Apatheia: A Healthy Heart

There is an ancient idea in the Christian tradition, which was inherited from the Greek philosophers, called apatheia. It is about the inner condition of a person who is truly able to pray. While the word sounds like the modern English “apathy,” it doesn’t actually mean the same thing at all. Apathy is a lack of interest in life, a stance of indifference, a refusal to care. Apatheia, on the other hand, is about freedom from chaotic emotions and desires. The soul which is in a state of apatheia is not enslaved by its own jealousy, anger, greed, vainglory, or laziness. 

The word itself, etymologically speaking, means to be free from suffering, or even free from spiritual disease. The prefix “a” makes the word a negative, it means “without”, while the second half of the word “patheia” means suffering or, in the medical sense, it means disease. A pathology is something which afflicts us and creates suffering. And so apatheia is an inner condition in which the soul is not affected by spiritual diseases and the suffering they cause. 

In traditional Christian language these spiritual illnesses are referred to as passions, which is another word that no longer means what it once did. Today, passion is seen as a virtue, it is a zest for life, a deep love and commitment for a worthy cause, or the fire which grows between two lovers. When monks and theologians use the word passion, this is not what they mean at all. Rather, the passions are things like: bad habits, negative attitudes, destructive beliefs, violent emotions, addiction, depression, anxiety, pride, fear, etc. 

These passions prevent us from being who we truly are. They are obstacles which stand between us and true prayer. As Pelagius said, “The mind which desires to be the dwelling place of God should be quite tranquil and peaceful and far removed from anger’s furious rages.” This is not to say that we need to feel ashamed if we get angry, or that we need to pretend we aren’t angry even when we really are. But rather, that we should always have our sights set on an inner disposition of peace, which is what the tradition calls apatheia. 

Our passions are most often stirred up within us by things which we are invested in. If someone steals a random car in your city, you aren’t likely to get angry. If someone steals your car, then you will definitely be angry. The difference is that we are attached to our possessions, especially the big expensive ones. We begin to idolise things like power, popularity, and wealth. When these things become idols for us it is because they have stirred up our passions. In other words, our desires have become distorted and we are suffering from a spiritual illness.

Therefore, apatheia is not really about actions so much as it is about an inner disposition. Jesus teaches this so clearly in the sermon on the mount, Matthew 5-7. His teaching is not easy, but it is profoundly true. The desert monks picked up on one of the beatitudes in particular. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Purity of heart is another name for apatheia and it is what allows us to see God. To see God is true prayer, contemplation, deification

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Something becomes treasure for us based on our level of desire for it. We treasure something when we desire to obtain it and fear to lose it. If we desire material things then our heart will be in those things. All material possessions are fleeting, they come and go without warning. If we allow ourselves to become attached to meaningless things which are destined to fail then we are setting ourselves up for failure as well. 

Not all desire is harmful, however, only misplaced and disordered desire. If we treasure humility, kindness, peace, joy, and truth then our hearts will be in the right place. When our longing is for the Good and the Beautiful then we are in a state of apatheia because we no longer suffer from the passions. Therefore, dear sisters and brothers, seek first the kingdom of God and all else will be given to you besides. Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where thieves can steal, but rather store up treasures in heaven, where no thief can ever harm you.

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