Read Philippians 3:4b-14.

Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal. (Philippians 3:13-14).

“Dispassion.” It sounds so…dispassionate. Emotionless. Robotic.

“Dispassion” is a term commonly used by the desert fathers to describe the goal of the spiritual life. Well, a Greek word translated as “dispassion.” But it sounds so stoic, so lifeless. Like somebody imbibed too much Greek philosophy and now tipsily decides to flee the world and live a life of self-flagellation and contemplation, overcoming the body for the pure life of mind. Plato much?

Anyway, that’s how I used to think, but now I think that something was lost in translation. The passions we are to overcome are misdirected, harmful passions—gluttony or greed or the desire for self-determination or control or the desire for others to think better of us than we deserve. Self. But when self is gone, the result is not an empty shell.

When you are hiking in the mountains, when you have forgotten about the workaday world, the things that need to be done, the frustrations, ailments, conflicts, crossing things off of your to-do list, striving in and for the world, what’s left?

Beauty. The desire to see the beauty, to approach it, to experience it, to be part of it. To take it in. There is a forgetfulness of self, a yearning for the good. There is a yearning for beauty—a beautiful yearning. It is this yearning that draws us into the mountains, that pulls us out of ourselves.

~ ~ ~

Paul’s description of the spiritual life is not the slightest bit dispassionate in the modern sense. He describes it as a striving to win the race, a pressing on, a straining forward. He describes a desire for attaining, for becoming, for uniting. “I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in his suffering, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection of the dead.”

We yearn for the beauty of creation. Beauty is attractive. We long to experience it, to become a part of it. And as we become more spiritual, we long for spiritual beauty. We yearn to know God, to experience him, to become like him.

Pseudo-Dionysius put it this way:*

This divine yearning [eros] brings ecstasy [being taken out of ourselves] so that the lover belongs not to self but to the beloved. . . . This is why the great Paul, swept along by his yearning for God and seized of its ecstatic power, had this inspired word to say: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Paul was truly a lover and, as he says, he was beside himself [ecstatic] for God, possessing not his own life but the life of the One for whom he yearned, as exceptionally beloved.

O eternal Beauty! Beauty of mountain and valley and river, beauty of wisdom and discernment, beauty of humility and self-sacrifice, beauty ancient and unending, beauty of all that is, draw me to yourself!

*Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, Paulist Press, 1987, p. 82.


Harry Plantinga

Harry Plantinga is a professor of computer science at Calvin University and the director of ccel.org and hymnary.org.