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Surrendering to the Healing Power of Christ's Own Chastity | Deacon James Keating, Ph.D., Institute for Priestly Formation | Ignatius Insight

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The appropriation of chastity as a stable character trait is won through struggle for most men. Chastity comes at a price. There are, however, some men who appear to be protected in this area by grace, reporting little temptation to choose against chaste living. This grace can and must be prayed for by every man, but each man must accept his real relationship with the virtue of chastity here and now, and for most men that means struggle. This struggle will not mark one's entire life; because over time, as the beauty of one's sexual identity is related to the mystery of Christ, His own irenic strength assists a man to resist the temptation to choose unchaste acts. In the light of this grace a man will no longer see unchaste acts as occasions for artificial consolation. Continuous struggle is not God's will for men. Neither is resting in artificial consolation. If a man orders his affections to the mystery of Christ's love, his desires will be purified and authentic consolation will characterize his interior life.

In this essay I wish to address the chastity formation needs of seminarians. Sound chastity formation is always approached in the context of the nuptial truths of the body. It is useful, on occasion, to raise particular questions about chastity to assist seminarians in gaining self-mastery. As a further concentration in this essay, then, I will approach the question of masturbation and how the spiritual/moral life, in the context of the sacraments, can heal a man of this behavioral habit.

Purified Eros
Unchaste acts are to be rejected. [1] This rejection is not a violent act of self-will but a surrender in faith-filled prayer to the healing power of Christ's own chastity. A man is to cry out and let the mystery of Christ's own obedience to truth, His own love of the Father, and His own spousal love of the Church enter and console the desolate heart. Such consolation yields freedom and peace. By way of faith, Christ's spousal identity enters a man empowering him to live his sexual identity as gift rather than using the power of sexuality for genital self-pleasure.

In Benedict XVI's encyclical Deus Caritas Est we read this:
Eros, reduced to pure "sex," has become a commodity; a mere "thing" to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity. This is hardly man's great "yes" to the body. On the contrary, he now considers his body . . . as the purely material part of himself, to be used and exploited at will. Nor does he see it as an arena for the exercise of his freedom, but as a mere object that he attempts, as he pleases, to make both enjoyable and harmless. Christian faith . . . has always considered man a unity in duality, a reality in which spirit and matter compenetrate, and in which each is brought to a new nobility. True, eros tends to rise "in ecstasy" towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing. [2]
Purified eros leads us beyond ourselves. Masturbation is a counterfeit act, stemming from wounded affections yet to be healed or untutored minds yet to be instructed. We can arrive at an awareness of what heals such wounds and enlightens untutored or mal-tutored minds "by contemplating the pierced side of Christ" (DCE, no. 12). It is there that God's healing love can affect us and make us vulnerable to the salve our wounds need. It is in contemplating the pierced side of Christ that our definition of love is given to us. "In this contemplation [of the pierced side of Christ] the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move." (DCE, no. 12).

Unpurified sexual desires are ignoble and need to be related to this great mystery of the sacrifice of Christ, the Bridegroom (Christ) loving His Bride (the Church). When this divine spousal love is participated in by way of prayer, it has the power to purify a man's sexual desires and order them correctly. In this prayer for healing, Christ, the icon of true love, tutors the affections and conscience of the seminarian, leading him to behold the pierced side and what it encompasses: the call to choose self-forgetfulness out of love for another. Initially this prescription for healing may seem remote to the seminarian who is lamenting his weak will before temptations to chastity, but it is in fact the reservoir of all healing for the wounded eros. Christ, the Bridegroom, sacrifices Himself for the good of the Bride unto His own death. Here, in Christ, there is no taking, no fear of missing out on pleasure, no lack of trust that what one has given to God will ever be lost (Luke 17:33). In other words, the man is being formed to trust that God is providential, that He cares for legitimate needs.

Unhealed erotic movements of the will become enslaved to immediate and artificial consolation. It is a consolation that looks to relieve, through physical pleasure, a host of painful emotions (self-hate, loneliness, anger, fear, grief, boredom) that remain unrelated to the Paschal Mystery. The relief sought in masturbation only returns compounded sadness, and a horrifying habit of choosing more and more of what satisfies less and less. If this habit of entering misguided pleasure is not healed, then the man enters a cycle of shame that increases in force. Thus the seminarian becomes vulnerable to a deadening despair born in self-made aloneness. This despair increases cynicism toward life, goodness, and "the woman" (Gen 3:12, 20; Jn 19:26; Jn 2:3-5). The "healing" occurs as the wound is acknowledged, the lies are unveiled, and the light of Jesus's love reveals the Truth. This Divine love has to be received into a man's wounds so that it can alter the external behavior from within. Defining the struggle for chastity is often a deep pain that is at the root of inappropriate behavior, a pain that needs healing, not numbing.

In the man who masturbates lies a distressing contradiction: he is attempting to reach the other by being closed in upon the self. In the authentic sexual act a husband beholds his wife in love, faces her in self-giving, and is received by her in love. The man who masturbates faces no one. He gazes upon emptiness, or if the act is stimulated by pornography, he enters fantasy and thus conjures up a false "bride" who leads him only to depression. Such a man never faces the one whom he is called to give his life to in love. Since he faces no one, he has no opportunity to receive the joy of being beheld by another in love. The reception of the beloved's gaze ("This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased," Luke 3:22) begins to heal the desire to masturbate. This desire most likely began in youthful innocence but soon became entangled in satanic lies. In accepting these lies the affections of the man were twisted and he began to choose the act for itself, an act that can give only false consolation.

Concurrent with seeking false consolation, all young men still encounter a desire in the heart "to be known" and "to know" a woman in sexual communion. This desire is his experience of the "nuptial meaning of the body" and is, of itself, holy and to be reverenced. The seminarian, however, may not know what to do with this desire and may fear acknowledging it since his vocation calls him to celibacy. He may feel shame for having this desire at all, thinking it is a sign of vocational conflict. Seminary formators hasten to assist a man to attend to this desire in prayer and in prayerful conversation with his spiritual director. The presence of affective desolation can be the result of a man choosing to attend to the unreal in his fantasy life rather than the truth of the nuptial meaning of his body. By attending to the nuptial meaning of the body, the affectively mature man experiences a strengthening of his spiritual life and the cessation of the dominance of passing emotions. [3] The spiritual life and the knowledge of reality that is its core assigns emotions their proper and helpful place. The mature seminarian is led by the nuptial meaning of his body and the spiritual truths that reside in his heart.

Many men report a pattern of life that leads them to being vulnerable to masturbation. In this pattern a man may find that a certain time of day and the emotion that accompanies this time tempts him to unchaste acts (e.g., viewing pornography). Certain ordinary activities may tempt him, such as completing a work day or project, or reaching a deadline, after which he finds his affect is low ("Now what do I do?"). It is not always the obvious erotic seductions that enter the consciousness and lead a man to seek consolation in sexual experiences. Vigilance is crucial. As Ignatius of Loyola taught, the time to let grace heal temptation is at the very beginning of its emergence into consciousness, not after a man has entertained the thought for awhile. If one waits, the will is weakened.

To heal the habit of masturbation a man needs to be awake to his own interior thoughts and feelings so that he can follow the advice of Ignatius and stave off sin before its interior promptings overwhelm the will. It is good to take the counsel of Christ here, as He struggled against the temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane to avoid the cross. He said to his disciples, who were prone to sleep, "Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Matt 26:41). [4] All too often men will mistake a calm period of emotions within them as a sign of mastery over sexual sins, only to be caught off guard when their defenses are down, no longer awake and watching. They have become "sleepers" (Eph 5:14). Prayer, as difficult as it is to maintain as a commitment, is crucial for the healing of unchaste habits. Prayer is a life's commitment and not an ad hoc reality to be entered only in the face of temptation. Temptation dissipates in a man of prayer; it can heighten in a man who confuses periodic emotional quietude for anything other than that.

Nuptial Truth
Since Christ only chooses truth, He can be a bearer of "perfect joy" in his spousal love of the Church, while a man who acts out of unhealed eros can never reach this joy of the husband. Such a man is destined to a prison of habitual and fleeting pleasure, a pleasure that can never satisfy or give peace since it is disconnected from the truth of sex. In such a case the man continually returns to masturbation in a vain attempt to console himself of wounds that have come to define him. These defining wounds remain if such are not related to the Bridegroom's mysterious self-giving upon the cross. To become liberated from this prison the seminarian contemplates in the Bridegroom the opposite image of such stark loneliness. Christ, in perfect chastity, faces his bride from the cross and offers all to her as symbolized by the pierced side. "Stoic thought regards the heart as . . . that which holds things together, aims at self preservation. . . . The pierced heart of Jesus has . . . overturned this definition. This heart is not concerned with self-preservation but with self-surrender. It saves the world by opening itself. . . . The heart saves . . . by giving itself away." [5]

Here the heart of Christ speaks to the heart of the wounded seminarian. The seminarian's wounds are addressed, attended to, and healed by the Heart of Christ. It is this Christ who leads the seminarian with bands of love, whose heart grows warm and tender (Hosea 11:4, 8). This is the God who calls the man out of slavery to lust (Hosea 11:1). This call from Christ is deeper than prohibiting acts of sin, however. [6] This call from the heart of Christ endeavors to reach the depth of pain and aimless wandering that besets the seminarian. An unchaste man may be enslaved to lust, but often it is not lust that owns him.More often than not unchaste behavior originates in the wounds mentioned above: felt isolation and the paralysis of a fear that prevents a man from surrendering in prayer to a new level of spiritual vulnerability. This fear of surrender to God is often fueled by lies nesting in his heart that portray God as One who wants to take and not share. [7]

In truth God wants to call to the seminarian from within His own sinfulness, his own hiding from love, so that He can minister to the needs of the seminarian from within. It is a seminarian's darkness within his heart that cries to God, invites God, summons God to be who He is for such a man: compassion. "Far from diminishing God's yearning for us, our brokenness unleashes in him yet deeper wellsprings of tenderness and mercy." [8] One is not determined to remain on a conveyor belt of sin. There is in Christ the end of sin, its healing. Here we can begin to see the power of spiritual direction and its necessary role in healing.If a man can relate his thoughts, feelings, and images to his spiritual director, he can learn to abide with these in prayer as well. After a while the prayer and the spiritual direction interpenetrate so that in a very real way spiritual direction becomes prayer, and prayer readies a man to name the intimacy he has with God to his own spiritual director. In fact the man becomes eager for direction because he knows that He will find God's love for him there.

Spiritual direction, while separate in its own right, goes hand in hand with the Sacrament of Reconciliation, so it's important to encourage seminarians to confess not only sinful acts but also sinfulness, the specific lies that he has believed, the (false) attitudes he has lived. It's important to confess his resistance to relating certain affections that he experiences to the love of Christ upon the cross ("I'd rather hold on to anger than give it up"). [9] It's vital for a man to confess his choice to avoid affectively-deep prayer, instead choosing to manage his pain through escapist behaviors or compensate for the pain by masturbation. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is the promised place of forgiveness for all mortal and venial sin. Along with this sacrament, the Eucharist is the promised place of healing for our sinfulness, for the roots of our particular sins.

Eucharistic Power
Primarily, healing takes place at the Eucharist where the great mystery of divine mercy offers us freedom in a regular and substantial colloquy of love. [10] Here, as we place our sinful desires into the wounds and heart of Christ, we receive one of His greatest moral gifts to us: a growing disinterest in sin.

Unless a man is relating his pain to Christ's love for him in deep prayer, however, and inviting Jesus into his wounds outside of Mass, healing is not very likely to happen in the celebration of the Eucharist. To pray for healing a man has to stare at the truth of his interior life—his fantasies, images, feelings, unhealed erotic desires—and name them before the love that Christ is offering. In this naming and acknowledging of disordered desires, Christ comes with healing and mercy not condemnation. This work is complex and needs to be accomplished both within contemplative prayer outside of the Eucharist and also in personal prayer at the Eucharist. One or the other is usually not sufficient.

The power of the resurrection is always at work in the Eucharist, inviting us to relate our sins to the spousal self-donation of Christ even as this obedient self-donation breaks Him free from suffering and death. It is into this obedience that the seminarian is invited. If he trails after Christ to the cross, then the fruit of such love will wash over him and heal him, leading the seminarian to no longer hide from the light (John 3:14-21), for his desires now will be Christ's, and he will receive from Christ what he had been looking for and trying to behold in unchaste acts: a gaze from a face of love.

This gaze, however, is not Christ's alone. It is also Mary's and the Church's. Christ wants the seminarian to take seriously the bestowal of relationships that happened under the cross. John, the priest, is to receive Mary into everything that is his own (John 19:27), especially his identity as chaste spouse, spiritual father, beloved son, and good shepherd. Mary is the particular face of the Church. [11] This church is the priest's "Bride" to whom he dedicates himself while prostrate on the cathedral floor. In this spousal self-giving, a man does not give himself to an indeterminate Bride but to an "other," served now in a moral mystical way through the real needs of parishioners. Mary, the one who received the gift of chastity with eager availability, tutors the seminarian to know that his own chastity for the sake of self-giving is the ongoing identification of his priesthood with the priesthood of Christ. What awaits the man who seeks liberation from unchaste acts is the strength of all of Nazareth, as Mary and Joseph intercede for his priesthood and instruct him in the ways of healing that serve the mystery of a chaste union with the Bride.

"There are struggles that we cannot sustain alone, without the help of divine grace. When speech can no longer find the right words, the need arises for a loving presence: We seek closeness not only with those who share the same blood or are linked to us by friendship, but also the closeness of those who are intimately bound to us by faith." [12] The Holy Family is a presence that is real to those who believe. In their own love for one another they influence our capacity to love and be loved. Here Joseph, especially, leads the seminarian to the threshold of true surrender. Joseph—man, sinner, true husband of the Immaculate Conception—longs to show the seminarian the way of joy found in an embodied freedom after the Spirit of Christ. [13] The seminarian ought to grow close to this mystery of Nazareth as the living inhabitants of its family love his priesthood more than the seminarian does. As then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote, "The New Covenant began . . . in the simple dwelling of the Virgin. . . . The Church can always begin anew from that place and recover her health from that place." [14]

Finally, the Eucharist is a source of healing for disordered sexual desire because it is in fact the wedding of the Lamb (Rev 21). It is a marriage between heaven and earth, God and humanity, and so any sexual disorders are taken up into the truth of what a seminarian's masculinity is for. If the seminarian is vulnerable, if he enters the bridal chamber of the cross with a willingness to expose the truth of his own heart, then the Bridegroom will heal him to such a point that he will be able to love the Bride like Christ, unto death. Here the desolate one, the orphan seminarian (Hosea 14:3), the one bereft and alone, is taken up into the Paschal Mystery and the community of love, the Church, where all his ills are set right.

Here at the Eucharist we are at the birth of the new Eve, the Church, the body of Christ (Ephesians 5:28: "Husbands love your wife as you do your own body"). Participating in the Eucharistic mystery of Christ's resurrected body, the seminarian is enabled by the Spirit to offer his own body as a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1). No longer is he interested in the selfish pleasure of disordered desire, for he no longer hides from the nuptial mystery; he is, rather, defined by it. Even in singleness, in celibacy all men are defined, marked by the nuptial mystery of Christ. One cannot escape the demands of being husband, the demand of contemplating the Bride and her needs over the temptations to wallow in the fleeting abnormal consolation of unchaste acts. In the Eucharist the new creation is being worked out; there is no stronger, more immediate contact with salvation than in the Eucharistic Liturgy. "While Christ lies in total passivity and availability [the contemplative sleep of Adam (Gen 2:21)], . . . the Heavenly Father together with the Creator Spirit who rejoices over [the dying Christ] works out the new creation, making flow from His open side, and His body drained of all its blood, the body of the Bride of Christ." [15] In this ultimate sacrament, Christ is continually rendering Himself available to the Bride under sacramental signs. He is giving everything out of the power of His resurrection and through the ministry of the priest. In so giving, the Bride receives the depths of His love. In this plentiful assembly of mystery (Eph 5:32), surely the roots of unchastity are to be healed. Christ wills that it is so (Matt 8:5ff). The Eucharist is the fountain of mercy—a mercy that raises one to new living. "See I make all things new" (Rev 21:5).

Read Part Two of "Surrendering to the Healing Power of Christ's Own Chastity"


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