IT IS now widely recognised that it was Nelson Mandela's long
years on Robben Island that transformed him into the great
reconciler that he became. It was here that he set himself the task
of learning to control his fiery emotions. In the process he
rediscovered what the early Christian ascetics learnt, which is
that inner and outer peace require us to learn detachment from the
passions - those inner compulsions that, if unchecked, can wreck
Contemporary Christian spirituality rarely treads this ancient
path. We are encouraged instead to be in touch with our feelings,
and to express them freely. To be "passionate" is a plus; it means
being enthusiastic and committed. All this, no doubt, has been a
necessary corrective to the rather stiff-upper-lip approach that is
closer to Stoicism than Christianity.
But, in the process of seeking balance, we have come close to
falling into the mistake of encouraging emotionalism for its own
sake. Anyone who has seen victims of crime being provoked by
reporters to express outrage and anger against those who have
wronged them knows how hungry we are to feast on emotional
Deep down, we have swallowed the massive assumption that emotion
is the key to connection with God and others. Emotional expression
equates to authenticity.
But this is surely a mistake. Although many might agree that
emotion can open the door of the heart, it is not an end in itself.
The Desert Fathers were wary of "passion", with good cause. The
passions fill us up, and can lead to self-indulgence at the expense
not only of reason, but, more important, of charity.
It is no accident that the root of the word "passion" means
"suffering". Unchecked passion hurts us. Passionate feelings will
always have their place, but it is a modern fallacy that they are
innocent. They need to be acknowledged, worked through, and
Christian spirituality is like therapy, in that it involves an
inner work of recognition and naming. The difference is that this
happens in the presence of, and with the grace of, God. Within the
Christian spiritual tradition, all this has been rediscovered many
In our own time, we need to resist the identification of
emotionalism with authenticity, and to rediscover spiritual
resilience. We are more than the sum of our feelings and thoughts.
To recognise that is to begin to discover the freedom that Mr
Mandela discovered in his years of captivity.
The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church,
Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development
Adviser for Oxford.