Today we celebrate the feast of the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist, the commemoration of a day on which two people lost their heads—one lethally, the other mortally. King Herod had had John arrested because John had criticised Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife. Then, as now, people don’t seem to appreciate being told what they can and cannot do in the bedroom. Herod’s wife seems to have particularly objected to John’s condemnation, and kept trying to get Herod to kill John. But for some reason, Herod found John’s tirades amusing, and kept him alive to hear him preach.
But one fateful day, the king’s birthday, in fact, Herod’s wife’s daughter (that’s Herod’s niece, if you’re keeping track of the yuck factor) performed a rather provocative dance for him and his court, which pleased him so much that he promised her whatever she wanted, up to half the kingdom. The girl asked her mother, who finally got her chance to be rid of the troublesome prophet, and St. John the Baptist was beheaded and his head presented on a silver platter to the dancing girl (who, I’m sure, would much rather have just had a pony).
It’s an interesting power that beauty has—especially the beauty of a woman. Herod was not the first, nor would he be the last man to be entranced by it. Today, the alluring sensuality of woman has been exploited far beyond what even Herod, in his decadence, could have dreamed, with internet pornography infiltrating into nearly every home and affecting nearly everyone with internet access. It has even come to the point where such viewing has been normalised, where hardly anyone takes any notice of its prevalence or of its destructive effects. And there seem to be all too few John the Baptists willing to stick their necks out to fight against it. Perhaps that’s because they themselves have been caught in the grip of this insidious temptation. I myself have struggled with lust and pornography since a friend introduced me to it in my teens.
In my own struggle, I have found five things to be helpful, and share them with anyone reading who also struggles in this area, in the hope that they might not despair of the struggle, but continue to strive manfully for the freedom of true beauty and true love that God desires for us.
1. Fostering a rich faith life
Going to Mass (daily as often as possible), praying the Rosary, Eucharistic Adoration, and frequent Confession are the major tools of holiness. Neglecting these spiritual exercises leaves a void in our soul that pornography readily promises to fill. It takes discipline, and often a serious effort to arrange your schedule to fit these things in, but the benefits are well worth it—even beyond staying free of this particular sin. In particular, focussing on the beauty of our faith, the icons and imagery, the beautiful architecture and artwork and music produced through the centuries in and by the Church can fill the soul’s need for beauty in a way that surpasses the empty sexuality offered by porn.
2. Fasting and other Penitential Mortifications
St. John the Baptist lived his life in the desert wearing coarse garments and eating only locusts and wild honey. His extreme discipline over his body kept his sensual desires in check. While I’m not advocating anything quite so strenuous, small acts of mortification help us to bring our passions into subjection to our intellect and our will, rather than us being ruled by our passions. St. Dominic was wont to teach this principle, saying that we can either be hammered by our passions, or hammer our passions by our mortifications. “It is better to be the hammer than the anvil,” he would advise. Discuss a suitable programme of penance with your Confessor or Spiritual Director. Which leads me to the third strategy…
3. Foster Real Relationships
Pornography preys in part upon the loneliness of the human condition. Especially in this busy age, where so few genuine connections are found, and where we often have not learned the skills to foster and maintain those connections, where marriage is viewed as “just a piece of paper” rather than something to work at, pornography promises a connection, but cannot deliver. Learning to foster genuine relationships keeps us from being alone with ourselves so that the fake connection becomes less alluring. Chief among these relationships should be friends with whom you are accountable, who know your struggle and can support you and help you in it. Regular Confession—to the same priest (none of this “I go to a priest who is a stranger so he won’t know who I am” stuff), or better, to a Spiritual Director—is the epitome of such accountability relationships. This is because the priest can get to know you and your struggle, provide counsel in the spiritual life for overcoming that struggle, and absolution from your sins when you fall. And since in this role, the priest acts in persona Christi, you can entrust yourself to him with greater confidence. Secondarily, for those who are married, the sacrament of matrimony provides another avenue for grace (how often we forget that marriage is a sacrament—a vehicle of God’s grace). Our wives (or husbands, because pornography isn’t just a man’s problem) need to be included in our struggles, so that they can help us overcome. This is not an easy thing, for there will be an element of hurt and betrayal, but God’s grace is stronger and the open honesty with your spouse will bring the sin out of the shadows where it loves to hide, so that it can be eradicated by the light of true love.
4. Fighting Fire with Fire
One of the best weapons against the temptation to lust and view pornography was given to me in Confession by a regular Confessor. He recommended that I offer up the temptation itself for the conversion of the very model or whomever who was causing that temptation to flare up. He said that if the temptation is of purely carnal origin, then offering it up will contribute greatly to the conversion and salvation of the porn star, and if the temptation has diabolical origins, it will cease immediately, for the devil will not bear for his attempt to destroy us to be used for someone’s salvation! I put this strategy into practice years ago, when it was first given to me. I stayed free from porn for several months, offering up my temptations for the conversion of the models on a particular website I would frequent. After a while, though, when I grew lax in my spiritual disciplines, in a moment of weakness I returned to that site—only to discover that the webmasters themselves had undergone a conversion, and had removed the site, replacing it with a page inviting people to seek in Jesus Christ what they had sought in pornography! I was stunned (and chagrined) and quickly redoubled my efforts at holiness!
5. Finally, Know the Truth
The porn industry, as I’ve stated frequently above, is based on lies. One of the main lies upon which it is based, is that the models themselves love doing what they’re doing, that it is glamourous and wonderful. The truth is, as much as pornography exploits you, the viewer, and your desire for beauty and intimacy, the porn industry exploits the men and especially the women who are involved. This is something we all know, deep down, if we are honest with ourselves, but it was made vividly clear to me when I watched a video in an article that Catholic Chapter House shared on their Facebook page. The article and video recounted the conversion to Christianity of a famous porn star, and the horrendous abuse that led her to pornography in the first place, and the even greater abuse that she experienced in the industry. Knowing the truth about what she went through (and knowing that she is not alone in this) has helped me to realise and remember that these women are real people who need real love—especially the love of Christ. They deserve our prayers and compassion, not our objectifying lust.
I admit, I am far from perfect. I still struggle with lust, and I still occasionally fall into sin. But as my Confessor faithfully reminds me, there is Grace in the struggle itself, and when we fall, we must not despair, but without hesitation pick ourselves back up and run to the Divine Mercy of Christ waiting for us in the Confessional. I hope these strategies will help you as you strive for holiness.
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