Hello, friends - Grace here. I'm popping in to share a very special post about virtue and the struggle against lust. While most of our readers are female, the battle for purity is something that affects us all, male and female. After hearing this powerful testimony from a friend recently, I asked him to share his thoughts on trying to be pure as a young Catholic man in our modern society.
Kody is a stressed-out graduate student, proud triplet, and (he hopes) world-renowned friendly guy. He recently spent a year discerning the Catholic priesthood, which involved a lot of thinking about love, lust, and the celibate life. The following piece is the fruit and meditation of that experience.
As a young man living in a diocesan discernment house, I often find myself answering questions from well-intentioned friends.
“Are you really called to the priesthood,” they ask anxiously.
“What about your dreams of being a father and having a family?”
And the ever popular, “dude, what about celibacy?”
These questions don’t really bother me anymore: I’ve answered them for about ten months now and see it as an opportunity to share some of the beauty I’ve found in discerning religious life.
There is one question, however, that people rarely ask and I just recently started to acknowledge:
how is it that I can live in a discernment house, while going to Holy Hour every morning and abstaining from dating, and yet still struggle with lust and, on occasion, pornography?
After all, I think to myself, shouldn’t I have figured this out by now? Shouldn’t lust have gone away once I moved in here? Isn’t this going to scandalize those who know I take my faith seriously and who know I’m currently discerning?
These are the thoughts with which I accuse myself, every night, every time I tell someone about the beauty of Chastity. Sometimes it just feels so hypocritical.
I could easily blame it on our culture. It’s not easy to be a believer today. As a man, others take your sexuality (often your over-sexuality) as a given. Only as I grew up did I learn that ogling cheerleaders and Victoria’s Secret models was not a natural state of affairs, but rather a sign of something fundamentally disordered in our society. I see this fixation, interestingly enough, when talking with people about my religious discernment.
Everyone my age fixates on the sacrifice of sex, not on the sacrifice of a spouse. How could I ever give up something so good, my friends ask me, something for which there is such a deep and natural longing?
Discussions about pornography usually follow the same pattern. Most people regard it as something “natural,” a safer and more acceptable way to scratch that sexual itch than sleeping around. Thankfully, this opinion seems to be changing, at least judging by the sea change among Hollywood celebrities.
Take Russell Brand’s recent online tirade or Joseph Gordon Levitt’s film Don Jon as examples. Both acknowledge the addictive and destructive nature of pornography, with effects ranging from premature ejaculation to dysfunctional relationships; both provide strong biological and psychological arguments against the usage of pornography.
But what about the spiritual side of sexual addiction, whether to the flesh or to the laptop? Recall Augustine of Hippo and his famous cry of “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet!” Sexual addiction can stand in the way of our spiritual growth, forging the very chains holding us back from the fulfillment of Christ.
Indeed, probably the strongest arguments I’ve heard against the use of pornography and other sexual addictions come from Jason Evert and Matt Fradd, both Catholic speakers.
Though focusing a good bit on the physical consequences of such actions, they each bring their discussion onto the spiritual plane. When we take our sexuality into our own hands (sometimes quite literally), they remind us, we are misusing a gift from God. In our pursuit of pleasure, we transform something so beautiful and selfless into something so dirty and self-centered.
Probably the worst part of these abuses is that they obscure the good that can come from sexual attraction. When I have to wrestle with lust on a daily basis, when I see it as something in my life that I want to change, I have a hard time not demonizing my desires. Attraction becomes an evil thing, something to overcome, not to celebrate. I think I must reject it when I should instead refine it.
I know this process so well because, in all honesty, it’s the story of my life.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve dreamed about being that knight in shining armor, that shoulder to cry on, that center of some lucky girl’s world. These emotional fantasies felt so much grander, so much purer than any of my carnal longings. What good was my sexual attraction, I thought to myself, when compared with making someone truly happy?
How could I possibly pay attention to a woman’s flesh when I only wanted to care for her soul?
And so, I tried to divorce my physical desires from my romantic attractions. Indeed, I believed (and told my friends) that I didn’t want to sleep with anyone, just to wake up next to them. I’m sure this mindset was part of what led me into the discernment house. What greater sacrifice can a man make for everyone, for every woman, than to give up his selfish desire for them? In this way, my quest for purity led me to want the best for women and helped me avoid treating them as objects, but at a great cost.
You see, my noble desires led to two, less glamorous side effects. An obsession with purity drove me, ironically, to impurity. In order to protect the women that I did care about, I found other ways to indulge my lusts. So long as I didn’t know them…that was my only rule. Just let me satisfy this urge over here, with someone else, I would explain quietly to myself and to God, and then the rest of my love could be pure.
In a way, I succeeded. I satisfied my cravings without compromising my conscience. I also established a habit of objectification and masturbation, actions against which I’ve had to fight for years. Yet, this wasn’t even the most frustrating part.
This sublimation of desire, both through masturbation and with the images of unknown women, allowed me to keep playing make-believe. All of my grand ambitions, my plans to love somebody, my desire to be loved myself….they remained mere illusions, never any more real than the pornographic videos I was watching at night. My high ideals stood in the way of flirting with, kissing, and loving actual people: everything just seemed too imperfect, too compromising, too vulnerable.
This problem only got worse as I grew older. I had idealized relationships almost to the point of no return; what woman could ever live up to this emotional (and physical) standard that I had built up in my head. And so, I remained single and alone, frustrated by my inability to open myself up to love just as much as with my inability to overcome my own lust.
While a bit of a dramatization, feelings and fantasies like these plagued me throughout high school, college, and the present day. This is the price of ignoring the unitive aspect of sexuality. Authentic sexual love, at its best, has the power to push us outside of ourselves. Just as hunger drives a man to eat, desire drives us to each other. It physically encouraging us to be bold, to risk looking like a fool in front of that attractive stranger, or to reveal our love for a friend.
Spiritually, it forces us to acknowledge that fulfillment does not lie in solitude, but in communion. Lust is an ugly thing, a product of insecurity and pride. By trying to satisfy my own desires, I don’t trust God will provide for me; I think I know better than Him. Marriage, by contrast, can be seen as lust’s opposite, an act of profound humility and sacrifice. It’s a process of self-abandonment. We acknowledge our dependence on another person; we surrender our own flesh to become one flesh.
This is what our sexuality was made for, to prefigure and prepare us for divine union with God. This is also the heart of the priestly sacrifice, the giving up of the creation for greater love of the Creator. Such good can come out of this, but only for those the Lord calls to it.
These self-revelations and recriminations are, ultimately, the fruit of my time in the Borromeo Discernment House for the Diocese of Austin. Here, through constant prayer and conversation with my housemates, I have learned not only about the priesthood, but also about my own brokenness and the ways in which I need to heal. I’ve discovered how incredibly idealistic and anxious I am about relationships; I’ve seen how I use the ideal to run away from the real. I’ve come to better understand how I should deal with lust and how to refine, not repress, my sexuality. Living here, overall, has allowed me to rediscover what purity is and how I should live it out in my life.
And so, though my romanticism is what led me into the discernment house, it is the very thing leading me out. For me, seminary would be a place to hide, not a place to grow. It and the priesthood offer a simpler life, perhaps even a life I want, but this is not the sacrifice to which I am called. There, I could pretty much continue my life as it is, idealizing and idolizing “women” instead of coming to know, understand, and encounter a woman.
For this reason, I feel drawn to the married life, not just because of my dreams and desires, but from my need to give up my fantasies about women and relationships. This is my sacrifice and my cross. And, honestly, the world of dating, love, and marriage terrifies me. I’ve seen it leave so many people disappointed and disillusioned.
But maybe, just maybe, that’s exactly what I need.
Maybe it’s time to give up my illusions.
 Women, interestingly enough, seem to deal with the opposite problem.
 For a more social explanation of the evils of the industry, see the trailer for an upcoming film Hearts of Men (http://www.unearthedpictures.org/)
 Although marriage does not, by itself, solve all your problems. One can still lust in a marriage, even towards one’s spouse.