Impure Thoughts and Morose Delectation

The Torment of Saint Anthony, copy by the young Michelangelo after an engraving by Martin Schongauer c. 1487 – c. 1489. Oil and tempera on panel. One of many artistic depictions of Saint Anthony's trials in the desert. ca. 1487-88 domain

What we know of the saints is the least part of them.

So quipped Saint Philp Neri (+1595), and it is a saying that has always given me some comfort. For the saints are like the rest of us, waging relentless war against their lower natures, right up to the very end. When someone praised Saint Philp as a saint, he railed that he ‘was a very devil’.

The saints make sanctity look easy, like a master violinist smoothly pulling off the complex cadences of Paganini. But that facility only comes after much bad playing, sour notes and scratchy bowing. Just so, the virtue of the saints is, if you will, the fruit of their sinful nature. Or, more properly, their refusal to submit, to go along, to take the easy and entropic route.

This all came to mind as I pondered the life of the rather obscure Saint Aldobrandesca. She was born in Italy in 1249, and died in 1309. At her parents’ wishes, and against her own proclivity, as a young woman she was married. She grew to love her husband, who died young, leaving no children. Saint Alda was hence free to join the Humiliati, a loosely-organized community dedicated to penance and good works. It seems, from what little I could gather, they originally had no fixed rule, even though Saint Bernard, in the century previous to Alda’s, urged them to adopt one. As such, some members seemed to drift towards eccentricity, if not outright heresy (some became Waldensians).

One curious aspect of Saint Alda’s life was that she wore a hairshirt to distract herself from impure thoughts about her husband, which raises some questions, the first of which is how many people actually worry about ‘impure thoughts’ in this era awash in impure images?

Also, to what extent can, and should, married couples entertain sexual thoughts of one another? Impurity is a temptation even in marriage, and, as Pope John Paul pointed out, one can treat one’s spouse in a way that is no longer the mutual enjoyment of him, or her, as a person, but as an object of our sexual desires.

In Saint Alda’s case, her deceased husband was no longer her husband, for marriage ceases with death. To be sure, their mutual intimacy was not itself sinful, but rather holy and virtuous – what is euphemistically called the ‘marital act’ (sometimes misconstrued as the anagrammatic ‘martial act’!).

The question before us is, what makes sexual thoughts sinful, if they may be good in marriage, but not good outside of marriage? Much depends upon where those thoughts lead, and what they do to one, which brings us to ‘impure’ thoughts in general.

What really is it that makes sexual thoughts ‘impure’, and when are they so? After all, there is nothing wrong, and much that is good, with sex in itself, and sexual thoughts, but only so long as they are ordered to the right end, and the proper means to reach this end. As Pope Paul VI clarified in Humanae Vitae, following natural and divine law, sex is ordered to two purposes: the procreation of children, and the unity of husband and wife. These two ends of the sexual act – unity and procreation – form an ‘indissoluble nexus’, one that Man cannot undo. Anything that deviates from, or undermines, these two ends and purposes of the sexual act is dis-ordered, and the more gravely they do so, the worse it all is, which is why sodomy, in its genus, is worse than fornication, but both violate the ends of sex. Two unmarried people cannot ‘unite’, for by its very nature, their union is transitory and open to dissolution, at the whim of either. And as Thomas says, fornication also harms the potential child who may be conceived: Such a child will either be born without a united father and mother, or, in today’s era, aborted before he even sees the light of day.

Pleasure is not an end or purpose of sex, but an ancillary byproduct, so that people are motivated to do it, and to ensure the species is propagated. It’s sort of the same with food, which is enjoyable, and nothing wrong with that – but we eat primarily to stay alive.

Before the Fall, sex was purely virtuous, harmonious and perfectly under the control of reason, which made it more pleasurable, not less so, for the act was more in accord with our nature, as rational beings both of sense and spirit, made in God’s image. We see an echo of this in polls indicating that sex is overwhelmingly more fulfilling for those couples who maintain chastity in their marriage – that is, not using contraception, or pornography, or committing adultery, even in their hearts. As Aristotle says, virtue is not only good, and good for you, but enjoyable.

Post-lapsarian, we are now under the sway of concupiscence, with our sensitive appetite, especially in the domain of sex, moving contrary to reason. For when a natural power is used contra naturam – against nature – things go wrong. We all have transient thoughts that are, to put it mildly, ‘dis-ordered’. I raise the following thought experiment in class: Say we had a screen implanted in our foreheads, that showed all the images passing through our brains. The only question is whether we would be more shocked at what we see on the screens of others, than what they see on ours. Of course, God sees it all.

We should not be overly perturbed. One of the Fathers of the Church, John Cassian (+435) used the analogy that our errant thoughts are like a water mill, dredging up the muck on the bottom of the canal, before sloughing it off again. The key is what we do with such images.

This is where Saint Thomas asks the question, ‘Is morose delectation a sin?’ (I-II. Q. 74, a.6). Here, ‘morose’ is not in its modern meaning of ‘sad’, but, rather, it implies delaying and tarrying too long upon illicit pleasurable thoughts, especially in the sexual sphere. We should be clear here that such terms as ‘impure’ do not imply that sex itself is ‘dirty’, but, rather, that because sex is so good – one of the most powerful and sublime of natural human actions, including all that leads thereto – it can turn so bad. Corruptio optimi pessima, as Juvenal put it.

Here are Saint Thomas’ thoughts:

Consequently when the reason fails in directing the internal passions, sin is said to be in the reason, as also when it fails in directing external actions. Now it fails, in two ways, in directing internal passions: first, when it commands unlawful passions; for instance, when a man deliberately provokes himself to a movement of anger, or of lust: secondly, when it fails to check the unlawful movement of a passion; for instance, when a man, having deliberately considered that a rising movement of passion is inordinate, continues, notwithstanding, to dwell [immoratur] upon it, and fails to drive it away. (ibid., resp.)

In other words, we sin either by encouraging errant sexual thoughts, or not turning our mind from them and dwelling upon them, when such thoughts can lead to no good. If the thoughts are just ‘there’, without our will, and we do what we can to turn away from them, then there is no sin.

The question is not so much how long such thoughts persist, but rather what we do with them, and to what extent our will consents to them. Saint Anthony of Egypt was tormented by seductive succubae, sent likely by the devil, but he resisted them with prayer and work, and became all the better for it – in fact, a saint.

Martin Luther, during his early life as an Augustinian novice, monk and eventually a priest, was also tormented by ‘impure thoughts’. He either did not get, or refused to accept, these traditional distinctions, concluding that the only way to be rid of concupiscence is to give into it. Sexual continence was unnatural, even impossible. This meant marriage for one and all, and so began his mission to ‘free’ nuns from the convent, including his own future wife, Katherine van Bora.

Luther’s principle that concupiscence is unconquerable – that it is just ‘part of our nature’ and must be released in some sexual way – has a grain of truth. Recall the now-muted notion of marriage a remedium concupiscentiae – a remedy for concupiscence. This is one interpretation of Saint Paul’s exhortation that it is ‘better to marry than to burn’ (1 Cor 7:9). Perhaps Luther was called to marital state; from his own account, he seems to have entered the monastic state rather hastily as the result of a rash vow.

However, taken to its logical conclusion, the notion that we should give in to our sexual urges has led to evils far beyond Luther’s imaginings, and would have left him aghast. Witness the multi-billion-dollar moral morass of pornography, often of the most degrading sort, that does not exclude children.

All this begins deep within the recesses of our soul:

For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. (Matthew 15:19)

Those who reply that such wayward sexual thoughts aren’t bad since they ‘don’t hurt anyone’ are quite simply wrong. Every time we objectify another person simply as an object of our potential sexual gratification, we demean and degrade them, as well as ourselves. As C.S. Lewis put it, the masturbatory fantasizer creates his own personal ‘harem’, who do his imaginary bidding, to which no real woman can ever measure up. Such a man – or a woman, we should add – will find it more difficult to engage in real sex, with all the imperfections, limitations and even potential humiliations that implies. We now have myriads of unmarriageable men, cowering in their basements before flickering screens, a parody of Plato’s cave, locked in a solipsistic prison of their own making, from which it is difficult to escape. In fact, impossible by our own efforts.

But not impossible for, or with, God. We should not despair, for if we but ask, our heavenly Father always gives the grace to do what the flesh cannot – at least flesh in its fallen state, if we but ask. The sacraments, especially frequent Communion and honest, forthright and regular Confession; the intercession of Our Lady and the saints; a regular prayer life; these are all of indispensable help in the path to conquering self and gaining God. Saint Alda wore her hairshirt, to turn her mind away from thoughts which may once have been justified, but were now leading her away from being intent upon God, even to sin. We may have our own modes and means to help us not to think what we should not think.

For such thoughts, left unchecked, corrupt us, and in the end lead us to not only to think what we should, but to do what we should not:

each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death. (James 1:14-15)

Spiritual authors advise that it’s best not to tackle these thoughts head on, which often only exacerbates them. Rather, sublimate them, by turning to something else – hard work, physical and mental, good works – as well as all the more noble things of life, as Saint Paul exhorts to the Philippians:

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (4:8)

Christ both warns and promises that it is with these ‘higher things’ that we will spend eternity,

The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage; those who are accounted worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die any more, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.

More to say on this in the context of the consecrated, as well as the married, vocation. We may not be able to fully conquer concupiscence in this life, but, with God’s help, we can get close, and there is much to be gained in the battle. Would that Luther had only persevered in this life-long war against the ‘world, the flesh and the devil’. If being ‘angels and sons of God’ is our ultimate end, best now to begin, so that even those called to the conjugal life may live in such a way that their union leads them, and their children, to heaven.