Overcoming the Desire of the Flesh

St John Cassian teaches about sinful desires

Our second struggle is against the demon of unchastity and the desire of the flesh, a desire which begins to trouble us from the time of our youth. This harsh struggle has to be fought in both the soul and the body, and not simply in the soul, as is the case with other faults. So we have to fight it on two fronts.

Bodily fasting alone is not enough to bring about perfect self-restraint and true purity; it must be accompanied by contrition of heart, intense prayer to God, frequent meditation on the Scriptures, toil and manual labour. These are able to reduce the restless impulses of the soul and to recall it from its shameful fantasies. Humility of soul helps more than everything else, however, and without it no one can overcome unchastity or any other sin.

In the first place, then, we must take the utmost care to guard the heart from unclean and unworthy thoughts, for, according to the Lord, ‘out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, unchastity’ and so on (Matt.15:19). We are told to fast not only to put to death our passions, but also to keep our intellect watchful, so that it will not be darkened because of the amount of food we have eaten and thus be unable to guard its thoughts. We must not use up all our effort in bodily fasting; we must also give attention to our thoughts and to spiritual meditation, otherwise we will not be able to advance to the heights of true purity and chastity. As our Lord has said, we should ‘cleanse first the inside of the cup and plate, so that their outside may also be clean’ (Matt. 23:26).

If we are really eager, as the Apostle puts it, to ‘struggle lawfully’ and to ‘be crowned’ (2 Tim. 2:5) for overcoming the impure spirit of unchastity, we should not trust in our own strength and ascetic practice, but in the help of our Master, God. No one ceases to be attacked by this demon until he truly believes that he will be healed and reach the heights of purity not through his own effort and labor, but through the aid and protection of God. For such a victory is beyond man’s natural powers. Indeed, he who has trampled down the pleasures and provocations of the flesh is in a certain sense outside the body. Thus, no one can soar to this high and heavenly prize of holiness on his own wings and learn to imitate the angels, unless the grace of God leads him upwards from this earthly mire.

No virtue makes flesh-bound man so like a spiritual angel as does self-restraint, for it enables those still living on earth to become, as the Apostle says, ‘citizens of heaven’ (cf. Phil. 3:20). A sign that we have acquired this virtue perfectly is that our soul ignores those images which the defiled fantasy produces during sleep; for even if the production of such images is not a sin, nevertheless it is a sign that the soul is ill and has not been freed from passion. We should therefore regard the defiled fantasies that arise in us during sleep as the proof of previous indolence and weakness still existing in us. since the thoughts which takes place while we are relaxed in sleep reveals the sickness that lies hidden in our souls.

Because of this the Physician of our souls has also placed the remedy in the hidden regions of the soul, recognizing that the cause of our sickness lies there when He says: ‘Whoever looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Matt. 5:28). He seeks to correct not so much our inquisitive and unchaste eyes as the soul which has its seat within and makes bad use of the eyes which God gave it for good purposes. That is why the Book of Proverbs in its wisdom does not say: ‘Guard your eyes with all diligence’ but ‘Guard your heart with all diligence’ (Prov. 4:23), imposing the remedy of diligence in the first instance upon that which makes use of the eyes for whatever purpose it desires.

The way to keep guard over our heart is immediately to expel from the mind every demon-inspired recollection of any person in case by dwelling on it for too long the mind is thrown down by the deceiver into impure and harmful thoughts. The commandment given by God to the first man, Adam, told him to keep watch over the head of the serpent (cf. Gen. 3:15. LXX), that is, over the first beginning of the wicked thoughts by which Satan tries to creep into our souls. If we do not admit the serpent’s head, which is the beginning of the thought, then we will not admit the rest of its body – that is, the agreement to the sensual pleasure which the thought suggests – and so draw the mind towards the sinful act itself.

As it is written, ‘early in the morning we should destroy all the wicked of the earth’ (Ps. 101:8), distinguishing in the light of divine knowledge our sinful thoughts and then eradicating them completely from the earth – our hearts – in accordance with the teaching of the Lord. While the – children of Babylon – by which I mean our wicked thoughts – are still young, we should dash them to the ground and crush them against the rock, which is Christ (cf. Ps. 137:9; 1 Cor. 16:4). If these thoughts grow stronger because we let them in and give them attention, we will not be able to overcome them without much pain and labour.

It is good to remember the sayings of the Fathers as well as the passages from Holy Scripture given above. For example, St Basil, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, said; ‘I have not known a woman and yet I am not a virgin’. He recognized that the gift of virginity is achieved not so much by abstaining from intercourse with woman as by holiness and purity of soul, which in its turn is achieved through fear of God. The Fathers also say that we cannot fully acquire the virtue of purity unless we have first acquired real humility of heart. And we will not be granted true spiritual knowledge so long as the passion of unchastity lies hidden in the depths of our souls.

To bring this section of our treatise to a close, let us recall one of the Apostle’s sayings which further illustrates his teaching on how to acquire self-restraint. He says; ‘Pursue peace with all men and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord’ (Heb. 12:14). It is clear that he is talking about self-restraint from what follows: ‘In case there be any unchaste or profane person, such as Esau’ (Heb. 12:16). The more heavenly and angelic the degree of holiness, the heavier are the enemies’ attacks to which it is subjected.

We should therefore try to achieve not only bodily control, but also contrition of heart with frequent prayers of repentance, so that with the dew of the Holy Spirit we may extinguish the furnace of our flesh, which is kindled daily by the king of Babylon with the bellows of desire (cf. Dan. 3:19). In addition, a great weapon has been given us in the form of sacred vigils; for just as the watch we keep over our thoughts by day brings us holiness at night, So vigil and prayer at night brings purity to the soul by day.

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