Tackling the afflictive thought of sex, and any of the afflictive thoughts, takes time, prayer and humility. Now we offer some teaching on three important spiritual tools which help us in this combat. Since we are now in the season of Lent, perhaps these tools can in a special way become part of our spiritual armour. They are:
- The manifestation of thoughts
- The sacrament of reconciliation
- Spiritual accompaniment
The stories about the desert fathers abound in their approval for the manifestation of thoughts to a wise elder:
A brother came to see Abba Poemen in the second week of Lent and told him about his thoughts; he obtained peace….
A brother asked Abba Poemen, ‘Why should I not be free to do without manifesting my thoughts to the old men?’ The old man replied, ‘The enemy rejoices over nothing so much as over those who do not manifest their thoughts.’
The manifestation of thoughts involves the laying out of our afflictive thoughts, as dispassionately as possible and with as little analysis as possible, to one who, through their own spiritual experience and growth in wisdom, can receive what we say, without judgement. When we use this spiritual tool our desire is that we separate ourselves from the thought and the conversation which the thought brings and put distance between the thought and ourselves, in mind and spirit. The great danger with afflictive thoughts is precisely that we enter into conversation with them and that we do all the talking. Quickly, this talk becomes self-talk, and we isolate ourselves with our thought. Most frequently when we manifest our thoughts we are not seeking any specific advice or correction unless the severity of the thought, or own misperception around the thought, demands it. The director who listens with full attention and presence may, from time to time, need to clarify what we say, but, by and large, they should not begin a conversation about what we say.
Depending on the severity of the affliction which the thought brings and creates we may need repeatedly to return and speak out the thought, gradually diminishing its hold on us, so that I do not become my thought, but, on the contrary, move it aside. As with the other tools following, some other work will be needed to bolster the ground work provided by manifestation.
St Benedict himself, in one of the most important chapters in the Holy Rule – on humility – identifies manifestation to one’s superior as a step in growing in humility. It is unlikely that Benedict is speaking here about sacramental confession: The fifth step of humility is that a monk does not conceal from his abbot any sinful thoughts entering his heart, or any wrongs committed in secret, but rather confesses them humbly.
The second essential tool which we can use to aid us in the battle with the thoughts is frequent recourse to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, sometimes still called Confession or Penance. This differs from the manifestation of thoughts because in this sacrament we meet not just another person but Christ Jesus who presents himself to us as the Father’s mercy. We come to the Sacrament seeking something – absolution for our sins, forgiveness and mercy, the grace of reconciliation with God, our brothers and sisters in the Church and universally, and with my own fractured and disintegrated self, which calls out for the wholeness and healing which Christ brings. The sacrament, and indeed the whole life of grace which is made available to us through living the sacramental life, is a means by which salvation becomes a reality in our lives. In a sense, the battle with the afflictive thoughts invites us to a whole renewal of life, which, for those of us who are baptised into Christ’s Body, finds its fullest context when we live out the desire to journey back to the heart of the Church. Moving the thoughts aside will not do this alone – we need to constantly employ the other tools of the spiritual life, of which the sacraments are pre-eminent.
Reconciliation begins from and directs us towards conversion and transformation. It presumes a desire on our part to leave behind the things in our lives which weigh us down and degrade our relationship with God, self and others. What better way to give life to our Lent than by embracing this sacrament as a means to keep moving aside the thoughts which deflect us and take us down paths which we would rather avoid!
The third tool which we can use to move aside the thoughts is to find someone who can serve as a spiritual director or provide us with spiritual accompaniment. If in manifestation we do not seek specifically a word, and in reconciliation we seek comfort, mercy and absolution, in spiritual accompaniment we seek the support and advice of one whom we know is grounded in their own relationship with God, Father, Son and Spirit, and themselves. In spiritual accompaniment we enter the sphere of trust, and we entrust ourselves to another, opening those parts of our selves which are wounded, fragmented, and in need of merciful attention. From a human point of view we all need to hear and receive the spoken and visible support of another. But in spiritual accompaniment, in addition to this, we seek a word which, as is so often said in the stories of the desert fathers, will give us life. Spiritual accompaniment will be a context in which we are both comforted and challenged, in which we learn to discern God’s will for us through moments of consolation and desolation, and how to perceive what he teaches us in all those moments. And it is always a path which leads to more truthful living – we remember Dorotheos of Gaza, in his teachings to his own disciples – no one can be his own director.
Perhaps this Lent is the time for you to discover the value of these tools and find a place for them in your growing spiritual life?
-Part of our ‘Afflictive Thoughts’ series-