Pillars of salt

Day 102.

I am really hurting. And I’m looking back…

I have no illusions of being at the top of the mountain. I know I still have so far to go. But when I turn and look behind, I can see how far I’ve climbed, how far down it is — and what a slippery slope even taking one step backward would put me on.

At this distance, I can see and understand a bit more clearly. I know that falling back into porn and masturbation wouldn’t give me what I’m really longing for; that it would be, at best, a narcotic. Temptation suggests that I could do “just a little”; that I could slip into it for some temporary relief and get up again; but I know that that’s not true. The relief is only relief because it is oblivion; it consumes me and drowns out the pain, along with everything else: every hope, every desire, every good.

Yesterday I slipped, not into porn or masturbation, but into its client state: the kingdom of real girls whom I’d made into objects of fantasy; real people on Facebook whose lives I’d nosed into through their publicly-posted photos. I revisited some of my old favorites, for the first time since I began this stand. It didn’t progress any further than that, but it reawakened a longing: to know girls; to have a life. One of them had gotten engaged — it happens all too often among these young, pretty, evangelical women. That’s a life I missed, the voice says; because I wasn’t an evangelical; because I didn’t go to a Christian school; because I was never a part of any such church or family. And the voice says I could have had that, but was denied it; and it urges me to take it for myself, or to make it — at least the facsimilated fantasy of it. To acquire and cultivate relationships with these girls again, these girls whom I will never really know. And one by one, they will all get married…

Those girls are relatively benign; but as I long for a deeper intimacy, for a fulfillment of the desires that the fantasies stir but cannot fulfill, it inevitably leads back to porn. And there, the desire for empire is an essential part of it. The reason why I’ve been standing for over a hundred days, despite having free access to the Internet through the limited means of my phone, is that I’ve given up my throne: the great hoard of gigabytes upon gigabytes that I collected and ruled over. And knowing that that exists somewhere outside my reach is an inhibition against starting over. How could I start over, knowing that I couldn’t add to the trove I worked so hard to build before? Of course, logically, I could join anything new I accrued to my stash later; but it doesn’t work that way in my mind. How could I know I wasn’t collecting things I already had? No, thus far, I have been unwilling to cross that line.

If it were within my reach, I don’t think I could resist right now. As much as I know it is a lie, that that life holds nothing but pain, I miss that sweet narcosis. I love my Lord and I want to please Him, but right now, I have lost sight of hope. Why am I doing this? Why do I have to be clean? I know, truthfully, that purity is freedom from slavery, and that is a reward in itself, but some days it is so hard. The voice says to take for myself what I haven’t been given — that is the essence of all sexual sin, in fact — and it would be so easy, wouldn’t it?

It is a comfort to me to suffer this week, as I remember that my Lord suffered for me.

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Chase the nightly shades away

Anthony: What Is the Point of All This? The Devil: There Is No Point! (plate 18)
Anthony: “What Is the Point of All This?
The Devil: “There Is No Point!”

Day 87.

Every night this week, I’ve dreamed I’ve fallen back into porn.

I am still standing, doggedly. Ninety days will be a landmark. But on a daily basis now, I combat thoughts of how “nice” it was, how much easier, how much more “natural,” it was to live in those habits. Seeing a pretty girl — and there are so many — the “natural” impulse is to retreat into a private place with her, through fantasy and masturbation. I consciously crave the false intimacy which, though false, was such a compelling substitute.

My memory of the dreams doesn’t last long, usually. I remember the one from last night, and bits and pieces from others. The one from last night was disturbing because — and this is characteristic of most of them, and of the patterns I was pursuing — it involved the sexualization — no, the pornification — of a real person. Not a real person whom I really, in real life, know, but in the dream she was real. She was a real person whom, in the dream, I liked and was attracted to; but rather than pursuing a real relationship with her, the dream made her into a fantasy, an “unreal” person on the Internet whose pornographic images and content I could download. It reveals what I, with horror, am coming to realize: that this had become the only way I knew to relate to women, in any sexual or romantic sense. It is, at its base, an attitude of exploitation rather than love.

Realizing these things makes me stronger to stand — knowing that, though “easier,” that is not how I want to live. Even in the dreams, I feel shame at having relapsed, and I awake to the relief of still standing. Jesus calls me to love — to love my neighbor as myself. I will walk in the light, as He is in the light — and I pray that His light can flood even the darkness of my dreams. Like a phantom appendage, now amputated, my unconscious brain continues to act out what had become anxious habit and reflex. O Lord, I need Your peace, to lay even that to rest.

Peace, Be Still

Day 75.

Thanks be to God, I am still standing.

More than ever before, I feel my attitudes changing, my heart being purified. I am more and more determined that I’m never going back.

There have been days when I’ve been weary, when I’ve longed for those things I’m giving up; when I’ve wondered why I’m doing it, why I need to turn away an intimacy and comfort that seems to be offered so freely. And I’ve prayed every day that God could turn my heart, that it could be reformed; that He could give me an answer to that question.

And this past Sunday, He did.

I have written before about the unspeakable peace that comes from Communion with my Lord in the Holy Eucharist; how I could be tempted, fully intending to go home and return to my sin, and then I receive Him — and this alien peace, something not of me at all, something entirely contrary to everything I was then feeling and desiring and thinking, takes hold of me, and the waters are stilled. Sunday I felt the same unrest — longing for those beautiful companions, the ones so willing to share their “art” with me. Why, Lord, do I have to let go of them forever?

And in that moment, the answer was there. A thought entirely foreign to me; something I had never thought of before, that didn’t come from my own reasoning; or if I had thought of it, or heard it, it had no meaning or effect to me — suddenly before me, carrying the weight of authority. Because what they’re offering isn’t for you.

I pray every day that He fill me up with His love, the love that transforms and overcomes all. And there it was. That lady is a person, a child of God. And what she’s offering is her dignity, her worth, her beauty — and that isn’t for you. She can offer it, and yes, it’s there for the taking — but it belongs to God, and to the lady; it’s not for me to feast on, to consume, to exploit, to use. It’s only meant to be shared with her husband, in a bond that excludes all others and can never be broken. And my eyes, my sharing in that — both take away something that isn’t mine to take, and give up something that is meant for someone else. It’s true. This is adultery. (cf. Matthew 5:28)

I had heard these words all my life, and they had never meant anything to me. And then, there in His presence, it was communicated to me and connected with me with a clarity and authority and power. And this wasn’t just a momentary, passing thought. It was a seed that has only grown; until now, where before I only felt a craving, an unprincipled lust held back only by knowledge of the pain it’s caused me, I now feel a love, a respect, a hurting for those girls — a desire to clothe the naked, to bind up the brokenhearted. Surely this is the work of God.

Apples

cranach-adam-and-eve-1533The twenty-third day.

In this month’s Magnificat there is a reflection on charity as a fruit of the Spirit, contrasting it with the apple of original sin. At the beginning of this month, when I was caught in such a desperate struggle, its words became a rallying cry: What conquers sin and pride in our lives is not mere obedience but love-filled self-surrender to God. No one can avoid sin simply by willing it. The only way to avoid sin is to love, to have our lives transformed by acts of charity that overflow into the lives of others.

Lately I’ve been involved in some heated and unpleasant arguments with atheists on Facebook. Some people seem to enjoy argument, but it has only ever left me feeling bruised. Despite all my hardness, deep down I have a tender inside — and it’s that tenderness that the Lord has been striving to restore. It’s when I am loving others, not fighting, that I feel the most fulfilled, the closest to God. And I do believe that love is my path to healing.

I prayed this morning: Father, give me a tender heart, so that everything I say is full of tenderness and love, never anger or hate or polemic — that even my criticism is full of your love and mercy, and may always lead back to you.

No sooner had I prayed that than somebody responded to an apologetic argument I’d left on another blog. I will respond in charity, I said.

I checked out the person’s blog solely to find out if he was a boy or girl, to know whether to respond to my “brother” or “sister.” But what I found was an eyeful. I hadn’t read very far in the very first post before I came upon quite an explicit description of a casual sexual encounter.

I felt my cheeks flush, my heart burning inside me. I’m going to fall, I thought. I am so vulnerable. But I stopped. I didn’t have to fall. It was my choice. And I chose to hold on to my Christ.

I did respond in charity to my brother. I don’t know what was up with that person or with his blog, and I didn’t read any further to find out. But it did cause me to think, and led me to write this post:

In that moment I thought, I miss that. Will I ever have that again? And then I thought, Do I need that? Do I really even want that? My struggle for so long has been one that confused love and intimacy with sex and nudity: but I’m finally beginning to realize, I think, through a willingness to give all of that up, how seductively false those misconceptions are.

Pornography, nudity unbridled from true intimacy, will never fulfill. The parade of hundreds of women, not one of whom I’ll ever have a true connection with, is only a cruel mockery of the longing for that intimacy and of the unalienable beauty and dignity of the human person. Casual sex, sexuality unbridled from love, will never fulfill. It only hitches my heart to a random tractor, to have a precious bit of substance ripped from the socket, until there can be no real attachment there at all.

So I give all of that up, consciously, voluntarily. Just as I’m giving up my free passage on the Internet, I give up my freedom to consume myself with those false gods. The analogue is a sacrament: my giving up the Internet in submission to my parents is like a vow of obedience in submission to a superior, to God Himself. My giving up pornography is a vow of chastity. As the Catechism teaches, The [evangelical counsels] are intended to remove whatever is incompatible with charity. The aim of the counsels is to remove whatever might hinder the development of charity, even if it is not contrary to it (CCC 1973). Where I am now calls for strong medicine. Even if having a relationship with somebody, someday, is not contrary to charity, I give up the pursuit of that now, for the kingdom, that the Lord can birth charity in me, that I might be healed. Lord my God, fill me up with your charity!

A blessed exile

Goodness. Has it really been October since I posted?

Yes, for a few months there I was almost gone: first being consumed with a project for school, and then, when that was gone, coming the closest to drowning in my sin that I ever have. I found myself in a vacuum, the house that had been emptied and swept clean to leave only a depressing and purposeless void, all too welcoming to my demons.

And there was fear: a visceral and palpable fear at the darkness I saw ahead. What now? What was God calling me to do? So often I had considered the priesthood or religious life; thought that might be my vocation; but how could that be, when I’ve been consumed with the longing for a girlfriend my whole life and addicted to pornography? Or was I called to be married, to be a husband and father, as I so often dreamed when I was younger? But how could that be, when I’m hopelessly shy and a perennial loser at the dating game; when my addiction had all but ruined the prospects of ever having a healthy relationship? Not seeing light in either tunnel, I resigned myself to the rising waters.

And then, my parents, thanks be to God, intervened. Twice I made a show of giving up control; twice I made excuses and held on to some avenue of escape. The third time I surrendered. So many times I’ve tried to surrender to God all by myself, only to seize the reins again in panic when the going got hard. I resented the restrictions they put on me for my protection, sought to circumvent them — am I not an adult? — but this time, I voluntarily submitted. Now I am a willing exile.

I’ve given up the Internet almost completely; I have no access from any PC, except when they are home and awake. I continue to have limited access via my phone and iPad, which so far has not been a temptation to wander. So much of my addiction is wrapped up in the hoarding impulse, to have and control, and I cannot do that from this little lifeboat. Now, three weeks in, the temptation is rising again. I know that I could go looking — yesterday, even, I found myself on a lustful hunt to find a pretty model I saw on a magazine cover, to know who she was and have pictures of her — but I stopped myself. I confessed my sin. I am still standing. I know that there is an avenue still open — but I want to be strong. I want to choose right, to know I could and choose not to. I want to prove worthy of my parents’ trust this time. It is hard, it is a pain, having no window to the outside world save this little lifeboat, but I am glad to have at least that, and I want to keep it and not abuse it.

Today will be 22 days. Yesterday I briefly thought, well, twenty days was a nice run of it; I could give in and not be ashamed — but no. I want to please my Lord. I want to spare the grief of my parents, who are so worried for me. I want to have a future apart from this.

His Peace

EucharistThe power of the Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist never ceases to overwhelm me. How one moment I can be lost at sea with temptation, anxious to get home from church so I can voraciously dig back into my sin; how I can’t keep my eyes off women, and don’t really want to; how I can be feeling like hell, smothering under the weight of depression, feeling not a bit the presence of God in my life, entertaining the thought that all of this is bogus, all too aware that I’m not living my life as if I really believed in Him, so maybe I don’t really believe at all…

Receiving Him, going back to my pew, kneeling; not really feeling anything. Oh, well. It’s not about whether I feel anything or not; my faith is not built on feeling. Sometimes I am just depressed. I can’t expect to feel something all the time…

And then the next moment, out of nowhere — total peace. All of my despondent thoughts laid to rest. All of my hurts, all of my fears, laid down. My temptations: Suddenly I find myself bowing before the Almighty. Those sins slipping from my humbled hands, being laid on the altar. Those things I wanted to do seem so insignificant now, before His grace. And I am overwhelmed. Someone is here, with me, inside me. I feel my mind, my heart being conformed to Him. Becoming Him. His flesh is my flesh; His mind, my mind.

I tell myself this is just something psychological; that I feel these things because I want to feel these things; that I lay down my sins because I want to lay them down. But that moment: Even when my faith is at its lowest, He overwhelms me. Every single time.

In the world

I didn’t make it to eighty days. I fell very hard soon after my last post, on Day 50. It was a struggle getting back up for about two weeks, but I’m here again. Day Seven today.

The past couple of days have been very hard. I feel a loneliness, a longing, specifically for female companionship, more than I have in a very long time. For so long, I outright dismissed the idea of ever having a girlfriend again. Between my brokenness and my addiction, there seemed to be no hope for that. And I was content. It was easy, on one hand, to tell myself that I had nothing to lose, that the habit wasn’t keeping me from any real relationship, so what did it hurt? why not content myself with what I have? and on the other hand, to convince myself — and I still believe — that I need this time alone, immersing myself in God, to be healed and prepared for whatever vocation lies ahead.

Alone in crowdBut I’ve been alone for most of my life. I haven’t had a “girlfriend” in more years than I care to admit — the few girls I’ve been out with were more combatants whom I had to fend off than “friends.” And I have struggled with loneliness. That loneliness is what led me headlong into disaster several years ago, when fueled by my addiction and the distorted view of sex and relationships that pornography gives, I said, To hell with God’s plan, and set out to experience what I felt I’d been denied. And sin chewed me up and spat me out.

Now, it’s been easier to believe that I’m too damaged to be a part of any meaningful romantic relationship; that with my ongoing struggles against this addiction, any relationship would be doomed from the start; that in my sexual brokenness, I would be an unworthy partner and husband. And I was content. I didn’t have to worry about it. I deleted all my dating site profiles, tried to stop thinking about it. And that is fine, as long as I’m alone with God and praying. If I could withdraw to a cloistered life, I might could forget. But here in the world, all it takes is one cool breeze to fan the embers back into flame.

A girl. There’s a girl at church, Clara, the daughter of some dear friends, who, the first time I ever met her, swept my heart away with foolish dreams and fantasies, after so many months of not thinking about such things. At first she came for a visit; now she’s back to stay, and I see her every week. I can hardly speak to her. I always do speak to her, but seldom more than, “Hi, how are you?” I don’t know what she thinks of me. She sat with me once at a potluck dinner. What does that mean? It’s fear, more than anything else, that binds me up; it’s easier not to worry about girls. But I’ve been worrying about girls my whole life. It’s that worry, that anxiety, that insecurity, that loneliness, that’s probably at the root of every problem I’ve ever had.

I had a very sensual dream last night about a girl I was intimate with years ago. The one who, despite being such a fleeting moment, made me feel more special than anyone had in many years. I can’t shake her. It is absolutely true what they say, that sex binds two people to one another, body and soul. Today is difficult. Please pray for me, my dear ones.