“Where sin has abounded, grace has abounded all the more,” St. Paul assures us. Felix culpa, as we sing in the Easter Exultet. This “happy fault” refers specifically to Adam’s sin, but in Christ’s redemptive work, he draws good out of every sin. Accordingly, in our battle against impurity, let us stop trying to bury something that is screaming for attention, and begin to sift out the graces. Impure thoughts and desires can be notoriously difficult to repress precisely because they are the undeniable symptoms of a serious, pre-existent emotional repression. We human beings are notorious experts at denial, but sooner or later, the truth demands its day. Impurity might be compared to a full-blown cold virus that appears after a lengthy period of stress. We can ignore the early signs of stress—the tiredness, temper and tense muscles, but we really cannot deny the symptoms of a bad cold—the runny nose, sore throat, and coughing. Similarly, the red flag of impurity invites us—or rather insists—that we look at the underlying feelings.
Like discovering gold in mud, there is grace underneath the dark desires of impurity, if only we can stand still long enough in the midst of temptation and with a healthy curiosity inquire into our own desires, into the substance of sexual fantasies: what do we really want? Human desires can be nuanced and complex, but at the core we find a longing to return to Paradise and be naked without shame—to be loved as we are, body and soul. We want freedom to fully express ourselves and shine under a loving gaze that overlooks our weakness and imperfections and delights in all our goodness and beauty, because of our deepest identity and dignity as beloved sons and daughters of God. Then, in return, we want to give ourselves fully and without reserve, body and soul, to the lover who is also our beloved. Is this a description of an unattainable ideal of the perfect marriage? No, it is actually the plan of God for every human being. It turns out that our deepest desires correspond exactly to what God has prepared for us.
To open ourselves to receive this gift, I do not think it is effective simply to demand of ourselves more faith or just keep trying harder to stop sinning. We need to begin by treating ourselves with the mercy of God, giving ourselves permission to be human—without excusing ourselves of responsibility for sin. To begin with, one means of healing “embarrassing” sins of impurity like pornography and masturbation is to give ourselves permission to feel “embarrassing” underlying emotions like anger, hate, and rage, or sadness, grief, and tears.
It is natural for feelings of grief and anger to arise from hearts wounded not only from the effects of original sin, but also any neglect, abandonment, manipulation, exploitation or betrayals we may have experienced. However it is possible to turn these emotions in upon ourselves, to become angry with our own sadness, like a cruel parent who forbids tears in a child. Anger turned inward can repress grief and accumulate reservoirs of unshed tears trapped underground, like hidden wells of water under the dry sands of a burning desert. In the waterless wastes of those deserts of love, impure spirits roam. If only that water would be allowed to seep to the surface, what new life would spring up!
I sometimes wonder what happened to tears of repentance. Are we so impoverished in our experience of God’s mercy that we are afraid to let the tears flow? I lament how little some people benefit from the grace of Confession, limiting themselves to a laundry list that barely scratches the surface. The quality of our Confiteor may influence the degree of love we experience in Communion. I am not referring only to precision in confessing our sins, but also to the depth of our openness and honesty with ourselves and God concerning our hopes, desires, and emotions. As we mature in simplicity, and also become more adept at detecting and experiencing repressed emotion, then our hearts are more open to receive the fullness of love and grace that Christ offers us in the Eucharist.
“This is my Body, given up for you.” In the Eucharist, Christ fulfills our deepest desire for love. In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict points out that God’s love for us may be described in terms of both agape and eros, reminding us that the prophets described “God’s passion for his people using boldly erotic images.” Mother Teresa found an echo of God’s eros love for us in her meditation on Christ’s words on the Cross, “I thirst,” as if Christ were saying to each of us, “I thirst to love you and be loved by you.”
Ultimately, I believe it is Christ’s love for us that communicates the grace of repentance and conversion, and for any caught in the perverse pleasure of wallowing in the mud of impurity, the motivation to extricate themselves. People who have suffered abuse or neglect as children can end up believing that they are somehow bad and deserve this kind of treatment. Abuse can not only feel normal, but somehow “good” because it accords with our false identity as not deserving of love. Out of this mud of wounds and lies, a noxious weed can take root, of “pleasure” in lust, pornography, masturbation, fornication and other perversions. Nonetheless, the gold hidden in the mud is indestructible, a shining symbol of our identity as sons and daughters, this “lost coin” that Christ came to search out and to find—to wash, purify, and glorify.
Christ’s love empowers us in the battle with impurity. In the Twelve Step program of Sexaholics Anonymous, the first step is “We accepted we were powerless over lust.” Is that true? I am familiar with this language of “powerlessness” through Codependence Anonymous. Undoubtedly, there is much practical wisdom and many success stories in the Twelve Step movements, and we all need friends with whom we can share our struggles. At the same time, I would like to issue a cautionary note against any indiscriminate assent to this first step. Psychologist Bob Schuchts, in his book Be Healed, identifies seven deadly wounds that Christ needs to heal out of us, one of which is precisely powerlessness. Although we may be powerless before God in our radical contingency as creatures, we are far from powerless before the world, the flesh and the devil. St. Paul wrote to Timothy that “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-control.”
Accordingly, whenever we find ourselves caught off guard by a temptation, and we begin to breathe the sleeping gas of seduction, we no longer have to succumb like helpless slaves. We are sons and daughters empowered by Christ to fight the good fight, animated by an anger turned outward in a healthy assertiveness that helps us stand firm against any bullying spirits of impurity.
Another grace hidden within struggles with impurity is deeper insight into the truth of human nature, and a realization that the ideal of the human person is not necessarily one who is sophisticated and refined, or cool, calm and collected. Wounded human nature is often subject to a baffling inconsistency and ambivalence, while at the same time manifesting an astonishing capacity for transcendence and complete transformation.
Consider the example of St. Peter. He did not grow in holiness through self-censorship, afraid to offend, brooding in the corner over his imperfections, tossing and turning over his mistakes, all the while screening out undesirable emotions and conforming his behavior to some impassive and impossible social convention. The whole world knows he was very weak and foolish at times. Yet the Son of God founded his Church on this man’s faith! He lived large and took risks, his heart on his sleeve, working out his salvation in constant conversation and communion with Christ.
He denied Christ three times, but consider what new life sprang up out of his tears of repentance. With a deeper humility and gratitude he professed an even stronger devotion, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Felix culpa! He described the Christian faith as “more precious than the passing splendor of fire-tried gold.” He rejoiced that God’s “divine power has given us everything needed … (to) escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust,” so that we might not only to become holy ourselves in every aspect of our conduct, but ultimately, “sharers in the divine nature.”
Editor’s note: The image above, titled “The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise,” was painted by Benjamin West in 1803.