Father Stephen shares with us his review of an excellent book called Orthodox Spirituality by a great Roman theologian by the name of Dimitru Staniloae. Defined as the practical guide for the faithful and a definitive manual for the scholar, this book introduces us to the passions as understood in Orthodox Christianity.
In this book, we are told that the passions represent the lowest level to which human nature can fall. The passions can bring us to a state of passivity and reduce us to a form of slavery as we are carried along by them. Passions bring about a state of thirst for which there is no quenching because we seek the infinite in a direction that leads us to no satisfaction.
The stomach, for example, by way of gluttony is a good description of a passion. The desire or passion for food in and of itself is not a bad thing. We need food to survive. It is when the desire for food reaches a point that we use food as a substitute for things that we may be missing in our lives, this is when food becomes a form of enslaving passion. We look to food to quench the thirst for something greater than ourselves.
As St. Maximus puts it, the passionate person finds himself in a continuous preoccupation with nothing; he tries to appease his infinite thirst with the nothingness of his passions, and the objects which he is gobbling up become nothing, by their very nature. Our egos, driven by passions, cause us to seek out objects that we can control and have at our mercy. The objects, however, can only satisfy for a time and then we find ourselves seeking yet again another object that we hope will quench our thirst.
Father Dimitru explains the difference between natural and unnatural passions such as the food mentioned above. When the desire for the infinite, rightly directed to God, becomes confused with the natural desires, we wind up with unnatural passions, such as gluttony, etc., in which we desire infinitely what should only be desired in a finite and helpful manner.
In summary, the passions are the energies or desires of our soul or body that have at their root a right and proper end, but, because of the fall, they are disordered and are misdirected seeking after what they can never have. As such, they are not to be confused with the emotions, per se, though the emotions, too have a proper role, and can be distorted into a passionate and incorrect state.