06 February 2014
Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (17)
You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom
In Part 2, I wrote about the immoral sexual images and messages which assault us these days. How unsurprising it is, that many Christians struggle with lust. We understand that lust, like other sins has its roots in our first parents' fall from oneness with God. That mistake infected us with the disease of death and separateness. We became pure individuals, unable to see ourselves intimately connected to others. We are simply bare objects to each other. Those around us are valuable only to the extent that they can give us pleasure or give meaning to our lives by giving us pleasure. Sexuality is Satan's counterfeit to oneness. For that reason, I think it can truly be said we have no greater enemy than lust.
We must to not succumb to the cultural acceptability of lust, or allow ourselves to be taken in by its subtleties, even though it strikes us where we are most vulnerable: the desire for intimacy. God has given us victory over lust just as he has defeated all other sins through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through union with Him, our nature has been changed and we are no longer bound by nature to the sins which beset us. St Paul tells us (Romans 8.12-13) us that we who have embraced Christ and been given the Holy Spirit have power to put even the most deadly sins to death. But how is this achieved?
The fact that our sins are the result of separation from God, each other and creation, suggests that the answer is that if we can recover our oneness and unity with God, each other and creation, then we can rise above the results of these separations.
Nikolai Velimirović, in his Prayers by the Lake (LXXII), writes
The body knows nothing of adultery, if the soul does not tell it. Adultery is carried out in the heart; the body only repeats in its clumsy way what has been woven with fine threads in the mysterious chambers of the heart.
My neighbors, look upon a woman the way a woman looks upon herself and self-delusion will fall from your eyes like scales. Look upon every being from within that being, and you will look, not with desire, but with compassion.
To see every being from within that being is the secret to dealing with sexual lust. Most of us, especially most of the Reformed, having imbibed anti-supernatural and anti-mystical biases, have no idea what this means.
But we should have an idea what it means; for Nicholai is only describing unity of being. The only way for one person to see another as the other sees himself is to share his soul, and the only way to share is a soul is for beings to interpenetrate one another. This is the sort of life the members of the Trinity share. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are unique individuals, but each one is also the other two in perichoreisis.
But as the Lord teaches in John 17, it's also the sort of life believers are to live with each other, by virtue of their union with Him.
The problem still remains, how to get inside each other's souls, if possible. How can a man look at a woman without focusing solely on her physical features and valuing her as an object on the basis of those physical features? How can he not see "eye candy"?
We might try to escape temptation by concentrating on her personality. But simply limiting our perspective is not the same as seeing her as she sees herself. Ultimately, it would be difficult to avoid evaluating her personality in terms of some desire we seek to fulfill. Her personality may be attractive to us, or it may be repulsive. Either way, it still remains an object to be evaluated, even lusted after, even if the road to lust is a bit longer by this route, than by focusing on her physical appearance.
Another way of addressing what Velimirović is talking about is to say we must die to ourselves, something which Reformed Christians can understand. If I am to replace looking upon a woman lustfully (or potentially lustfully) with seeing her as she sees herself, then I must adopt compassion as my perspective. Compassion sees the lives of others as more important than one's own life. But in order to do that, in order to have that compassion, the part of myself which sees my life as more important than others' lives, and is inclined to look upon a woman, rather than from within her, must die.
The answer to lust—and, really, all the passions—is self-denial, something else even Reformed Christians can understand, even if we are not as practiced as we may think we are. We can accomplish self-denial in various ways, when it comes to sexual temptation. We can give up all situations, television shows, websites and so forth that would feed lustful desires. We can also learn how to avert our eyes when certain occasions call for it. As several of the desert fathers taught, the ground before our feet is always preferable to visual temptations. A hymn or psalm can always drown out the sound of tantalizing voices or other sounds.
But these approaches, while not a bad start, are little more than skirmishes in the spiritual warfare against the passions. Victory is not achieved by avoiding confrontations with the enemy. True victory (or at least the truest victory possible this side of the Kingdom) demands much more than can be accomplished by mere avoidance, although avoidance, given the alternatives, is, again, a good place to start. True victory requires the elimination of lust from our souls.
St Dorotheos of Gaza taught that, "One must reach a place where one has no desires. Through the indwelling spirit of Christ a person may achieve a state in which he or she is without special attachments, in a state of holy indifference."
Indifference certainly doesn't seem like the most effective way to achieve compassion, but St Dorotheos is not talking about indifference to others. He is talking about indifference to ourselves. We don't matter to ourselves. Our wants (even those we are inclined to think of as needs) don't matter to ourselves. What happens, then, when a man looks upon a woman who could potentially be an object of lust, with this holy indifference, is that what he sees has nothing to do with himself. He seeks nothing from her, especially sexually, because what he truly desires above all else cannot be fulfilled by sexual intercourse. Her body cannot fulfill his redeemed heart’s highest desires. Then, he may see her as she is.
Not that this puts one in the position that Velimirović is speaking of. He has not yet come to know the woman from within herself. He is still observing her from without, meaning the potential to objectify her is still present. To touch her soul and see her from within, to see the world through her eyes, requires an exceptional level of self denial. But for one who embraces the sacramental life of the church, a life of perpetual liturgy, this is possible--not easy, but possible. This liturgical path gives us the opportunity to deny ourselves in every aspect of our lives--eating, drinking, sleeping, working, loving, praying. When we deny our own wills in everything we do, Self fades away, and we can become less aware of it. Concurrently, we can become more and more aware of the One who makes the decisions that define our lives, the Lord Jesus Christ living in us and possessing us through the Holy Spirit.
This same Lord Jesus, living in me, also lives within that woman (or man) one is looking at, sustaining her, giving her the same immortality I have. (Note: If she is not a Christian, it is still relevant that she nevertheless still bears the image of God.) So if one is living in a state of constant liturgy and self denial, eliminating all desires that are not Christ's, by the ministry of the Holy Spirit, becoming more aware of him than of oneself, when we look upon another of the opposite sex what we will be most aware of will not be his or her body, or personality. What we will see is either Christ living in her, or if she is not a believer, the image of God in her. We will know each other at the deepest levels, possibly better than we know ourselves. It is impossible to lust after Christ living in another, or after the image of God.
Another way of looking at it is provided by C. S. Lewis. In his sermon, "The Weight of Glory", said
It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another....
Lewis’ thinking here parallels that of Westminster Larger Catechism 138, on the seventh commandment. According to the Catechism, among the duties required by the proscription of adultery, in addition to “chastity in body, mind , affections, words, and behavior” is “the preservation of [it] in…others.”
What a difference it can make, to see one who might otherwise be the object of my lust, as one for whose future glory I am somewhat responsible, to see a possible object of my lust as a future goddess, someone I might be tempted not to lust after, but to worship (cf. Revelation 19.10 ) fully partaking in eternity of the divine nature (see II Peter 1.4). This is the way to triumph over sexual immorality, the demonic illusion of intimacy. In the face of the devil's assault on our culture, Christ offers this victory to us who will be transformed by him.
We must die to ourselves. And to die to ourselves is our calling (Luke 9.23).
But what has this to do with my first post on the subject, where I talked about the desert fathers' counsel on the importance of fasting? We are still talking about the mortification of all the passions. And the passions are all related to each other. They are all various ways in which our preoccupation with self is manifested. In some of us, our self-preoccupation is revealed in pride, in others, anger, in still some others, lust--and so on. The disciplines are an all-out assault on self.
The desert theologians have taught various ways of accomplishing the goal--very few of them at all attractive to most Reformed Christians, but not because they are Reformed.
- James Frank Solís
- Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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