Disordered Passion

(Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time)


Douglas P. McManaman

Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members? (Jas 4, 1)

This world we live in is very complex. In fact, it is inexhaustibly complex, and knowledge is very difficult to achieve precisely because of that complexity. But at the risk of oversimplifying reality, I will say that at the root of almost all our social problems today–and I emphasize almost–is really the inability or refusal to control passion, that is, to submit passion to the governance of reason. One of the wounds of Original Sin is disordered passion, and although baptism does away with Original Sin, it does not do away with its effects. 

If we just look around and consider what we see: tragic vehicle accidents, marriage breakups, war, starvation, racism, etc., their causes involve so many factors that they are usually difficult to explain, but at the very root of these things is, very often, disordered passion. Consider a traffic jam that makes you late for an appointment; often it is a serious car accident that is the cause. Notice how recklessly people drive on beautiful sunny days. You’d think they would slow down and enjoy the view, but no, they are so desperate to get to where they need to go that they are willing to put other lives at risk, pass on a solid line, run stop signs, drive well over the speed limit, etc., and think of the number of pedestrians that have been killed recently in the city of Toronto—in 2020 there were 22 in total. Of course, how many failed marriages are a result of infidelity, or even just boredom and the need for excitement? How many of them are the result of couples that think to themselves: “I don’t feel fulfilled”, as if marriage is about my fulfillment, and not the love of the other for the other’s sake? Consider insurance fraud and the economic costs on all of us. What’s at the root of that other than a disordered love of money? And of course, even human ignorance is rooted in a disordered love of complacency; for there is so much we now have at our disposal, at the click of a computer mouse, so much information, history, articles explaining important things like the existence of God or basic moral principles and their application, but most people remain woefully ignorant because they refuse to seek truth, that is, refuse to do serious research for fear of what they might find. Most people are more comfortable in their ignorance, especially when it comes to moral matters. 

Disordered passion also gives rise to disordered thinking. Take the passion of fear: behind so much unjustified suspicion, gossip, scheming, mistrust of others, etc., is disordered fear, and fear affects how we perceive the world around us. If it is a disordered fear, our perception is distorted. And fear begets anger, and anger certainly affects how a person perceives the world and those in it. And that’s what is so difficult to become aware of; we have certain ideas and we readily believe they are an accurate assessment of how things really are in the world, but very often they are the product of disordered passion, in particular the passion of fear, anger, and the passion of disordered love of self, which can take the form of pride or disordered self-esteem, and of course pride begets stubbornness and the refusal to change one’s mind. The gospel today illustrates this disordered love of self among Jesus’ own disciples, arguing among themselves about who is the greatest.

The fact of the matter is that the goods of this world pass away. The pleasures that some people are willing to deceive and lie for, steal for, or kill for, will all pass away. One day these pleasures will be nothing more than a vague memory having less reality than a puff of cigar smoke. We were not created for pleasure, we were created for joy. As Trappist Monk Thomas Merton once wrote: “Never seek rest in pleasure, for you were not created for pleasure; you were created for joy, and if you do not know the difference between pleasure and joy, you have not yet begun to live.” Many people have hardly begun to live, because they don’t know the difference between the two, and they don’t know the difference because they cannot “let go”; they hang on. They are enslaved. We are all born slaves. We are born free politically, but not morally and spiritually. We are slaves to sin and disordered passion. Christ is our deliverer; his grace alone frees us from the slavery of the passions. A slave cannot free himself, and it is our disordered love of the pleasures of this world that bind us–unless we are freed by Christ. Christ died to this world, and in him alone can we die to this world. But to die to this world is to be born to another world, a world in which joy is the principal experience, not pleasure. 

The purpose of this life is to learn to release our grip on this world and leave it behind, and when we do, we recover all that we have given up in the glorified life of the risen Christ. And to the degree that we release our grip on this world now, to that degree will the joy of that risen life begin for us now in this world. God is Love. He does not have love, He is Love—that’s His entire Being. So too, God is Joy. He does not have Joy; He is Joy. To grow closer to God is to increase both in love and in joy, and when we grow closer to God, we begin to see reality differently, we begin to see human beings differently. In other words, we see everything in relation to God. This means we begin to see human beings not in relation to ourselves, but in relation to God, and we begin to love human beings not so much for what they do for us, but simply because they belong to God. Genuine conversion to God results from knowing from within that we are loved by God, and when we come to know that, our life acquires a new center. Of course, God is that center, and our fundamental desire is to love God in return, and the most immediate way to do that is to love what God loves, to love all that belongs to God, namely human persons. That’s how we can tell how genuine our conversion to God really is–by how much our life is motivated by the desire to love other human beings for their sake and for God’s sake, rather than for the sake of what they do for us. 

The more we leave the world of sin behind and cling to God, the more the true beauty of this world will be revealed to us. And that’s what is rather interesting about the second reading today when it says: “You covet but do not possess. You kill and envy but you cannot obtain” (Jas 4, 2). That verse speaks of the endless frustration that results from trying to build our kingdom of God here on earth through the fulfillment of our own plans and dreams. We only really possess what we are looking for when we no longer covet, no longer envy, and no longer desperately seek our own rest and peace of mind but seek His will first and foremost. Only when we are possessed by the love of God, moved by that love, and when we desire to return that love completely, only then does the beauty of this world in all its rich meaning come into view. It becomes a world permeated with the divine beauty, a world whose beauty does not compete with God for our attention and love but brings us to His feet.