Deacon Greg Kandra writes about a recent NY Times piece on priests who forsake their vows, and the women who help them do it. You would think from the way people talk that there’s something about a man in holy orders that just makes him irresistible. It’s as if there’s a force field emanating from that Roman collar that disables free will: Don’t get too close, ladies, or you might have no choice but to fall in love!
Well, the don’t get too close part may be true, anyway. But that’s not because women with crushes on priests are some special class of victim; quite the reverse. The temptation to adultery is boringly common. Banal. Unimpressive. Anyone can fall in love, that’s why the species lives longer than a single generation. It doesn’t require special conditions. That you have a crush on so-and-so is no more an indication of your vocation than liking that BMW in the parking lot is a sign you should drive it home this afternoon.
Thus there are things grown-ups do to avoid letting that falling-in-love impulse get out of control. You can do these things, too.
1. Decide not to take what isn’t yours.
As long as you’re convinced the world somehow owes you access to Mr. or Ms. Scintillating, you’re easy prey: You’ve already talked yourself into infidelity. You have to make the decision that once you take vows, you will remain faithful to those vows. You have to make the decision that if you yourself are free to marry, you will not seek a spouse among those who are not free to marry you.
Just making this decision won’t turn you into the picture of purity. But it is the first and most necessary step, because you can’t live with integrity until you at least decide that’s what you want to do.
2. Recognize that you are prone to temptation, just like everyone else.
Who do you think you are? You’re not too holy, too ugly, or too stupid to be an adulterer, and being smart is no protection either. Humans fall in love with other humans. Eros goes astray. It happens. Knowing that it could happen to you, like knowing that you could be in a car wreck, means having advance warning. There are situations to look out for and precautions to take. You don’t need to live in a bubble (which has its own dangers), but for goodness sake put on your seat belt.
3. When you realize trouble is brewing, back away fast.
You may well be surprised the first time you find yourself suddenly attracted to someone who’s on the not-available list.
If you’re recently married or ordained, it can come as a surprise that you’re again attracted to some other person, having just spent the past few years completely wrapped up in the excitement of your new vocation. It was normal back when you were single to become interested in people; then you found The One, and that was supposed to be the end of all that dating business, right?
Likewise, if you’re single and have heretofore only been attracted to other single people, it could be a shock to discover you’ve suddenly got a crush on someone who is decidedly not available.
What to do?
Put distance, and lots of it, between you and the object of your crush. Now is not the time to figure out your whole rule of life-and-friendship for ever and ever amen. Just act, immediately, to keep the current situation from becoming a problem. Change your routine, get a new hobby, decline invitations. Find something to be doing so that you can’t be around the person you find attractive.
There’s no need to make an announcement. Don’t make an announcement. Just be someplace else. Not around.
4. Learn your weaknesses so you can take steps to avoid peril.
You know the kind of person you find attractive. If you’ve taken a vow of marriage or celibacy, don’t go seeking out the company of that kind of person. You do in fact have a need for friendship outside of your marriage or religious vocation; seek friends who won’t pose any particular temptation against chastity for you.
If your husband or wife has a friend you find attractive, don’t be alone around that friend. Ever. If your religious vocation puts you in the path of someone you find attractive, find ways to not be alone with that person. You might think impure thoughts (of which you will repent, immediately, see below), but you can prevent it from going further by silently but intentionally putting some kind of physical obstacle between yourself and the possibility of acting on your lust.
5. Work the Beginner Spirituality
Oh sure, you’re all sophisticated in your prayer life or your theology or something. But let’s face it: You’re thinking about breaking someone’s sacred vows. You’re not as advanced as all that.
Two tools can keep you out of the deep water:
1. An immediate act of contrition. It’s the chapstick of the spiritual life, so keep it in your pocket and plan to apply it constantly. You think an impure thought, you say an act of contrition. (ex: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner. or: Oh crap, really Lord, I’m so sorry. I mean it.) Probably you’ll keep on sinning, so you just keep on saying it. You sin all the time, you be sorry all the time. That’s how it works. You can be sorry while you are sinning. Just keep working the sorry. Work it.
2. No-fuss Confession. You don’t have to go to a priest who knows you. You don’t have to give your life story. You don’t have to seek advice. Show up, confess your impure thoughts, be sorry, get absolved. Is there a time and place for spiritual direction? You betcha. But when you’re flirting with mortal sin, don’t let the spiritual champagne get in the way of the bucket of Grace that will put out the smoldering fire.
Add to all this as much as you can. Prayer, fasting, etc etc etc. But don’t kid yourself, you’re in the spiritual basement. Don’t be proud. Don’t wait for the perfect thing. Slap on the emergency measures early and often.
There are Higher Paths, and No Guarantees
There are more and deeper things you can do. Pray for purity (you will probably get assigned that as a penance at some point anyway), contemplate the beauty of your own vocation, build up your understanding of why the sins that plague you are in fact heinously nasty boils on your otherwise okay, well probably kinda wretched, soul. There’s nothing like understanding what a sinner you are to appreciate how good a Savior you’ve got.
Doing these things won’t cause your free will to shrivel and up go away. You won’t turn into a purity-seeking automaton. Indeed, you can’t seek purity without free will, because it isn’t purity if you don’t seek it freely. Without freedom, you’re just a very well-trained house pet. But because you aren’t a pet, you can choose to use your mind and your body to build a hedge of protection around your temptable but goodness-willing soul.
Related: The Classic Marriage-Affirming Romantic Comedy about Adultery. It’s the 101 on What Not to Do, with a beautiful ending featuring true manly-man mature spirituality. Starring Bob Hope & Lucille Ball.
Note on the photo: This happened to be today’s Wikimedia featured image, and I thought it was both very cool and not off-topic. Go to the Category:St.-Johannes-Nepomuk-Kapelle (Hiddingsel) to see several more in the series that are just lovely.