“Oh Lord, give me chastity and continence, but not yet!”
The words of a wizened St. Augustine, reflecting on the prayer of his younger heart, are deeply insightful. They reveal us to ourselves, no doubt, and they give us a hint as to the path forward in our own journey towards sanctity: we must become chaste now. Not next week, not tomorrow, not this Lent, but right this very moment.
Where to start? Well, first it will be helpful to recognize that lust is a sin which must be faced by getting away from the delight toward which the passion moves. As St. Thomas says, some sins must be fled from due to the sweetness of their object, while some sins must be faced by meditation on the opposing good (like how the slothful person should consider the goodness of spiritual things and thus be more drawn to them). All this is to say, the first step on the road to chastity is to step away from the cliff. In other words, remove the occasion of sin, or at least make the occasion as weak as possible. Here are just a few suggestions to consider.
- Put the computer by the window, or in a common area, or use some monitoring program.
- Take cold showers.
- Avoid “attractive” people who are off-limits.
- If you must associate with such people, don’t drink alcohol around them.
- When tempted to unchastity, pray a rosary, or sing a pious hymn, and then make a decision about whether you still want to sin… You are quite likely to be repulsed at the thought.
- Go to bed tired, but more importantly, get out of bed when you wake up. No lazing around.
- Purge your life from things which remind you of or move you toward unchastity… images, books, music, etc.
But sometimes this isn’t enough. Sometimes the passion creeps up, and the fire burns, and you’ve done nothing to occasion it. Then what? Well, run away. And I mean this quite literally. You see, the urge to the preservation of the species (the sexual urge) is strong, but the urge to self-preservation is much greater. To put it another way, make yourself uncomfortable by some kind of ascesis – recovering from pain is much more urgent than the pursuit of pleasure. The body will work to get back to “equilibrium” before reaching for a further good.
- Physical exercise. Nobody ever had an unchaste thought after a hard work-out. This also releases endorphins. And endorphins make you happy.
- Fasting. The old penitential manuals recommend it as well!
- Some other acute (but minor) self-affliction, like holding your breath, biting your tongue, etc.
Beyond moderate ascetic practices, generally making yourself (ideally keeping yourself) busy is helpful. Even simply getting up and moving around can distract the body and mind enough to drive out temptation. On top of this, here are some more “spiritual” remedies…
- Laughter. As an overflow of a delight of the rational soul into the senses, laughter is an extremely effective cure for lust.
- Cultivating humility with respect to an off-limits “person of interest,” such as realizing that they almost certainly don’t have the same feelings for you and never will, and that they would be horrified if they knew your desires. Seeing as the entirety of the natural “social” pleasure annexed to carnal pleasure is derived from the ego, this can be huge.
- Frequenting the Sacraments, especially confession, addressing struggles openly and with special resolution to amend your life in this regard.
- Prayer, especially placing yourself under the protection of the Blessed Virgin, even in an urgent moment of temptation.
- Resisting despair. One of the “daughters” of lust is a deadening of any desire for spiritual goods (which can become full-blown acedia in addition to serious violations of the 6th Commandment). The pursuit of chastity can also be very difficult, and therefore frustrating. This means that hope, as both the desire for the good of Heaven and the trust that the necessary help will be given to reach it, is a fundamental enemy of lust, and it should be cultivated through prayer, spiritual reading, healthy friendships, and an unwavering confidence in God’s mercy and desire to satisfy those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.