Many do not realize that the ancient Church Fathers deal rather specifically with the problem of unwanted sexual thoughts, albeit from a man’s perspective. Unfortunately, there were very few women in the ancient world who were able or had the leisure to read and write, so there is a dearth of information about the inner life of women in the early centuries of the Church. Consequently, women have to translate the struggles of men into appropriate wisdom for their own struggle. Here a spiritual mother is very helpful. However, it often takes years to find and develop a relationship with a wise woman (or man) who can help you with your inner life. Therefore, I strongly encourage everyone, women and men, to put significant effort into finding a wise woman or man who can help guide their inner life.
That said, it has been my experience as a priest and confessor that despite some noticeable differences between how and with what men and women tend to struggle, there is a great deal of overlap; and the wisdom of the saints, regardless of gender, can generally be helpful for everyone if applied with discernment. In fact, there is no wisdom of the fathers that does not require both discernment and a kind of cultural translation in order for it to be applied fruitfully. The specific advice that would be applicable to a male shepherd in fifth century Palestine, would certainly need to be adjusted to be applied fruitfully in the life of a twenty-first century business woman. The specific advice would need to be adjusted, but the wisdom behind the advice would probably need very little or no adjusting. And of course, discernment is the name given to the process and ability to sort that out.
And it is a spiritual father or mother who helps us discern. Even a poor spiritual mentor is better than none. One of the desert fathers said, “the man who is his own spiritual guide has a fool as a spiritual guide.”
I have given you this long introduction about discernment and the need for spiritual fathers and mothers as a kind of warning and disclaimer. I want to talk about what two ancient spiritual fathers have to say about the struggle with sexual thoughts, but I understand that without discernment and guidance, this advice can be unhelpful or even dangerous—leading to depression. Nevertheless, I think I need to take the risk—having given the afore mentioned precautions— because I have found these words to be so helpful in my own life. And love compels me to share in the hope that others too may be helped.
The two Fathers I want to look at are St. Isaac the Syrian, homily 66 and the letters of Sts. Barsanuphius and John to St. Dorotheos of Gaza (252 – 238).
The first thing I want to point out is that according to St. Isaac, “unseemly thoughts” will not stop occurring to us, or “passing through our mind” so long as our soul is united to our body. The test of spiritual maturity is not that unseemly thoughts no longer occur to us. Rather, spiritual maturity is when the unwanted thought makes its appearance in our consciousness, and our mind is quickly redirected (“caught away”) from the unwanted thought and all that pertains to it (the arguments, the if’s, and’s, and but’s) by the force of both habit and Grace. In other words, impure thoughts are overcome by repeatedly, over many years, turning your mind away, thus developing a habit, by God’s Grace. St. Barsanuphius himself says that it took him five years of focused effort before he was no longer bothered by impure sexual thoughts. Keep in mind, it took five years for a saint in a cave who did nothing much else but work on it without any (or hardly any) actual external sexual temptation being present. And further keep in mind that this doesn’t mean that he never had a further immoral thought. Rather it means that he had trained or habituated himself through repeatedly turning his thoughts toward God whenever impure thoughts occurred to him through “unceasing prayer together with weeping” (i.e. the Jesus Prayer, or some other mental prayer with a contrite or broken heart).
Remember what I said about watching out for despair? Watch out.
I often repeat the advice St. Barsanuphius gives (the future St.) Dorotheos when I am confessing young people who are struggling with lustful thoughts. The first bit of advice is to blame yourself. We are tempted when we are drawn away by our own desires, St. Barsanuphius says quoting the biblical book of James. It’s not the fault of the person, image or thought by which you are aroused. You are tempted and aroused because you were not paying attention to yourself and you allowed the initial impure thought into your heart and it became a desire. If we blame ourselves and not others, then we can repent. If we blame others we become angry and arrogant. But if we blame ourselves, we can begin to notice when and where the initial thoughts come from and learn to become attentive to avoiding them. We can learn to redirect our thoughts to prayer. The secret weapon is not to direct our attention toward fighting the thought, but toward drawing near to God in that very instant.
However, developing even the desire to do this work of attending to our thoughts and redirecting them to prayer requires great humility. This is why the next piece of advice is so important. When you fail, return to God in tears hating your sin. That is, you may fall several times in a day (several times in an hour when I was a young man), but if I hate my falling, if I return to God in tears—like the Prodigal Son who cannot get rid of the smell of the pigs or the adulterous woman who has no other lips with which to kiss the Master’s feet but the lips that also kissed her lover—then God will receive our tears and create in us an clean heart and a right Spirit, as it says in Psalm 50. “Humility,” St. Barsanuphius say, “does not fall, it merely raises those who possess it from their fall.” Mourning our fall delivers us from the very boldness by which we allowed ourselves to enter into temptation in the first place. Humility attracts the Grace of God.
I remember when I was in college how my male friends and I would sit and watch the young women walking by (especially in the spring when the heavy jackets came off). I used to boldly and foolishly say to myself, “I am not lusting, I am just admiring God’s creation” just because at that moment I wasn’t particularly sexually aroused. Then I would wonder and cry out to God later that day when I was overcome by unwanted lustful thoughts and arousal. “God help me!” It is only through many mistakes and painful struggle and much failure that we come to know ourselves and begin to acquire a bit of humility.
And this brings us to a third piece of advice that St. Barsanuphius gives: “Flee as a deer from the traps” that you so easily fall into. And largely, St. Barsanuphius tells (the future St.) Dorotheos, these traps come in the form of what we see and how we see it. That is, if we have experienced temptation in a glance, we should avoid a second glance. Because, again, the real problem is not the other person—no matter how immodestly the other person is dressed or acting. The real problem is that I am drawn away by my own lust, and as the eye is the window of the soul, so looking creates desire. This aspect of the struggle is both the hardest and the easiest. It is easiest because it is merely a matter of forcing yourself to look away. It is hardest because it can sometimes be incessant so that without humility, one easily gives up and looks anyway.
The next piece of advice is to stay close to holy people and continually ask the help of the saints, especially the Mother of God. The main goal of the evil one is not so much to get us to fall into one of the various sins of fornication. The evil one’s main goal is to get us to turn away from God. When we fall, immediately the evil one plants in our mind thoughts such as, “what’s the use,” or “I will never win this battle,” or “this is too hard.” And what do all of these thoughts have in common? They focus on yourself and your inability in your own strength to be in control of yourself. This line of thought makes sense to us because we are full of pride. We want to come to God as successful Christians, not as the harlots and prodigals we really are in our hearts. And so if we listen to the evil one, we will stay away from Church, stay away from others who are also trying to draw near to God, and stay away from prayer and the saints and the tears that will heal us and bring the Grace of the Holy Spirit into our life.
However, if we stay with our brothers and sisters and in our Church, we have the prayers of our brothers and sisters. If we call out to the saints for help, we have the intercession of the saints to help us. I particularly find it helpful to call out to the exact saint I am most embarrassed or ashamed before. Usually, for me, that is the Holy Mother of God. I have her icon taped onto my computer for that very reason. Any shameful thought or temptation that occurs to me while I am on my computer, I turn my eyes to the icon of the Theotokos—or at least that is my struggle, that is the habit that I want to form, that is what I strive with only moderate success to do.
The final piece of advice I would like to suggest is from St. Isaac. Particularly in times of struggle, avoid satiety. This is a tricky one because very hard fasting can be dangerous, both physically and spiritually, if one is not carefully overseen by a spiritual mentor. But I like the wisdom of St. Isaac here. He does not suggest extreme fasting—neither do Sts. Barsanuphius and John, by the way. He only says to avoid satiety. That is, don’t eat until you can’t eat any more. Eat enough, eat what you need, but then stop eating while you could still eat some more. Don’t eat until you are completely satisfied. This maxim can also apply to sleep or other bodily needs. Eat or sleep as much as you need, not as much as you want. This discipline, St. Isaac tells us, will go a long way to decreasing the power of lustful thoughts, especially in our sleep. St. Isaac tells us that when the body is satisfied, it looks to direct its energies in lustful ways. When we keep our body a little less than satisfied, we help ourselves to gain an edge over our lustful passions.
Being cooped up these days because of the social distancing called for by the current pandemic, I think many of us may have more opportunity than usual to pay attention to our thoughts. May God help us in this time truly to grow closer to Him.