I recently started a series of posts about graced realities which I have found to be helpful in the pursuit of chastity, defined deeply as the mastery through grace of internal sexual desires and passions, and their ordering according to the will of God. When people are married in the Church, they undergo marriage counseling; when people enter religious life, they have a period of intensive formation. Yet for people in the most difficult situation within which to pursue chastity, cut off from both marriage and the support of a religious community, there is little discussion of how to make this sustainable in a lifelong way. In previous posts, I discussed friendship and stress management.
The third graced reality I would like to discuss is ascesis. We can sometimes think about asceticism in terms of a denigration of the physical, or an advanced practice which belongs only to monks and hermits. In fact, the heart of asceticism is an attempt to imbue a life with structure and to train us in the graced exercise of a certain measure of control over our desires, and it is something which we can practice even in little ways, whatever life we are living. The task is of course significantly more daunting when it comes to chastity, for (in the case of a gay person), there is no fulfillment of libidinal desires which conforms to the divine will.
Still, he who is faithful in a little thing may also be faithful in a greater thing. Restricting what I eat, allowing myself sometimes to go hungry, foregoing a drink when I would like one, practicing some measure of fasting during Lent: all of these have proven helpful to me, and the seasons of life when I have practiced them have both those when chastity has been less of a struggle from me.
We must remember that we are not compartmental, but integral beings, and what touches a part touches the whole; the discipline we learn to exercise in one area will spill over into others. This is the wisdom that the Desert Fathers saw in the connection between the belly and the libido, as for example when a brother came to Abba Poemon to ask how to deal with temptations to fornication. The abba said to him, “If a monk controls his belly and his tongue and if he lives like an exile, be confident, he will not die.” Or again, John the Dwarf, who said “He who gorges himself and talks with a boy has already in his thought committed fornication with him.” It is not that a full belly excites lust; rather, through the practice of fasting, we sow the seeds of self-control which can be reaped in the development of a life patterned in chastity.
This offers a foreshadow of the next post on Godward orientation us again to the Platonic turn, for ascetical practice (even the small asceticisms that we might practice without finding ourselves a cave in the more obscure regions of Nevada), can itself become a training in turning away from physical desires, and turning towards that which transcends all in our natural experience. By limiting ourselves in terms of our enjoyment of temporal goods, we can live toward the Being beyond Being who is our source. As Augustine famously reminds us in the Confessions, God made us toward himself (nos fecisti ad te, a far more dynamic phrase than, as a standard translation puts it, “you made us for yourself”). It is only by resting in God that our hearts can truly be satisfied, and truly be at peace.
But ascesis is not only a question of denying one’s desires; for if the devil is cast out, and wanders in the desert, and returns to find an empty house, he will bring his brothers with him. We cannot simply overcome the existent structure of enslavement to desire; we must replace it with a structure of sanctification. The foundation of this structure is the Eucharist and the other sacraments, and the framework of it is regular prayer. I find the Divine Office to be a particularly helpful sanctifying structure of time.
Not only does the Divine Office provide a structure of prayer, it also embeds us in a tradition of prayer which offers a geographical connection with the Church throughout the world, and a chronological connection with the Church throughout time. When I am mindful of the way the Office helps me to inhabit the Church, it gives me a greater rootedness in the reality of the Church. Entering into this rootedness enhances the beauty of a tradition of ascesis which is so deeply connected with the tradition of prayer, and helps me to turn from physical desire to the desire for God. Even a late loving of that Beauty, so old and so new, which gives me what little strength I have in the struggle to overcome sexual desire.
Joshua Gonnerman lives in Washington, DC, where he is pursuing a doctorate in historical theology. His main focus is on Augustine, and he hopes to dissertate on Augustine’s doctrine of grace. He has also occasionally published in First Things, Spiritual Friendship, and PRISM Magazine, where he makes small attempts to help re-orient the way the Church relates to gay people. He can be followed on Twitter:@JoshuaGonnerman.