We are witnesses of a lot of meanness and violence in our Cancel Culture today. If someone disagrees with us then we set out to make that person suffer. This meanness and violence was also present in the time of Jesus. Jesus begins to teach his disciples that the Son of Man would have to be handed over to the people of his time and would suffer and be killed for his teaching the truth. St. James gives us an answer to the question of meanness in his letter to the Church: the interior passions.
James leads us in a reflection upon the passions: “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members? You covet but do not possess. You kill and envy but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war. You do not possess because you do not ask. You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” (James 4,1-3) James locates the difficulties and struggles of humanity in the interior life of individuals where there is an interior battle going on which has been brought on by the passions. The disciples of Jesus did not understand his teaching about his own impending suffering because they themselves were caught up in conflicts and arguments about personal greatness. Sin roots itself deep down inside of us as individuals and disorders the passions, the natural impulses and desires that could be ordered to the good but because of sin have been disordered to evil. James follows upon the thought of Jesus who himself said in the gospel of Matthew, “For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy. These are what defile a person.” (Mt 15,19)
The “passions” are understood as thoughts, impulses, desires, and feelings that arise within us and often cause us to suffer. In the history of spiritual thought there have been some that have taken up the thought of the Stoics and defined all passions as evil and a result of sin. They would argue that God did not create the passions in the human person and that they are present only in fallen humanity. The goal of the ascetical life of prayer and fasting would therefore be to eliminate the passions and become “dispassionate”. This is represented by the quality of “apatheia”. There are others that have written of the passions along the line of Aristotle and have seen the passions as part of human nature and have seen them as something that can be used for the good as well as something that could be inclined to evil. Therefore it depends upon human freedom and choice to order the passions to the proper end. Jesus was passionate about holiness, sanctity and salvation. The ascetical work of the spiritual life would therefore be to redirect the passions from pride and egoism to the glory of God.
All of us experience this interior struggle with evil thoughts, temptations, negative emotions and disordered desires that arise from our pride and self-centeredness. The battle between good and evil is waged within our hearts. Today that struggle is made even more difficult because the disordered passions are constantly fed by images, ideas, nihilistic philosophies and other influences from media, television, radio and the internet. Often we have no defense against these experiences and we offer no resistance to them and therefore they cause us to suffer from envy, jealousy, lust, anger, greed, gluttony and ennui which have been classically known as the seven deadly sins. Disordered passions rob us of a sense of peace and they cause conflict within our interior being resulting in suffering.
The ascetical life of prayer, repentance, fasting, almsgiving and other spiritual disciplines gives us a means of combating evil desires and influences and reordering the passions to a good purpose. Our spiritual battles can be won by developing humility, serving others in love, making sacrifices for others, prayer of the heart and obediently submitting our will to God. The goal of our ascetical disciplines and practices is to cultivate peace in our hearts. “But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace.” (James 3,17f) Jesus suggests the humility of being a servant to all and chooses the example of spiritual childhood as a means of unity and peace in our communities. “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.” (Mk 9,37)
As our society moves further away from spiritual life and practice our world grows in conflict rather than peace. If we do not eliminate the interior war that rages within our interior being we will never be able to resolve the conflicts and wars that rob our world of peace. If we do not know peace in our hearts then we there will be no peace in our world