When I first began visiting the monastery, after I had developed something of a friendship with the monks, I asked the brothers if they experienced any particular problems repressing their sexual urges. They told me that they do not repress, but redirect. That is, the desire and longing that, in the world, is generally expressed in sexual longing, they turn toward God as the One they long for most.
When they told me this, it seemed amazing, even unreal to me. This was about ten years ago, and at that time I had been married for thirty years. I loved God (as much as I knew how), but I had also known sexual longing within my marriage (with only occasional mental forays elsewhere, which I became much better at controlling, by God’s Grace, as the marriage progressed). That is, I longed for God and I longed for my wife. What the Brothers were talking about was something that took me several years to begin to understand.
As is often the case, something the Brothers tell me has to percolate for a while before the light begins to dawn within me. At first it just annoys me that I don’t get it—or when I’m feeling particularly bold and arrogant, when I think they are wrong. It’s not that I think they can’t be wrong. It’s just that I’ve learned over the years that the Holy Spirit (out of love for me) is not in the business of revealing the mistakes of my spiritual mentors to me. Rather, the Holy Spirit is in my life to reveal my sin and to enlighten me. If I were ever to be a source of enlightenment to them, which I think is absurd, I don’t think I would ever know it.
OK, enough digression. Often at first I don’t get what a holy person is telling me. It just eats at me. Often I have to read and pray and look into myself—examine my own life and experience—for quite a while before the light begins to dawn. So it is in the case of this matter of redirected desire.
I have to say that reading St. Isaac the Syrian and St. Maximus the Confessor has helped me a great deal to understand how my own psyche works and thus understand some of what the Brothers have said to me. And what’s particularly amazing is that these monks don’t read much theology. They just have a profoundly deep relationship with God. Reading theology has helped me understand some of what they talk about and tell me. They are the real theologians in the Orthodox sense of the word. That is, they actually know God in the stillness of their hearts. They don’t need to read theology, they are theology. Written theology is mostly for people like me who don’t experience much, but who have experienced just enough to know that there is a Great Big God closer than my breath, and who need a lot of help paying attention.
Maximus the Confessor has helped me understand that there are different levels of knowing. As we sing in the troparion of the Transfiguration, the disciples saw Christ’s glory “as far as they could bear it.” We each are able to know God only as far as we can bear it. However, our bearing capacity increases with use. At each level, like the steps of a ladder, we can interpret reality in a spiritual way, much like scripture can be read on many levels. That is, the events and experiences of our lives, the stuff that makes up our lives, can all teach us about spiritual realities if we learn to “read” them in humility before God.
And so as I reflected a bit on my own redirection of sexual desire in the context of my relationship with my wife, I began to get a faint understanding of how the same process might take place on the level of celibacy (about a hundred rungs on the ladder above me).
In the beginning of our married life, much to my wild surprise, my bad habits of thought that saw “anyone in a skirt” as a potential partner, did not automatically disappear. I was baffled. I thought that if (and please forgive me if this is crude, but it is how I thought as a 20 year old) I had all the sex I wanted with the woman I loved, my mind would never wander again. But here’s the thing I didn’t figure out until much later, habits of thought and behaviour have very little to do with love or biology. They are what the Fathers call passions, or in the case of behaviour, passion driven. Passions are misdirected and out of control natural desires, angers or fears (in a multitude of forms). But in my 20s, I didn’t know that. All I knew was that I loved my wife—she was the best thing that had ever happened to me—and I didn’t want to mess up a very beautiful thing.
So at the beginning, it was a battle of passions. I battled the habit of the misguided lustful passion-driven wandering of my mind with the passion of fear. I could see which way things tended: Do nothing, and I would probably destroy the most valuable thing in my life; or fight to stop it in the hope that it would get easier as time went on, and save my marriage. As you can see, at this early stage, my motives and perspective are blatantly selfish. Consequently, at this stage, fear was a very effective motivator.
However ten years and three children later, my perspective and motives had changed. I still felt that Bonnie was the best thing that had ever happened to me, but over the trials and tribulations of loving it, working it, and toughing it out together, I came to love Bonnie in a way I couldn’t imagine at the beginning. When we married, I loved Bonnie as much as it was possible to love someone—but that was limited by my ability to “bear it.” That is, my capacity to love (and thus my ability to imagine or experience love) was not as big as it would become with time. But with time, my ability to love increased. Ten years in, fighting thoughts of a wandering sexual sort wasn’t about my losing a good thing so much as it was about hurting my wife. In other words, it was not fear (so much) that motivated me, but shame before the one I loved and whom I knew loved me.
Bearing a little shame went a long way toward stopping impure thoughts in their tracks. Here’s how it worked. As soon as I noticed that my mind was toying with a wandering lustful thought (and sometimes it took much longer to notice than I’d like to admit), I would immediately think of how it would hurt my wife if I were to follow through on that thought. The shame I felt at that moment redirected my thoughts, or better, motivated me to redirect my thoughts. At that time, I didn’t know the Jesus Prayer, so I would redirect my thoughts just about anywhere else. But in that moment, just about anywhere was a better place for my thoughts than where they were.
And so, using this example from marriage as an analogy, I can begin to imagine how a monk could redirect his or her sexual energy toward longing for the God whom they love supremely. However, my story doesn’t end here.
Over the years, I have also begun to experience another phenomenon. I first noticed it in Hollywood, when we took our children to see the stage production of The Little Mermaid. We were sitting in a side balcony booth next to the stage. I was closest to the stage in the booth. In one scene (act?) there were about twenty “mermaids” floating around the stage dressed in very little above the waist. One of these women was just few feet from my face. And at that moment, as I was preparing myself for a battle with impure thoughts, I didn’t experience lustful thoughts. What I experienced was compassion. I truly felt sorry for this woman. It was as if I felt the pain in her life.
And this sort of experience I have noticed in the Brothers when they talk about (what I might think) could be an experience of temptation. Rather than a temptation, they experience compassion and pain of heart.
And so you can say there has been a sort of progression in my life with this particular struggle. Fear motivated a kind of conformation. But this motion, not so much the conformation itself, but the motion of letting fear motivate me to choose, to fight for the good, this motion began to change something inside me. It increased my capacity to be motivated by something better, something higher. More and more, love and shame worked in me motivating me to choose and fight for the good in my own thought life. I was beginning to change, to transform, so that eventually shame was itself swallowed by compassion. My focus had shifted from my pain, to my loved one’s pain (or potential pain), to the pain of another human being whom I did not know at all. Certainly, conformation began the processes, but if I had remained merely conforming myself to some standard of behaviour, I would have never learned love, and would probably have developed a psychosis of some sort.
Now I want to end with a disclaimer. Although I have experienced what I am talking about, I do not experience it consistently. There are times when I have to return to the beginning and motivate myself with fear. It is dizzying how quickly I can fall in my mind from a state of contemplation (as far as I can bear it) to a state of wallowing in the mud like a pig. Much of the time I catch myself before I splat into the grossest mire, but sometimes I do a face plant into some seriously debauched thinking, and I have to fight like hell to get out of it. At those times my old friend fear is the only weapon that will work.
But I’ve been up and down this path enough times now to know that my loving God will not abandon me for long if I let fear do its work to get me moving to redirect my thoughts. (Actually God never abandons us, it just feels that way from my perspective, and that what I writing about.) Soon the Prayer, “Lord Jesus have mercy on me” will shift my focus. My Lord Jesus will have mercy, and soon the stench of wicked thoughts will be washed away. I wish I could say by my tears, but I don’t cry much over my sins like it says in the books. I just feel ashamed and somehow God accepts that, washes me up a bit, and I go back to trying to keep my mind on good things.
Thank you, Father. Stay safe. You are in my prayers tonight.
Thank you for being so open and posting this. It’s humbling and encouraging for those of us in the nave to hear our clergy and monastics speak of personal experience in this way.
Thank you Fr. Michael for your insightful presentation of your personal experiences.
Thank you, Father, for sharing this and being open about yourself and your thoughts and struggles. I struggle with many similar and different things, so tonight this was much needed. I hope you are doing well =).