by William Michael
Sexual immorality and scandalous relationships surround us on all sides–not only among pagans in the world, but among Christian men, woman, priests and religious communities. The situation is worse than most of us know. Those of us who truly, in the fear of God, work to be holy must realize how common promiscuous behavior or we will be discouraged from keeping vigilant watch over our hearts and minds, thinking that the relaxed practices of others is good enough.
If we collect the practical teachings of Sacred Scripture, the Church Fathers and the Popes on chastity, we will find a very different message than we hear from modern priests, religious and, of course, society around us. Worse, when we read what the responsibilities are of men and women who live chaste lives, and then realize that these warnings and counsels are ignored by so many, we will be forced to consider whether there is more evil going on than we see or know. Men who cast aside what Scripture and the saints teach on chastity are not living chaste lives. They are pretending to live chaste lives. We must not follow their example.
I write this because my wife and I have been discouraged by Christians, priests and religious on so many occasions because of our vigilance. We have been discouraged for praying too much, teaching our children too diligently, working too much, being concerned with standards that are too high for us, etc.. Those counsels always set us back a bit because we fight and sacrifice to be holy and yet are constantly aware of our failures, and when someone who we assume to be holier than us gives us advice that is contrary to Scripture and the writings of the saints on the same topics, we wonder whether we may be interpreting things incorrectly. The truth, however, is that we who are vigilant and sacrificial are NOT the ones who are in the wrong and we must renew our efforts to do what we know is necessary for holiness. I especially am concerned because parents, influenced by this kind of wicked advice, are not providing their children with the environment, resources, habits and prerequisite virtues NECESSARY for chastity to be appreciate and preserved. If we let the devil rob us and our children of the weapons needed to fight the war of sexual impurity, we will not succeed in resisting the temptations of the world around the, the devil and our own concupiscence.
WHAT SCRIPTURE TEACHES US
First of all, Scripture warns us that we are NOT strong against temptation. Many want to pretend they are, but self-confidence is the first sign that someone is not concerned with God’s will. St. Paul said, “If any man thinks that he stands, let him take heed, lest he fall.” Our Lord warned us that impure thoughts should be considered sins, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” What is in our mind reveals who and what we are, and we know that is not good news. We see in Scripture that holy David, one of the greatest men of God in all history, was himself overcome by sexual temptation. Whomever among us is more spiritual and holier in heart than he whom God called “the man after my own heart”, let him be confident in the world. Let the rest of us learn that we are an opportunity away from the most scandalous and shocking sins. This fear of God and of our own weakness is the first defense we must raise against impurity.
Scripture does not teach us that we will resist temptation. Scripture teaches us to avoid ALL sources of temptation. The modern attitude that we have to be active in the world, accomplishing things in business and society “for God” is false. Our Lord denied this in two important places. First, he rebuked Martha for her good intentions that were, unfortunately, a sign of wrong priorities. Second, he rebuked men asking then, “What will it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”. Worldly influence and achievement is not our duty. Our chief end is to save our souls through unswerving obedience to God’s commands.
Scripture gives us practice directives on how to maintain a chaste heart and mind. First, with regard to relationships between sexes, the book of Sirach is very clear:
“Look not round about thee in the ways of the city, nor wander up and down in the streets thereof. Turn away thy face from a woman dressed up, and gaze not about upon another’s beauty. For many have perished by the beauty of a woman, and hereby lust is enkindled as a fire. Many by admiring the beauty of another man’s wife, have become reprobate, for her conversation burneth as fire. Sit not at all with another man’s wife, nor repose upon the bed with her.”
Now, this was written during the 2nd century before Christ. There was no internet, no television, no pornography industry, no office culture, no co-ed college dormitories, no bikini beaches, no co-ed schools! It was a completely different world with infinitely more moral control than we have in America, and THERE Sacred Scripture was warning men of the dangers of lust. How much more, how many times more, must we get our acts together and guard ourselves from the influences that surround us today? Let us consider each part of Sirach’s advice.
First, he advises men to “not look round about thee in the ways of the city”. The city, with all its hustle and bustle was not to be expected to be a holy place and, therefore, if business needed to be done there or if a man needed to pass through a city, Sirach warned him, “keep your eyes diverted”. Sirach never saw a Victoria’s Secret billboard, never walked through an American mall, never saw anything like an American city. What would he say to us? It’s hard to even imagine how much more terrible our temptations are–but American men are walking around, eyes wide open, voluntarily in the midst of it all, making no effort to maintain that purity of mind and heart that Scripture teaches.
Second, Sirach does not warn us against looking at pornography or hanging out on public beaches. He warns us to turn our faces away “from a woman dressed up”. Yes, THAT is the standard for a chaste man. He diverts his eyes from a beautiful woman–that is dressed, how much more ought he to avoid any situation where women are not only dressed up, but undressed? I’ll admit, I grew up am athlete and sports fan, but there is no way to participate in the modern sports culture without violating the teaching of Scripture on chastity. Advertising intentionally uses beautiful women to appeal to sports fans and any man who intentionally sets himself in that seat asks for whatever comes to him in terms of impure thoughts. You may disagree, but Scripture teaches you that your eyes should be turned away even “from a woman dress up”.
Third, to silence all arguments, Sirach gives two reasons why these measures must be taken by all men. He says that history proves that men who think they’re strong enough to handle these temptations have been proven wrong by their shocking falls. As I said above, no man reading this is stronger than David, and David fell and, even for men who have not fallen, your willful thoughts of women are sin. The thoughts shouldn’t be there in the first place and if they are they should be cast out of the mind. We are NOT strong to resist sexual temptations and the lack of oopportunity is not to be confused with holiness.
More importantly, Sirach brings us to the real issue: LUST. Lust is one of the seven sources of sin and must be completely and ruthlessly destroyed in us. Lust is as a fire that will burn in us until we die and natural inclination in our hearts and minds that, in itself, would have no limits. Setting before our eyes or minds anything impure is as casting gasoline into that fire and that fire will steadily grow in us. Moreover, an image that enkindles lust today does not, like fuel, burn away. Images and memories collect in us and constantly return to the mind and thereby constantly stir lust in us to burn more terribly. These activties and experiences that men consider to be “harmless” are not the dangers in and of themselves and more than gasoline is a danger to a house in itself. However, for the man who understands that this fire of lust is constantly present in him and ready to flare up, those images ought to be terrifying for he knows not what lust may lead him to do if it is enflamed once more. The next time could be the last.
Fourth, he explains that the women responsible for these opportunities are not innocent. Yes, it may be true that, in America, a Christian woman may not think it a big deal to walk about in a bikini or to dress as the woman of the world dress–the woman used by advertising campaigns and Hollywood. However, this “freedom” is not wisdom and they prove themselves to have failed to obeyed St. Paul’s command that Christians, “be not conformed to this world”. No, the Virgin Mary would never be found on a beach or strutting about in a mall dressed like any other woman there, and She, not the world, is the model of female virtue. Therefore, men must understand that the loose behavior of women in American society may not be conscious or openly intentional, but lust doesn’t care if it is. Lust receives a different message and understands things absolutely, not as America defines them. Lust interprets the behavior of women not for what they may say it intends, but for what it truly reveals. This is the warning of divine wisdom.
Fifth, Sirach warns of proximity to members of the opposite sex. He says, “sit not at all with another man’s wife”. Now, we may immediately raise objections to this and say, “Our Lord sat with the Samarian woman at the well, who was another man’s wife.” However, Our Lord was pure in heart as we are not and Our Lord’s effect on her proved his purity. That woman led her entire town to conversion after that meeting. I doubt that any woman you will sit with will do the same. Sirach is not telling Our Lord how to live, but us sinners. When we read of this prohibition, two modern norms show themselves to be deserving of careful examination. First, the modern office culture, where men and women spend hours and hours together in the name of “business” cannot be healthy for the man who would live chastely. The dress code for women in the office is raunchy and the the commonality of affairs among co-workers is known to all. With lust burning within us, it is a dangerous place to be for any man who would be chaste. Second, the co-ed school environment is even more terrible. When boys and girls reach puberty, their bodies change before their own eyes and all attention is drawn to those changes. The general ignorance of sexual understanding, the curiosity that leads young men and women to want to know more, the stories and examples of promiscuity around them and the influence of lust from within, contribute to form a most unhealthy environment for them. If the co-ed school and office weren’t bad enough, Americans send their adult children to co-ed colleges where young men and women, in the sexual prime of life, live together without the natural protection of parental supervision and environmental safeties that are necessary for the preservation of social chastity. That these situations are bad for men and women seeking chastity needs not to be argued. Sirach couldn’t have imagined God’s people willfully entering into such arrangements.
WHAT THE SAINTS TEACH US
Having read the counsels of Sirach, let us turn to the teaching of John Cassian on the subject of lust. John Cassian was recommended to Christians by none other than St. Benedict, and the writings of Cassian were the recommended reading for St. Benedict’s followers and were enjoyed by many saints, including St. Thomas, St. Theresa of Avila and more.
In book VI of his work on the seven sources of sin, Cassian treats the topic of lust and teaches us how to extinguish it within us. That, after all, is the goal–to extinguish sin in us.
First of all, he teaches us the important fact that we can extinguish no sin unless we commit ourselves to extinguish all sin. No man can be gluttonous and chaste or slothful and chaste. The same weakness that yields to the pleasures of the palate will also yield, in time, to sexual pleasure. The same weakness that shrinks back from self-denial with regard to sleep and leisure will also shrink back from self-denial against sexual temptations. We must commit to total war against sin, not imagine that we can attack one sin while neglecting others. Cassian compares this to a city set to defend its front gates against the enemy, while leaving small doors open about its side and rear walls. The enemy does not care if he enters by any particular gate–only that he enters. Now, I commend to you all of the sixth book of Cassian’s Institutes on this subject, and all of the Institues on the whole Christian life, but I will share a few points that I believe to be most immediately helpful.
Cassian tells us that this war against lust must be waged on two fronts: one physical and one spiritual. He calls to mind Our Lord’s teaching that “From the heart issue forth evil thoughts, adultery, fornication, etc.”. Sexual immorality comes from our own hearts. Therefore, as our hearts are the ultimate source of impurity, we must purify our hearts. Cassian explains that the body must be purified by fasting, exhausting labor and self-denial, while the heart must be purified by contemplation and spiritual studies–forcing holy thoughts upon our minds and never leaving it idle to its own natural thoughts and passions.
Cassian then explains to us that our only hope for chastity in in the help of God–and God will help no one who ignores and despises His teaching on chastity. The same wisdom books that teach us how to fight against impurity also warn us:
“Since you have despised all my counsel, I also will laugh in your destruction, and will mock when that shall come to you which you feared. Then shall they call upon me, and I will not hear, because they have hated instruction, and received not the fear of the Lord, nor consented to my counsel, but despised all my reproof. Therefore they shall eat the fruit of their own way, and shall be filled with their own devices.”
Now, having a realistic understanding of the role of prayer and its relationship to our obedience of God’s revealed counsels, are we living in a way that should lead us to expect God’s help when our fear comes up on us? Or, are we living in a way that is loose and negligent, that when the time comes to reap what we have sown, God will not hear our prayer? I know, Americans can’t imagine God ignoring their prayers, but that is why they ignore His commands. They are deceived and full of presumption. You will reap what you have sown–and the time for sowing has already begun.
Cassian then calls our attention to the teaching of St. Paul, who explains that the Christian life is like the life of professional athletes and soldiers who must deny themselves all freedom and pleasures for the sake of their training and competition. St. Paul calls us to think about how such a man takes control of every detail of his life that he may gain victory in his contests, and then to look at our life and judge whether we, who are striving for a victory infinitely greater than that of any games or earthyl battles, are taking reasonable measures to prepare, train and contend. Look at the strict discipline and routine with which Olympic athletes train–their entire lives devoted to their specific contests. Look at the complete control and order of the military community, which is designed to achieve specific objectives in the most hostile of conditions. Then, look at the American Christian life. Are our expectations of victory realistic? What would an athlete or soldier look like who went about with our looseness and self-confidence? What would happen to them when the time came to face their enemies? The same that is happening when American Christians face their enemies. There is no mystery in these matters, that is St. Paul’s point. Again, we all get what we deserve.
Next, Cassian calls us to face the fact that purity of heart is only possible when we live sincerely before the eyes of God, who knows all of our secrets and desires, who knows the real “us” and is not deceived or distracted by our acting and appearances. When we pray, we pray to One who knows the truth about us, not to men who can be misled by what we tell them or lead them to think. When we kneel to pray, or simply call out to God spontaneously, suddenly all that we are and all that we have been must come before our minds as we consider that conversation between man and God. Is this a sincere child calling out to a Father for help where strength has run out, or is this a foolish and disobedient child asking to be spared the consequences of that disobedience? Yes, it may be the case that God, who is full of mercy and afraid of no enemies, may show us kindness and help us even if we deserve no such help, but that should not be our concern. Our concern should be whether or not we are living honestly and truly before Him and are, therefore, worthy of His help an blessing. This is the ultimate test of the genuineness of our faith–whether live for God’s approval for eternal rewards or whether we are content with men’s approval for some advantage in this life alone. The man who is content with the approval of men, who are so easily deceived, will have none of the motivation necessary to truly purify his heart and live blamelessly before God. Such a man has no hope of chastity and will have no strength to resist tempting opportunities to look, think and act upon things immoral. Are you for real or are you playing games? Chastity is no game and you can’t fake it for long. (The Catholic Church in America has learned that the hard way.)
Now, when we get to the actual, practical details of how to guard against lustful thoughts, John Cassian recommend something that no American man would think to be reasonable. Let us then, rather than judging his teaching, test it with our own experience hereafter. He says that a man should be careful to be on the alert when we have thoughts of ANY woman–even our own mothers or sisters–because the devil will slowly lead us from thoughts of them to thoughts of other women. Here we learn further arguments against any excuses for unnecessary thoughts or activities that may be innocent in themselves, but means of entry for the devil.
Furthermore, Cassian gives us a test to allow ourselves to see whether we are progressing to true purity of heart. He explains that when our hearts are truly purified, our unconscious activities will be purified too. Yes, a man may consciously avoid impure thoughts and activities–but what happens when his ability to control his thoughts by reason is lost, say, in sleep? Cassian explains that the dreams we have are drawn from the images, thoughts and experiences we have allowed to enter our minds throughout the day and reveal what remains in us. Impure sexual dreams, grotesque images and scenes are there in us because we have admitted them–whether intentionally by sinning or by our lack of vigilance in guarding our heart from distractions that have pressed upon us. The image of that woman or that activity wasn’t born in us…we picked it up from the world and are, therefore, responsible for its effects–whether they be mental or physical.
Having said all this, I challenge you to take up this fight with me. We must be ready for mockery, resistance, criticism and outright nastiness. Pursuing chastity will offend people who aren’t pursuing chastity and that is why Christan living always comes with persecution. It’s not our job to apologize or make excuses for other people’s decisions, but to obey God–and it will be good for us to practice that. The holy martyrs must become our heroes and examples and we must realize that to live like them, we must also suffer like them. This glorious life is not for particular men in history, but for every Christian who obeys God and seeks to live, suffer, die and rise as Christ did. I expect that this article will make people uncomfortable, but that’s what we need. Christians should not be comfortable in America.
St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle.
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits, who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.