“If St. Thomas had not been victorious when his chastity was in peril, it is very probable that the Church would never have had her Angelic Doctor.”—Pope Pius XI
The world around us is so drowned in a culture of sex, lust, pornography, and self-gratification, that most people are oblivious to the harm done to themselves and others. The obvious dangers—such as STDs—are at least somewhat recognised (though so very often in an “it could never happen to me” kind of way). The lesser obvious dangers (such as emotional trauma from frivolous relationships, the objectification of women or men, or the more sinister evil of human trafficking) are perhaps acknowledged by the more socially conscious—but let’s face it. Most of us prefer to bury our heads in the sand. There is a very real sense, though, in which the greatest harm resulting from the hypersexualisation of society is the most subtle, and that all the other, more obvious negative consequences stem from it: namely, that our surrender to lust erodes away our very humanity.
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, whose feast we celebrated yesterday, the thing that makes humanity unique from the animals, is our rational soul—our reason and the freedom of our will. It is this rational faculty that makes us “in the image of God.” In this regard, we are like Him, and like the angels, who are themselves purely spiritual intellects. The amazingly unique fact about humanity, that sets us apart from both the animals and the angels, is our very composition of physical body and rational soul. We are indeed a composite—not merely a very smart animal nor a spirit caged in a fleshly prison—but human beings who are not fully human when our souls are separated from our bodies in death. And while our immortal souls live on after death, we await the resurrection of our physical bodies in order to be truly alive and truly human for all eternity.
Through Original Sin, Adam and Eve forfeited God’s gracious gift of “integrity”. The composition of a body with its passions and a soul with its reason and free will, is not one that syncs easily, and so when God created mankind, He endowed us with certain graces that enabled the rational soul to rule the passions, instincts, and needs of the body. When this was lost through the Fall, our reason and intellect was darkened. It was not so easy to see and choose the higher goods over the lower goods that our bodies craved. Our desires and passions became unruly and led around our will like the beasts. All sin, ultimately, is choosing to elevate some lesser good thing to the status of the highest good, Who is God. There are sins of a spiritual nature, such as pride, envy, sloth, and the like, and there are “sins of the flesh” like lust and gluttony. Giving in to spiritual sins erodes our humanity by making us more diabolical (and thus are typically considered the “worse” sins), whereas the sins of the flesh erode our humanity by making us more bestial. And while spiritual sins like pride may be objectively worse, Our Lady told the children at Fatima that more souls are lost to hell through the sins of the flesh, precisely because they appeal to those baser, animal appetites which, through the Fall, tend to dominate our will.
St. Thomas lays out the dehumanising process of lust in the Summa Theologica, (II-II 153, 5). It attacks our reason by overriding each of the powers by which our reason controls our actions. First, the intense desire for pleasure overrides our normal understanding of what is good and makes gratification the only end we see. It makes us rash, that is all counsel that we have received is easily ignored, and all counsel that we could receive is avoided (this is why accountability in this area is both so necessary and so difficult). Third, our judgement is impaired in our desire for pleasure (and as mentioned above, our sense of justice is dulled to such crimes as are committed by the pornography industry). Moreover, we become thoughtless in our judgements about our other obligations, losing time and energy to the pursuit of pleasure rather than in the performance of our duties in life. And finally, being carried away by lust, we ignore what we know is right in order to achieve gratification.
All of this results in an inordinate love of self and the gratification of our own desires (which corollary is an avoidance or even hatred of God because He forbids them), and a love for the pleasures of this world, that they may be used for our own self-gratification (and thus, a “despair of the future world” because spiritual pleasures hold no more joy for one wrapped up in the pleasures of the flesh). This is the true and ultimate, if subtle, danger of lust, and it is easy to see how all the more obvious dangers listed above are the results of this ultimate problem.
For this reason, the Church has always recommended penitential acts, such as fasting, as a means of reasserting the freedom of our will through the use of reason. Fasting, for example, is a way of asserting our reason over hunger (and especially an inordinate hunger that eats more for the pleasure of eating than for the sustenance of life). Through penitential acts of self-denial, we chastise our bodily passions and appetites, in order to bring them back, in cooperation with the grace of God, into subjection to our intellect.
The virtue of Chastity, in fact, which seeks to conquer lust, takes its very name from this notion of “chastising” our desires. St. Thomas defines Chastity this way: “Chastity takes its name from the fact that reason ‘chastises’ concupiscence, which, like a child, needs curbing, as the Philosopher states (Ethic. iii, 12). Now the essence of human virtue consists in being something moderated by reason, as shown above (I-II, 64, 1). Therefore it is evident that chastity is a virtue” (ST II-II 151, 5). In other words, the virtue of chastity is the moderation of our desire for self-gratification by the use of right reason (aided, of course, by grace, since no one can be virtuous without grace). This is achieved through the faithful practice of prayer, mediation, fasting, and other such methods of avoiding lust by disciplining our minds and bodies to be subject to right reason. When we live the virtue of chastity, we free our minds from the blindness that lust causes and renews our right judgement and our resolve to act in accordance with the good—especially strengthening our love of God and spiritual things. We become more sane, more human, as we grow in self-control and love of God and others. We have the time and the energy to spend on things that are truly important and truly good.
St. Thomas Aquinas knows the truth of this. When he had resolved to leave his privileged nobleman’s life in order to become a poor, begging Dominican friar (back before being a Dominican was cool), his family thought he’d lost his mind, or at the very least, his dignity. His brothers kidnapped him, and he was locked up in the family castle under house arrest. Nevertheless, he was resolved to be a Dominican friar. His brothers thought that perhaps his zeal would be obliterated if he succumbed to sexual temptation (and, indeed, as we have seen above, they were probably right). They conspired to introduce an attractive and scantily-clad prostitute into St. Thomas’ room in order to tempt him. However, St. Thomas’ virtue was sufficient to run hollering to the fireplace and, taking up a flaming log, chase the terrified girl from his room. Slamming the door, he etched a cross into it with the flaming stick, and then threw it back into the fire. Praying for the grace of chastity, and thanking God for the strength to have resisted that temptation, two angels appeared to St. Thomas and girded him with a cord, saying, “On God’s behalf, we gird you with the girdle of chastity, a girdle which no attack will ever destroy.” In the records of his canonisation, many different witnesses who knew St. Thomas at different points in his life remarked about his evidently high degree of purity and chastity. The angels’ gift preserved St. Thomas from sexual temptation and bestowed upon him an enduring purity that ennobled all his thoughts and actions. Pope Pius XI was right in his remark that, had not St. Thomas been victorious at this formative point in his life, we may never have had the great theological tradition he gave us through his teaching and writing.
(If you would like to know more about St. Thomas’ powerful intercession for those who desire the virtue of chastity, visit www.angelicwarfare.org for information on the Angelic Warfare Confraternity, inspired by this event in his life.)
(Men, if you want to learn to be more of who God created you to be, as a man created in His Image—especially in defeating the enemies of lust and pornography and finding the purpose of Catholic Masculinity in your life, click here to purchase tickets to the Band of Christian Brothers conference on March 19th, with Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, Matt Fradd, and His Emience, Thomas Cardinal Collins!)
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