5 Steps of Forming a Passion

The early Church Fathers and saints provide us with great insight into the human condition. They truly were the first psychologists and therapists. Expanding on the available philosophical contributions from the early Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, these mystics were able to understand all that troubles us and what the cures are for these ailments. In their writings in The Philokalia these therapists of the soul, have identified five steps in the progression of a passion or bad habit.

Just as disease prevention is concerned with learning how a particular illness forms in the body, we too must know how spiritual disease forms in the soul.

““He who is ignorant of the enemy’s ambush is easily slain; and he who does not know the causes of the passions is soon brought low.”

--St Mark the Ascetic

For nearly all of us, these five steps are automated and most of the time we have no idea they are happening. Translated into simple terms these are the steps in the process of temptation. Usually spiritual illness begins in the mind with a fleeting thought, which can swiftly turn into an action of sin, which in turn can develop into a habit of sin. These habits, which the Church Fathers refer to as the passions, are the complete formation of the diseases. This unseen process was expressed with precision by a mystic of The Philokalia, St. Peter of Damascus (†12th century), whom we know very little about. In his Treasury of Divine Knowledge he pinpoints these deep seated movements that take place in the mind and soul of every person:

“Our thoughts differ greatly one from another. Some are altogether free from sin. Others do not initially involve sin: this is the case with what are called provocations, in other words, conceptions of either good or evil, which in themselves are neither commendable nor reprehensible. What follows on these is known as coupling; that is to say, we begin to entertain a particular thought and parley with it, so to speak; and this leads us either to give ascent to it or reject it…After this comes the stage at which our intellect struggles with the thought, and either conquers it, or is conquered by it…When the soul dallies for a long time with an impassioned thought there arises what we call a passion. This in its turn, through its intercourse with the soul, becomes a settled disposition within us, compelling the soul to move of its own accord towards the corresponding action.”   

--St. Peter of Damascus

This is the way sin starts and progresses to habit, which becomes a passion rooted in the soul. Occasionally this process can be initiated with a subtle movement in the body, such as in the case of some sexual inclinations, but more commonly this process starts in the mind with a thought. In fact passive memories stored in the crevasses of our brain can instigate this process. St. Maximus the Confessor explained how this can start in the mind or intellect with a memory:

“First the memory brings some passion-free thought into the intellect. By its lingering there, the passion is aroused. When the passion is not eradicated, it persuades the intellect to ascent to it. Once this ascent if given, the actual sin is then committed.”  

--St. Maximus the Confessor

Understanding the steps to forming a passion in the soul can change your life. Once you know and understand how these subtle and unseen processes work you can better know yourself, and begin the work of uprooting the illnesses that take away happiness. So what exactly are these five steps? As identified above, they are referred to by the Church Fathers in the following terms: 1. provocation, 2. coupling, 3. ascent, 4. struggle, and 5. captivity which is a state of passion or sin. Let’s look at these a little more closely:

1. Provocation

The first step is the emergence of a suggestion or thought that is disharmonious or unnatural to the soul. It is a thought still free from passion and is an image newly engendered in the heart, and glimpsed by the intellect . All day long random suggestions are coming to mind in the form of fleeting or wandering thoughts. St. Gregory of Sinai calls them distractive thoughts. These spontaneous suggestions come to us from the senses, the body, our memory, or our imagination. With consciousness comes a perpetual interior dialogue concerning memories, conceptual images, information and mental whims and wanderings. Often they are associated with a memory of a recent interaction with someone or something. These suggestions may be related to some sort of self indulgence, an angry thought about someone, a lustful impulse, the thought of taking something, or even direct thoughts of committing intentional sin. These initial suggestions can even be ridiculous or uncharacteristic notions of committing heinous sins or similar thoughts that may seem absurd. These initial mental suggestions are taking place independently of one’s free will and are therefore considered innocent. At this point no sin has been committed.

2. Coupling

The moment when the mind decides to entertain a suggestion that is disharmonious or sinful is called joining. At this moment we decide to join to the thought and deliberately brood on the thought in a pleasurable manner . This often includes a feeling or emotional connection to the wandering thought. This is a crucial moment in the process because at this point a decision has been made to start the process of sin.

3. Ascent

This is the pleasurable acceptance by the soul of the thought, idea or image . This leads to a state of seduction. This is evidenced by feelings of confusion, agitation and a state of uneasiness. At this point the sin has been accepted and committed. The soul is then compelled to move of its own accord towards the corresponding action.  

4. Struggle

With every developing passion there is a point where the exit from the process is revealed. This step is called the opportunity for struggle, and involves the intervention of the conscience. Once the fleeting thought has been accepted (step of ascent) the intellect wants to intervene and put up a fight with the thought. “If the intellect is attentive and watchful, and at once repulses the provocation by counter-attacking, its consequences remain inoperative” . If one has not learned self control, self regulation and temperance, all of which are part of an active spiritual life, this stage is a flash of a moment, and the next step is taken.

5. Passion

This step is also referred to as captivity or formed habit. This is the abduction of the heart by way of persistent intercourse with the thought or action of desire. This is when the sin lurks passively in the soul for extended periods of time. This is the cause of all spiritual disease and is the crux of the human condition. When we are held captive by a passion or passions we are restless and even tormented inside. The passion becomes fully automated and rules our life. The illness of a passion corrupts the mind and the heart, and becomes our life long antagonist. For some people captivity to a passion leads to slavery to other passions, which leads to the inner death that we mentioned earlier.

The effect of this process and the illness that it generates in us ends up permeating our lives. I say this without hyperbole, because it truly does affect everything. If you observe yourself for a day you will see these five steps are always taking place inside you. Thoughts of whether I should do this or that are ceaseless. Choices are taking place every moment. Often these thoughts and the corresponding actions are trivial and utilitarian. But upon examination you will see that some of these thoughts are potential sins or passions. And once we learn this five step process and determine what passions we are already captive to, and observe the potential passions that are provoking us, we can see how they trickle into every aspect of our life; relationships, work, decision making and the way we think about and interact with the world.

In closing it is necessary to say something that is very encouraging about the passions and the soul. These passions are absolutely vital for us. We can’t control weather these eight thoughts or vices will arise and disturb us. We can’t control the world around us, nor can we live in a vacuum or bubble. We also can’t prevent every impulse of the body from occurring, or every movement in our thoughts. Control of the world and complete neutrality or impassivity of the body and soul is not the goal. As St. John of Damascus said, “It does not lie within our power to decide whether or not these eight thoughts are going to arise and disturb us. But to dwell on them, does lie within our power.”

Even when they take hold of us, we must not be discouraged. We must not become paralyzed with fear and shame when they manifest. At all times remember they are an integral part of life and are essential for our spiritual growth. Evagrios said, “Take away temptations and no one will be saved”, and Abba Zosimas said, “One who avoids beneficial temptation is avoiding eternal life”. This may sound shocking, but it is completely true. Once we become aware of the passions, and acknowledge our sins, and begin the work of struggling against them, we draw closer to God.

The passions According to the scriptures St. Paul himself reveals that he was tormented by the passions. He called this a thorn in the flesh that helped keep him humble. On this humbly and encouragingly said:

“For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, ‘My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then I am strong.”

--St. Paul

Here St. Paul reveals a powerful secret about sin and the passions. He reveals that they are precisely that which transform us, and perfect us. He also reveals another thing. In talking about sin in this way, he extracts all self destructive shame and guilt, and shows us that despair and despondency are not to be associated with them.