often leads to compulsions and addictions that lock us into a cycle of disappointment, bitterness, and self-reproach. This is seldom helpful because it robs us of the very self-regard that could motivate us to focus on our true potential and thereby improve. It is what St. Paul calls worldly sorrow, which is deadly, as opposed to Godly sorrow, which restores us to God’s care (see 2 Cor 7:10).
Left to our unrestrained passions we are blown about like a leaf in the wind.
Whereas it is proper for a wise man to place his foundations on rock, I, in my folly, am like a flowing river, never staying on the same course.
This is another image of the foolishness of intemperance. Our life meanders like a river, and we lose touch with our goal. We’re all over the map, not living as though we know where we are headed; we cannot accomplish earthly goals let alone heavenly ones.
Jesus said, Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it (see Mat 7:24-27).
I am borne along like a ship without a sailor, just as a wandering bird is carried along paths of air.
If we do not subject our passions to our reason, we are easily carried along by worldly forces. Scripture says,
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings (Hebrews 13:8-9).
Therefore, beloved, since you already know these things, be on your guard so that you will not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure standing (1 Peter 3:17).
No longer be infants, tossed about by the waves and carried around by every wind of teaching and by the clever cunning of men in their deceitful scheming (Eph 4:14).
Though secular in source, this poem conforms to the teaching of Scripture: our passions, especially when indulged, make us susceptible to all sorts of foolishness. Our minds become darkened and we are an easy target for even the most ludicrous and deluded teachings and philosophies. Why does this happen? Because Christ is not the captain of our thoughts, and reason is not the pilot of our life; rather, our unmoored passions are at the helm, and the result is a darkened mind and increasing compulsion and addiction.
Chains do not keep me nor does a key; I seek men like myself, and I am joined with rogues.
When the passions are indulged, it becomes harder and harder to resist them. St. Augustine wrote, “For of a forward will, was a lust made; and a lust served, became custom; and custom not resisted, became necessity” (Confessions, 8.5.10).
Sinners tend to seek one another out both for comfort and validation. St. Paul warned, For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear (2 Tim 4:3). When we are both surrounded by and validated by sinners, our passions are further excited. Over time, we keep company with a worse and worse crowd.
I go on the broad way after the manner of youth; and I entangle myself in vice, forgetful of virtue; greedy for pleasure more than for salvation, I, dead in my soul, attend to the needs of my flesh.
Of this “broad way” Jesus said, Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the way that leads to salvation, and only a few find it (Mat 7:13-14). Why is the way to salvation narrow? Because it is the way of the cross and most people do not want to control their passions or say no to sin. As the poem says, most people want momentary pleasure more than eternal salvation; at some point they become so dead in mortal sin that they only attend to the needs of the flesh.
Yes, these are great words of wisdom from the Carmina Burana. Spare us, O Lord, from the slavery of intemperance!
Here is a performance of the sung version (in Latin) of the poem Estuans interius:
One of the things that I have learned about myself, and humans in general, is that our strengths are very closely related to our struggles. Some people are very passionate; this makes them dedicated and driven to make a difference. But it also makes them prone to anger or depression. Their passion in one area (e.g., truth, justice) can cause difficulties with passions in other areas such as sexuality, food, or drink. Passionate people can inspire others and are often great leaders. But they also run the risk of crashing and burning, whether emotionally or morally.
At the other end of the spectrum, consider those who are very relaxed and steady emotionally. They are thoughtful, thinking and acting deliberately. They are calm under pressure, not easily excited. They make good diplomats; they are the sort to bring conflicting parties together. But such people may often struggle to maintain integrity. Sometimes they make too many compromises and forget that there are things that are worth being angry about, worth fighting for. If a person never gets worked up, it could be because he doesn’t care enough about important issues. There’s a saying that the opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference.
This is part of what makes human beings complex and fascinating. There is a certain tipping point at which a virtue becomes a vice either by excess or defect. St. Thomas Aquinas said, In medio stat virtus (Virtue stands in the middle).
And thus in our example here of the passion of anger, the virtue to be sought is meekness. Aristotle defined meekness as the proper middle ground between too much anger and not enough.
The unusual commercial below shows an example of underwhelming joy. It is humorously portrayed in a perfectly deadpan way. But like anger, joy indicates a zeal for what is good, true, and beautiful (even if the subject is just shoes). It is certainly a virtue to be emotionally balanced, avoiding silliness and frivolity. But the strength of a stable and balanced personality can too easily become indifference about things that are important and should bring joy.
Think of someone you love. I’ll bet the thing you like most about him or her is often the very thing that frustrates you the most. Now think about yourself. What are your strengths? Are they not in fact closely related to the areas in which you struggle the most?
Enjoy this humorous commercial. In his subdued joy, is he exhibiting admirable control or is his heart dull? Is this virtue (balance) or is it a defect?