Passionately Drunk

The Philokalia, that wonderful collection of writings by the fathers on prayer of the heart, has as its full title, The Philokalia of the Neptic Saints gathered from our Holy Theophoric Fathers, through which, by means of the philosophy of ascetic practice and contemplation, the intellect is purified, illumined, and made perfect. Little wonder it is known popularly as the Philokalia. That word, Philokalia, means “the love of beautiful things.” It is not a reference to expensive, decorative items, but to the things which are made beautiful by their union with God. All things are beautiful inasmuch as they are united to God, Who is Beauty itself.

Another important word in the title is the adjective, “Neptic” (νηπτικός). It has a variety of translations: sober, watchful, vigilant. It refers to those who, having their earthly senses purified, have become truly aware of God and dwell in Him. This title is especially used to describe the fathers of the Hesychast tradition in Orthodoxy, the tradition of ceaseless prayer and inner stillness associated with the monastic life.

To describe these fathers as “sober,” is very insightful. For our experience with the passions, the disordered desires of our body and soul, is often an experience of drunkenness.

For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him (1 Thess. 5:7-10).

The man who is drunk is famously unaware of his surroundings. He stumbles physically, mentally and spiritually, barely aware of his own imbalance. The passions have the same ability to blind us. In anger we are aware primarily of our own anger. What we see, we see through the haze of the energy that pulses through our mind and body.

All of the passions have this property. They consume us and become the primary lens through which we see the world and with which we react. Thus we are described as in “delusion.” Those who see the world through their passions do not see the truth of things. They see their own passions.

There is a social aspect to the passions – they are not restricted to an individual’s experience. Whole societies, or significant segments within it, can be drunk with the same passions. Thus a whole society can be drunk with the passion of fear or hatred.  Such a passion is reinforced by being repeatedly affirmed by those around us. Many aspects of culture are simply a communion of the passions.

We live in an age where the passions are carefully studied and used as the objects of marketing. Those things that are sold to us (even those that supposedly appeal to our intellect) are marketed to our passions. Apple computer famously researches the “feel” of its packaging, presenting a sensual experience that is associated with quality, precision and value. It is a successful strategy across the whole of our culture.

However, those who are “drunk” with the passions also yield themselves as victims to their intoxication. Political parties pour massive amounts of money into their campaigns simply to create and nurture the passions by which people vote. We are not governed by reason or informed decisions. Most of what you or I think about political subjects is a description of the passions to which we are enslaved. The political cynicism of many is, to a degree, a recognition of our disgust with the politics of passion.

By the same token, most of the opinions we nurture are equally the product of our passions. We think, we believe, we decide, we act largely in accord with the passions to which we are enthralled. Theological debates are generally arguments between one person’s passions and another’s. It is a conversation between drunks.

And so the Church values the holy, sober fathers. These are the men and women who have walked the narrow way of salvation, “putting to death the deeds of the body.” Inner stillness is the state of freedom from disordered passions. The neptic fathers do not cease to desire (they are not Buddhists). But their desires have been purified and healed – restored to proper order. Sobriety means desiring the right thing in the right way at the right time. Traditionally, this purification and healing come as a result of a life of repentance, fasting and prayer. It slays demons and heals the wounds of the soul. All things are brought into obedience to Christ.

It is the life that Scripture enjoins:

Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he my devour. Rsist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world (1 Peter 5:8-9).

There is a story in the Desert Fathers that illustrates such vigilance. A community of monks once heard a rumor that one of their number was harboring a woman in his cell. They went to the elder and complained. While they became yet more agitated, the elder slipped away to the cell of the erring monk. Finding the woman there, he hid her in a large earthen vessel. He placed the lid on the vessel and sat on it. Soon the angry monks arrived at the cell and began to search for the woman. Out of respect for the elder they overlooked the vessel on which he was sitting. Finding nothing, they apologized to the erring monk and left. The elder, rose from his seat and said to the monk, “Pay attention to yourself.”

It is a call to sobriety. The angry monks were drunk with their own self-righteousness. Their sin was at least as great as the erring monk. The elder alone was sober. His sobriety hid the sin of a man from those who would have harmed him, and revealed the sin to the one who needed to be healed. The word of healing was kind and without judgment. “Pay attention to yourself.” It is the simple word of St. Peter, “Be sober.”

For all of us, in every moment of the day with regard to all things and all people, it is good to pay proper attention to ourselves.

This prayer of St. Isaac of Syria, great among the neptic fathers, is one of my favorites:

I knock at the door of Thy compassion, Lord: send aid to my scattered impulses which are drunk with the multitude of the passions and the power of darkness.

Thou canst see my sores hidden within me: stir up contrition – though not corresponding to the weight of my sins, for if I receive full awareness of the extent of my sins, Lord, my soul would be consumed by the bitter pain from them.

Assist my feeble stirrings on the path to true repentance, and may I find relief from the vehemence of sins through the contrition that comes of Thy gift, for without the power of Thy grace I am quite unable to enter within myself, become aware of my stains, and so, at the sight of them, be able to be still from great distraction.


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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31 responses to “Passionately Drunk”

  1. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Joy is quite different as it seems to come from a place of right use and humility. Or am I wrong?

  2. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I don’t know. Sometimes joy seems to come as a pure gratuitous gift.

  3. Randy L Evans Avatar

    I have read and heard that one shouldn’t read the Philokalia without the clear wisdom and guidance of a spiritual father. I was surprised you didn’t add that to your blog.
    Parish priests are, in general, godly committed, and overworked, pastors of their flock, offering the sacraments and providing general spiritual counsel in confession. I would think that only a few parish priests throughout the country would have the spiritual grace, let alone the time, to offer that kind of directed guidance for one of the faithful who wants to begin to plumb its depths.
    Perhaps you could have begun or ended the blog with “Careful, read at your own risk, and only with a tested spiritual father . . . if you can find one.”

  4. Byron Avatar

    In this Fast, I have sometimes become overwhelmed–not by temptation, but by my own desire to run and embrace it. Recently, I stopped focusing on my sin and decided to ignore it (after a prayer for repentance). This has actually been a gift of grace to help me stop wallowing in despondency and turn back to God.

    Sobriety, it seems to me, is a focus on Who makes us sober (and, perhaps, nothing else). Just my thoughts.

    Many thanks for this, Father.

  5. Eric Dunn Avatar
    Eric Dunn

    More words of wisdom. Your post holds wonderful explanations how we can better walk on the narrow road.

  6. Job Avatar

    I saw the picture at the top of the blog post and immediately thought, “Thank God I’m not like one of *those* people!”

    Alas, I identify more with the self-righteous monks than with the sober elder. Thank you for the timely reminder and for St. Isaac’s lovely prayer.

  7. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I don’t think that I recommended reading the Philokalia anywhere in the article. There are only a few passages that such a warning would pertain to (those that have to do with the use of the breath in the Jesus Prayer). The first volume that was translated into English purposely left out that material. But there’s plenty of stuff out there similar to the Philokalia that is also available. Most people will gain very little by reading much of it – and will likely be bored before they get very far. Frankly, there’s far more dangerous stuff pumped out on the internet by those who have no blessing to write or offer guidance. But – compared to that – the Philokalia would be quite mild.

    But, for the record, I have said nothing about it as recommended reading. Instead, I’ve recommended sobriety.

    In truth, the days of controlled or managed reading have largely been blown away by our present technology. People read Patristic material like a Protestant reads his Bible – and then, generally set about interpreting themselves as well. So, we get something of a Wild West effect (that shows up in unmanaged stuff out on internet). There’s really not much to be done about it.

    What there is – for those who want to avoid the madness – is the attend the services in their local parish regularly, go to confession regularly, and attempt to keep the commandments of Christ. Add to that, a bit of reading here and there, but we do not grow or enter the Kingdom through information.

    For myself – I read patristic material and discuss it with competent authorities – and try to winnow it down to an occasional insight that shows up here on the blog – such as – the practice of sobriety.

    If we guard the heart – maintaining a spirit of peace and a generosity of love towards others – we’ll do better than not.

    I appreciate the head’s up and your thoughts!

  8. George Avatar

    Hi Father, I agree with you, on regular service attendance and participation in the sacraments. The Hymns in our daily services and the church’s daily Gospel and scripture passages are the best daily reading for me. I’ve spoken about metaphors the Gospel writers and scripture and how they differ. The Gospel metaphors are very critical to the telling, while scripture and desert Fathers may be using metaphors that are contextual and even changeable. This can be a problem when we carry one metaphor in scripture or a saint writing into another context. This isn’t an issue with the Gospel writers as the metaphors are contained in their accounts. It would be naive and dangerous I believe to do so.

  9. Charalambos Avatar

    As you mention in the post, we don’t approach desire in the same manner as Buddhists, but lately I’ve been wondering about the obvious parallels between far eastern ascetic practices and our own.

    In my younger years, before Orthodoxy and during those turbulent, exploratory times, I found myself practicing a particular flavour of Japanese Buddhism. To oversimplify things for the sake of brevity, it involved a lot of sitting still, seeking nothing, and just being, so to speak. Looking back, it seems very similar to the idea of cultivating hesychia, but with the obvious absence of Christ.

    I’ve been very interested in the concept of the “Logos Spermatikos” and wonder if those great sages of ancient times got something right with those practices, despite the obvious deficiencies. The laymen of those religions are encouraged to make those practices a key part of their day.

    I wonder if we modern Orthodox are doing ourselves a disservice by not emphasising our very similar practices. It seems like we’ve left that to the monastics. Instruction and guidance is also scarce.

  10. Matthew Avatar

    Fr. Stephen said:

    “What there is – for those who want to avoid the madness – is the attend the services in their local parish regularly, go to confession regularly, and attempt to keep the commandments of Christ. Add to that, a bit of reading here and there, but we do not grow or enter the Kingdom through information.”

    I am always looking for a list, a strategy, a “how to” manual, etc. It must be the rational and scholastic that remains deeply embeded in me. Thanks so much for this Fr. Stephen. On the train today I was thinking about what I need “to do” in order to grow spiritually and to fight against the passions. Apparently more information certainly isn´t the answer.

  11. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I’ve been encouraged since my youth to ‘think things through’ and be practical. This is indeed wisdom for youth and for us throughout the years. However, sobriety is something I find harder to attain. I think it requires a good dose of humility, a capacity for self-reflection (not self-centeredness), and compassion. None of these are encouraged so much in this (US) culture. The ethos of Orthodox Christianity seems to be the ever-new counter-culture.

  12. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I wonder whether reading St Gregory Palamas would be helpful in your explorations. Nevertheless, living the faith is often more simple than easy.

  13. Randy L Evans Avatar

    Father Stephen, thank you for your reply to my post. As I was writing it, I was aware that you weren’t directly or literally recommending we read it, but your very first sentence, “The Philokalia, that wonderful collection of writings by the fathers on prayer of the heart…” could be construed that way.
    From time to time, I’ve read large sections of it and have found helpful insights into the journey of prayer.
    I “bumped into” the difficulty (for me at least) of “translating” i.e. trying to imagine the secluded and highly disciplined world of monastics, especially solitaries, into our modern and often screaming secular culture when I led an online discussion with 9 or 10 men of “The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian” by Alfeyev. I especially loved the first chapter “God, the Universe, and Humankind,” and the last chapter “The life of the Age to come” on patristic apokatastasis.
    I made it crystal clear to the men I was no expert on Isaac, but his vision of God was and is, for me, probably the most wonderful and life-giving of all the fathers.
    But when Chapter two was “The Life of a Solitary” along with the succeeding chapters, most of us had very little to say because of the extreme difference of callings in Christ.
    Anyhoo, you are such a wonderful blogger and speaker, it is very difficult for me not to want to dive into any book which you call a wonderful collection of writers. I especially was helped by your book on Shame which I read and re-read along with Bradshaw’s given that I’m a long time shame-based person and am trying my best to learn to read certain monastics or saints through a healthy shame filter, not the toxic one which has often jerked me all over the emotional spectrum.

  14. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks Dee.

    Humility. Compassion. Self-reflection.

    I will add:

    Less judgment of others. Cultivating peace. Wisely choosing the hills worth dying on.

    Easy to list. Not so easy to live out.

  15. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I am reminded of one of the great spiritual vignettes of the 20th century: Charles Schultz Snoopy dancing with wonderful joy. “To live is to dance, to dance is to live!!!!

  16. Janine Avatar

    I agree we cannot forget joy! “The joy of the Lord is your strength” Nehemiah 8:10. Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, the greatest gift of all time and for all the cosmos, together with whatever sorrows we should let it fill us with its joy (just my not so humble opinion!)

  17. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Janine, thank you for the reference. The Eucharist is the heart of the Incarnational Cosmic pageant that includes angels and saints as well as we struggling sinners. Christopher Frye in his play “The Lady’s Not For Burning” opined that “Laughter is surely the surest touch of genius in Creation”

  18. hélène d. Avatar
    hélène d.

    A Romanian priest told me he met a lonely old woman who remained a widow at about 30 years old, with a perfectly white dog. She lives in a small room of around 6 sm.
    He said :
    “She welcomes me with gladness. She gives me two walnuts. She kisses the Icon of Nativity.
    I tell her :
    `Grannie, how is with loneliness ?`
    `Father, there is nothing more beautiful in the world than deep silence when you hear how God cradles you in His arms. I am not alone at all. I open the prayer book and I feel immediately the Saviour, the Theotokos, the holy Angel and the quivering of his wings. It is a miracle to live with God.
    Prayer is the remedy for all thing ! the awareness of God`s presence and love.”

    Hearing this, I felt the profound simplicity of this blessed soul, who in her pure prayer receives in her little room the Fullness of life !

  19. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Wonderful story. Did you mean to write “30” or should it be “80”? I’ll correct it as you direct.

  20. hélène d. Avatar
    hélène d.

    P.Stephen, it is a woman who was widowed at the age of 30, who never remarried and has remained alone ever since. I don’t know his exact age now. Probably around 80 years old.
    Thank you for the publication !

  21. Shawn Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    As I was reading this I thought, “what about Jesus?” He displayed plenty of passion throughout His time on earth. Whether confronting Pharisees, overturning tables or rebuking His disciples at times. Then I remembered this part of the article:

    But their desires have been purified and healed – restored to proper order. Sobriety means desiring the right thing in the right way at the right time.

    Would you say that Jesus’s displays of passion fall into the category of the proper order, in the right way at the right time?

    As a follow-up, how do we know what is right and proper when it comes to our passions?

  22. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    One of the problems is that our modern use of the term “passion” differs from its classical meaning. What we see in Christ is the energy of certain emotions (including anger, tears, etc.). These are not “passions” in the classical sense. They are simply expressions of emotion. In the classical sense, the “passions” refers to a disordered set of emotions and ideas that hold us enthralled – in bondage.

    “How do we know?” One question can be useful: Do I have this emotion or does this emotion have me?

  23. Matthew Avatar

    I think I have come so far, then I realize how much farther I have to go …

  24. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    We all have infinitely far to go – which can be an overwhelming thought. It helps to focus on Christ Himself – forgetting those things that are behind…

  25. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks so much Fr. Stephen.

  26. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    One thing that helps my thoughts is to realize our life in Christ is not linear or all of it perceptible…which means there is always Grace and Mercy at work in me. When my participation is required, He lets me know…and everything works together for good.

  27. Allen Long Avatar
    Allen Long

    Shawn and Matthew,
    I read today in another blog, that sin is an illness of the soul (the breaking of God’s commands, judging another, telling a lie, jealousy, etc). A passion is a chronic illness of the soul. Each of us has our own chronic illness(es) of our soul. I hope this clarifies.

  28. Shawn Avatar

    Thanks all for the clarification!

  29. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks also Michael, Allen and Shawn.

  30. Alan Avatar

    “What there is – for those who want to avoid the madness – is the attend the services in their local parish regularly, go to confession regularly, and attempt to keep the commandments of Christ. Add to that, a bit of reading here and there, but we do not grow or enter the Kingdom through information.

    If we guard the heart – maintaining a spirit of peace and a generosity of love towards others – we’ll do better than not.”

    Father, thank you for sharing this. So simple…yet pure gold.

  31. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    You’re welcome! Good strength!

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