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March 27, 2008
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Loyola Books

Paula Huston
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The Holy Way by Paul Huston

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What could heal the hidden sexual turmoil that caused me to hurt and condemn others? How might I stop viewing sexuality as a power game? How might I become simple and loving toward every single human being, regardless of gender or erotic sub-currents?

Purity: The Way of the Celibate[Editor's note: We've decided to publish this entire 6,000 word chapter from Paula Huston's The Holy Way. It is the most convincing, real-life explanation of the liberating power of sexual chastity�and celibacy�we've ever read. It's unique because it makes the case for chastity on a natural, rather than a supernatural level. Almost no one understands these spiritual practices�including many religious people. Yet they are the keys to solving what is becoming the next great public health and human rights crisis: sexual addiction and enslavement.]

But whatever is done either through
fear of punishment or from some
other carnal motive, and has not for
its principle that love which the Spirit
of God sheds abroad in the heart, is
not done as it ought to be, however it
may appear to men.
- St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430)

Until I was forty-five, I never thought much about what I wore (I was from California, after all). Then, I was suddenly presented with the opportunity to take a round-the-world trip, and clothing became a significant issue�maybe even the significant issue. I was a lone Western woman making my way through conservative countries in the Middle East and Asia; I was going to attract enough attention as it was without adding to the problem by accidentally violating local dress standards. I knew that India insisted on women covering their shoulders and legs. Other societies would be offended if I wore pants. At times (when entering an Orthodox church, for example), I'd need a scarf to drape over my head.

I went shopping for what frankly seemed to be the dowdiest clothes on which I'd ever spent good money: ankle-length skirts, voluminous tunic-like blouses meant to conceal my money pouch, and chunky walking shoes. Everything, of course, in plain, dull colors�the duller the better. I also seriously considered dyeing my blonde hair dark so as to blend in more easily, but finally decided instead on a toad-brown hat. It not only concealed my hair, but most of my head.

On the day of my departure, a male friend remarked that I'd never looked less attractive�which was precisely the reaction I'd hoped for. I could not afford to be "attractive," even in the most casual and innocent way, for along with the possibility that I might unintentionally give offense loomed a larger and more sobering one: I could become a target.

Benedicta Ward, in her book Harlots in the Desert, talks about the female counterparts of St. Anthony and Pachomius�women who fled the cities for the solitude of cave and sand and sky. Very often, no one knew that they were women until after their deaths because, for safety's sake, they disguised themselves as men. I, too, felt as though I were in disguise, not my usual self, as I embarked upon my solo journey. This was a surprisingly disconcerting feeling, knowing that I didn't look like me. It raised an interesting question: Just how much of my self-identity was based on appearance?

In American culture, the answer for most of us would have to be "a lot." A competitive consumerist society such as ours requires that we constantly "sell" ourselves to get ahead, and thus the good-looking take the prizes. Though I'd never in my life consciously set out to be seductive (well, maybe not never), I was just as aware as anyone else of the edge that came with dressing attractively.

I had the strong feeling, as I boarded the plane swathed from head to foot in my dull robes, that such attire went far beyond unattractive�all the way, in fact, to "unnatural." Here I was, about to set out on the most challenging adventure I'd ever undertaken, and I was voluntarily giving up one of my "powers," a power that, however meager it happened to be in my case, had always helped me get the job done.

St. Augustine and Sexual Obsessions

One of the most famous works of Western literature, The Confessions of St. Augustine, deals directly with this interesting connection between sex (for the term "attractive" always implies an element of sex) and power. In fact, Augustine is notorious for dwelling so long and so intently on the issue of sexuality in what is ultimately a spiritual autobiography. In his particular case, the greatest obstacle on the spiritual path happened to be a sexual one. His deep attraction to "beautiful bodies" led to what moderns might term an addiction. This addiction to cupiditas, or erotic passion, began at a relatively young age�sixteen-and took him many years to overcome.

Augustine's proclivities are at least partially explained by his era. Born in A.D. 354 in the North African town of Tagaste near the eastern border of Algeria, he grew up in bloody and decadent times. Though the most violent forms of persecution against Christians had by then subsided, the emperors relied upon the spectacles of the circus in Carthage, where Augustine went to school, and the savage gladiatorial games in Rome, where he eventually lived and worked, to keep the populace of the empire entertained.

His mother, Monica, was a devoted Catholic, but his pagan father, Patricius, was a minor government official. This meant that even in the smaller and more provincial Tagaste, the family had links to the Roman ruling class and thereby to the cultural standards of the day. Augustine's early years were famously wild. In The Confessions, he attributes his delinquency not only to the general moral decay of his time, but also to a misguided love on the part of his parents.

On his father's side, he says, there was too great a respect for book learning for its own sake. On his mother's side, there was an overly intense focus on education in hopes that it might lead him to Christianity someday. His parents made great sacrifices so that he could go to the best schools. Meanwhile, nobody noticed the trouble into which he was drifting, the "brambles of unclean desires" spreading thick over his head; there was "no hand to root them out." He began running the streets with a crowd of bad youngsters, and his status in this group became the most important aspect of his life.

One night, for example, they stole great loads of fruit from a nearby pear tree for the sheer joy of stealing. They did not consume the pears themselves, but instead threw them to the pigs. "Even if we did eat a little of it," he says, "we did this to do what pleased us for the reason that it was forbidden."

Far more enticing than stolen pears was the forbidden fruit of sex. Augustine says that in this same year, the year of "youth's seething spring," he became increasingly driven by desire. "I could not distinguish the calm light of chaste love," he says, "from the fog of lust. Both kinds of affection burned confusedly within me and swept my feeble youth over the crags of desire and plunged me into a whirlpool of shameful deeds."

At school in Carthage, the situation only worsened. Here, he discovered firsthand the price extracted by a devotion to cupiditas. "For I was loved, and I had gained love's bond of joy. But in my joy I was bound about with painful chains of iron, so that I might be scourged by burning rods of jealousy, and suspicion, and fear, and anger, and quarreling."

In time, he took on a mistress, a woman he lived with for many years, who bore him a son, Adeodatus. Apparently, Augustine never even considered marrying this woman�primarily, it seems, because of his friendship with Alypius, a young man who convinced him that unmarried, he was free to live the life of a philosopher, a life of "unbroken leisure in love of wisdom." Still, Augustine writes, "I thought I would be too wretched if I were kept from a woman's arms."

This admission led to great anguish. He very much admired Alypius's life of "strictest chastity," but was sure that he himself was incapable of giving up sex. "I believed," he says, "that continence lay within a man's own powers, and such powers I was not conscious of within myself. I was so foolish that I did not know that . . . no man can be continent unless [God] grant it to him."

Struggling to find some relief from the conflict, he gave up his mistress and betrothed himself to a girl too young to marry�and while waiting the requisite two years for her to be of age, took on yet another lover. However, "not yet healed within me," he says, "was that wound which had been made by the cutting away of my former companion. After intense fever and pain, it festered, and it still caused me pain, although in a more chilling and desperate way."

Our Confusion over Romantic Passion

I must confess that this passage made me cringe. Somehow, in a single sentence, Augustine manages to catch all the confused anguish of a broken love affair�a love affair that has nothing to do with another human being, but instead with a certain celebrated notion of love. I knew exactly what Augustine meant, for I'd been in that place myself for many, many years.

Since nothing in our culture is placed on a higher pedestal than this notion of love, my situation was not uncommon. Passionate, romantic love is our be all and end all, our highest good. At age fifteen I went out with a boy for the very first time and decided, in the space of less than an hour, that I would someday marry him. When I finally did so, he was twenty-one and I was nineteen. The marriage was doomed from the start�not because he was a bad person or because we were deeply incompatible, but simply because I had not married him at all.

When I left that marriage thirteen years later for another man�somebody, I thought, who would complete me in a way my increasingly baffled first husband could not�it was because of this allegiance to romantic ideals. Nobody could have lived up to my romantic expectations, however. One human being cannot possibly provide all inspiration, all meaning, all sustenance for another. Yet because of what we are taught to believe about love, we think we can demand this, especially, sad to say, if we are women.

As a result, I felt justified, even self-righteous, about being brave enough to leave what I termed an "unsatisfying marriage." That phrase had the ring of somber inevitability�what else could I do, after all? I was not "fulfilled"; I had to be with someone who could fulfill me. Off I went, banners flying, to learn exactly the same lesson all over again.

In my own way, I was just as enslaved to cupiditas as Augustine had been. My notion of love may have been more romanticized than his frankly sexual one, but my self-built prison was made of the same stuff. It was also windowless�this is what I remember most about those years of being obsessed by eros�romantic passion leads to strange, cruel, lonely blindness.

Precisely because romantic passion is a form of idolatry, the worship of a false god, it can sometimes lead us, via profound disappointment, to the real thing. This is what happened to both Augustine and me. This is also what ultimately led to my return to religion after a twenty-year hiatus�and to some of Augustine's most profound theological insights.

First, however, someone had to help us break the chains.

In the case of Augustine, this turned out to be a fellow North African who came to visit, a devout Christian who noticed that his friend was reading a book by St. Paul. During the ensuing discussion, the visitor told the unhappy young Augustine about St. Athanasius's Vita St. Antonii, published only twenty years before. Augustine was not only riveted by Anthony's life story, he felt convicted by it. He describes his reaction thus: "As he spoke, you, O Lord, turned me back upon myself. You took me from behind my own back, where I had placed myself because I did not want to look at myself."

Augustine's famous spiritual crisis had begun. He realized that for years he had prayed, "Lord, give me chastity and continence, but not yet!" Much as he longed for healing, wholeness, and peace, he was unwilling to give up sexual pleasure to get them. Now, torn nearly in two, he found himself weeping uncontrollably in the garden while his friend Alypius sat by in silent support. Suddenly, Augustine heard what sounded like the voice of a child chanting the words, "Take up and read. Take up and read."

Remembering Anthony's pivotal moment�the words of Christ to the rich young man�Augustine ran for the book by St. Paul. He opened it to this passage: "Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in strife and envying; but put you on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences." "Instantly," Augustine says, ". . . all the dark shadows of doubt fled away."

My version of Augustine's North African friend was a patient philosophy professor who, over time, managed to convince me that every aspect of my life was being affected or directed by romantic fantasies�that, in fact, I was not thinking about life at all, but instead creating a world in which I'd always feel charmed and pleased. It was he who one day handed me an essay by philosopher Iris Murdoch entitled "The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts."

In this essay, Murdoch spends some time talking about art and artists, and about two different ways that art presents reality to us. The first kind of art is "consoling fantasy," which simply reassures the needy ego. No doubt many of my notions about romantic passion came from this kind of art-for our culture has produced hundreds of books and movies on the subject, some of them quite famous and respected. From Gone with the Wind to Titanic, we can't resist a dramatic love story.

The second kind of art, however, presents life as clearly and truthfully as possible. These books and poems and movies may also present stories of great erotic love, but in an honest, realistic way that also follows through to the consequences. This art does not set out to supply us with the fantasies to which we so easily become addicted.

These are the stories, says Murdoch, that can open our eyes to the dangers and the glories of love, "the general name of the quality of attachment." Our human tendency to attach ourselves to things and people and ideas is "capable of infinite degradation" (for we are always ready to distort for our own egoistic purposes what is essentially good). In spite of all the temptations that surround it, however, "its existence is the unmistakable sign that we are spiritual creatures, attracted by excellence and made for the Good. It is a reflection of the warmth and light of the sun."

One of the most important turning points in my own life came when I realized this very thing: My obsessive romantic passion was actually spiritual passion in disguise.

Augustine was struck hard by the same insight, but he went on to share it with the world. In fact, he became a major�perhaps the major�influence on the development of Western Christianity for the next sixteen hundred years. At least partly out of his own long struggle with sexual enslavement and the abuse of sexual power was born a simple conviction about God and his relationship to humans, one that serves as the groundwork for Augustine's own theology: "You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless till it rests in you."

What Augustine calls cupiditas, can never bring peace, for ephemeral pleasures can never satisfy when what we are really seeking is God. Peace comes instead with agape, the disinterested love displayed by Christ, the kind of love that does not lead to possessiveness, dependency, jealousy, wrath, or any of the other self-centered emotions that he himself had suffered through. This agape love is what Murdoch seems to be talking about. Augustine's celebration of chastity and continence can only be understood in this light: These two acts of self-control help simplify and purify the heart, making it possible to love other people in a genuine, non-manipulative way.

For Augustine, a chaste life is a life that acknowledges and honors the original goodness of all flesh: "Both soul and body, man was made good by a good God." The physical passions are a divine gift. It is only the perverse will (we would probably call this "egoism") that leads to abuse of this gift. "Do not accuse the nature of flesh when you hear: 'If you live according to the flesh, you shall die,' for it could have been said thus, and most truly so: 'If you live according to yourselves, you shall die.'"

In addition, chastity is very difficult to maintain, and the struggle to do so is humbling. Augustine admits to being plagued for years with "images as [his] former habits implanted" in him, and "so great a power [had] these deep images over my soul and my flesh that these false visions persuad[ed] me when asleep to do what true sights [could not] persuade me to do when awake." He was a powerful and intelligent man, but helpless in regard to his sexual appetite. He finally concluded that "continence is a gift of God," that he had to give up the illusion of his own strength before he could be healed of his weakness.

In spite of some of the disturbing problems in our society today directly linked to sex and its abuse, Augustine's hard-won commitment to chastity can seem antiquated, even misguided. We believe we have "moved on" from the days when people denied themselves sex for the sake of their religion. We secretly pity those celibates left among us (priests, monks, nuns). How can they experience life, we think, if they never make love?

Laurence Freeman attributes at least some of our cultural attitudes toward sex to the "cult of desire" that emerged during the late medieval period by way of the troubadours and their romantic ballads. "A culture that so exclusively identified love with the passion of erotic desire finds it particularly difficult to hear about the goal of elimination of desire or its transformation into a desire for God."

Another tradition that contributes to our attitude comes out of nineteenth-century Romanticism with its near-worship of nature and its elevation of the natural over the artificial. This combined with the flowering of the new science of psychology in that same century has made us hyper aware of the "power of biology." Sexuality is natural, we are taught, and we only hurt ourselves when we deny what is natural in us. Repressing healthy desire can cause psychological problems, even emotional crippling. If I did not hear this from the cradle (I was born in 1952, after all), I certainly grew up with it and was especially affected by this attitude during the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, when "free love" became one of the most important symbols of the utopia that awaited those brave enough to claim it.

Nowadays, when Augustine is mentioned at all, he is usually portrayed as a dour, self-hating moralist, responsible for whatever has gone wrong with the Western church throughout the centuries. One popular spiritual writer blames him for the notorious mind/body split bequeathed to us by Western philosophy, and another refers dismissively to his "prejudice against the body." Women (including me, when I first began to read him) seem particularly offended by his dramatic repudiation of sex.

The Unacknowledged Desire for Approval

Given my commitment to simplicity, I realized that I could not afford to overlook the complex layers of sexuality in my life. Though I was no longer enslaved by obsessive romantic fantasy, I was still inundated on a daily basis with the subtle and not-so-subtle erotic images that were meant to create in me the yearning for beauty, wealth, status, and sophistication. The disheveled ingenues staring moodily from the magazine racks at the grocery store, the movie star couples-of-the-week, the smart, sexy models on the cover of Cosmopolitan�all bore the same message: You are somehow inadequate unless you wear makeup like ours, dress like we do, live in the kinds of houses in which we live, take the vacations we take, spend the money we spend, and attract the people we attract.

I realized that if I took the message of the advertisers seriously, my own course was set. The beautiful, unconscious simplicity of Amish farmers on their way to church, the white-robed Camaldolese monks filing in for mass, or the black V of ducks flying over the jack pine in early morning would never, ever be mine. I began to think hard about how a person like me, a married woman living a non-monastic life in a sex-centered culture, might embrace the spirit of loving chastity.

The Gospels did not provide a lot of help, at least not in the sense of directives or injunctions. Christ is anything but a finger-wagging moralist when it comes to sex�in fact, he offends the local moral experts when he shows compassion toward the woman caught in adultery, Mary Magdalene with her seven famous devils, and the Samaritan woman who lived with five different men. Instead of focusing on the act, he focuses on what's in the heart: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matt. 5:27-28).

Scrupulosity in outward behavior means nothing if it does not spring from a genuinely pure heart/mind. As Augustine discovered to his great chagrin, even when he gave up his mistresses, he went right on fantasizing about and longing for the sexual passion that had once enslaved him.

Though my outward behavior had changed a lot from the days when I centered my life around that clandestine romance, I realized that I was not so very different from Augustine when it came to these old patterns of thought and emotional response. Much of my self-identity was still tied to my ability to attract and hold male attention (hence the weird sense of losing my identity as soon as I clapped that toad-brown hat on my head), though I'd consistently denied this. I told myself instead that I liked men for themselves, not for the ego boost their friendships gave me. I insisted that men were more straightforward, more honest, and less self-absorbed than women.

One side effect of this unacknowledged desire for male approval was that I'd become scornful toward most women. They were silly, frivolous things, I told myself�always worrying about how they looked. I'd been extra cold to young women for this reason. Their insecurities were so obvious, the overcompensation (push-up bras, heavy makeup, tight pants) so blatant. I'm different, I thought. Men like me for myself because I don't play those games.

I was also contemptuous of another kind of person: the occasional poor soul who fell for my unspoken but powerful need for sexual approval�people who became smitten with me. This didn't happen much, but when it did, I heaped coals upon the head of the offender. It was terribly important for me, a woman who'd been to hell and back on the tail of an illusion called romantic passion, to crush out with prompt cruelty any sign of starstruck fantasy in someone else.

For example, once at a large writers' conference, a kindly professor in his fifties tearfully confided to me on an evening walk back to the dorms that he'd had an affair with a student-an affair that was apparently going to cost him not only his job, but his wife and children besides. I listened to his sad story�the sort of tale that is endemic in a culture that worships romance�and when asked, I offered my bit of advice.

My apparent sympathy, however, was too much for a man so addicted to female consolation. He became a hopeless pest, tagging along behind me everywhere I went for the entire two weeks of the conference. I found myself increasingly plagued by insomnia. When, in frustration, I pulled back the curtains late one night so I could look at the moon instead of the drab dorm-room wall, whom should I spy but my pest, keeping faithful vigil beneath my second-floor window.

His growing obsession was not only obvious to me, but to others. I noticed people giving me sympathetic looks�in fact, rolling their eyes�when they saw him trudging mournfully along in my wake. I could not have been more disgusted. What was with this guy, anyway? Couldn't he get a life?

As I tried my best to examine my own attitudes toward sexual passion and romance, I thought of this poor beleaguered soul�how quickly he'd become re-enslaved to the same kind of fantasy that had already blown up his life. Had I dealt with him compassionately? Not quite. I put up with him for the duration of the conference, then sent him a scathing and condemnatory letter the moment he tried to contact me after my return home.

Why? I had done so because he'd had the audacity to reveal to me and to others something I did not want to know about myself�that my preference for male friendship was in some part a power trip. Male attention did something important for my needy ego. At some level, sex still drove me. By falling so hard and so publicly, this man had called attention to this unsavory aspect of my character. He'd become a living, breathing bit of evidence for something I mightily resisted having to acknowledge. No wonder I'd sent him straight to the outer darkness, "where men may weep and gnash their teeth."

In addition, he was a painful reminder of my own humiliating years of romantic enslavement. He was like a mirror, reflecting back a self I never wanted to see again. This was a shocking realization-that he was I. How had I responded to him in his weakness? I gave him the bitter fruit of self-hatred.

Who else had I hurt without knowing it?

The answer became obvious to me: the rare man who could attract my attention. Rare, because I was so nervous about slipping back into fantasy that I might as well have been wearing spiked armor. It was one thing to know that others found me attractive�that left me entirely in charge of the situation. It was quite another to feel that old tug myself. Woe to the poor unsuspecting soul who triggered it.

 I remembered a dimly lit restaurant and a table full of writers, especially a tall, handsome, and quite famous one with whom I'd had to briefly share a chair. As we chatted quietly, sipping wine and exchanging personal history, it became clear to me that, contrary to all my internal swaggering, I was still very much a human being, as subject as anyone else to inconvenient desire.

My response? In its own way, it was just as unloving as the one I'd made to that poor pest at the conference. I deliberately wrecked the budding friendship by pouring salt in an open wound that had been trustfully revealed to me. Perhaps I did well to flee. Perhaps he was the kind of person who abused his power over others; but how on earth would I know that? He was not part of the equation. I never allowed him to show his character. I was far too absorbed in my own anxieties to focus on the person beside me.

What could heal this hidden sexual turmoil that caused me to hurt and condemn others? How might I stop viewing sexuality as a power game? How might I become simple and loving toward every single human being, regardless of gender or erotic sub-currents?

Augustine discovered through years of frustrating failure that we cannot run the show when it comes to our sexual natures. Doing battle with ourselves, putting our trust in personal strength or willpower, is ultimately a lost cause. Worse, we can fall into unconscious self-hatred, as I did, when we attempt to rule or dominate some God-given aspect of our natures. "Peace, then," Augustine says, "will be perfect in us when, our nature clinging inseparably to its Creator, nothing of ourselves fights against us."

I thought about my friends at the hermitage, all of who have taken a lifelong vow of celibacy, and I wondered how they had calmed and redirected the tremendous force of eros, for (with varying degrees of success) they have. This is one of the most striking differences between life on the mountain and life "in the world."

Fr. Bernard of the mismatched sandals has watched retreatants come and go for nearly forty years. One night while we were walking the road together, he told me what he had noticed about the women visitors. "I think they feel safe here," he said, "especially the ones who have been hurt by men. They realize they can trust the monks, and you can just see them relaxing and starting to smile."

I realized that this was one of the reasons I kept going back-because it was safe, and not just in the usual sense (freedom from attack; freedom from all the other real and imagined threats I had worried about on that long, solo trip around the world). It was safe to love, warmly and wholeheartedly, with no holding back. This was one thing that united the far-flung group of regular visitors to the Hermitage: our deep and abiding affection for the monks.

After nearly a decade of retreats, there were people whose names I still wasn't sure of�was the tall guy with the round face and black glasses Br. Mark or Br. Anthony? how about the little one with the longish hair?�but even those I loved. I loved them in the sense that I expected them to be in their places in the choir and missed them when they weren't. I loved them because, whether I passed them on the road at dusk or stood beside them in the dish line after Sunday dinner, I could feel love coming back at me�a sort of beaming benevolence that lay self-consciousness to rest.

Here there were no speculative looks, no sidelong, implicative glances�none of the automatic assessments that we are so tediously, boringly subjected to, men and women alike, as we move through the world. There were no judgments that, silent or not, still keep us, in the words of T. S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," "pinned and wriggling on the wall." Like poor Prufrock, we are so wearied with the effort of attracting and keeping love that we're tempted simply to go cold. Loneliness is easier to bear than rejection or betrayal. "Shall I wear my trousers rolled?" asks Prufrock, knowing full well that nobody cares what he does, for he is no longer a contender in the game of love. "Do I dare to eat a peach?"

It's a cruel, cruel question, for it suggests that there are limits on who may take delight in the world. It suggests that only the young and beautiful are permitted to love, to offer themselves to other people.

The Liberating New Rules of Agape Love

These, however, are the rules of cupiditas, not agape. Augustine, when he finally saw the difference, lamented, "Too late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient and so new, too late have I loved you! Behold, you were there within me while I was outside: it was there that I sought you, and, a deformed creature, rushed headlong upon these things of beauty which you have made. You were with me, but I was not with you. They kept me far from you, those fair things which, if they were not in you, would not exist at all."

This grief is genuine; chasing the ephemeral butterfly of erotic beauty, Augustine had missed the real thing. It should not therefore surprise us that he became an influential proponent of the vow of celibacy for clergy, which was finally adopted at the fifth Council of Carthage in 401. Augustine thought that celibacy would free men to love God and others without the distraction of eros. Such a difficult rule is only rightly obeyed, he said, "when the motive principle of action is the love of God, and the love of our neighbor in God."

This was the freedom I felt at the hermitage-the freedom to love my neighbor without fear of sexual entanglement. This was the gift of celibacy, the difficult sacrifice made for the sake of agape. I was deeply grateful to be a recipient of that generous gift.

At home in the world, however, I still had to deal with the fact that cupiditas ran the show, and that it still lived in me. I realized that I must find a way to transform its unruly energy into something more useful�and that this was no longer an option, but an obligation.

As Laurence Freeman says, "Desire can lead us to create. But disordered desire starts the chain of events that leads to evil when in its pain and ignorance it imagines the unreal and attaches itself to these images." Precisely. Other people had also suffered because of the consoling fantasies to which I'd so stubbornly clung. "In this understanding of evil," adds Freeman, "illusion cannot be lightly explained or dismissed. Responsibility for it sits squarely with human beings."

Bede Healey, a New Camaldoli monk and psychoanalyst, has also written about desire. That which Augustine calls concupiscence, lust, or cupiditas, and I have termed sexual enslavement, Healey, like Freeman, refers to as "deformed or distorted desire." Desire is built in, he says; as humans, we are naturally desiring creatures. It is when fear attaches itself to desire that it becomes dangerous.

What is the nature of this fear? "It is a pervasive, overt and yet subtle questioning of our own worth, goodness, abilities, motivation, and desirability. Over time it undermines our basic sense of selfhood and self-worth." It makes us entirely vulnerable to both real and imagined negative judgment. The smallest things can stir it up�for example, having to wear that toad-brown hat and those dull, dull travel clothes.

Under fearful conditions, we crave what we think will calm our self-doubts. Our natural desire to be loved, for example, becomes an obsessive craving that can only be assuaged by fantasy�a fantasy that allows us to become more beautiful, intelligent, and accomplished than we really are. This, in turn, allows us to attract astonishing people like ourselves into love affairs�affairs that, even if we never acted them out physically, are legendary for their passion and depth. Absorbed in fantasy, we cannot see who is really in front of us; and certainly we cannot love.

The unwelcome truth was beginning to dawn that a serious effort in the realm of chastity would be just as disorienting as my efforts to obtain solitude, silence, and awareness had been. My attitudes toward sexuality were indeed a tangled mess, and the process of finding and unraveling all those knots was no doubt going to occupy me for the rest of my life. It was also becoming clear that genuine simplicity was impossible without such an effort.

The problem has not gone away, but recently I came across a heartening story, one that gave me hope. It was the story of Pelagia, a well-known actress in Antioch who lived during the days of the desert hermits, perhaps even as a contemporary of Anthony and Pachomius. Young, beautiful, and heedless, she rode one day with a group of laughing companions past a meeting of bishops and monks. Most of the men turned away or hid their eyes so as to avoid being seduced by the lovely sight. One of them, however, a monk-bishop called Nonnus, "did long and most intently regard her and after she had passed by, still he gazed and his eyes went after her. Turning to his fellows, he asked, 'Did not her great beauty delight you? Indeed, it delighted me.'"

In time, Pelagia, who had noticed his frank joy in her natural loveliness, came secretly to see him and was so overwhelmed by the gentle agape he extended to her that she was converted. Voluntarily setting aside her considerable sexual power, she disguised herself as a man and went to the desert to live out the rest of her days as a hermit.

What I found inspiring in the story was not so much Pelagia's part in it, the giving up part, remarkable as that was, but instead the beautiful way that Nonnus loved her. For him, she was yet another proof of God's astonishing goodness, just as, one would guess, the desert flowers of spring or the starry night sky might be. Her beauty was not in his case an occasion for sin, as it was for the others, but instead a hymn to the glory of God. This could mean only one thing: Nonnus had achieved genuine chastity�that is, a pure heart no longer troubled by disordered desire.

With such purity, he was able to reach out to others with the love that St. Paul so famously celebrates:

Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous,
[love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not
rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not
quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury,
it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices
with the truth. It bears all things, believes all
things, hopes all things, endures all things.
(1 Cor. 13:4-7)

Augustine, commenting on this passage, adds, "Now the end of the commandment is charity, out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned." St. Paul, who is accused nearly as often as his disciple of a cold and unloving severity, answers with joy, "So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor.:13:13).
November 19, 2003

PAULA HUSTON, a National Endowment of the Arts Creative Writing Fellow, has published fiction and essays for more than twenty years.

"Purity: The Way of the Celibate" is excerpted from The Holy Way: Practices for a Simple Life by Paula Huston (Loyola Press 2003). Reprinted with permission of Loyola Press. To order copies of this book call 800-621-1008 or visit www.loyolabooks.org.

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11.20.03   John Martin says:
My wife and I have both read Paula Huston's book with tremendous enjoyment and profit. Huston carries out one of the most important projects of our time: transposing monastic spirituality into lay terms. Strikingly, the spiritual disciplines that Huston begins to practice reveal ways she needs to change and enable her to accomplish these changes. While the opening pages (and the book's packaging) speak of a desire for the "simple life," Huston's search for the same quickly becomes a matter of finding her life in Christ. She finds habits and attitudes of which she needs to repent. In all the contemporary writing on spirituality there's precious little talk of repentance. That's because most authors never make the transition from seeing spirituality as a means of self-improvement to understanding that the self must be surrendered to God for his redemption. Huston confronts her brokenness in an unforgettable way. For this reason Huston's book ends up being profoundly Christian and profoundly worthwhile.

11.19.03   Godspy says:
What could heal the hidden sexual turmoil that caused me to hurt and condemn others? How might I stop viewing sexuality as a power game? How might I become simple and loving toward every single human being, regardless of gender or erotic sub-currents?

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