Can You Turn Lust Into Love? On Transfiguring the Passions

I haven’t found a good copy of the Philokalia, the anthology of the saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church, for the Kindle. I did find Philokalia: The Bible of Orthodox Spirituality by Anthony M. Coniaris with the subtitle as Orthodox Spirituality for the Lay Person and it has been a marvelous text in itself. It functions almost like a daily devotional for me, with short, poignant sections mostly quoting the saints with glosses on either side as well as contemporary anecdotes and writings from everyone from Carl Jung to C. S. Lewis.

In rediscovering the work of the desert fathers, which I studied at length in undergrad at the University of South Carolina under the guidance of Dr. James Cutsinger, who is a world renowned expert in the Perrenialist philosophic tradition and practicing orthodox Christian himself, I appreciate now how systematically this tradition approaches the spiritual life. There is rich tradition here of people tirelessly mastering their own bodies and thoughts while mapping out what today we would call a psychoanalytic record of the way evil emerges from our hearts.

Today I read a section about how Christianity does not attempt to do away with passions–taken here to mean vices or sin–but instead channels their disordered energy towards God, thereby transfiguring them into virtues.

A few of the most helpful excerpts are here:

“The soul is made perfect when its powers of passion have been completely directed towards God,” -St. Maximus the Confessor

“I have seen impure souls who threw themselves headlong into physical eros to a frenzied degree. It was their very experience of that eros that led them to interior conversion. They concentrated their eros (love) on the Lord. Rising above fear they tried to love god with a insatiable desire. That is why, when Christ spoke of the woman who had been a sinner, he did not say that she had been afraid, but that she had loved much and had easily been able to surmount love by love.  – St. John Climacus

“Thus the passions are not to be destroyed. Rather, their powerful energy is to be re-directed toward God. Uncontrolled anger is to be redirected into righteous indignation; sexual lust transformed into an eros love directed toward God, whom we are to love with both an agape and an eros love. Thus the passions are to be purified, not eradicated; transfigured, not eliminated.

By God’s grace the passions can be turned into virtues: pride can become humility; lust can become agape, the sacrificial love that God has for us; anger can become righteous indignation against evil; greed can become generosity…; unfaithfulness can become steadfastness; envy can become “rejoicing with those who rejoice;” sloth can become diligence; sensuality can become spirituality–all of this can be accomplished by God’s grace and our cooperation with HIs grace through askesis, prayer, and vigilance.” – Anthony M. Coniaris

This is a fascinating change from a more typical approach to our inner darkness. Rather than this strict–and often fruitless–attempt to strangle our wayward desires, which usually causes us to inevitably fall doubly hard back into our old ways, it encourages us to take that wayward horse of our passions, as Plato would describe it, and drive it on towards a better destination.

I’m going to give this a try in my own life, and hopefully report back with my findings.

If anyone does the same, let me know what you learned in the process.

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