My pastor has been speaking of the new evangelization during his homilies for months, and he’ll be speaking about it for many more months. After introducing this topic to his flock, he began unfolding the phases of the new evangelization. The first phase, which he spoke about during Advent, is hearing and encountering the Word. The second, which he spoke about during Christmas, is answering Jesus’s call – not a call to go forth (yet), but a call to Him, an entrusting of our lives to Him and entering into the intimacy of His love, the love of the Holy Trinity. During Lent he is talking about the third phase of the new evangelization – formation. We have heard the Word, answered the call of He Who Is the Word, and now it is time to allow ourselves to be formed and shaped in Him.
The 40 days of Lent recall previous periods of “40”. The Israelites were formed in the desert for 40 years before entering the Promised Land. The prophet Elijah fasted for 40 days before coming into the Lord’s presence on Mt. Horeb (the same mountain as where Moses had come into the Lord’s presence). Jesus Christ fasted for 40 days before beginning His public ministry, and He remained on Earth with His disciples for 40 days between the Resurrection and Ascension. In all of these cases God is forming those progressing through the 40 days or years. So too with Lent: we recognize that it is a period of 40 days in which God is forming us. However, during Lent it is not uncommon for people to take actions in which they attempt to form themselves rather than let themselves be formed. Over at The Catholic Gentleman there is a piece on giving up porn for Lent. It had some interesting ideas – particularly the Blue Label challenge which I had never heard before. (As an aside, I would turn that challenge on its head: having the bottle at the end of that long road for whoever is walking it). It’s a good article and I recommend checking it out. It got me thinking again about Lenten practices, this time in regards to our vices. In particular it made me ponder what consists of an attempt to form ourselves and what consists of allowing ourselves to be formed by God. For the sake of simplicity this post will focus on only one vice: lust manifested through the compulsive use of pornography. However, what is said below can apply to any compulsive action. If porn isn’t a problem for you then pick your poison and substitute it below.
It is not uncommon for people to give up porn for Lent in an effort to live more intimately in Christ. Generally, if one does this it is typical (and smart) to make a plan. Such is the case at The Catholic Gentleman. They provide ideas and make suggestions so those seeking to be free of porn may not only have real support, but also may “retrain [their] brain”. There are two problems, however, with giving up a vice or a particular manifestation (in this case pornography) of that vice for Lent. First,
This is true even when one has an army of supporters and a belt with every conceivable weapon at your disposal. Giving up pornography for Lent is similar to making a New Year’s resolution.
If by the end of Lent this action still persists or has gotten worse it makes one even more susceptible to the Evil One’s whispers of defeat and self-loathing.
One really must wonder though – and this brings us to the second problem – is a particular sin what one is suppose to give up for Lent? Aren’t we suppose to always be giving up sin? The blessing of Lent (one of many) is that we receive greater spiritual strengthening in our struggle against sin, and in our pursuit of virtue and drawing nearer to God. The “Prayer over the people” during Lent is an example of this. Through the Church’s prayers and disciplines, we receive the grace we need to carry out our own Lenten disciplines and be formed by Christ. Remember, it is God who forms us, not ourselves. The question now is not whether or not to give up looking at pornography for Lent, but rather what discipline(s) should one exercise that will draw them nearer to Christ and His Sacred Heart, thereby leading to detachment from the demon of lust and attachment to God Most Holy?
When it comes to compulsive behaviors there are no easy answers and no easy paths. The problem is multi-faceted and so are the solutions. There is so much that can be said. These battles, however, are always first and foremost spiritual battles. Therefore, in addition to the suggestions and exhortation given by The Catholic Gentleman, I’d like to reflect on the opportunities of a particularly Lenten character that are afforded to someone during this season to combat pornography.
One’s struggle with pornography is a battle against the demon of lust. “[A]gainst the demon of unchastity and the desire of the flesh,” St. John Cassian* tells us that the battle must be fought on two fronts: the body and the soul. For the body he recommends fasting. For the soul he recommends “contrition of heart, intense prayer to God, frequent meditation on the Scriptures, toil and manual labor.” A little further he says, “Humility of soul helps more than everything else, however, and without it no one can overcome unchastity or any other sin.”
Excepting the 40 days between the Resurrection and the Ascension, each of the above periods of formation are characterized by fasting. Fasting is an ancient discipline of the Church with a very long tradition of practice during Lent. In regards to our topic, it helps one not simply overcome addiction to pornography, but also fosters greater malleability in being formed in Christ. Why?
For as much as it hurts when we give up a vicious practice, we are not dying. The person who gives up pornography is doing a very good thing; it is like the person daily ingesting poison who then stops. What has been given up though is not something necessary for life or something that adds qualitatively to one’s life, but rather something detrimental to it. The person who abstains from certain goods such as chocolate (that’d be me this year) also does a good thing, but again they are not giving up something necessary to live. Fasting on the other hand is a practice which signifies the giving of our lives to Christ (our dying in Him) most fully because we are giving up something necessary for living. Christ -as the picture indicates above – gave all of Himself for us; He gave His life. Additionally, in a physical way fasting reminds us of our dependence on God, that we do not live by bread alone.
For the soul, St. Cassian recommends the exercise of multiple practices. I’d like to focus on one: contrition of heart. Connected to this are tears. Tears are a gift from God and a manifestation of our contrition of heart. Tears can act as a sacrament (little “s”), purifying our heart from evil inclinations. Tears indicate sadness – a sorrow for our sins. Sorrow for our sins can be very powerful, so much so that as Fr. Z points out we can attain complete detachment from sin through it.
When it comes to complete detachment from sin, even venial, few of us live in that state all the time. Nevertheless, there are times when we have been moved to sorrow for sin after examination of conscience, perhaps after an encounter with God as mystery in liturgical worship or in the presence of human suffering, that we come to a present horror and shame of sin that moves us to reject sin entirely.
Tears also indicate a recognition of our needing to be saved. However, it is not enough that one recognizes their powerlessness and need for salvation. One must also be accepting of it, allowing themselves to receive it. In faith one must truly believe that God has saved them and can raise them from their misery. In faith they must be brought to hope. Tears are waters of rebirth nourishing the soil of our heart, making it a fruitful ground for salvation and joy. Speaking of tears as a remedy against acedia, Jean-Charles Nault, O.S.B says:
[Tears] are like water that falls on a rock and, over time, manages to penetrate it. They are like water that flows over the shell of our stony heart, so that it might become a heart of flesh. Little by little they will transform our heart so as to make it docile to the Lord. They will make a notch so that mercy might pour into that gap, into that wound, just as the mercy of God was engulfed in Christ’s wound of love on the Cross. (p. 38)
There is a particularly common practice during Lent which lends itself quite well to encouraging tears: the Stations of the Cross. This devotion is offered every Friday at almost every single parish during Lent. Go to the Stations of the Cross. In addition to fostering contrition of heart, it also provides the opportunity to meditate on the Scriptures, can prompt us to intense forms of prayer, and depending on our physical fitness even provide some toil – all things that St. John Cassian recommends in fighting against the demon of unchastity. Even if it doesn’t bring about physical tears (and it’s fine if it doesn’t), it will help bring about tears of the heart.
Finally, lust twists relationships; it stunts them. The lustful person is not truly free nor full of life; they are not able to fully love others. In the Constitutions of the Secular Order of the Teresian Carmel it says, “In [the promise of chastity] the Secular Carmelite seeks the freedom to love God and neighbor unselfishly.” As one moves from darkness to light, from unchastity to chastity, it is good to spend greater time in fellowship with others, to form positive relationships and more connections in your parish community. Many parishes offer a soup supper every Friday after Stations of the Cross.
What we do during Lent should have a distinctive Lenten flavor. Always combat the use of porn, but during Lent instead of “giving up” porn take on the life of the Church as it is given to us this season. And in all things humility. To repeat the above, “Humility of soul helps more than everything else.” There is a saying from the Desert Fathers: “Obedience has the promise of humility.” What does obedience look like for a layman? Devotionally, one way is following the disciplines and traditions of the Church. For Lent these are fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, abstaining from meat on Fridays, and taking on a Lenten practice most especially along the lines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
*Quotes taken from St. John Cassian’s On the Eight Vices can be found in the first volume of The Philokalia.
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