Thursday, March 09, 2006

Second Meditation: On Lust

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

"Our second struggle is against the demon of unchastity and the desire of the flesh, a desire that begins to trouble man from the time of his youth. This harsh struggle has to be fought in both soul and body, and not simply in the soul, as is the case with other faults. We therefore have to fight it on two fronts." St. John Cassian, "On the Eight Vices," Philokalia: The Complete Text Compiled by St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth (trans. G.E.H. Palmer et al). London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1979 Vol. I

A man is driving on a typically crowded L.A. freeway sytem, thinking about a business meeting, or an errand that he has to accomplish that day. His mind is thinking about so many different things at once: work, home, the great big parking lot called an L.A. freeway he is stuck on. All of a sudden, something in the distance grabs a hold of his attention. Moving with the traffic, the object comes into sharper focus. It looms larger and larger, until it is quite clear what has caught his attention-a billboard portraying a scantily-clad woman, selling, well, who knows-A brand of cheap beer? A line of barely visible clothing? A "Gentleman's Club"? What is being advertised takes a back seat to what readily begins to go on in this fellow's mind. "Wow, if only my wife/girlfriend looked like that!!!" What goes on in his mind begins to affect him physically, and before he knows it, the thought becomes desire, and the rest...well, you know how it will turn out.

St. Cassian hits us hard with the nature of this vice, and is uncompromising in the way that it is to be fought against: on the level of both body and soul. It is a two-front war that he invites us to engage in, continuing his theme of watchfulness against that most distracting and "delicious" of temptations. It is fought on the level of the body by physically refraining from sensual activities that lead to sin, such as watching sexually-charged movies, reading pornographic material, and putting ourselves in circumstances that contribute to sexual sin.

But this is the easy part. There is an even more intense struggle, one that takes place in our soul. St. Cassian exhorts us to "guard the heart from base thoughts," because "out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, unchastity." (Matthew 15:19) Lust is a perversion of love, its misdirection which turns it from God and the good of the other as its proper focus to the self as the primary object of fulfillment. There is an inherent selfishness in a lustful thought (though not totally, as I will explain below), because the object is not necessarily to seek the other's good, but to satisfy our own base desires. Fighting these thoughts becomes the most intense and rigorous part of our struggle.

But St. Cassian also knows that ascetic struggle alone is insufficient to fight this battle. He specifically enjoins his monks first "not to trust our own strength and ascetic practices," but to trust "in the help of God, our Master."

Secondly, St. Cassian highlights another essential weapon in this struggle-self restraint. This means, on the level of the body, not readily gratifying our desire for pleasure (as with gluttony). On the level of the soul, this means, again, to guard our thoughts. St. Cassian even goes so far as to suggest to his monastic charges that they refrain thinking about all women, even their mothers!

Avoidance of lustful thoughts may not require such draconian measures for those of us living in the world. However, there is a lesson to be learned here. For St. Cassian, this is a war, a spritual war. He goes quickly from physical to spiritual struggle when he says that "virginity (chastity) is achieved not so much by abstaining from intersourse with women as by holiness and purity of soul." This level of spritual warfare requires nothing less than contrition of heart, prayer and repentance. The purpose is always the healing of our base desires so that we can rightly direct the heart to God, thereby turning our lusts into love.

St. Maximus the Confessor sheds light on the nature of lust (and other vices)when he calls it "the wrong use of our conceptual images of things, which leads us to misuse the things themselves." Sexual intercourse, when performed in a loving relationship between a husband and a wife, is good and proper. And for St. Maximus, as for the Fathers in general, there is a primary purpose to it: the beggeting of children. Like eating, which is undertaken for the primary purpose of sustaining life, so with sexual intersourse. A misuse of food leads to gluttony, and a misuse of sex brings about incontinence.

In Dante's Inferno, the Circle of the Incontinent is the second circle, just below Limbo (the Circle of the Righteous Pagans). Here they are carried away by a black wind, forever adrift in a torment of endless futility. The lovers who in life were carried away by their lustful passions now experience these passions for what they really are, without the illusion of pleasure (See D. Sayers' note to Canto V of Inferno). This is the tragedy of the lovers Paolo and Francesca. Francesca da Rimini explains their predicament, capturing in truth this fundamental reality about lust:

Love, that so soon takes hold in the gentle breast,
Took this lad with the lovely body they tore
From me; the way of it leaves me still distressed.

Love, that to no loved heart remits love's score,
Took me with such great joy of him, that see!
It holds me yet and never shall leave me more.

At first it may seem that this is a nice romantic image, but there is a more fundamental truth here. You see, what Paolo and Francesca experience now is the effects of lustful passion, and what they mistakenly call "love" turns out to be a whirlwind of unfulfilled desire and yearning. There is no hope for Paolo and Francesca to ever truly be united in true love. They simply drift. As Sayers notes, in hell, the sin, which in life is so delicious, is now seen for what it truly is, stripped of its cosiness.

And yet, this sin, for Dante, is only the beginning. Though St. Cassian ranks unchastity above gluttony in his catalog of vices, still it is not the worst of sins. After the conquest of lust, for St. Cassian, there is a yet greater strugglein which we are to be engaged. There are as yet more powerful demons to fight. That is why lust is ranked so low on the scale of vices. Dorothy Sayers illuminates truth by saying that lust is "a type of shared sin...there is mutuality in it,", and therefore it is not WHOLLY selfish. This is important to keep in mind, because the Church has never taught that lust is the worst of all sins. Again, there are more powerful demons against which we are to fight. Let us not deceive ourselves into thinking that once we have conquered lust, we are now home-free. This is only the beginning.

How many times do we allow our eyes to "wander"? A thought enters. We can do either two things-repel it, or harbor it, allowing to descend into our hearts. We try to do the former, but find ourselves succumbing to the latter. Thought becomes desire. Desire becomes a movement to gratify passion, and this leads to action. Action leads to habit. Sinful habit leads to a hell-bent life. Therefore, says St. Cassian, cut lustful passion at the very beginning, in your thoughts. Replace this vice with chastity, which brings with it a singleness of purpose-the very life of the Holy Trinity, and the joys of "Deep Heaven."

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