Should it surprise us that the afflictive thought of sex has always, in some way, weighed down our hearts? It is certainly not merely a modern day struggle! And we should begin by reminding ourselves of the desert fathers and mothers and how they were aware of the continual rising and falling of all thoughts:
A brother came to Abba Poemen and said to him, ‘Abba, I have many thoughts and they put me in danger.’ The old man led him outside and said to him, Expand your chest and do not breathe in.’ He said, ‘I cannot do that.’ Then the old man said to him, ‘If you cannot do that, no more can you prevent thoughts from rising, but you can resist them.’
The desert fathers, these spiritual athletes, were first and foremost people of searing common sense and humanity – and they recognise that we all have to deal with these thoughts which keep coming, whether we like it or not! And they also struggled to move aside the sex thought (very often referred to in the stories of the desert tradition as ‘fornication’, even though it may never have any obvious outward expression).
Abba Poemen said, ‘Fornication and slander, are two thoughts that should never be talked about or pondered in the heart; for if you want to understand them in the heart, it does no good; but if you fight shy of them, you will obtain peace.’
Poemen gives a fundamental directive in this word – do not dwell on the sex thought; do not give it space in your heart to become rooted and grow; and the talking to be avoided here is that which engourages the thought to continue unchallenged.
A brother asked Abba Agathon about fornication. He answered, ‘Go, cast your weakness before God, and you shall find rest.’
Once again, the desert father invites an immediate response from the one who is afflicted by this thought, and there is a recognition that I need to turn to God for his help and his grace in this particular combat. Lastly, we notice that both Poemen and Agathon acknowledge that the sex thought, as it becomes more powerfully present for us, robs us of our peace and rest.
There is no doubt that the sexual side of our being has become clouded, mistrusted, soiled in a sense. In the first place, the sense around this thought must be that we take time, and seek support, to affirm the goodness and healthiness and wholeness of our sexual energy. It is, in the first place, part of our human createdness and therefore given us by our generous and loving Creator. That said, it is also caught up, as is every other part of our createdness, in our fallenness, and so is always waiting for grace to renew. In this sense, our sexual identity and behaviour is always called to transformation within the context of our discerned vocation – I have the responsibility of my own conversion which touches all areas of who I am; but the work of transformation which follows conversion is always Christ’s.
We need to know that, when we fall in any of the thoughts, and particularly in this most intimate and personal of the thoughts, we have an invitation to begin again and not allow despondency to become our response:
A brother asked Abba Sisoes, ‘What shall I do, abba, for I have fallen?’ The old man said, ‘Get up again.’ The brother said, ‘I have got up again, but I have fallen again.’ The old man said, ‘Get up again and again.’ So then the brother said, ‘How many times?’ The old man said, ‘Until you are taken up either in virtue or sin. For a man presents himself in judgement in the state in which he is found.’
So, the beginning again each time this affliction hits us is important. We move the thought aside, or manifest it, or retreat into our ceaseless prayer (all these we will discuss next week), and begin again with the grace that is given us.
We need to recognise that we have a natural inclination to sexual needs, that fantasies knit themselves into our processing of situations and emotions, and that these experiences are universal and shared by all. Frequently, one of the most crippling aspects of the sex thought is that it makes us feel that only I am living through this sort of struggle, and everyone else either has control of it or doesn’t allow its persistent presence to bother them. Not at all! All of us, in varying degrees, experience the sex thought arising from deep within us, engaging us, and inviting us to a dialogue which may lead to action and repeated action. This depth makes it a difficult thought to deal with completely.
Undoubtedly we need to consider the practices which are suggested to us by continence – refraining from sexual and genital activity in a mature way; by chastity itself – a state which governs our inmost thoughts and translates itself into our attitudes and behaviour, so that our relationships with ourselves, with one another and with God, ultimately, are purified by being freed from secondary motivations and agendas – in chastity I learn to love for love’s sake, and not to gain by my love; and for those of us who live a special consecration of vowed or ordained service in the Church, celibacy – a grace which we must ask for day and daily in order that our service be not drudgery but Christ-centred selfless service directed always to the other with the fullness of my being.
As we walk with others for whom this thought has become a pathological way of behaving, and has spilled over, perhaps, into addicition (and today, this is particularly prevelant given the bizarre availability of pornography and the re-wiring of the brain which this brings with it), and as we learn to move aside and assuage our own inclination to go with the sex thought, we need to remember that compassion governs our response. Very often the sexual behaviour which we would rather avoid is signposting us to deeper work to be done personally. It’s rare that the sex affliction stands alone, but rather that it indicates a deeper malaise and turbulence. So, we need to look always at the causes of this afflictive thought, and pour balm on those origins. The movement to sexual addiction can be quick, and this behaviour can suddenly mean that I am my thought, and it has control of me.
Especially with this afflictive thought we must be ready to engage tools which effectively move it aside, and so that we can take the advice of the writer of the Book of Proverbs seriously:
Next week, some tools which help us move aside and dilute the afflictive thought of sex.
-Part of our ‘Afflictive Thoughts’ series-