Wednesday, 9 November 2005

Combating the Passion of Fornication

The psychology of men is different from that of women, and the passion of fornication expresses itself differently in men than in women. We do not have the gift of clairvoyance to be able to enter into the inner world of others, so we will necessarily restrict our comments to the psychology of men, leaving others to address the psychology of women. However, clearly, in women female physiology, genetic programming for the maternal role, whether the woman has ever borne a child, or even been pregnant, the age of the woman—all these sorts of things purvey a significance that is not evident in the man. An example is the normal human response to a child: the man and the woman ‘see’ the child differently. The man might see the child as a potential sexual partner whereas the woman would normally have a maternal response to the child. This indicates that it is more dangerous for men who have professed chastity to be around children than it is for women who have professed chastity to be. That is why in the monastic rules, in men’s monasteries where children were allowed—there is one strand, a Basilian strand, in Orthodox monasticism that allows it; there is another more ascetical strand that forbids it—the monk placed in charge of the children is to be an aged monk, in whom ideally the passion of fornication is quite dead.

Evagrius remarks that when the monk is young and vigorous, the passion of fornication is similarly vigorous and seeks its outlet in practices according to nature. As the monk continues in the monastic condition of celibacy, however, the passion of fornication is to an extent diminished and no longer has the strength to seek its outlet in practices according to nature. If the monk in this diminished condition succumbs to temptation, he is likely, it seems, to seek an outlet in practices contrary to nature. Evagrius cautions the monk that it is far easier to purify a soul that first approaches monasticism—say, as a sinner who ‘converts’, repents and then enters the monastery—than it is to purify a soul that, having once been purified by monasticism, then falls into a sexual sin. For, he says, sorrow is ever bringing the sin before mind’s eye of the monk and leading him to despair.

In general, in man the sexual urge is like a fire that is looking for something—anything—to ignite, like an itch that is looking for something—anything—with which it might be scratched. It appears that the sexual urge presents itself to the consciousness of the woman in a quite different fashion, making the treatment of the passion of fornication different for the woman than for the man.

If someone who has a vow of chastity falls into a sexual sin, he is most likely going to be enslaved by the passion: he will compulsively seek after the pleasure again and again. This is true of all the passions, but particularly stark in the case of fornication. It is not a trivial matter to give a vow to God: ‘God is not mocked.’ It takes the prayers of several saints to free the monk or celibate priest from such a bondage to the demon of fornication. And very few who have fallen find their way to such saints.

Hence, it is a matter of the utmost seriousness to discern in God whether the man approaching the monastery or seminary for the celibate life has the strength and the true inclination to remain celibate all his life. ‘It is better to marry than to burn.’ In the Orthodox Church there is no dispensation from vows.

This is one case.

Here is another case. We once heard about a younger monk who had cast off the habit—and his vows—and got married. Since the monk was Orthodox, and there is no dispensation from vows, this suggests that there were serious spiritual consequences to the monk’s action. We were once driving with a priest who remarked on the case. We replied: ‘But the monastery where the monk was (living alone) was quite isolated.’ The priest replied: ‘Ah, yes—so the visitors had to spend the night.’ Let him who has ears to hear, hear.

The Gospel is clear: celibacy is not for everyone but for those to whom it has been given. Moreover, it is for him who ‘is able’ to receive the call to celibacy.

The passion of fornication presents itself to the mind’s eye in two related ways: as an image with sexual content that enters the consciousness, and as a spontaneous excitation of the sexual organs. In both cases, however, the monk must as soon as he can utterly reject the temptation psychologically.

But this is unnatural, the reader of this blog might claim. We are speaking about monks and nuns who, after a testing of their vocation, have freely professed life-long chastity. Persons in the married state must reject similar temptations against fidelity to their spouse; unmarried Orthodox Christians must reject such temptations against their personal chastity.

These considerations lead us to some remarks on how to combat the passion of fornication.

First, monks shouldn’t be alone around children on a continuing basis.

Secondly, monastic superiors should reflect seriously on the presence of children in their monastery.

These considerations also apply to monks and women visitors—and indeed also to nuns and men visitors to the monastery. Historically, monasteries have been cloistered: closed to members of the opposite sex.

Next, on the more interior level, the first thing for the monk to do—if he hasn’t already done so—is to turn off the television. We have to minimize the images that impinge on our consciousness that might excite a sexual response. It is not only at the immediate moment we see them that they might bother us, but also later, through the memory. This obviously also applies even to printed books and magazines, including both text and illustration. In the case of the Internet, a sensible thing to do is to avoid bad sites and to turn off most if not all imaging.

Next, the monk must keep temperance in his diet—recall that the road to a man’s heart is through his stomach: gluttony is the presupposition of a temptation to fornication. This includes quantity of food, type of food, spiciness of the food, amount of alcohol consumed and so on. In a strongly ascetical regime, the monk even reduces his intake of water.

In a general context, the regular regime of the monastery with its long services calms the monk and indirectly soothes his passion. This also applies to regular attendance at the Mysteries, including Confession.

At the very interior level, Evagrius remarks that the temptation of the monk is the tempting thought or image that rises into the monk’s consciousness from the passionate part of his soul, and that the sin of the monk is his consent to the forbidden pleasure of the tempting thought or image. This applies not only to the tempting thoughts of fornication but to tempting thoughts of all the eight passions. As the monk progresses to sobriety through use of the Jesus Prayer, he becomes more and more able to intercept these tempting thoughts or images at their early stages and to reject them. This is mental ascesis. However, mental ascesis is practised for tempting thoughts and images of all the eight passions, not just of fornication.

Finally, prayer is required. This includes not only the Jesus Prayer, but also petitionary prayer for help. Here, the comments of St John of the Ladder in the Ladder of Divine Ascent on the passion of fornication are apposite.

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