Friday 8 June 2012

Sexual Healing

By John D. O'Brien, S.J.

As the summer months roll around, a daily issue returns to the fore: what to do about the visual blitz of sensual imagery that entice to unwanted thoughts and actions. I’m going to be frank because it is often underserved, yet remains a concrete challenge for many – especially for us men.

We are nearly accustomed to the advertisements and clothing fashions designed to catch the eye and titillate the imagination. It has become so normative – though profoundly abnormal in an ultimate sense – that we take it for granted. Much has been said on why our culture is so obsessed with sex. Some say that when God's role is diminished, sex becomes the alternate mysticism, the closest thing to transcendence.

But the general lack of pudeur – an excellent French word that means “modesty” or “decency” but implies conduct that has a regard for others – in our day probably has many causes. People dress to entice because it is a form of power, or they are starved for attention, or because pop culture has told them to be sexy. Commercial advertisements use libidinous imagery because, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, “a man whose sex-instinct is inflamed has very little sales resistance!” 

What might the Christian, who wants to take one of Jesus’ "hard teachings" seriously – that he who looks at a woman lustfully has committed adultery with her in his heart – do. After all, one cannot walk through life with one’s head down.

Sometimes avoidance is the best policy, especially when a situation is absurd, and the exhibitionism of our age is patently absurd. But I argue that it is much more freeing to seek to be “pure of heart.” Jesus said that all evil thoughts, fornication, adultery, etc. begin in the heart, not the body (Matt 15:19). If we cleanse and strengthen the interior eye – that is, learn to see people and things the way God sees them – impurity becomes less of a problem. It is said that for most of his post-conversion life, St. Ignatius never had a problem with impure desires, that he saw every person as God's son or daughter, and so, like a brother or sister. He was a man who loved deeply, and had been given, one might say, a pure heart. How do we go about attaining this great freedom?

May I make a little suggestion, time-honoured and true. It might sound quaint, but it is eminently practical. I am suggesting a little working in the opposite direction of our more fleshy desires, and proposing a bit of regular fasting. Let us face the facts: purity in our time is difficult. Never before has been so easy to abuse our sexuality and that of others. This has wounded us and our society very deeply. Christ said that certain spirits can only be cast out by prayer and fasting, so let us take him at his word. Men might consider signing up with an interesting initiative called e5 men. Here, men are invited to commit to a minor fast on the first Wednesday of every month for their wives, girlfriends, future spouse, or – in the case of celibates – for past girlfriends, consecrated women, and for the world. It is a beautiful way of being counter-cultural, and joining Christ in making reparation for the sins of past and present, and of gaining strength for the journey ahead.

There is such thing as a Christian chivalry – when it’s not distorted – composed of profound respect for women and God’s plan for human relationships. In our day and age, this is a major front and an obvious need. Under Christ’s lead, let us engage this cause with a tool that is simple and discreet. It might just change the world.


  1. A little comment on the e5 movement... I came across a few years ago and although it seemed legitimate and pure in its message, I had some reservations after reading this article:

    Although it seems to be somewhat dated, I think some of the concerns are fair and a balanced view is presented on the movement.

    I'm not saying e5 or fasting in general is evil or bad (and neither is the author of the article), but that we must be aware not to be easily sucked in by seemingly Catholic initiatives that we see on the web. For all I know e5 could be completely legitimate, but I think some caution and prudence is warranted as well.

    And even IF e5 is completely in line with Catholic teaching, we must beware of other similar websites that promote a message under the Catholic banner and properly investigate before committing to their messages.

  2. Dear FC2000: Thank you for sharing your reservations about e5men. Many of the points in the blogpost you cite are fair, if debatable, concerns. Overall, however, I think the comments posted by Eric Scheidler at the end of the article successfully answer the thrust of its critique. Above all, I agree with Scheidler that it's disingenuous to use Macfarlane's writings as evidence of error on the part of e5men. While Macfarlane is often romantic and prone to exaggeration for dramatic effect, he should neither be dismissed because he is not a trained theologian (most of the great spiritual writers have been untrained theologians), nor embraced as evidence that e5men is either off-key or on-key; he is not a representative of the organization and his writing does not appear on the e5 website. The proposal of e5 - that husbands should fast for their wives - remains a valid and beautiful idea, and one I believe will bear fruit in the lives of many. Your point about properly investigating websites before committing is well-taken. In this case, however, I have known e5men for nearly ten years, and so it is not, you may be assured, a rash referral.