“It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.”1

To be a Christian is to know that the phrase “too good to be true” is nonsense. A thing is true insofar as it is good, and good insofar as it is true. The best thing imaginable is the truest thing imaginable.

But the imagination is limited, and what’s more, it is under attack, whether by the old Ἐχθρός2 himself or just by the constant onslaught of mental and spiritual noise from the culture at large. As Screwtape points out above, the best way to attack the imagination is not to put things in but to keep things out.

So what does the enemy want kept out?

I’ve been reading a series of daily meditations3 aimed at overcoming sins against purity. Today’s meditation started with a prayer:

Come, Holy Spirit, come dispel the darkness of lust with the light of hope.

Dispel lust with hope? This didn’t make sense to me until I remembered the line I always get fed when I’m being tempted to sexual sin. It goes like this:

You are never going to get what you need. So take what you can.

This is an attack on hope via the imagination. Most people don’t masturbate or fornicate or look at porn because of the pleasure it involves. Sexual sin comes from the hunger for deep contact with someone who loves you. The setup for a really successful temptation always involves convincing the temptee that such a thing is impossible — or at least forever out of reach.

The unclouded imagination — the imagination that has been fed on prayer, meditation, holy images, Scripture, the lives of the saints — can picture, however dimly, the Beatific Vision. It knows that the loving contact it wants is ultimately found in God, in living close to his heart. The unclouded imagination knows that living close to God’s heart will open our hearts both to the joie de vivre that the habitual sinner lacks, and to the love of other human beings.

But this is precisely what a tempted human being is prevented from imagining.

And because he can no longer picture divine love, he accepts a sickly substitute: the sad, solitary quasi-sexual4 act of self-abuse, the anonymous hookup, the mere agitation of body parts. Show me someone who thinks an orgasm is the best he can get, and I’ll show you someone whose imagination needs rekindling.

So come, Holy Spirit, give us hope. Direct our eyes to the fire of your beauty and our hearts to the fire of your love. Let us never be satisfied with anything less.

1 Screwtape, Senior Tempter in C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.
2 Greek for “enemy,” although apparently it can also mean “one who hates”. Or just “hater.” Heh. Also used to beautiful effect in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door.
3 The book is called Clean of Heart, and you can find it here.
4 “Quasi-sexual” because — despite the infantile-but-still-damnable advice Planned Parenthood gives to teens [Follow link at your own risk — PP’s nonsense is full of language explicit enough to constitute an occasion of sin for some.] — masturbation ain’t sex.

31 thoughts on “Light of Hope

  1. Katherene

    Fascinating reflection. Would you say then, continuing on your train of thought, that the modern gay lifestyle is so popular because the divinely blessed dignity of the human person has been “left out”?

    Reply
  2. Tara

    “The setup for a really successful temptation always involves convincing the temptee that such a thing is impossible — or at least forever out of reach.”

    I’d say out of reach for any length of time, not just forever.

    Reply
  3. Gabriel

    THIS. This is what it’s about. Preach.

    My own experience shares something with yours, in that attacks on chastity are almost never about destroying your chastity, but about destroying your hope. “You’re not strong enough to be chaste, and chastity is non-negotiable, ergo you cannot meet the requirements for God to love you, so why not give up and have a good time?” The first premise, of course, is true; the second is usually more cunningly disguised than that, but this is what it amounts to.

    Reply
  4. Mark from PA

    Some interesting thoughts here. I don’t think orgasm is the best someone can get and I realize that the Church teaches that guys aren’t supposed to have orgasms until they are married but in truth, how often does this happen? I think it is admirable if someone decides to live a chaste and celibate life but in truth even if a guy is faithfully celibate, he is still not going to be physically pure. Perhaps there is medication to take to keep pure but I don’t know if this shows a respect for one’s body.

    Reply
    1. Steve Gershom

      Mark,

      What do you mean by physically pure? Do you mean just not having an orgasm ever? That would be impossible, and the Church doesn’t require it, simply because sometimes the body just does what it does and there’s nothing we can do about it.

      The Church does of course teach that masturbation and sex outside of marriage are always wrong. Avoiding these things is quite possible, with God’s help.

      Peace,
      Steve

      Reply
  5. Mark from PA

    I think people need to strive to be pure of heart. This means respecting yourself and respecting others. It means not objectifying people. You bring up good points here but I hope that you are not too hard on yourself. In a way I think it is more difficult for young people today because of the way society is but then in a way I suppose society wasn’t all that great years ago either.

    Reply
  6. Mark from PA

    Yes, for a male to be physically pure means to not have an orgasm. For a single man to be chaste and pure means never to have an orgasm. For a married man to be chaste means he can only have sex with his wife but he will not be physically pure. When I was a teen and young adult, I actually thought that most priests were physically pure. When I was younger, even in my 20’s, I had a very idealized view of the Church.

    Reply
  7. Mark from PA

    Our church had a pamphlet for parents of teens. The pamphlet said that masturbation and wet dreams were normal for teen boys. It said that kids may feel ashamed or guilty or dirty if these things happen but the parents should tell the kids that they are normal and that there is nothing wrong with them. When I was a teen nobody ever explained this stuff to me. I went to Catholic school and they didn’t talk about things like this. I don’t think I even heard the “m” word until I was 18 much less do it. I didn’t know what it was. The first time I ever heard the word was when a priest was talking to me when I was 18 and he said that most guys did it. When I look back to what I was like when I was a teen, I am amazed at how innocent and pure of heart I truly was. I didn’t use bad language and people mostly didn’t use bad language around me. I didn’t really have impure thoughts either. I don’t think I even went to an R rated movie until I was 21.

    Reply
  8. Joe

    Mark,

    I’m not sure where you’re getting physically pure = not having an orgasm (if by orgasm you mean ejaculation). The Church only requires that your conscious decisions are aimed at using your sexual organs (and your whole body for that matter) appropriately. Simply having an orgasm without consciously choosing it (while sleeping, for example) would not be impure.

    Reply
  9. Mark from PA

    It is interesting, Joe, that the Bible addresses this in Leviticus Chapter 15, verses 16 and 17. Men are considered unclean when this happens according to the Bible. I didn’t know this when I was younger. I remember when I had wet dreams as a teen, it was upsetting to me. I felt dirty and defective. I thought that there was something wrong with me but was too embarrassed to talk to anyone about it. I think I just disassociated from it somewhat. When I didn’t really have them anymore, I felt better about myself. I think talking to the priest that I mentioned helped me in a way to understand things better.

    Reply
  10. current lector

    Mark – my understanding is that some of the more observant people in Hinduism and Buddhism believe in trying to suppress wet dreams and that the loss of semen under any circumstances leads to depletion. (Yes, the eastern religions do have a respect for chastity even if they don’t always get the details right). The Catholic Church doesn’t worry about these emissions, so long as one just peacefully lets go of the associated thoughts and preoccupations – avoiding scrupulosity. What matters is our conscious actions.

    Reply
  11. Mark from PA

    Current lector, I didn’t know that about Hinduism and Buddhism. I don’t think it is all that sinful. Just part of being human. I suppose most Catholics don’t worry either. Today there is more understanding. Trying to be “pure of heart” is what matters.

    Reply
  12. Mark from PA

    Have a very happy Thanksgiving, Steve. We had a really nice Thanksgiving Mass at my parish church this morning. We had a delicious Thanksgiving dinner too and now my son Steve is waiting in line at Best Buy. I don’t really shop on Black Friday.

    Reply
  13. PrairieHawk

    I just ran across your blog and have only one complaint, with the tagline. You’re not “gay”. “Gay” is always a choice. Bless you for your holiness and good nature.

    Reply
    1. Steve Gershom

      Thanks, PrairieHawk. I take your comments in the spirit they were offered, and appreciate your kind words. You should know, though, that it comes across as pretty presumptuous to say to someone, “No, *this* is what you should call yourself.” A better way to phrase it might be: “Why do you use the word ‘gay’ to refer to yourself?”

      I have in fact addressed this point before — see my Q&A section.

      Peace,
      SG

      Reply
  14. Justin

    Chastity is not about suppressing your sexual desires. If you think that way you will be very unhappy. Chastity is about rightly ordered sexuality; not using sexuality as a means of self-gratification (whether alone or with someone else), but as an act of self-donation oriented toward fruitful, self-giving, disinterested love for another person. “Disinterested” is a nasty-sounding word but it just means you are giving purely out of the joy of giving without expecting anything in return (an “interest” in the act). Human sexuality should be a husband and wife each totally and unreservedly giving themselves to each other in mutual love open to fecundity. Just as God gives himself to us. To define chastity merely as a frustrating set of difficult “no’s” misses the point.

    Reply
  15. Roxane B. Salonen

    Hi Steve! This is off subject of this post. The ongoing discussion on the post after your radio interview with Patrick Coffin will no longer allow me to respond. I was going to reply to the latest message addressed to me in the combox and cannot do it. It doesn’t leave me the whole combox, nor a “post comment” button.” Did we reach the max over there? If so, I’m trying to figure out how I can respond to Daniel. Thanks. :)

    Reply
  16. Mark from PA

    Steve, thank you for your response to PrairieHawk. I went back to your Q & A section and read what you had to say about this. I agree with what you said about some of those terms. I am not comfortable with some of the terms used either for some of the reasons that you mentioned. It is troubling to me that some people that dislike gay people also have a dislike for the term gay. Being gay is not a choice, the choice is sharing this knowledge with people.

    Reply
    1. Steve Gershom

      Well, I think that PrairieHawk meant that choosing to act on homosexual feelings, or self-identify as “gay”, was a choice. I would agree with both of those statements, and on principle I suppose I also dislike the term “gay”, even though I use it so people will immediately know what I’m talking about.

      Reply
  17. Mark from PA

    Try to accept the term “gay”, Steve. I was just on a discussion and was upset about calling people “sodomite.” The man then asked me if I would rather have him use “queer” or “fag.” The man actually ended his speech with “God bless.” I don’t know if people like this realize that they drive people away from the Church.

    Reply
  18. Melissa

    Thank you, Steve. I have been struggling and I didn’t even realize I was struggling, until I saw that line and recognized it.

    Reply
  19. Auggie Hipp

    Steve, I just discovered your blog today, and it is freaking awesome! I have been looking for something like this for a very long time. You have got a new reader from today on! ;) Keep the posts coming! God bless!

    Reply
  20. Henry

    I think it is really strange to create this boundary – that the “best” a gay Catholic can get is not-masturbating.

    What is the thing that is hoped for but not yet attained that someone approaches by not-masturbating? Are you referring to purity itself or is it the person you allude to – the one whom we possess a deep hunger to be with?

    I think Catholicism teaches us to recognise the variety of goods that exist outside of the limited range of what is the best and truest (and unattainable).

    I am confused that if orgasms occur “naturally” as part of our existence that wanting them, or producing them is not-right.

    As a gay Catholic I know that my best imagining of the most perfect and loving acts of self donation to a partner will still fall incredibly short of what Catholicism deems as acceptable. It becomes almost nonsensical for a gay man to discipline sexuality by a code of procreation when procreation is logically excluded – why not apply orgasms then to the pursuit of other goods?

    Reply
  21. Inspired

    Hi Steve- only just happened across your blog via ‘Conversion Diary” and very encouraged by your thoughtful and funny reflections! As a single christian woman ‘toying’ with the idea of choosing never to be married the issue of chastity, celibacy and self-‘pleasure’ are always helpful for me to read about. Women struggle w fantasy and masturbation too and the tempter uses the same – this is as good as it gets so its ok.
    When faced with temptation I am always BLOWN AWAY by the memory that we have a redeemer who “was tempted in every way and yet did not sin.” What an encouragement!
    You have a new fan Steve – God Bless!

    Reply
  22. Pingback: Masturbation: What’s the Big Deal? « Puritas Blog

  23. Laura

    Hi Steve,
    I’m new here but I really enjoy your blog. In this particular case, with this particular post, I know exactly the kind of hope your speaking about! John Paul II’s Theology of the Body speaks about this exactly. We deprive ourselves each and everyday of joy with small moments of “happiness”. So many of us, myself included, reach out for these shallow fleeting bits and lose out on true joy. ( And when I do, I promptly kick myself) The Church is always accused of inhibiting people and being too controlling. I wish people understood the Church wants to free us, because it is our own selves and our own sins that imprison us. Oddly enough, I know all this is true and still I manage to flub it daily. Thank you Steve for your funny uplifting posts. I feel lonely sometimes being a practicing (while not always very good) Catholic. In these times it is very hard to not feel like the bad guy because I don’t just do what feels good:)

    Reply

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