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FROM PASSION TO VIRTUE: SEVEN PATHWAYS TO TRANSFORMATION


INTRODUCTION

The cross of Christ symbolises the intersection of human passion and divine virtue. In the person of Jesus we witness the perfect engagement of human passion in the cause of divine virtue.

Because of the human drive to defend oneself, and survive the real and imagined threats to our wellbeing. We habitually engage the energy of our passions in the service of what Pope Gregory in the sixth century listed s the "Seven Deadly Sins”; anger, pride, sloth, lust, gluttony, greed and envy. In order to embrace the virtues demonstrated in the life of Christ, a transformation needs to happen.

Those sins are sometimes called "passions”- not in the Hollywood sense of ‘passionate love’, but as repeated patterns of self-destructive or inappropriate actions. They are also passions in the meaning of the Latin word for suffering. Being caught in these recurring behaviours brings suffering on ourselves and others.

As today we reflect on the human passions that put Christ on the Cross, I invite you to consider how they continue to fuel unnecessary suffering in our lives and in the world.

Further, how, with Christ as our example, we might experience the transformation of the energy of our passions into the energies of virtue.

SCRIPTURE READINGS FOR EACH PATH:

Introduction: Isaiah 53:1-3; Matthew 27:32-44

1. Ecclesiastes 7:9; John 19:25b-27

2. Proverbs 16:18-19; Luke 23:39-43

3. Proverbs 19:24; Luke 23:32-34a

4. Psalm 106:14; Matthew 27:45-46

5. Proverbs 23;21; John 19:28-29

6. Proverbs 1:9; John 19:29-30

7. Proverbs 27:4; Luke 23:44-46

Conclusion: Proverbs 2:20-21a; Matthew 27:50-56

1. FROM ANGER TO SERENITY

ANGER

Anger, the red hot passion, is not in itself a sinful energy. As St Paul said, " Be angry but do not sin. Do not let the sun set on your anger.” The problem, as the writer of Ecclesiates says, is when anger "…lodges in the heart of fools”. The implication is, do not let it lodge in you. Do not let it take up residence.

Jesus looked with anger and grief at those who set out to trap him. The passion of anger gave him the energy to drive the traders from the sacred precincts of the Temple.

Moving in us, anger can fuel passion for justice.

Lodged in us, anger drives us into cycles of violence.

Denied in us, suppressed in us, it builds and bursts in volcanic eruption, often burying relationships in the hot lava of hate.

Turned in on ourselves, it can lead to depression and self-harm.

The worst of our anger arises from the fear that we are no longer in control; in men especially, from a sense of powerlessness.

I invite you to take time to reflect on your personal experience of anger. Feel where it lodges, experience where it burns. If you can, ask a trusted other to tell you how they experience your anger. If you need to, offer this hot passion to Christ that bit may be transformed into a force for peace.

SERENITY

From a human point of view Jesus would seem to be justified in lashing out with the hot passion of anger; to call down legions of angels to smite his enemies. Pinned hands and feet, he could have been driven mad by a sense of powerlessness and failure; driven wild with grief at the coming loss of friends and family. Instead, with serenity, and with the deep love of transformed passion, he looks upon his mother and his beloved disciple and thinks of them, cares for them in their hour of need. "Mother, behold your son…(and to the disciple)…behold your mother”

When human passion is transformed into divine virtue, the heat that can burn and destroy becomes the balm that cools and heals.

You and I have surely seen that serenity in those special people from whom it tranquilly shines, those who make no apparent effort to display what we so clearly see in them.

The potential for serenity is in each of us. The Cross of Christ is the point of conversion of human passion into divine virtue; anger to serenity.

2. FROM PRIDE TO HUMILITY

PRIDE

Pride is the elevated passion, and therein, says the proverb, lies the risk!

What is often not readily understood is that pride is often driven by the need to be needed. The passion pushes people to try and make themselves indispensible. The elevation is this: "They cannot do without my help”.

Biblically, pride is seen as the virtual ground of sin itself. Pride comes before a fall. Because people try to take the position of God. the Tower of Babel must be demolished. In the Magnificat of Mary, it is the proud who are brought down, while the humble are raised up. Jesus told the Parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector ”to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and regarded others with contempt”. St Paul says that if we are going to boast, we must be sure to boast of what God has done, not of what we ourselves have achieved. This passion drives the need to focus the spotlight on oneself.

Jesus would have us understand what we often do not, that underneath the cloak of pride beats a heart unsure of whether or not it is truly loved!

HUMILITY

The proud person needs to learn what it is they truly need- genuine self-care and self-respect.

Jesus perceived and took account of his own needs. He could let the crowds go even if some were not yet healed. He withdrew when he needed rest and prayer. He welcomed the anointing with precious perfume. He took final refuge in Gethsemane.

The transformation from pride to humility is not though self-abasement or false humility. It is true servanthood, based on a clear perception of what others need, and what we ourselves need also. St Paul in Philippians says that Jesus did not count equality with God a status to be grasped, but humbled himself. Jesus himself said that he came not to be served but to serve. In true humility, he washes the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper.

Matthew Fox reminds us of the root of the word "humility”- "humus”; the earth. For him, "…to be humble means to be in touch with the earth, to be in touch with one’s own earthiness”. Indigenous people can teach us a lot about what it means to be in touch with the earth, if we have the humility to learn from them.

Jesus is crucified between two criminals. The one who comes to a sober estimate of who he is finds in Jesus a saviour who does not go ahead of him, but walks beside him: "Today you will be with me in Paradise”.

The Cross of Christ is the point of conversion of human passion to divine virtue; pride to humility.

3. FROM SLOTH TO RIGHT ACTION

SLOTH

I try to be careful about accusing someone of laziness. People who present as slothful can appear so for other reasons. The depressed person is not helped by being adjudged as lazy, and told to get up and get on with it. Demotivation from long-term illness or unemployment is not easy to shake off. Sometimes the driven high achievers judge others unfairly from their Protestant work ethic. To see someone content with what they have drives them mad!

Sloth can be more subtle than laziness. It can manifest in unwillingness or inability to decide on a course of action. The slothful person is continually weighing options, but failing to commit, perhaps out of a sense of inadequacy. It is hard to see energy in this passion, but the energy is in fact being wasted. As Helen Palmer sees it, "By keeping available energy siphoned off into essential tasks, a kind of holding action develops in which there is never enough energy in the system to face the conflict that surrounds going after personal desires”.

Sloth is dangerous when we fall asleep at the very time when we most need to stay awake. One person wrote of their experience of Nazism, "They came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did nothing. They came for the disabled but I was able-bodied so I did nothing. They came for the Gypsies but as I was not a Gypsy I did not object. They came for the Homosexuals but I was not gay so I stayed quiet. Finally, when they came for me there was nobody left to speak out!”

At the root of sloth is fear. In Jesus’ parable, the servant who hides his talent in the ground is accused of sloth. His defence is that he is afraid of his master.

"Could you not watch with me this one hour?” Jesus asks his disciples. In sloth we fall asleep at the very time we most need to stay awake; but we do not need to stay that way. The love of Christ for the world is our wake-up call!

RIGHT ACTION

The love of Christ is our wake-up call. And so the writer to the Ephesians exhorts "Awake, sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

The virtue that corresponds to the passion of sloth is not action but right action; action that is focussed on what is needed. Jesus was not frenetic. He was focussed. He made his choice, paid his price, and walked the path to the end. He understood that the people who crucified him were not inherently evil, but asleep. "Father forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.”

When Jesus rises to life, so do his followers. No longer afraid, they are energised, motivated, focussed, compassionate. As Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote:

"Rise like Lions after slumber In unvanquishable number-

Shake your chains to earth like dew Which in sleep had fallen on you-

Ye are many- they are few.” (The Masque of Anarchy)

The Cross of Christ is the point of transformation from human passion to divine virtue; sloth to right action.

4. FROM LUST TO INNOCENCE

LUST

When they hear the word "lust”, most people think of sex! This misses the primary point. Lust is essentially about power. Its passion is to dominate. Its fear is that if it does not overpower, it will be overpowered. Its motto is "get them before they get you”! The psalmist describes this energy as "wanton craving”. It is this human urge that Satan tries to exploit when he tempts Jesus to bow before him, and so receive dominion over all the kingdoms of the world. Such temptation is not easily resisted!

The sexual connection is there of course, and it is no coincidence that many powerful leaders are infamous for their sexual exploits; from King David to King Solomon, From President Sukarno to President Kennedy. Rape, including rape in war is likewise an act of domination, just as sexual abuse is a misuse of power balance in a relationship. Without the sexual connotation, lust can also be used to describe the gratuitous mocking and scourging of Jesus after arrest and right onto the Cross. It is not enough to convict and execute. The victim must be abused to elevate the sense of power of the perpetrators, as if to extinguish any doubts about their own virility.

When Jesus teaches about the dangers of looking at a woman with lust he is not condemning the ubiquitous wandering eye, but the actual intent to forcibly act out the passion. That, says Jesus, is risky, risky behaviour, and it would be better to be without an eye or a hand than to be guilty of such enacted lust.

In The Lord of the Rings, lust for total power, lust for overwhelming revenge is what drives the evil Lord Sauron to breed an army of super-goblins, the Uruk Hai, and unleash them on a driving march to obliterate the innocent of a relatively unprotected world. It destroys without pity. Listen as it marches!

INNOCENCE

We should not underestimate the cry of dereliction ‘My God my God why have you forsaken me?” This is not a game, a prearranged gambit between Jesus and God the Father. This is the cry of abandonment of the truly innocent, overwhelmed by wanton, lustful, brutish force.

It is also the cry of innocent faith, which under duress falls back on the familiar opening words of Psalm 22. If however we read on we can see the undiminished trust of the psalmist- "Do not be far from me for trouble is near” and then "All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord.” Childlike faith continues to trust the love of the parent even in the face of seemingly overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

When we stop seeing enemies at every turn in the road, insinuations in every remark, criticism in every glance; when we become aware of the futility of trying to gain power over everyone or everything that seems to threaten us; when revenge no longer satisfies; then we are moving from lust to innocence. When that change starts to happen, the Cross of Christ is truly the point of transformation from human passion to divine virtue; lust to innocence.

5. FROM GLUTTONY TO SOBRIETY

GLUTTONY

Gluttony is not just about food; it is also the drivenness for excitement and adventure: anything but having to face the anxieties of the present moment! The glutton is addicted to adrenaline. The glutton wants to try everything. Life is a taster’s menu; tapis is clearly preferred to meat and three veg.

Another word for the passion of gluttony is intemperance- always wanting too much of a good thing. A modern expression of this is rampant consumerism- shop till you drop.

This is sometimes a sign that a person is afraid of missing out; or perhaps substituting consumption for the more painful and difficult process of working out what it is that we actually need to face for the sake of our physical, emotional and spiritual health.

A moving story of the transformation of gluttony to sobriety is that of Sam Gamgee, close friend of Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings. Sam is a portly fellow whose main focus is the next meal; until a greater cause demands his allegiance and his energy. He and Frodo are dying of thirst and hunger by the time they complete their quest to destroy the ring of power and are rescued by Gandalf’s eagles from the molten slopes of Mount Doom.

It is ironic that Jesus’ enemies accused him of being a glutton and a drunkard, especially given his teaching from the mount: "Blessed are those who hunger an thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” (Matthew 5), or the more blunt assertion in Luke 6 "Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.”

What is it that you really need?

SOBRIETY

Sobriety is the state of being able to continue on a course of action without having to introduce diversions or exciting secondary plans. In Luke 9 we read "When the days drew near for him to be taken up he set his face to go to Jerusalem”. His followers tried to divert him, but to no avail. No diversions, no distractions, all the way to the Cross, where the one who gave living water is forced to the cry of agony "I thirst”.

The transformation is occurring in us when the drive to get more and better begins to be replaced by a single-minded desire to do the right thing; when our focus is drawn in to the sharp clarity of compassion and justice.

For those of us who live in relative comfort and affluence, this may be the most difficult transformation we ever have to undergo. Some would make the path easier with offers of cheap grace, or assurances that affluence is part of God’s plan for our lives. However hard we may try though, there is no way around it. The Cross of Christ is the point of transformation of human passion to divine virtue; gluttony to sobriety.

6 FROM GREED TO NON-ATTACHMENT

GREED

Greed is yet another passion that is rooted in fear; a survival instinct that drives us to accumulate and hoard for ourselves.

I am not sure when our society is going to stop paying the price for the creed of the eighties: "Greed is good”. One of the plethora of horror stories from the Global Financial Crisis was about a woman in the USA who was put out of her home because she could not meet the payments on her sub-prime mortgage. She has now discovered that her broker, keen for the commission, significantly overstated her income by in order to get the bank to make the loan. Is greed good? A related problem is this: why do people with obscene wealth want to go on and on acquiring? Is it greed for power, or is it insecurity arising from an early experience of deprivation? Are they the converse of the anorexic person who looks in the mirror and sees a fat person looking back at them? Why do we, when we have more than enough to live on, not feel truly secure?

Greed is different to gluttony. Gluttons want to experience everything, preferably in the company of others. Greed is stingy- it holds on to things, keeps its possessions, guards its space, even keeps knowledge to itself. The truly avaricious person does not want to share. Their greatest fear, usually irrational, is that others will take what they have. This attachment is the source of deep suffering. The tragedy of Scrooge is that so much precious energy geos into acquiring and holding onto things, to the point where, as the Proverb says, it takes away the life of its possessor. Not only that; it robs us of the joy of sharing.

NON-ATTACHMENT

"Imagine all the people, sharing all the world.” Is this a dream? If so, it was a dream come true for the early church as described in Acts chapters 2 and 4. It would be naïve to deny that many such experiments in true community become nightmares of conflict. Even in people who are being transformed, holding on to what sustains our lives is a survival instinct that will never be completely obliterated, and perhaps that is not always a bad thing.

Knowing this makes the life of Jesus even more remarkable. All he has is fully, totally shared; and right at the end, freely given. "It is finished” is a cry of acceptance, the love-offering of his life complete.

The miracle of Jesus’ death is that what is so freely given is never finally lost. "The light has come into the world, and the darkness could not overcome it”. As St Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13, "love is eternal”. In God’s world, the resurrection of love is as inevitable as a cork rising from under water.

This is the paradox of greed and non-attachment- the more we cling, the tighter our grip, the surer it is that we will crush the life out of that which we want to possess. The virtue of non-attachment is the gift of freedom to be who we are and for what we were created. The Cross of Christ is the point of conversion of human passion to divine virtue; greed to non-attachment.

7. ENVY TO EQUANIMITY

ENVY

If anger is red, envy is green! The grass is always greener somewhere over there, and the passionate drive is to get from here to the pastures that are clearly more lush and lovely.

Envy is fuelled by the belief that others are enjoying the emotional satisfaction that is being denied to oneself. The envious person always feels deprived, and until passion is transformed will always long for the imagined bliss of elsewhere; the imagined satisfaction that everyone else undoubtedly has.

David envies Uriah for his wife Bathsheba, and his envy drives him to murder. Hear again the proverb: " Wrath is cruel, anger is overwhelming, but who is able to stand before envy?” And not only is envy a source of danger and suffering to others. This passion can drive a person to depression and self-harm, especially when they feel alone in their plight.

Matthew states that Pontius Pilate "…realised that it was out of envy that they (the Jews) handed him (Jesus) over.” Mark specifies that it was the Chief Priests who acted out of envy. Clearly they resented his usurping of their authority and wanted him out of the way. Envy may well have been the passion most responsible for putting Jesus to death.

Does envy keep us on the move, never satisfied with who we are or what we have? Worse still, does it ever cause us to trample over the lives of others to get what it is we think we need?

EQUANIMITY

The conversion point for the person driven by envy is the prayer of relinquishment, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Or, in the words of the psalmist ‘The Lord is my shepherd. I have everything I need. He leads me to green pastures.” Beside the still waters, the passion of envy recedes. The virtue of equanimity floods the spirit. Everything is now in balance, and there is peace beyond understanding.

Instead of being driven by compulsive attraction to the unattainable, the person now recognises that what they really need is at hand and within reach.

The hymn writer Charles Wesley penned these words from the standpoint of the virtue of equanimity: "Thou O Christ art all I want. More than all in Thee I find.”

And so Jesus speaks these last words, words of prayer, words of acceptance, words of life for those who have ears to hear: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

The Cross of Christ is the point of transformation of human passion to divine virtue; envy to equanimity.

Brian Brown. Easter, 2017

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