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An example in passion

13 December 2013

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 lives.

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 excess.

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 transformed.

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 times.

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.

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