A book about the special honor accorded virgins, celibates, and others who renounced sex might not be the place you’d expect to find gentle words about the piety of people who really struggle with chastity. Or maybe it would be? As always in Christianity down is up, failure is success, the mighty are cast down and the lowly–including those who consider themselves morally lowly for kind of obvious reasons–are lifted up.
For some Christians, Brown finds, sexual temptation itself is one of the most powerful reminders of our weakness and lack of perfect self-command, and these reminders are gifts to us. Lol Origen, but here’s Origen: “Looking at the body at close quarters, as a source of temptation and frustration, Origen offered little comfort to his readers:
You have coals of fire, you will sit upon them, and they will be of help to you.
Yet, in the eyes of God, each particular human spirit had been allotted a particular physical constitution as its appropriate sparring partner. Each person’s flesh and blood was particular to that person, and had been exquisitely calibrated by God, ‘who alone is the searcher of hearts,’ to challenge the potentially mighty spirit to stretch beyond itself.” And earlier, Brown writes: “The body posed a challenge that counteracted the numb sin of self-satisfaction. … If anything, Origen thought, it was the demons who were to be pitied: turned by their immense self-satisfaction away from the love of God, their bodies had been left perfectly within the control of their proud wills; their eerie flesh was as supple as a chill north wind. ‘They are regarded as unworthy of this instruction and training whereby, through the flesh, the human race… aided by the heavenly powers, is being instructed and trained.’”
This is not complacency about the gravity of sexual temptation: “For to consent to such logismoi was to ‘consecrate oneself’ to demonic partners. It was to give oneself over, on many more levels of the self than the conscious person, to an alternative identity: it was to lose oneself to the powers of numbness that still lurked in the hidden reaches of the universe, and to take on the character of chill demonic spirits who had been content to exist without the ardent search for God.” (my emphasis, this is not a bad description of my experience of later-stage addiction)
When the monk Dorotheos fell in love with a fellow monk, his elder’s advice was pretty harsh to him at first. But then his elder noted, “God, indeed, could release you speedily; but if that were to happen, you would not have gained the strength to stand up against other passions.” Dorotheos did in fact persevere, and found his place in the monastery, having come to terms with the particular body God gave him. And so his particular human weakness became a witness to God’s mercy and power.
I noticed Dorotheos’s same-sex attractions for obvious reasons, but it doesn’t sound like chastity was really his biggest or longest struggle. What about people who are especially weak in chastity and prone to sexual temptation? Here Brown finds some immensely comforting words from John Climacus: “I have watched impure souls mad for physical love but turning what they knew of such love into a reason for penance and transferring that same capacity for love to the Lord.” Brown says, “This redirection took palpable physical form in the infinitely precious gift of tears. …The fluidity of a temperament that blurred harsh boundaries ensured that the monks most prone to sensuality were often, so John had observed, more sensitive to others, and more gregarious, than were those harsh ‘dry’ souls who were more naturally inclined to chastity.” For my part I’ve noticed that some of the humblest people I know are the people who struggle most with chastity. I know “hey bro at least you’re not proud” does not actually make anything feel better. But these people’s humility is such a huge gift to their communities. And to themselves, although the gifts God gives us are very rarely the ones we wanted.
You can do the part about giving thanks to God for someone’s beauty even while you are still tempted by that beauty. As I turn my attention to the beautiful person as God’s creation, and give thanks that I could notice this beauty, it is often easier to move from the shame which often provokes sexual sin to the serenity and gratitude which dispel temptation. Think of it as lotion on an itch vs. scratching it until it bleeds.
As a sleazy person myself (I would not have chosen this post’s title otherwise!) I always like when saints stress the universality of sexual temptation. I know that isn’t everybody’s actual experience but lol I find it comforting nonetheless, the reminder that most if not all of us are subject to “the compulsive force of sexual habit,” as Brown says, “a cruel chain which only God could unloose.” More: “To a new generation, which had begun to listen to Augustine, sexual desire revealed the inescapable solidarity of all mankind in Adam’s sin.” For Augustine, “With Adam’s Fall, the soul lost the ability to summon up all of itself, in an undivided act of will, to love and praise God in all created things. Concupiscence was a dark drive to control, to appropriate, and to turn to one’s private ends, all the good things that had been created by God to be accepted with gratitude and shared with others.” Our lack of control of our sexual responses is one of the most poignant examples–second only to death–of our lost harmony, order, and peace with our “beloved, the body.” (Brown’s term.)
For a lot of people who struggle with chastity there’s an additional temptation to turn inward, to focus on and even obsess about our sexual temptations and thoughts. And some amount of this can be helpful: It’s sometimes been good for me to ask why particular things are tempting to me, where that’s coming from; and my whole Time Travel Rosary thing, my attempt at holy navel-gazing, started as an attempt to shift my prayer practices to better support chastity. But Augustine’s description of concupiscence suggests that if we want to be freed from concupiscence we would do well to turn outward, to give ourselves and our goods more generously to our community: a process Matthew Loftus describes wonderfully here. If you know you’ve misused the first good God gave you, your body, you may be esp willing to surrender your other goods. Those who know what it’s like to not be at peace with our own bodies may be all the more desperate to make peace within the body politic.