Meet the Abbas and Ammas, also known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers. These 4th- and 5th-century folks gave up on the world and went to live a life of prayer and solitude in the desert. They would never have done this if Jesus hadn't said to sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor. But were they Christians? They didn't tithe or teach Sunday school. Their collected sayings don't even mention Jesus that much. Instead of living life as a mere Christian, they strove to emulate Christ by embodying God's love for the world.
Passion has a pretty good reputation. It's a good thing to have a passion for justice. No one will fault you if you also have a passion for grapefruit. But for the Abbas and Ammas, the passions are what lead to sin. When they say passion, they mean a movement of the soul that overwhelms reason and prompts an unthinking action. In other words, passion takes a negative impulse and turns it into a sin. They cloud a person's vision and prevent them from loving freely.
Although the word passion suggests a grand sweep of emotion, it doesn't necessarily work like that. It's the little things that get to a person. Even a minor irritation can spark a movement of the soul and lead to an out-sized reaction. Just think about the last time you came unglued and screamed at someone who cut you off in traffic. Or maybe that's just me. But in any case, it doesn't take much for the passions to get out of hand and that's exactly why addressing them is so important.
Sin is an uncomfortable topic but it was important to the Abbas and Ammas. They thought the passions caused us to sin because they interfered with our ability to love. They listed eight key passions, among them experiences like depression. But can depression really lead to sin? It can if it interferes with an individual's ability to love self, others, and God. And I think we can agree that it does. But do we really want to call that sin? The answer is yes again if we rethink sin. Sin isn't primarily about breaking a set of divine rules. It's about ways of being that diminish our humanity. In sin, we suffer a loss that culminates finally in death. This, rather than punishment, is the real wages of sin.
If this is sin, salvation is about healing. And for healing, love is all you need. The Abbas and Ammas call us to root out our own passions because those passions cause suffering, not because sin makes God mad. Sin obscures the image of God that was planted in each of us and prevents us from being Christ to the world. This is the way of salvation. When we strive to love others, we experience the healing love of God. We are more human, more whole. It's a beautiful thing. The Beatles were right: Love is all you need.
Professor Bullock received her PhD in Religion from Emory. She specializes is religion in the ancient Mediterranean, especially in the context of the Roman Empire. Annie has extensive training in the history of Christianity, especially early Christianity. She has taught courses in theology and world religions at St. Edward's University and in church history at Austin Seminary and Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest.
Living Without Judgment: More Lessons from the Desert
Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011