Some have strong physical health, others have poor health. Sensible people care for their health, especially when they feel that it is on the wane. In our days we observe a general passion for sport and fitness. With our sedentary urban life, people realize that exercise is vital for good health.
In addition to physical health, there is also the health of the human soul, which is no less important. Although, people tend to care less for the soul than they care for the body. Some people solve various puzzles to prevent their brains from declining. Others struggle with emotional disorders and chronic melancholy. It has become fashionable to attend psychological training and seminars, which do not always have positive effects, to put it mildly.
In general, it is clear what physical and mental health mean. But what is spiritual health? Let us answer in one word: Human spiritual health is passionlessness. That is, a state when someone is not bothered by any passions. It is no coincidence that in Russian, “passion” is a paronym of “suffering” [compare: “strast”—passion, and “stradaniye”—suffering.—Trans.]—that is, it is an unhealthy condition.
Which passions are the most wide-spread and dangerous? Sensible people from ancient times tried to resist the passions of vanity, drunkenness, gluttony, lust, anger and covetousness. In our days there is the new passion of game addiction. In most cases it is an obsession with computer games, though some are still crazy about traditional gambling.
The latest passion which has recently appeared is gadget addiction. Many young city residents are wholly concentrated on their screens and not cars while crossing the road. It appears that the obsession with gadgets is stronger than the instinct of self-preservation. Among other modern widespread passions let us mention drug addiction, internet addiction, and “getting hooked on TV serials”.
Passionlessness means freedom from all kinds of unhealthy addictions and all the passions.
Ancient Greeks, though they were pagans, felt the harm of passions very keenly and tried to combat them. Thus antique philosophical asceticism originated. It’s a pity that those philosophers didn’t know the Biblical revelation about the original source of the human passions and had no concept of the fall of man. It would have helped them a great deal.
Our sins and susceptibility to passions are passed down from generation to generation. What is the source of the passions? The nature of passions is in sin—disobedience to the commandments of God. People were created by God. He gives the commandments as fatherly instructions for beloved children and as a warning of danger. God is the source of our lives, our good health and happiness. Sin separates man from God, and life becomes filled with suffering and gradually fades away. Asceticism offers a sure remedy for sin—repentance.
As Christ said, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin (Jn. 8:34). Here is the key revelation: sin has negative consequences; it provokes sinful dependence—that is, passion. Sin may look attractive and seductive, but let us think about its implications. This is a very important point: its implications. Taking drugs first seems attractive because they provoke pleasant emotional sensations. But that’s only at the beginning. It is followed by an unbearable drug habit. That is a terrible disease, which is a torment for a drug addict and a tragedy for his loved ones.
A sin that someone repeats over and again enslaves him and becomes his passion—that is, a chronic spiritual disease. What should be done here?
During an acute attack of a chronic disease someone calls a doctor or, in extreme cases, an ambulance. The patient is given medicines and hospitalized if his life is in danger. After being discharging him from hospital the doctor recommends he follows a regime to restore his health, goes to a health resort, or is registered disabled. While they are in remission, we often forget our illnesses and become careless. That usually results in new acute attacks and calling an ambulance again.
The situation with spiritual diseases is very similar. People often go to church when they have faced serious problems and harsh trials in their lives that they are unable to overcome. People often fail to understand the spiritual roots of these problems. They just wait for God to perform a miracle, to intervene, after which “all will be fine.”
A priest often helps people “in an emergency regime”. Emergency doctors listen to patients’ or their loved ones’ complaints, console them, give them first aid and take them to hospital if needed. A priest too listens to someone who has come with his grief, sympathizes with him, consoles him, and, if it please God, helps him stand before Christ in prayer, in the sacraments of confession, Communion and unction. If a person opens up to the Lord, God is able to do things we can’t even dream of.
With time the priest explains to the person the spiritual roots of his problems. For example, how the passion of pride is ruining his health, destroying his family life, and making people who were always close to him hate him. Thus the path of gradual spiritual healing opens before him.
God helps us on this path, but not automatically. He helps, provided we ask for His help in our prayers. Ancient Greeks who struggled with passions knew little, if anything, about this. True, they also prayed—but those were typical pagan spells, “trading” with deities, everyday petitions. And in Orthodox asceticism the struggle with sins brings us to another spiritual level by establishing inner harmony, when passions subside. This restoration of health is called the stillness of the passions.
Ascetic life leads to a special experience of prayer, which is called the prayer of the heart. This is precisely the prayer of a person who is recovering spiritually. An Orthodox ascetic has come to the prospect of passionlessness—complete spiritual recovery. Orthodox passionlessness is not like pagan philosophers’ emotionless otherworldliness; on the contrary, it is filled with active love for God you’re your neighbors.
The best representatives of the Ancient Greeks considered the struggle with passions to be the path towards wisdom and happiness. They dreamed of passionlessness, though they never achieved true passionlessness. As opposed to them, Christ showed His followers a living example of real life free of passions. And He vouchsafed the Apostles to taste blessed passionlessness by experience.
What came next? In the fourth century A.D., a strong Orthodox ascetic tradition was formed; this tradition is still alive. It is a well-trodden, “step-by-step” Christian road to passionlessness. This continued for over 1,000 years. But then the history of the struggle with passions produced an unpleasant surprise. In the eighteenth century, people began to romanticize human passions! Thousands of compelling novels were written about this! So many people tried to cultivate passions because they saw in boiling passions the value of human life!...
Twentieth-century culture brings passions closer to the modern idol of millions—the energies of the subconscious. On top of that, a whole commercial industry of passions has been developed: lust, anger, gluttony, despondency, vanity...
Moreover, the twentieth-century’s insatiable passions have incited people to deplete the natural resources of our planet, and polute it without restraint. And even scientists and public activists who are far from the Church have raised their voices to insist that we should use natural resources more sensibly and reservedly. They have begun to speak about the need for an ascetic life in no uncertain terms. Otherwise, in the folly of consumerism mankind will cross a point of no return, when it will no longer be possible to restore the ecological balance. And then the future generations will inherit a miserable dump instead of a beautiful planet.
The cultivation of the passions has led us to a dead end. The passions promise instantaneous pleasure, but they are disadvantageous in the long term. Over and over again we come to the conclusion that the passions ruin our lives. Some kind of ascetic life is required…
Orthodox asceticism is not a system of “ritual prohibitions” and “unsound medieval taboos.” It is the art of spiritual healing that we need now. True, there are prohibitions in asceticism, but if you consider them closely you will find that they are justified. They are used to make the atmosphere of human life healthy, and ensure that people always live like brothers, long and happily with God their Heavenly Father.