The Essence of the Passions – Staniloae

Dimitru Staniloae, the great Romanian Theologian, offers an excellent introduction to the passions as understood in Orthodox Christianity. The following excerpt is from his Orthodox Spirituality, which I highly recommend.

The passions represent the lowest level to which human nature can fall. Both their Greek name, pathi, as well as the Latin, passiones, show that man is brought by them to a state of passivity, of slavery. In fact, they overcome the will, so that the man of the passions is no longer a man of will; we say that he is a man ruled, enslaved, carried along by the passions.

Another characteristic of the passions is that in the man unquenchable thirst is manifested, which seeks to be quenched and can’t be. Blondel says that they represent man’s thirst for the infinite, turned in a direction in which they can’t find their satisfaction. Dostoevsky has a similar idea.

Neilosthe ascetic writes that the stomach, by gluttony, becomes a sea impossible to fill – a good description of any passion. This always unsatisfied infinity is due both to the passion in itself, as well as to the object with which it seeks satisfaction. The objects which the passions look for can’t satisfy them because objects  are finite and as such don’t correspond to the unlimited thirst of the passions. Or as St. Maximus puts it, the passionate person finds himself in a continuous preoccupation with nothing; he tries to appease his infinite thirst with the nothingness of his passions, and the objects which he is gobbling up become nothing, by their very nature. In fact, a passion by its very nature searches for objects, and it seeks them only because they can be completely under the control of the ego, and at its mercy. But objects by nature are finite, both as sources of satisfaction and in regard to duration; they pass easily into nonexistence, by consumption. Even when the passion also needs the human person in order to be satisfied, it likewise reduces him or her to an object, or sees and uses only the objective side; the unfathomable depths hidden in the subjective side escape him.

Staniloae goes on to detail the workings of the passions, both the natural (those rightly rooted in our nature but now misdirected) and those that are unnatural. Thus we have a natural passion (desire) for food that is right and proper. We are, after all, biological creatures. But we are also spiritual beings, and when the desire for the infinite, rightly directed to God, becomes confused with the natural desires we wind up with unnatural passions, such as gluttony, etc., in which we desire infinitely what should only be desired in a finite and helpful manner.

Thus, in short summary, the passions are the energies or desires of our soul or body that have at their root a right and proper end, but, because of the fall, they are disordered and are misdirected seeking after what they can never have. As such, they are not to be confused with the emotions, per se, though the emotions, too have a proper role, and can be distorted into a passionate and incorrect state.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





42 responses to “The Essence of the Passions – Staniloae”

  1. Stephen W. Avatar
    Stephen W.

    “the passions are the energies or desires of our soul or body that have at their root a right and proper end, but, because of the fall, they are disordered and are misdirected seeking after what they can never have.”

    Would it be correct then to say that the “passions” in their proper place are really the “virtues”. or is there some distiction here?

  2. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    Would it be correct then to say that the “passions” in their proper place are really the “virtues”. or is there some distiction here?

    That’s what confuses me. When people talk of “the passions” they seem to be talking something that need to be obliterated, and that God himself, being ultimate good, is “impassive”. So, if this is the case, then neither zeal for the Lord on behalf of man or jealousy for the hearts of man on behalf of God can be considered “passions” in this sense.

  3. fatherstephen Avatar

    Not obliterated, but healed and brought into their proper function. This is generally true of all sin. It is a misdirection of our energies and not something foreign to our creation.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    Generally the passions, rightly ordered, would become virtues, or, at least, serve the virtues.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    In Aristotelian terms (which I know is not quite the same thing as Christian) it would be to feel the right thing, at the right time, towards the right object.

  6. Dale Avatar

    is it that we are what is wrong. Our lostness is what makes the passions stray from what they were created to be and therefore something to be wary of. However if this is the case, then would not the passions be able to be healed by the incarnation as well.

    Will the passions again be wonderful and pure once we are completely united with Christ. It seems that instead of ridding ourselves of our passions we must allow God to heal them. Maybe my confusion with the issue is a semantic one (although just as likely is gross ignorance)

    A hunger and thirst for God in my understanding would classify as a passion of mine however this is obviously not in the same vein as gluttony and lust.

  7. Dale Avatar

    well, I should have waited a couple moments before commenting as you have responded to my post before it was posted.

    Thank you for your comments as they help to clear things up for me.

  8. The Scylding Avatar

    I would concur here. This of course makes preaching about the passions really tricky. Some opt for the simplistic approach – “Alcohol is of the devil!”. Interestingly, the same folks often lack preaching against gluttony. All of which is to say that wisdom and patience are needed, not assertions and blanket statements. Shepherding is a complicated job.

  9. Visibilium Avatar

    Human beings characteristically engage in relentless activity to better their and their children’s situation in life. God made us this way. The world reinforces the physical necessity for our taking action to sustain our and our family’s lives. This isn’t a pursuit of nothing. Indeed, the alternative to our persistent search for betterment is waiting passively for death.

    Seeing the distinction between the legitimate elaboration of our nature and personality in the material world and the passionate distortion thereof involves the kind of discernment that Orthodoxy has traditionally required from its spiritual fathers.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    Of course, Visibilium. No one is suggesting that we abandon a legitimate betterment of our family, etc. I am the grandson of a share cropper, the son of a mechanic, the first generation to college. I do not argue against the betterment of myself or my family. But my grandfather and father taught me that there are many things of greater value than material goods. The character of a man, honesty, fair-dealing, trustworthiness, were of far more value to them than any material gain. Had I made a material gain through such nefarious means, even great riches, they would not have admired me, but dispised me. Such was their virtue. Instruction on the passions, in our culture, is, shall I say, sorely neglected. I think families will continually do what families have done. What they need, is some help in guidance in their relentless activity. And if they will avail themselves of their spiritual fathers, they’ll find ample encouragement and teaching in the matter. But riches and wealth, and even education and position at the expense of the virtues is no gain at all. I could not face my own grandfather, much less God, on judgement day, were the gains of my life and my family something that was not rooted in the virtues and faith in God.

    My sharecropper Grandfather, wept in joy at the very sight of me dressed as a priest. No amount of wealthy would have brought such tears to his eyes. Apparently some parents and grandparents understand the betterment of their families in something other than material goods. I would not want to dishonor his honesty by suggesting otherwise. The desire for wealth is not a God given desire.

    My oldest children who have chosen to be married to priests rather than pursue a life of wealth are not failures, nor are they abandoning the betterment of their families. They are, indeed, the fulfillment of the betterment of my family. I would rather my children live a life closer to poverty and closer to God than that they be wealthy and impious. Not that the two are mutually exclusive – but they are a hard combination. They have chosen God first. That is what matters, and what I have sought for my children. Anyone who does not seek God first for their children risks abandoning their children to the spirit of the age who is a fickle god.

    I desire to see my children in heaven around the throne of God. What more could I possibly ask for?

  11. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    I observe that “addictions” would probably be a very close contemporary synonym for “the passions” in many if not most of their aspects.

  12. Robert Avatar

    Father Bless!

    What would the prescribtion be for a person under the sway of the passions? And would this prescription be the same for the Orthodox as they are for non-Orthodox Christians?

    Also, Father, you said “The desire for wealth is not a God given desire.” Can you clarify? What is the definition of wealth used here? This becomes tricky as an entrepeneur. What is enough? What is too much? I face these questions frequently as a business owner.

  13. Robert Avatar

    Karen: that is a good observation, however I believe the Orthodox understanding of the passions a bit different. A person can be given to eat too much, without being addicted. A subtle difference but that is my (limited) understanding of the subject. I also experienced that the passions are related. If I have a problem with gluttony, then most likely I will be given to other lusts as well. Not sure if addiction as such is understood. Perhaps Fr Stephen can expound (and correct me if need be) 🙂

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    The passions can very much be part of addictions. Though there is not a strict correlation.

    The prescription, ultimately, for any of us, is generally pray, repent (confession and absolution) frequently, communion, tithe, etc.

    On God given desire for wealth. Scripture, NT, seems to have plenty of warnings attached to wealth. It’s certainly permitted to be wealthy, but the need for good stewardship grows. To whom much is given much is required.

  15. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    There are doubtless some differences. I tend to use “addiction” in its broadest sense, not merely its clinical sense, as being any area of desire where I lack self-control (not necessarily something that has “made my life unmanagable” yet, which would be the final stage). I view it as a continuum–a slippery slope. Not everyone reaches the point where they are no longer coping with life and would be considered clinically “addicted,” but we all have many areas of desire that are out of control–that, in essence, control us on some level. I am using the term “addiction” to describe the organic and spiritual *process* along this continuum where the difference is more a question of the degree of control I have ceded to my desire than a real difference in spiritual dynamic per se. It is also well-known by those who work with addicts, that if this underlying dynamic is not addressed in the addict’s life, they may quit one addiction, but will merely transfer their dependency to another area in life. The alcoholic may become addicted to work or to rage. Those who give up smoking frequently use food as an alternative “mood altering” substance. Thus, like the Fathers, modern therapists working with addiction recognize the link between all addictions as having this common source in an underlying spiritual woundedness which must be addressed if the person is to truly recover.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    Fr. Meletios Webber has written an excellent book on the 12 steps and Orthodox spirtual practices. I highly recommend it for thinking about these relationships.

  17. Robert Avatar


    “Thus, like the Fathers, modern therapists working with addiction recognize the link between all addictions as having this common source in an underlying spiritual woundedness ….”

    I am not so sure it is recognized as a spiritual woundedness, but rather as a character flaw. This is where is believe the Fathers and the modern non-Christian approach part ways. The Christian approach is more wholistic, as it accounts for the spiritual dimension.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    You are right, though I suspect many are simply avoiding spiritual language because of professional pressure. The 12 step program is radically spiritual even if it’s not always used that way.

  19. Robert Avatar

    “Professional pressure” – wasn’t this what the serpent used to tempt Eve?

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    Possibly. Do you think the serpent was a member of the APA?

  21. Stephen W. Avatar
    Stephen W.

    Fr. Stephen,

    Are there any good books discussing the differences and similarities of modern psychology and orthodox spirituality? For instance when someone has a mental illness it may or may not be related to demon possession or vice verse. It is obvious that many therapist today miss a lot of the spiritual dimension of a person but is it also the case that many priest do not understand when they are dealing with something more organic or chemical? Someone with OCD may not be in control of their thought process completely and therefore feel as if they are constantly in sin, becoming discouraged and loosing faith in the process. Maybe this is also somewhat of a cross to bear and something that this person only has to work harder at? Maybe you have some insight into some of this from experience?

  22. Robert Avatar

    “Do you think the serpent was a member of the APA?”

    No doubt, probably still has an office somewhere downtown with a very comfortable couch. 🙂

    In all seriousness, my concern is that the differences between modern psychology and the Orthodox Christian approach are recognized and not discounted. They are significant and fundamental in my opinion.

  23. The Scylding Avatar

    Of course, nowadays the term “addiction”, and even more so “addictive personality” have become cloaks for unbridled passions. thus the word alcoholic often replaces the correct term – drunkard. Now excessive alcohol intake will certainly induce a medical condition of dependency – but the root cause is sin. Some people might be more prone to certain sins than others. But they are still sins. And that is hwere the healing begins – where the sin is dealt with.

  24. Juliana Avatar

    Dear Fr. & Stephen W.,
    I read two books awhile ago by Kyriacos Markides (The Mountain of Silence and Gifts of the Desert) that delt a bit with the ideas of spirituality and psychology. I belive he is a sociologist but he had some remarkable insights into mental, physical and spiritual healing. Even better, he has several interviews and conversations with both a monk, who is now the Bishop of Cypress, and with Metrpolitan Kallistos Ware, which are beyond excellent. Challenging reading but very informative and inspiring.

  25. Damaris Avatar

    I’ve noticed recently — and been uncomfortable with — the tendency in evangelical circles to talk about passions as a good thing. “My passion is for the lost, or youth, or whatever,” they say. They ask, “What is your passion?” And if you don’t have one, you are often seen as spiritually cold. My objection to the term initially was that it seemed arrogant — Someone’s “passion” for an issue seems more important God’s plans for dealing with it. But now, with several Orthodox books and blogs I’ve read, I’ve understood more what the passions are, and my objection has grown stronger. Micah 6:8 doesn’t mention passions at all, just humble, obedient living.

  26. Stephen W Avatar
    Stephen W


    It sounds like some of these people are only using the word “passion” to describe something which is quite different than the Orthodox understanding of the word “Passion”. Hence this sounds more like a semantics issue. “Passion” as in a deep love for something, can be a very good thing. Using the word this way, I am passionate about my wife, my children, my friends, my church and for those who not know Christ and experience His love. Ultimatley our true passion is for Christ. If this is someones goal than it sounds good to me but only God knows and can judge the hearts of others. There is already much division on other issues and in my humble opinion our love and passion for Christ is not one of them. Passion or deep love for Christ seems to be a good starting place for a real conversation. Sometimes this is the only thing that keeps me connected to much of my family who are evangelical. I hope this does not come across to strong, since it is only an observation and my own experience.

  27. Stephen W Avatar
    Stephen W

    Juliana, I have read these books or at least am in the process of reading the second one. I found the conversations about psychology an spirituality to be very interesting and thought provoking, although only a brief intoduction to the ideas. Since this is only a very small conversation in the book and not at all a treatise or exhaustive study on the subject, many questions are left unanswered.

    On a different note about these books: I found the straight quotes by Bishop Maximos to be enlightening. On the other hand, the author’s comments after the conversations with Bishop Maximos made me wonder, if the author fully understood these coversations outside of the academic implications. It seemed to me that he tried to hard to squeeze Bishop Maximos into other spititual traditions and his own socialogical understanding. I don’t know if this was an attempt to appeal to a larger audiance and to not be exclusive or what. Did anyone else have these feelings?

  28. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    Robert, you are right that probably many therapists wouldn’t recognize the full-orbed and also vertical nature of the spiritual disorder underlying addiction, but insofar as they recognize its relational dimension (relationship to self and others), they unavoidably recognize the spiritual in this sense, too. I say this only in that we are all, as human beings(regardless of our faith), confronted with the realities inherent in being created in the Image of the invisible God and what makes for health or disease in that Image within us. I had the advantage of being a Psychology major at a Christian college, so I was able to integrate my faith and biblical teaching with all I was learning. I’m sure I would be wanting to make more distinctions between modern psychology and spiritual truth if I had not already automatically been making these distinctions and adjustments in my understanding of its insights as I was learning.

    I have to say that what I have learned so far of Orthodox spirituality and the teaching of the spiritual fathers has a much more direct parallel to what I learned about relational and spiritual health/disease as a Christian Psychology major than I did from typical evangelical pastoral and theological notions about spirituality, which tended to be more rationalistic and moralistic (where a truly conservative biblicism was preserved). Only Orthodoxy fully preserves this deeply relational and organic understanding of spiritual health and disease as a dynamic process where the mystery of where human will and God’s grace meet is approached very humbly as being truly the province of God’s judgment alone. Western approaches tend to lead much more readily to a judgmentalism (not that Orthodox cannot be judgmental, but this is not part of the Tradition). I say this from a general perspective, not that God doesn’t grant true discernment to spiritual elders about particular problems or sins of their spiritual children. I certainly also don’t mean to imply that all conservative evangelical pastors are moralistic in their approach to counseling.

  29. fatherstephen Avatar

    One thing I know. I know a lot less now than I knew when I first graduated seminary. I think I’m getting dumber every day. (And everyone said, ‘Amen.’)

  30. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Fr. George Morelli who is both an academically trained psychologist and an Orthodox priest seems to me to have an excellent understanding of both the proper balance between modern psyhology and the wisdom of the Church. Fr. Morelli is the author of Healing: Orthodox Christianity and Scientific Psychology

  31. Seraphim Avatar

    To The Scylding,

    I would humbly suggest that the terms alcoholic and drunkard are not at all synonymous. I will be an alcoholic until the day I die, even though I haven’t had a drink in years. I used to be a drunkard, yes. A bad one. I’m not anymore though, glory be to God!

    But I’m still an alcoholic. And this isn’t just splitting hairs, although it might seem like it to those who are not “fortunate” enough to be alcoholics. My recovery and healing has been a strong and direct result of my acceptance of the fact that I am an alcoholic and always will be. But I don’t get up every morning and thank God that I’m a drunkard, simply because I no longer drink. But I do thank Him that I’m an alcoholic. For it has brought me nearer to Him in a way no mere drinking problem ever could.

    One of the things recovered alcoholics sometimes talk about is the fact that God has not yet miraculously “cured” any alcoholic so he or she can drink like a normal person again. I have met former falling-down drunkards who have gotten over their drunkenness and learned to control their drinking. But I have yet to meet a real alcoholic who has done this. You see, it’s not really about drinking and drunkenness at all…


  32. Seraphim Avatar

    One more thing. Please all, forgive my sounding so lily white in my post above. I am by no means anything of the kind. I’m a sinner pure and simple. And yes, I did try an “experiment” to see if God had cured me so I could drink like a normal person, as stupid as that may be. Need I mention that it didn’t work?

    Your servant,

  33. The Scylding Avatar

    Fair enough. What about a defintion where alcoholism is the result of drunkeness? Much like a certifiable medical condition caused by long-term, excessive abuse?

  34. Jerry Cornelius Avatar
    Jerry Cornelius

    “In fact, a passion by its very nature searches for objects, and it seeks them only because they can be completely under the control of the ego, and at its mercy.”

    This statement suggests that Passions have sentience, cognition, intention and purpose.

    Father Stephen you have entitled this commentary, the “Essence of the Passions” and then treated Passions as ‘Energies’ or ‘Desires’ – how do we distinguish between the influence of the demonic ‘energising of the passions’ and those ‘passionate motivations’ arising from fallen human intention or ‘worldly and fleshly desires’?

    The reference to Ego in this context appears to suggest some form of ‘Philautia’ or self-love – can you comment on this and throw some Light on the matter?

  35. Jerry Cornelius Avatar
    Jerry Cornelius

    “One thing I know. I know a lot less now than I knew when I first graduated seminary. I think I’m getting dumber every day.” – Father Stephen Freeman

    This seems to be some form of advanced Kenotic spiritual discipline – if you finally get to the point where you do not know anything, does that mean you will no longer be influenced by ‘Philautia’ or your Ego?

  36. fatherstephen Avatar

    It would take a good spiritual father, or a very good book (Staniloae’s is excellent) to cover the question. The discernment in these matters generally takes a good spiritual father.

  37. fatherstephen Avatar

    I told Fr. Thomas Hopko, “The more I write the less I know.” He said, “Keep writing. Someday you’ll know nothing – then you’ll be holy.” I do think that the “less knowing” of which I speak is partly because the longer I live, the greater my expectations for what knowing truly means.

  38. Jerry Cornelius Avatar
    Jerry Cornelius

    “the longer I live, the greater my expectations for what knowing truly means” – Father Stephen Freeman

    Do you mean this?

    1 Corinthians 13:12 Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

    You seem to know all sorts of incredible and extraordiary things on Spiritual Matters, that very few people living seem to know – how did you come know all this stuff – did you undergo some form of advanced training in Spiritual Discernment and Wisdom, beyond the normal investiture for the Priesthood?

  39. easton Avatar

    i would say, 30 years as a priest would be considered advanced training;)

  40. fatherstephen Avatar

    Believe it when I say I know very little.

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