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Book review: Passions of the Soul by Rowan Williams

26 January 2024

Hugh Wybrew reviews reflections on a list of life’s spiritual pitfalls

THE title of this little book might put off many who would benefit greatly from reading it. Passions of the Soul might seem remote from the concerns of contemporary Christians, save perhaps for a small number of contemplative monastics. The book does, in fact, have its origin in retreat addresses given to Benedictine nuns some years ago. They were recorded and so could be transcribed, preserving the straightforward language in which they were given.

They were inspired by the texts of early Eastern Christian writers between roughly 450 and 750, and there are frequent references to the Philokalia, the late-18th-century anthology of ascetic writings, the fifth and final volume of whose English translation was published last year.

In his introduction, significantly entitled “A Tradition for Learning Freedom”, Williams acknowledges that these texts are not easy for contemporary Western Christians to digest— not least in their insistence that the goal of the Christian life is apatheia, whose apparently obvious English rendering “apathy” is far from conveying accurately the sense of the original. He cites various definitions of apatheia in early Eastern Christian writers as an anticipation of the resurrection, as inseparable from love, as the essence of Christian liberty, and as the life of the Spirit in us.

Eastern monastic writers identified eight passions of the soul: greed or gluttony, lust, avarice, anger, dejection, listlessness, self-esteem, and pride. These are not necessarily wrong in themselves, but they are “ways in which natural impulses can be distorted and can cloud our perception”. The first chapter in Part One, “Mapping the Passions of the Soul”, examines how the monastic tradition understands these passions, and what it means by temptation as “the unsettlement of the mind which can release the exercise of passion”. Williams then pairs each of the eight passions with the eight Beatitudes of St Matthew’s Gospel, seeing in them “a sort of reversed image of the things that go wrong in our souls”.

The second chapter, “Pride, Listlessness and the Truth of Dependence”, relates those passions with “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and “Blessed are those who mourn”. In the third chapter, “Anger, Gluttony and the Grace of Poverty”, those passions are paired with “Blessed are the meek”. Acknowledging the common mistrust of meekness, Williams interprets it as being “alert to the reality of others”.

“Hunger and thirst for righteousness”, in chapter four, includes a concern for the well-being of our neighbour, and so is the opposite of gluttony. Similarly, the chapter on “Avarice, Lust and the Risks of Mercy” understands avarice as a longing for control and a failure to trust the providence of God, and mercy, as in “Blessed are the merciful,” as letting go of the need for control and of the power that we long for. In this chapter, there is, too, a discussion of what “desire” means, linked with “Blessed are the pure in heart”.

The final chapter, “Envy, Despair and the Light of Hope”, examines those two passions in connection with “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and the last of the Beatitudes, pronounced on those who are reviled and persecuted for righteousness’ sake.

Part Two consists of two short essays, “To Stand where Christ stands” and “Early Christian Writing”. The first discusses the meaning of “spirituality” in a Christian context, pointing out that, in contrast to the way in which the word is so often used nowadays, spirituality has to do with “a whole human life to be lived in the ‘place’ defined by Jesus”. The second situates early Christian writings in the general context in which the Church lived in the early centuries.

Underlying the book are the presuppositions that “we are because God is,” and that “we are the way we are because of the way God is,” and so to be fully ourselves is to grow into an awareness of God. The book relates the wisdom of the early Eastern monastic tradition to the present situation of Christians, living in a world very different from the one in which that tradition developed. It affirms the continuing relevance of that tradition to the goal of all Christian ascetic endeavour, which is mature humanity, attained by acquiring the “capacity of seeing and sharing the divine glory and joy”.

Like all good retreat addresses, this book informs and enlightens, guiding readers to deeper self-knowledge and discernment, and so to the control of those “passions” that, in the form of emotions and instincts, are the source of so many of the world’s ills, both past and present.

Canon Hugh Wybrew was formerly Vicar of St Mary Magdalen’s, Oxford.

Passions of the Soul
Rowan Williams
Bloomsbury £11.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.79

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