A description of the soul's journey to full union with God

The Purification of the Soul in Beginners (cont)


Ch 23: Passions to be Regulated

There can be no interior life without a struggle against self in order to regulate and discipline the passions, to cause the light of right reason and even that of infused faith and of Christian prudence to descend into these movements of the sensible appetites. There is far more than we think in the expression, to discipline one's sensible appetite; it should receive discipline like a docile pupil who is being trained. Consequently it is fitting that we speak of the passions. To proceed in an orderly fashion, we must consider them from the psychological, the moral, and the essentially ascetical point of view. We shall follow the teaching of St. Thomas.(1)


St. Thomas, who follows Aristotle and St. John Damascene, defines passion thus: "A movement of the sensitive appetite when we imagine good or evil. . . . A passion is properly to be found where there is corporeal transmutation." (2)

When we say that it is a movement of the sensible appetite, common to man and animal, a distinction is made between passion and a movement of the spiritual will, called the rational appetite. Neither must the movement of the sensible appetite be confused with corporeal movements: for example, with the beating of the heart that follows it. These movements of the sensitive appetite which are the passions manifestly exist in the animal: for example, when it desires its food, and in it passion is now under a mild form, as in the dove or the lamb, now under a violent form, as in the wolf, the tiger, or the lion.

Following Aristotle, St. Thomas distinguishes and classifies the different passions in a remarkable manner. He distinguishes first of all the concupiscible appetite, which inclines one to seek for sensible and delectable good and to flee injurious evil, and the irascible appetite, which inclines one to resist obstacles and, in spite of them, to obtain a difficult good. There are animals and men dominated by the irascible appetite, others dominated by the concupiscible.

In the concupiscible appetite, in regard to sensible good which attracts, three passions are distinguished: the love of this sensible good, whether it is present or absent; the desire of this good, if it is absent; the joy, if it is present. These movements of the sensible appetite are seen in the animal to which food is brought or from which it is removed.

On the contrary, in reference to evil to be avoided, we distinguish in the concupiscible, hatred, aversion, and sadness. Thus the lamb instinctively flees from the wolf.

In the irascible appetite, in reference to the good difficult to obtain (bonum arduum), there are the two passions of hope and of despair or dejection, according as this good appears obtainable or unobtainable. And in this same appetite, with regard to injurious evil to be repulsed, there is audacity and fear, according as this evil is easy or difficult to repulse, and also anger, if it is a question of a present evil to be surmounted or an insult to be avenged.

In the spiritual will there are analogous movements of love, desire, joy, hope, and so on, but these are of an immaterial order, whereas the passion is always accompanied by a movement of the organism, because of the fact that the sensible appetite is united to an organ.

Among all the passions, the first of all, presupposed by all the others, is sensible love: for example, in the animal, love of the food that it needs. From this love are born desire, joy, hope, audacity, or hatred of what is contrary, aversion, sadness, despair, fear, anger.(3)

From what we have said, it is evident that passion, as it has been defined, is not always lively, vehement, and dominant. However, many modern authors apply the term "passion" to a particularly intense movement of the sensible appetite and reserve "emotion" to others that are less strong.


From the moral point of view, the passions have been widely discussed. The partisans of the morality of pleasure have said that all passions are good, as the legitimate expansion of our nature. This justification of the passions is found among both ancient and modern writers.

The Stoics, on the contrary, condemned the passions, saying that they are a movement which, opposed to right reason, troubles the soul. According to them, the wise man must suppress the passions and reach impassibility.

Aristotle, followed by St. Thomas, states more profoundly that the passions or emotions, considered as such, are morally neither good nor bad, but become morally good if they are aroused or regulated by right reason and the will which utilizes them as powers, or they become morally bad if they are not conformable to right reason. Their morality depends on the intention of the will, which is always either good or bad, according as it bears or does not bear on a worthy end. Thus, anger may be holy or, on the contrary, unreasonable. Christ willed to show holy indignation when driving the vendors from the Temple and overturning their tables.(4) Likewise, in Gethsemane Christ, who was about to expiate all our sins, willed to be sorrowful even unto death to make us understand the sorrow we should have for our own sins.

Therefore, if the passions or emotions are regulated, moderated by right reason, they are morally good; they are forces to be used in the service of virtue: for example, courage, which is a virtue, makes use of hope and audacity while moderating them. Likewise modesty, which is a laudable emotion, helps the virtue of chastity, and that other emotion, known as sensible pity toward the unfortunate, renders easy for us the exercise of the virtue of mercy. The act of virtue, St. Thomas says,(5) is even more meritorious when it makes good use of the passions in view of a virtuous end.

It is clear, in fact, that God has given us our sensible appetites, as He has given us our exterior senses and imagination, as He has given us our two arms, that we may use them in view of a moral good. Thus utilized, the passions when well regulated are powers. And whereas the so-called antecedent passion, which precedes judgment, clouds the reason, as happens in the fanatic or the sectarian, the so-called consequent passion, which follows the judgment of right reason illumined by faith, increases merit and shows the power of good will for a great cause. With this meaning, Pascal could say: "Nothing great is accomplished without passion," without this flame of sensibility, which is like the radiation of zeal or the ardor of love of God and of neighbor. This zeal consumed the hearts of the saints and showed itself in their courage and endurance.

But the inordinate or undisciplined passions become vices because of their inordinateness: sensible love becomes gluttony or luxury; aversion becomes jealousy, envy; audacity becomes temerity; fear becomes cowardliness or pusillanimity.

When these inordinate passions precede the judgment of reason, they trouble it and can diminish responsibility, merit, and demerit; when they follow judgment and are willed, they increase the malice of the act.(6) Then instead of being powers in the service of goodness, they are in the service of perversity. Whereas in the souls of the saints, of missioners, and of martyrs, a perfectly ordered passion is a power that manifests and serves the love of God and neighbor; in the soul of a criminal, it manifests and serves unbridled self-love.


According to the principles we have just recalled, we shall consider the passions from the ascetical point of view in their relation to the interior life. From these principles it follows that the passions, being in themselves neither good nor bad, ought not to be extirpated like vices, but should be moderated, regulated; properly speaking, they should be disciplined by right reason illumined by faith. If they are immoderate, they become the roots of vices; if they are disciplined, they are placed at the service of the virtues. A man must not be inert and, as it were, made of straw, nor should he be violent and irascible.

Little by little the light of reason and the superior light of infused faith must descend into our sensible appetites that they may not be like those of an animal without reason, but those of a rational being, of a child of God, who shares in the intimate life of the Most High.

We should direct our thoughts to Christ's sensible appetites, which were pure and strong because of the virtues of virginity, patience, and constancy even to the death of the cross.(7) Let us also think of the sensibility of Mary, Virgin most pure and Mother of Sorrows, coredemptress of the human race. We shall thus see how our sensible appetites ought to be ever more and more subjected to our intellect illumined by faith, to our will vivified by charity, and how the light and living flame of the spirit ought to radiate over our emotions to sanctify them and place them at the service of God and of our neighbor. St. Paul exhorts us, saying: "Rejoice with them that rejoice; weep with them that weep." (8) This is characteristic of the saints; they manifest admirable delicacy of feeling for the afflicted; at times they alone can find words which uplift and fortify.

From this point of view, the passions must be moderated, not materially but proportionately to what reason requires in relation to a more or less lofty given end to be reached in given circumstances. Thus, without sinning, a person may experience great sadness, great fear, or lively indignation in certain grave circumstances. We read in Exodus II that Moses, seeing the Israelites adoring the golden calf, crushed this idol to dust and punished with great severity those who were most guilty. In the First Book of Kings,(10) the priest Heli is reprimanded for not having become indignant at the evil conduct of his sons. On the road to perfection, those who are naturally meek must become strong, and those who are naturally inclined to be strong-willed must become gentle. Both are climbing toward the summit by different slopes.

To drive a horse well, now the bit must be used, and now the
whip; the same applies to the governing of the passions. At times they must be checked, and at other times awakened, jolted, in order to react against sloth, inertia, timidity, or fear. At times a great effort is required to break an impetuous horse; the same is true of disciplining certain temperaments capable of great things. How beautiful it
is to see these temperaments transformed by the profound impress of a Christian character after ten or fifteen years of self-discipline!

With a view to the interior life, one must be particularly attentive, above all at the beginning, to a special point: that is, to be on guard against precipitation and also against the dominant passion, that it may not become a predominant fault. As we have already spoken of the predominant fault, we here insist on precipitation to be avoided or, as the expression goes, on impulsiveness, which inclines one to act without sufficient reflection.

With rash haste many beginners, otherwise very good, at times wish to make too rapid progress, more rapid than their degree of grace warrants. They desire to travel rapidly because of a certain unconscious presumption; then, when trial comes, they sometimes let themselves be cast down at least for a moment. This condition is similar to what happens also in young students at the beginning of their curiosity in their work; when it is satisfied or when application becomes too painful, negligence and sloth follow. As a matter of fact, the happy medium of virtue, which is at the same time a summit above two opposing vices, like strength above temerity and cowardliness, is not attained immediately.

Properly speaking, what is precipitation? St. Thomas (11) defines it as a manner of acting by impulsion of the will or of the passion, without prudence, precaution, or sufficient consideration. It is a sin directly opposed to prudence and the gift of counsel. It leads to temerity in judgment and is comparable to the haste of one who descends a staircase too rapidly and falls, instead of walking composedly.

From the moral point of view, one should descend in a thoughtful manner from reason, which determines the end to be attained, to the operations to be accomplished without neglecting the steps that intervene, that is, the memory of things past, intelligent attention to present circumstances, shrewdness in foreseeing obstacles that may arise, docility in following authorized advice. One must take time to deliberate before acting; "one should deliberate slowly and without haste," as Aristotle used to say. Afterward one must sometimes act with great promptness.

If, on the contrary, a person is inclined to action by the impulse of the will or of the passion, while neglecting the intervening steps we have just mentioned, the memory of the past, attention to the present, foresight of the future, and docility, such a person stumbles and falls. This is inevitable.

What are the causes of precipitation? As spiritual writers say, this defect comes from the fact that we substitute our own natural activity for the divine action. We act with feverish ardor, without sufficient reflection, without prayer for the light of the Holy Ghost, without the advice of our spiritual director. At times this natural haste is the cause of extremely imprudent acts that are very harmful in their results.

Natural haste often arises from the fact that we consider only the proximate end to be attained today, without seeing its relation to the supreme end toward which we must direct our steps. Seeing only this immediate human end, we direct our efforts toward it by natural. activity, without sufficient recourse to the help of God.

We can see in the training that Christ gave His apostles how often He warned them against this precipitation or natural haste, which causes a man to act without sufficient reflection and without a sufficiently great spirit of faith. Some pages back, we recalled that James and John on returning from their first apostolate, during which a town refused to receive their preaching, asked our Lord to send fire from heaven on this village. With divine irony, Christ then called them Boanerges,(12) or "sons of thunder," to remind them that they should be sons of God and, like Him, should also be patient in awaiting the return of sinners. James and John understood; so well indeed, that John at the end of his life could only say: "Love one another, this is the commandment of the Lord." In Christ's school, the Boanerges become gentle; yet they do not lose their ardor or their zeal, but this zeal becomes patient, gentle, and less fiery, and bears lasting fruits, the fruits of eternity.

We would do well also to remember how St. Peter, who was called to a high degree of sanctity, was cured of his rash haste and presumption. When our Lord announced His passion, Peter said to Him: "Although all shall be scandalized in Thee, I will never be scandalized. Jesus said to him: Amen I say to thee, that in this night before the cock crow, thou wilt deny Me thrice." (13) Humbled by his sin, Peter was cured of his presumption. He no longer counted on himself, but on divine grace by asking to be faithful to it; and grace led him to the very heights of sanctity by the way of martyrdom.

The precipitation we are speaking of sometimes leads young, generous, and ardent souls to wish to reach the summit of perfection more rapidly than grace, without any delay en route, without taking into consideration the intermediary degrees and the mortification necessary for disciplining the passions, as if they had already reached divine union. They sometimes read works on mysticism with avidity and curiosity, and gather from them beautiful flowers before fruit has time to form. They thus expose themselves to many illusions and, when disillusionment comes, they expose themselves to the danger of falling into spiritual sloth and pusillanimity. We should walk at a good pace, indeed with an ever firmer and more rapid step in proportion as we draw near to God who attracts us the more, but we must avoid what St. Augustine calls "great strides off the right road."

The effects of this haste and of the self-satisfaction that accompany it, are the loss of interior recollection, perturbation, and fruitless agitation, which has only the outward appearances of productive action, as glass beads counterfeit diamonds.

The remedies for precipitation are easily indicated. Since this defect comes from the fact that we substitute our natural, hasty action for that of God, the chief remedy is to be found in a complete dependence in regard to God and in the conformity of our will to His. For this, we must reflect seriously before acting; pray humbly for the light of the Holy Ghost, and also heed the advice of our spiritual director, who has the grace of state to guide us. Then gradually precipitation will be replaced by habitual docility to the action of God in us. We shall be a little less satisfied with ourselves, and we shall find greater peace and, from time to time, true joy in God.

To discipline the passions, we must be alert to combat vivacity of temperament united to presumption, which springs from too great esteem of self; we must also contend against effeminacy, and against sloth, which would be even more harmful to the interior life. By this slow persevering work, on which we should daily examine ourselves, the ardent, the Boanerges, must become meek without losing true spiritual ardor, which is zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. And the meek also, who are perhaps inclined by nature to effeminacy, heedlessness, and negligence, must become strong. Both will thus ascend by different slopes toward the summit of perfection. And they will see that it is a great thing to know how to discipline themselves gradually, to conduct themselves well, or to put it better, to know how to remain habitually faithful to grace, without which, in the order of salvation, we can do nothing.

Then the passions, no longer inordinate but disciplined, will become powers truly useful for the good of our soul and that of others. Audacity will be at the service of a fortitude that will dominate thoughtless fear when, for example, there is a question of coming promptly to the help of our neighbor in distress. Likewise meekness, which presupposes a great mastery over self, will repress anger so that it may never be anything but the holy indignation of zeal, of a zeal which, without losing any of its ardor, remains patient and meek and is the sign of sanctity.



1. Cfr. Ia IIae, q.22-28.

2. Ibid., q.22, a.3.

3. Cf. Bossuet, De la connaissance de Dieu et de soi-meme, chap. I, § 6.

4. John 2:15.

5. Cf. Ia IIae. Q.24. a.3.

6. Cf. ibid.

7. Cf. IIIa, q. I5. a.4-7, 9.

8. Rom. 12: 15.

9. Exod. 32: 19.

10. Chap. 2.

11. See IIa IIae, q.53, a.3; q.54. a. I ad 2um.

12. Mark 3:17.

13. Matt. 26: 33 f.