Maria Goretti, Lust and the Noon-Day Devil

Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God (Mt 5:8)

But I say to you every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Mt 5:28)

In the matter of purity, there is no greater danger than not fearing the danger; when a man does not distrust himself and is without fear, it is all over with him (Saint Philip Neri)

The stench of impurity before God and the angels is so great that no stench in the world can equal it (Saint Philip Neri)

Sobering words, from Christ and one of his great saints.  It is said that Father Philip Neri could ‘smell’ lust in his penitents, making hearing certain confessions rather difficult, and part of his own, hidden cross.

The smell must have been rather rancid on a hot and sweltering July 6th in a small farming town in the fetid area outside of Rome, one hundred and five years ago today, when a young maiden of not-yet twelve years old was viciously stabbed fourteen times with an awl by an eighteen-year old Alessandro Serenelli, enraged by frustrated lust, because she refused to submit to his sexual advances.  Maria resisted with what strength she could, natural and supernatural, declaring the act ‘would send him to hell’.  It does not seem hell was much on Serenelli’s mind that summer afternoon, nor heaven for that matter; rather, just getting what his body and his passions wanted.

Scripture in Psalm 91 speaks of the ‘noonday devil’, which in the tradition has come to signify the lust that arises in the heat of the day, often as a man takes his siesta, against which the early Fathers of the Church warned. It is connected with sloth or acedia, a kind of spiritual sadness and restlessness deriving from self-indulging and a wallowing in one’s passions, that paradoxically seeks its solace in even more sensual pleasure, especially of the sexual variety.  We see its tragic consequences in the story of King David, listlessly wandering around the roof of his palace while his men were off at war, when, ‘late one afternoon’, the bored King voyeured the disrobed Bathsheeba bathing on the roof the next building. We all know the adultery and  murder which followed.

Our world has accepted lust as normal, and does not even use the term.  In fact, any deviancy is fine so long as you have ‘adult consent’, but one need not ponder long to realize that ‘adult’ and ‘consent’ are rather vague terms.

Alessandro Serenelli was addicted to pornography, in what form it existed in early 20th century Italy, with photographs and drawings and his own interior imaginings. Because Maria Goretti’s father had died, her family had to move in with the Serenellis.  Alessandro was thus in close propinquity with the beautiful and virtuous young girl, developing quickly into an attractive woman.  Rather than try to court her honourably, which, who knows, may have been possible, the young man allowed himself to be taken over like King David of yore by the ‘noonday devil’.

The world has, of course, normalized pornography, with the feting of Hugh Hefner, his ‘Playboy’ mansion filled with beautiful sad and tragic women who know not their fate.  The deviancy he sells is raconteured in rock songs and films, as something both alluring and humorous. Every guy ‘does  it’, so why not just accept it, bring it mainstream, make a profit, enshrine it as a profession.

But pornography, along with the lust it breeds and fosters, is always deleterious and harmful, a plague upon the soul and upon society. True enough, not everyone delving into porn becomes a would-be rapist, in the same way that not every smoker develops stage IV lung cancer. But just as smoking  is always unhealthy  and bad for you, so too is porn and lust.  Even worse than the physical effects, lust corrupts the soul at a deep spiritual and psychosexual level, even opening the person up to demonic influence.

On the good side, the virtue of chastity, defined as the “successful integration of sexuality within the person” (CCC, par. 2337), makes one strong and powerful, able to resist the assaults of the Evil One.  Lust, its opposite, is the dis-integration of the person, to the point where he will even commit murder to get what he wants.  Besides deep hunger, nothing so motivates a man, and it is especially men, like the sexual drive.  And when it becomes detached from reason and virtue, the whole person unravels.

The townspeople, when they discovered their beloved Maria, already held as a little saint, bleeding to death, gathered to lynch the sullen, angry and defiant Alessandro, hanging him from the nearest lamp-post after a taste of his own medicine, but the police intervened. Maria took 24 hours to die, after unsuccessful surgery without anasthesia.  She forgave her murderer before she passed into eternity.

Alessandro was sentenced to 30 years hard labour in prison, commuted from a possible life sentence, or even death, due to the pleas of his mother and the difficult circumstances of his upbringing. For years, he remained uncommunicative and unrepentant, until one evening Maria, as he later recounted, appeared to him in a dream, beautiful and resplendent, giving him lilies, a sign of purity, which ‘burned in his hands’ when he took them.

He slowly and gradually began to see the evil of what he had done, the scales of lust fell from his eyes, and he began to practise his faith.  At the end of his sentence, he went first to Maria’s mother Assunta to beg her forgiveness, a brave and humbling act.  Alessandro joined the Capuchin Franciscans as a lay-brother, and spent the rest of his life in simple work, prayer and repentance. He was present with Maria’s family at her canonization in 1950 by Pius XII.

As a good priest friend of mine mentioned, it is providential that the Pope put forward Maria Goretti as a ‘martyr for chastity’ at the very dawn of the sexual revolution, when all hell would so soon quite literally break loose, a hell in which we are still living. Peruse the honest article by Ann Maloney  (which I had trouble reading, and it still stays with me) describing the sad and irrevocable, and sometimes horrific, effects of the ‘hook-up’ (read: lust-driven) culture, particularly on  young women.

As we see in Alessandro, there is always time to turn back, to convert, to see and live the truth, of hope for all of us. We should pray to Saint Maria that our culture may escape from the snares of the ‘noonday devil’, and recapture the joy of chastity and friendship, which is the only way to true sexual intimacy in the covenant of matrimony or a life of celibacy for the Lord.  Anything else is a lie, which the world seems to want to learn, if we learn at all, like Alessandro, the hard way.

Saint Maria Goretti, ora pro nobis!

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