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Becoming Worthy to Receive Chastity
…lust consists essentially in exceeding the order and mode of reason in the matter of venereal acts. Wherefore without any doubt lust is a sin.
Summa Theologica II-II, q 153 a 3
Does Lust act apart form the other deadly sins?
It may seem odd to suggest that Lust is the "least of the deadly sins” but when examining Dante’s purgatory and inferno this hierarchically is simply the case. Nonetheless, as a priest who hears the confessions of many, it is a sin that many both struggle with and are increasingly preoccupied with. And while it may be the least of the deadly sins, it is nonetheless still deadly. That is, this particular sin of the flesh can kill our relationship with Christ.
We ought to note that various immoral acts can be conjoined with other immoral acts. In instances of rape, the operation of a criminals sensual appetite is not merely the only activity occurring. There also tends to be a desire to dominate, to abuse power, to harm. Therefore, in such a heinous crime, we see both a spiritual sin and a sin of the flesh take place. Lust, as disordered sexual desires can launch the human mind into a type of insanity, whereby through consent, man can enter into the other spiritual deadly sins more easily. For instance, man by placing himself at the center of his own fantasy may not comprehend that such an active places himself at the center of the universe. In this momentary act both pride and lust co-exist. In reality, all sins are a type of pride. But the point is, that within the realm of lust, because it compromises our rational-soul, all other types of spiritual sins are conjoined. Understanding this distinction helps us not only diagnose the problem, but perform surgery on it. In the case of rape, not only is the criminal seeking sensual pleasure, but also power, dominance, and abuse. Our instinct to consider this type of a sin worse than others is therefore spot on.
When speaking solely about the deadly sin of lust, however, distinctions are being made that are solely reflecting on the sexual appetite, which is a sensual one. Therefore, for the moment, we are not looking at all the other horrific dimensions of such acts which may be conjoined to lust.
As is stated about gluttony, such is the case for lust - it is a type of madness of the mind as a result of seeking carnal pleasure in a disordered manner. This is why a person can have a very good understanding of the Theology of the Body in one moment, and an addiction to pornography. One’s faculty of reasoning, and such speculative virtues can seemingly be overthrown by a flurry of passion, desire, and temptation. It can lead a person down the dark road of a hook-up culture - a dark anonymous place, that is both addictive and harmful.
How many times have I encountered in the confessional those who shake their head at themselves in a moment of sobriety and say, “What was I thinking?” The passions or hungers of their bodily desire for pleasure spiral into obsessions, and a total lack of self-control even with one’s own thoughts. One forgets in those moments that such a sexual act is to imitate Christ’s love for the Church, to generate a new soul, and to serve the opposite sex.
Many are seeking healing from this highly addictive sin that has several variations in both sexes. Many are looking for methods that help them escape. Some download Covenant-Eyes, others get rid of their smart-phones, others join Exodus 90 programs. In all these efforts we find some who discover freedom, and others who continue to struggle on.
At this point, I just want to offer my encouragement and a bit of a course correction. First, if you are struggling with this common sin, please know that you are not alone. I congratulate you in your regular confession, your commitment to getting back up. Second, I’d like to suggest that in as much as you perform all these tasks necessary for practical virtue, that you remember that this sin of the flesh, amongst all other sins cannot be overcome without grace.
St. Thomas teaches us that petition prayer is not an activity of ours which informs God of our needs. He knows that already. Petition prayer, in part, is a matter of making ourselves worthy to receive the grace. If you consider what you are actually asking for, you will more deeply understand the importance of praying for this gift of chastity. You are asking for nothing other than the sacred heart or immaculate heart of Mary to beat within you. You are turning to the Father and asking Him to send His own Son into the sensual appetite of your soul to reorient it. This is a precious gift from the Father - this is of great value. To ask for this cannot be done with entitlement and it cannot be presumed. We must be humble-beggars of it. Therefore when asking for this grace you are not merely asking for freedom from the icky dimension of shame and guilt. You are asking for the heart of God to beat within yours. This is an incredible ask - and one God wants to give us. But we must be worthy of it.
In this way, as beggars, we become worthy of the graces one asks for. Here the term worthy does not mean “earning” the heart of Christ. None can do that. Rather, its a worthy disposition to receive Christ. It means we truly treasure and reverence Christ’s own affect and rightly ordered sensual appetites. It means that we will protect them in our own lives, sustain them. It is the same worthiness that St. Joseph and Mary lived out in welcoming Christ into their own home. In carrying him away to Egypt to protect Him. In this very real way, we are worthy of Christ insofar as we are disposed to receive Him in the way that love demands. For this reason scripture talks about us being denied what we ask in our prayers: “You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” (James 4:2-3) You see, to ask for chastity to merely get rid of passions that harass us, (shame, feelings of guilt) is to still be seated and committed to the flesh. It is not asking for the capacity of self-control and strength for the sake of love, but for the sake of feeling good about one’s self. I believe it might be the case, that St. Augustine can relate to this type of prayer which is unworthy of chastity.
Ask (rightly), and you shall Receive
To ask for chastity, daily, including those moments when you are not tempted becomes vital. Why? Because you are now humble. You are admitting that this addiction has power over you, as is the case with all of mankind and the flesh. Our blessed mother, though free from original sin would have even in that grace of freedom still clung to God’s help to sustain it daily.
Psychology can also be a good companion. In some cases God will not bestow this grace until there is a greater self-awareness of wounds. But such psychology itself cannot free a person from sin unless its united to grace. Pelagianism cannot be the method of salvation - because only Christ wages and becomes victorious over the world of the flesh and death. Even an external retreat from lustful acts does not demonstrate the virtue of chastity. Virtue in this regard means that you get pleasure out of doing what is ordered and good, while not doing it for the pleasure but for the good. Many may find freedom from external acts of lust, but not interior movements thereof. God does not merely want people to develop a sophisticated extrinsic method of avoiding addictive behavior - he also wants to entirely liberate the inner-life of man. In many ways, that work begins here on this earth, and can be a life-long pursuit. My point? Don’t ever be merely content with avoiding external acts of sin, but go deeper. It may be the case that you are merely white-knuckling your way through life, and the danger may be that there is no “internalization” of the heart of Christ. In such a case, the motive is for avoiding the sin is worth pondering.
Freedom from this particular sin is possible and merely having an speculative grasp of its nature is insufficient. Practical virtue (chastity) comes when you really want it to - when you’ve developed the practical virtue of begging for it. St. Augustine is therefore probably the best witness that comes to mind - He is the man who asks for the virtue, but asked wrongly. Remember, what you are asking for is the heart of Christ to beat within your own heart men, or the immaculate heart of Mary, women. In either case, you are asking for something so precious, beautiful and good, and desirable. God wants to give this to you freely, but wants to entrust it to you safely. A worthy reception of these two hearts involves not perfection on our part, but a humble reverence for such dispositions that accept the designs of our sexuality.
Meditation: The Rosary
If you are not praying the rosary daily for this intention and yet struggling with such a sin, I will suggest you begin. The Rosary gives practical habits of mind that enable it to focus on what the mind ought to. It gives the mind a strength from distraction that can be applied to passionate moments of temptation. But wed to this very natural virtue of meditation is also the grace that our Lady builds off of it: overcoming sins of the flesh. For this reason, I never have really suggested that anyone avoid the “Mysteries of the Rosary.” The Mysteries are the very content of our meditation - and they give a type of imperative or habit of mind to focus on what one ought to. In this regard, your mind is constantly drawn back from its fallen disposition to wonder aimlessly by the wind of passion.
In this month where we celebrate our Lady of Fatima who was deeply concerned about the sins of the flesh, may we as a struggling Church turn to her for help, and thereby become worthy in the recitation of the rosary of her heart and her Son’s.