Monday, July 15, 2013

Ladder of Divine Ascent - Step Fifteen On Chastity

In this step, St. John writes about the struggle for chastity: "The man who decides to struggle against his flesh and to overcome it by his own efforts is fighting in vain.  The truth is that unless the Lord overturns the house of the flesh and builds the house of the soul, the man wishing to overcome it has watched and fasted for nothing.  Offer the Lord the weakness of your nature.  Admit your incapacity and, without your knowing it, you will win for yourself the gift of chastity."
            Sadly, in today's world, these words sound foreign.  As a society, we have abandoned the concept of sexual virtue and purity.  On our television screens and in the movie theaters, we calmly watch without reaction repeated violations of chastity.  As Christians we have come to accept and tolerate attitudes and behaviors in ourselves and others that at another time would have been unthinkable.  In so many ways we have lost sight of the fact that Chastity is not only precious in the eyes of God but a necessary virtue for us to obtain in our ascent to heaven.  Holy Scripture makes this clear: "Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness . . . and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God" (Gal 5:19,21).  For this reason, St. John calls unchastity "a sort of death within us, a sin that is catastrophic."
            What then is Chastity?  St. John answers: "The chaste man is not someone with a body undefiled, but rather a person whose members are in complete subjection to the soul."  One must remember that for St. John the body is both adversary and friend: adversary in as much as it has been marred by the fall, friend in as much as it remains God's creation and is called to share in the resurrection glory.  For the Christian, the body is not a tomb or prison, not a piece of clothing to be worn for a time and then cast aside, but an integral part of the true self.  The Christian's aim is "a body made holy."  Likewise, the passions, although a consequence of the fall and therefore no true part of human nature, are merely the distortion of the natural impulses implanted by God.  While repudiating the passions, we should not reject the natural God-given impulses that underlie them, but should restore to good use that which has become misdirected as a result of the fall.  Our watchword should be "transfigure" not "suppress"; "educate" not "eradicate".  Therefore, physical eros is not to be considered sinful, but can and should be used as a way of glorifying God.  Sin is evil, but not the body and its natural impulses.  In fact, physical love can be a paradigm of our longing for God.  The struggle for chastity, then, begins with controlling the body's sexual desires, through prayer and spiritual discipline, and ends with their transfiguration.  Having overcome the passion, we are free to be our true selves, free to love others, free to love God.
            How do we fight against the spirit of unchastity?  St. John speaks a great deal about the necessity of doing serious battle against  "evil thoughts" - that is, thoughts provoked by demons.  This also includes conceptual images such as fantasies.  Through ascetical discipline and prayer we must foster watchfulness - a state of spiritual sobriety, alertness, and vigilance in which one constantly guards the heart and intellect.  In our discipline we must be as relentless and cunning as the demons who tempt us.  With one difference - - We must in humility recognize our weakness and absolute dependence upon God to attain this virtue.

1-8            Chastity defined: its nature and qualities.  As a rightly ordered love it shares something in common with and belongs to all virtues.

            Chastity is a supernatural denial of what one is by nature, so that a mortal and corruptible body is competing in a truly marvelous way with incorporeal spirits.  A chaste man is someone who has driven out bodily love by means of divine love, who has used heavenly fire to quench the fires of the flesh.
            Chastity is a name common to all virtues.

            Anyone trained in chastity should give himself no credit for any achievements, for a man cannot conquer what he actually is.  When nature is overcome, it should be admitted that this is due to Him Who is above nature, since it cannot be denied that the weaker always yields to the stronger.

            The chaste man is not someone with a body undefiled but rather a person whose members are in complete subjection to the soul, for a man is great who is free of passion even when touched, though greater still is the man unhurt by all he has looked on.  Such a man has truly mastered the fires of earthly beauty by his attention concentrated on the beauties of heaven.  In driving off this dog by means of prayer he is like someone who has been fighting a lion.  He who subdues it by resistance to it is someone still chasing an enemy.  But the man who has managed to reduce its hold completely, even when he himself is still in this life, is someone who has already risen from the dead.

9-19            John then describes the different levels of self-restraint.  He warns, however, that whatever level of restraint we may have achieved we must never trust ourselves.  It the battle for chastity, we must rely only on the grace of God.  It alone can transform nature.

            The man who struggles against this enemy by sweat and bodily hardships is like someone who has tied his adversary with a reed.  If he fights him with temperance, sleeplessness, and keeping watch, it is as if he had put fetters on him.  If he fights with humility, calmness, and thirst, it is as though he had killed the enemy and buried him in sand, the sand being lowliness since it does nothing to feed the passions and is only earth and ashes.

            The fox pretends to be asleep; the body and the demons pretend to be chaste.  The former is on the watch to seize a bird, the latter to catch a soul.  So as long as you live, never trust that clay of which you are made and never depend on it until the time you stand before Christ himself.  And never imagine that abstinence will keep you from falling.  It was a being who never ate that was nevertheless thrown out of heaven.

            Do not imagine that you will overwhelm the demon of fornication by entering into an argument with him.  Nature is on his side and he has the best of the argument.  So the man who decides to struggle against his flesh and to overcome it by his own efforts is fighting in vain.  The truth is that unless the Lord overturns the house of the flesh and builds the house of the soul, the man wishing to overcome it has watched and fasted for nothing.  Offer up to the Lord the weakness of your nature.  Admit your incapacity and, without your knowing it, you will win for yourself the gift of chastity.

20-26            John warns that we must not be fooled by periods of continence.  Rather we must take precautions against the enemy, studying how he works.

            When our spiritual foes are drawn up to do battle with us, we should ponder what it is they can do, just as we would take precautions in a visible war.  For those foes have their proper tasks, strange as this may seem.

            In the battle against ascetics and those leading the solitary life, the devil regularly uses all his force, zeal and low skill, all his intrigue, cleverness, and evil designs to overpower them by means that are unnatural rather than according to nature.  And so it happens that when ascetics meet women and find themselves assailed neither by desire nor by evil thoughts, they occasionally come to imagine that they have achieved true blessedness.  Poor idiots!  They do not realize that a smaller lapse was not required since a major fall had in fact been prepared for them.

            Our relentless enemy, the teacher of fornication, whispers that God is lenient and particularly merciful to this passion, since it is so very natural.  Yet if we watch the wiles of the demons we will observe that after we have actually sinned they will affirm that God is a just and inexorable judge.  They say one thing to lead us into sin, another thing to overwhelm us in despair.  And if we are sorrowful or inclined to despair, we are slower to sin again, but when the sorrow and the despair have been quenched, the tyrannical demon begins to speak to us again of God's mercy.

27-51            In the following paragraphs John tells us that in striving for chastity we need not only cultivate temperance, but the virtues of obedience wherein one learns to renounce his own life and desires to God, stillness through which one develops and accurate knowledge of his feelings, thoughts and perceptions, and humility wherein one acknowledges his absolute dependence upon the grace of God.  In every way we must be sober and watchful, guarding each of the senses, knowing the times when temptation is most likely to come, and arming ourselves with the necessary weapons for battle.

            The mother of chastity is stillness and obedience.  Often the dispassion of body attained by stillness has been disturbed whenever the world impinged on it.  But dispassion achieved through obedience is genuine and is everywhere unshakable.

            The man who imagines he can conquer the demon of fornication by gluttony and by stuffing himself is quite like someone who quenches fire with oil.  And the man who tries to put an end to this struggle by means of temperance only is like someone trying to escape from the sea by swimming with just one hand.  However, join humility to temperance, for the one is useless without the other.

            The body can be defiled by the merest touch, for of all the senses this is the most dangerous.

            We have to be especially sober and watchful when we are lying in bed, for that is the time when our mind has to contend with demons outside our body.  And if our body is inclined to be sensual then it will easily betray us.  So let the remembrance of death and the concise Jesus prayer go to sleep with you and get up with you, for nothing helps you as these do when you are asleep.

            When temptation comes, our best weapons are sackcloth and ashes, all-night vigils standing up, hunger, the merest touch of water and most important of all, humility of heart; and if possible a spiritual director or a helpful brother, old in wisdom rather than years, should also support us.  Indeed it would come as a great surprise if anyone could, by his own efforts alone, save his ship from the sea.

52-60            It is also important to know the reasons behind periods of continence.  We must guard against becoming prideful or easing up on our discipline.  Demons, John warns, often hide themselves in order to bring about a greater fall.  Therefore, we must never look upon or listen to those things which may lead to impurity.  We must not subject ourselves even once to anything that is sinful.  To do so is to weaken our resolve and to expose ourselves to future conflict.

            If we have to go out into the world one some legitimate task, we have the hand of God to guard us, probably because our spiritual director is praying that we may not be a cause of blasphemy against the Lord.  Sometimes we are protected by our insensitivity or by the fact that long experience has exhausted for us the spectacle of the world, its sounds and all its works.  But sometimes the reason lies in the fact that the devils have left deliberately so that only the demon of pride remains to take over from all of them.
            But all of you who wish to practice purity and preserve it would listen now to another cunning stratagem of that deceiver, for I have been told by someone who had to suffer the experience that the demon of sensuality often hid himself completely.  Then he would have a monk sit or talk with women.  He would inspire him with great piety and even a flood of tears, and then suggest that he speak about the remembrance of death, judgment, and chastity.  The unfortunate women, deceived by his words and spurious piety, would rush to him, thinking him to be a shepherd instead of the wolf he really was.  Acquaintance would grow into familiarity, and the wretched monk would suffer his downfall.
            We should strive in all possible ways neither to see nor to hear of that fruit we have vowed never to taste.  It amazes me to think we could imagine ourselves to be stronger than the prophet David, something quite impossible indeed.

            The serpent of sensuality has many faces.  To those who have had no experience of sin he suggests the idea of trying it once and then stopping.  Then the crafty creature, exploiting the recollection of having sinned once, urges them to try again.  And many of the people without experience feel no conflict within themselves because they do not know what is evil, whereas the experienced, knowing the evil for what it is, suffer disturbance and conflict . . .

61-74            John gives us an analysis of the process of temptation in order that we might learn how the demons seek to incite us to sin.  He admits, that while one may understand this process, the onslaught of a disturbance and thought is often so swift that it is beyond a man's recognition.  This demon is persistent and patient.  It is cunning; even when thwarted by our efforts it will always seek a new point of entry.  We must fight hard and get into the habit of waging war for, as John warns, this demon tries harder than all the others.

            Among the discerning Fathers, distinctions are recognized between provocation, coupling, assent, captivity, struggle, and the disease called passion, which is in the soul.  These blessed Fathers say that provocation is a simple word or image encountered for the first time, which has entered into the heart.   Coupling is conversation with what has been encountered, whether this be passionately or otherwise.  Assent is the delighted yielding of the soul to what it has encountered.  Captivity is a forcible and unwilling abduction of the heart, a permanent lingering with what we have encountered and which totally undermines the necessary order of our souls.  By struggle they mean force equal to that which is leading the attack, and this force wins or loses according to the desires of the spirit.  Passion, in their view, is properly something that lies hidden for a long time in the soul and by its very presence it takes on the character of a habit, until the soul of its own accord clings to it with affection.
            The first of these conditions is free of sin, the second sometimes, the condition of the soul determines whether or not the third is sinful.  Struggle can earn a crown or punishment.  Captivity is judged in different ways, depending on whether it happens at the time of prayer or at some other time, whether it happens in regard to what is unimportant or in the context of evil thoughts.  But passion is unequivocally denounced in every situation and requires suitable repentance or future punishment.  From all of which it follows that he who regards the first encounter with detachment cuts off with one blow all the rest that follow.
            The most exact of the spiritual Fathers point to another more subtle notion, something they call pararripismos, or disturbance of the mind.  What happens is this.  In a moment, without a word being spoken or an image presented, a sudden passionate urge lays hold of the victim.  It comes faster than anything in the physical world and is swifter and more indiscernible than any spirit.  It makes its appearance in the soul by a simple memory, which is unconnected with anything, independent of time and inexpressible, and in some cases comes without the person himself realizing the fact.  Someone who has been able to detect such a subtlety, someone with the gift of mourning, may be able to explain how with the eye alone, with a mere glance, by the touch of the hand, through a song overheard, the soul is led to commit a definite sin of unchastity without any notion or evil thought.

            After we have fought long and hard against this demon, this ally of the flesh, after we have driven it out of our heart, torturing it with the stone of fasting and the sword of humility, this scourge goes into hiding in our bodies, like some kind of worm, and it tries to pollute us, stimulating us to irrational and untimely movements.  This particularly happens to those who have fallen to the demon of vainglory, for since dirty thoughts no longer preoccupy their hearts they fall victim to pride.  Such people can discover whether or not this is true if once they have attained a certain stillness they quietly take stock of themselves.  For they will then discover that deep down in their hearts, like a snake in dung, is the notion that by their own efforts and enthusiasm they made great advances in purity.  Poor wretches!  They forget the saying: "What have you got that you did not receive as a gift either from God or as a result of the help and prayers of others?" (cf. 1 Cor 4:7).  Let them beware then.  Let them with all zeal eject from their hearts the snake mentioned above.  Let them kill it with great humility . . .  .

             This demon is especially on the lookout for our weak moments and will viciously assail us when we are physically unable to pray against it.
            The effort of bodily prayer can help those not yet granted real prayer of the heart.  I am referring to the stretching out of the hands, the beating of the breast, the sincere raising of the eyes heavenward, deep sighs and constant prostrations.  But this is not always feasible when other people are present, and this is when the demons particularly like to launch an attack and, because we have not yet the strength of mind to stand up against them and because the hidden power of prayer is not yet within us, we succumb.  So go somewhere apart, if you can.  Hide for a while in some secret place.  If you can, lift up the eyes of your soul, but if not, the eyes of your body.  Stand still with your arms in the shape of the cross so that with this sign you may shame and conquer your Amalek.  Cry out to God, Who has the strength to save you.  Do not bother with elegant and clever words.  Just speak humbly, beginning with, "Have mercy on me, for I am weak" (Ps. 6:3).  And then you will come to experience the power of the Most High and with help from heaven you will drive off your invisible foes.  The man who gets into the habit of waging war in this way will soon put his enemies to flight solely by means of spiritual resources, for this is the reward God likes to bestow on those who put up a good struggle, and rightly so.

            All demons try to darken our minds so that they may then suggest to us what they want us to do, and so long as the mind stays awake we will not be robbed of our treasure.  But the demon of fornication tries harder than all the others.  First, by darkening our minds, which guide us, it urges and inclines us in the presence of other people to do things that only the mad would think of.  Then when our minds are cleared we become ashamed of these unholy deeds, words, and gestures, not only before those who saw us but before ourselves, and we are astounded by this earlier blindness of ours.

75-79            In these final paragraphs John poetically describes the mystery of the human person, the disunity that we experience within ourselves and the nature of our quest for personal integration.

            By what rule or manner can I bind this body of mine?  By what precedent can I judge him?  Before I can bind him he is let loose, before I can condemn him I am reconciled to him, before I can punish him I bow down to him and feel sorry for him.  How can I hate him when my nature disposes me to love him?  How can I break away from him when I am bound to him forever?  How can I escape from him when he is going to rise with me?  How can I make him incorrupt when he has received a corruptible nature?  How can I argue with him when all the arguments of nature are on his side?
            If I try to bind him through fasting, then I am passing judgment on my neighbor who does not fast - with the result that I am handed over to him again.  If I defeat him by not passing judgment I turn proud - and I am in thrall to him once more.  He is my helper and my enemy, my assistant and my opponent, a protector and a traitor.  I am kind to him and he assaults me.  If I wear him out he gets weak.  If he has a rest he becomes unruly.  If I upset him he cannot stand it.  If I mortify him I endanger myself.  If I strike him down I have nothing left by which to acquire virtues.  I embrace him.  And I turn away from him.
            What is this mystery in me?  What is the principle of this mixture of body and soul?  How can I be my own friend and my own enemy?  Speak to me!  Speak to me, my yoke-fellow, my nature!  I cannot ask anyone else about you.  How can I remain uninjured by you?  How can I escape the danger of my own nature?  I have made a promise to Christ that I will fight you, yet how can I defeat your tyranny?  But this I have resolved, namely, that I am going to master you.
            And this is what the flesh might say in reply: "I will never tell you what you do not already known.  I will speak the knowledge we both have.  Within me is my begetter, the love of self.  The fire that comes to me from outside is too much pampering and care.  The fire within me is past ease and things long done.  I conceived and give birth to sins, and they when born beget death by despair in their turn.  And yet if you have learned the sure and rooted weakness within both you and me, you have manacled my hands.  If you starve your longings, you have bound my feet, and they can travel no further.  If you have taken up the yoke of obedience, you have cast my yoke aside.  If you have taken possession of humility, you have cut off my head."
            This is the fifteenth reward of victory.  He who has earned it while still alive has died and been resurrected.  From now on he has a taste of the immortality to come.

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