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The Paradox of Passion

The Daily Telegraph, Easter 1999

 

In his Autobiography Bertrand Russell makes a key confession. He writes: ‘Three passions, simple but overwhelming, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, passionand unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind’. No doubt it would shock that old athiest when I suggest that those three human ‘passions’ are united in one passion - the divine passion of Christ. To explain why is a semantic journey which starts in suffering and ends in love. What’s more, I believe the significance of the Easter story is that love and suffering are, in the end, indivisible. And have to be borne.

Passion Sunday, the fifth in Lent, is the day on which the church began public grief, remembering the instruments of the passion - the vinegar, spear, pincers. The word passion in this context is easy to understand when you look back at the Latin: patior, passum sum - to suffer or endure. But to the modern mind, passion pre-eminently means something else - tumultuous feeling, especially of a sexual nature. If love makes the world go around, passion gives it spice, danger even. There is nothing patient about such passion: it is greedy and demanding, roaring through through the world without caring for the consquences.

The journey of meaning, courtesy of the Oxford Engish Dictionary, is fascinating in itself. In Old French and Early Middle English, Passion was used to only describe Christ's suffering on the cross, and came also to denote a narrative about that suffering. Hence the Passion Plays. Passion came to mean the suffering of a matryr, then made another shift to describe suffering or affliction generally. It is a painful affliction or disorder of the body; a violent attack of a desease. Then again, any kind of feeling by which the mind is powerfully affected or moved - ambition, avarice, desire, hope, fear. love, hatred, joy, grief. anger, revenge, and so on. Passion can be an outburst of anger, and (of course) strong sexual affection. Our human passions have many shapes. The common factor is intensity of feeling.

Let's not forget that Jesus himself experienced intense emotion. At the height of his passion he cried out, 'My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?' - a deeply human cry of lonely agony which echoes down the centuries. Yet that fate was foretold; what's more, Jesus so loved the world that he willingly took his part in the drama. That idea still has the power to amaze even the devout sceptic like myself: that the son of God should take human form in order to suffer on the cross, and die that we might live. So the spiritual love of God is inseparable from the idea of sacrifice - the physical suffering of the man Jesus.

I find great consolation in this paradox. Passion equals pain, and passion equals love, therefore love equals pain. There is a lesson in that equation which even the athiest can contemplate at this, the most solemn time of the church's year. You do not have to believe in the stone rolled back, in the mystery in the garden and on the road to Emmaus, to accept that the man Jesus was rejected and punished. I do not have to believe in the divinity of Christ to love his humanity - which teaches that suffering has to be accepted by all of us, just as he accepted it. It cannot be wished, prayed or legislated out of existence; on the contrary it IS the human condition. This insight is not pessismistic; it can give you the means to carry on even when the way forward seems dark indeed.

When I invoke human love I should make one thing clear: I am not referring to the serial sexual antics of much-married stars, or the forms of mutual exploitation which pass as love, wear fluffy dresses, and even get pictured in Hallo magazine. No, I mean something far more mature. And the pain which is inherent in this sort of love is of a very different order to the tumult that is felt when sexual desire goes wrong. Everybody knows the deepest loves immediately render you vulnerable to pain. You don't want pain? Then you cannot allow yourself to love.

The affectionate child cannot bear to contemplate the death of the parent who is the roof and walls of his or her house of life. When that child grows up, the old love for parents is not cast aside, but is a training for even deeper, richer feelings. With luck it will shift to make room for another sort of love, the love for an equal partner, the love which may last until death - if you are prepared to suffer a little in its shaping. Much good would be done if couples contemplating marriage were told that the idea of the Happy Ever After is a pernicious myth, and what must be accepted instead is an inevitable shortfall in happiness. In other words, goodly doses of pain along the personal via dolorosa. Such acceptance is part of the transformation of passion into mature love, and the idea of sacrifice - as in self sacrifice - is an integral part of that transformation. And so it is that the most profound loves we feel make us vulnerable too, sometimes unbearably so. When you have a baby, for example, the love you feel is of an order very different from the old love for parent, or more recent love for beloved partner. This is the love which would confront the horde of ravening wolves which threaten your child; or (more realistically) yearn to protect it from all the grief of the world. This is the love which makes you accept financial burdens, and teaches that from this moment, from first sight of the tiny squirming creature in a nappy, your own wishes and desires must (and I do mean that, stern though it sounds) - MUST take second place to the needs of this child. You shrink from pain, inconvenience, responsibilty? Then don't have a child.

Love the child, and you are, willy nilly, nailed to your own small cross. In one medieval lyric Mary cries, 'Who cannot weep come learn of me'. In another, she begs, 'Take down from the tree, my dear worthy son / Or prick me on the cross with my darling'. I hope no one will think it irreverent of me to say that mothers the world over will identify with that cry in their souls. At the stroke of a brush we move from mother and child, to child and mother, from the nativity to the Pieta - the child larger, the premonition of pain in the Madonna's eyes, proved correct.

I know this, since family love in all its painful complexity shaped the adult that I am, and the passion (yes, that word) I feel for my family puts me on the rack every day of my life. Those who love this deeply are tortured by the jabbing spears of their own imaginings. What's more, your own life seems indescribably precious, not because of its selfish pleasures, but because it affords time and space for them. But no tight-lipped tedious sense of martyrdom is this, just a willing shouldering of heavy love along all the stages of the cross. There is no rebelling. It also is foretold.

To return to Bertrand Russell's three great passions; is there not something a little arid and self-serving about the waypassion the great man chooses to express himself in what is meant to be a profound comment about his life? How can the longing for love, instead of the experience of love, be classed as a passion? Those who long for love usually fail to recognise it when it stands at the kitchen sink; Russell represents the romantic agony which seeks first of all to pleasure self. And what debris he left behind.

Then there is his search for knowledge. That we can grant the great philosopher -although knowledge and wisdom are not synonymous, and the Christian mystic might point out that knowledge is gained through love, and is not necessarily distinct from it. That is the unity of being sought by poets from Dante, through Blake, to Yeats in our own century. Russell's third 'passion' is this 'unbearable pity'. There is something self-serving about that too. Why can't he bear it? Humankind has no choice but to bear its suffering, so why can't he bear his alleged pity for it?

These are not passions, these are ideas. But Russell's trinity of love, knowledge and pity are there for the understanding - in the vision of the cross, the willing sacrifice of Jesus. The message of Christ's life and death is to tell us to love one another, not to search for love. It is to know God - or goodness if you prefer - not to search for knowledge. And it is to feel, not pity, but what W.B.Yeats called, 'the imaginative sympathy with all living things, sinful and righteous alike, which is the forgiveness of sins commanded by Christ'. For me these days of contemplation leading up to the real, human and spiritual passion of Calvary have an inescapable logic. I love, and therefore pain is inevitable. Feeling pain, I understand something of the pain of others, and accept my human condition with humility. Understanding, I approach a condition of knowledge. Accepting, understanding, knowing, I move (hopefully) towards a deeper, ever-more complex experience of love. This rolls away the stone of self. And for Christian, agnostic, athiest like, as well as for practitioners of other faiths, it is the passion at the centre of existence. Or, as Dante wrote, 'the love which moves the sun and all the stars'.

 

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