Saints Who Struggled With Lust
Controlling sexual passions is a struggle for many people. Alas, it’s as though one spark is enough to set them ablaze. Nonetheless, uncontrolled lust creates problems in society. Sadly, I have seen friendships dissolve, marriages crumble, and good employment come to nothing, simply because lust blazed out of control. Is the situation hopeless? No, some saints also struggled with lust and found ways to keep in control.
Saint Augustine (354-430)
The young Augustine gives an example of unrestrained passion. “I went to Carthage,” he says, “where I found myself in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lust.” He discovered plenty of fuel for his fire in Carthage. Unfortunately, after plunging into it recklessly, he soon found himself “a slave to lust.” This had the effect of clouding his mind and bringing him down the cliff: “The mists of passion steamed up out of the puddly concupiscence of the flesh, and the hot imagination of puberty, so clouded over and obscured my heart that I was unable to distinguish the pure light of true love from the murk of lust. Both boiled confusedly within me, and dragged my unstable youth down over the cliffs of unchaste desires and plunged me into a gulf of infamy.” His brilliant mind became so fogged that the murk of lust was indistinguishable from the pure light of love.
One day while studying philosophy in Carthage, he came upon this passage in Cicero’s writings:
If man has a soul, as the greatest philosophers maintain, and if that soul is immortal and divine, then it must necessarily be that the more it has been steeped in reason, and true love, and the pursuit of truth, and the less it has been stained by vice and passion, so much the more surely it will rise above this earth and ascend into the heavens.— Cicero
These words struck deeply into Augustine’s soul. On the one hand, he understood that the soul is capable of taking flight through noble aspirations; on the other hand, he realized that his sex mania kept him chained. How could he free his soul? He sought for an answer in various sects, which led him eventually to become a Manichean. This group appealed to Augustine because they claimed to have a solution for all problems without requiring strict self-denial among the so-called Hearers. They believed that since an evil body imprisoned a person’s soul, the passions were impossible to control. In Augustine's mind, this gave him the green light to live licentiously. He remained with the sect for nine years, but it ultimately left him frustrated. He could not harmonize the yearning for flight with unrestrained lust. Where was he to turn now?
An Armor of Light
“Make me chaste O God, but not yet.” So goes Augustine’s famous prayer. Having the heart of an eagle but incapable of loosening his chain, he finally implored heaven’s help. At the height of the crisis, a dramatic change occurred. While sitting in a Milanese garden he heard a child’s singsong voice, “Take and read, take and read.” He opened the scriptures at random and read these words, “The night is far spent, the day draws near. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in licentiousness and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its lusts. (Rom. 13:13-14) As the words of Cicero struck him deep within, so the words St. Paul finally set him free.
Freedom to Fly
Did Augustine’s conversion end all of his struggles? While this remains unknown, he did progress very rapidly in the way of virtue and prayer. Two practices helped to keep his soul aloft. In the first place, he recognized that “laziness is the devil’s workshop,” and so kept himself busy. Notwithstanding his episcopal duties, a cascade of books, homilies, and letters flowed out of his study. This was not a novel way to conquer the passions. St. Jerome, St. Augustine’s contemporary, followed a similar course. He dove into learning Hebrew precisely because his “mind was burning with desire and the fires of lust.” Engaging the mind and keeping busy is an effective means to snuff out the first sparks of lust.
For lack of wood the fire goes out.— Proverbs 26:20
Secondly, Augustine transformed unruly passion into a holy passion through prayer. Like a sprightly stallion, his nature was unquestionably passionate; when he held the reins, he galloped toward the heavens: “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness, I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you... You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”
St Mary of Egypt (445-522)
Like Augustine, St. Mary is another passionate soul. While she is a popular saint in the Byzantine East, she’s less known in the West. Her story is one of hope for those whose past seems beyond repair. At age twelve, she ran away from home and eventually found her way to Alexandria. There she took up prostitution to support herself. Relating her story to Abba Zosimos much later in life, she said, “ I am ashamed to recall how there, I at first ruined my maidenhood and then unrestrainedly and insatiably gave myself up to sensuality…For seventeen years, forgive me, I lived like that. I was like a fire of public debauch. And, it was not for the sake of gain—here I speak the truth. Often when they wished to pay me, I refused the money.” Pleasure became queen in her life. She made her living chiefly by begging and spinning flax.
One day, she noticed a herd of pilgrims journeying to the sea and inquired where they were going. They told her they were heading for Jerusalem, for the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. She decided to go with them, not as a holy pilgrim, but simply to find more opportunities for sex. When the pilgrims arrived in Jerusalem and entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, she tried to go with them through the doors. Three or four times she tried to walk through the entrance. However, some unseen force, like an invisible row of soldiers, prevented her entrance. She understood that her sins blocked her from gaining access.
She started weeping and beating her breast, lamenting her sins. She looked up and saw an icon of the Virgin Mary, and prayed, “O Lady, Mother of God…I have heard that God who was born of thee, became man on purpose to call sinners to repentance. Then help me, for I have no other help.” She vowed to the Virgin Mary that she would renounce her sinful life and go where the Virgin instructed. After her prayer, she tried once again to enter the church and was successful. She venerated the relic of the Holy Cross, and heard a voice saying, "If you cross the Jordan, you will find glorious rest."
Her Life in the Desert
After this experience, she journeyed to the Monastery of St. John the Baptist near the Jordan River. She went to confession and afterward received Holy Communion. The following day, she took three loaves of bread and crossed the Jordan River to live in the desert. She lived in the wilderness for forty-seven years, subsisting on herbs and plants.
For seventeen years, she experienced a fearsome battle with lustful thoughts. “A fire was kindled in my miserable heart,” she told Abba Zosimos, “which seemed to burn me up completely and to awake in me a thirst for embraces. As soon as this craving came to me, I flung myself on the earth and watered it with my tears.” When these desires engulfed her, she used the same remedy every time: she turned to the Virgin Mary, whom she called her “Protectress.” She said, “The Mother of God helps me in everything and leads me, as it were, by the hand.”
What to Learn from St Mary of Egypt
St Mary of Egypt’s example is an encouragement to those who may feel damaged. Her life is proof that God can fully restore what appears to be wrecked. Her penitential way of life not only healed her past, but God showered innumerable divine gifts upon her, such as prophecy. With the help of the Virgin Mary, she gained mastery over her passionate thoughts and was clothed with heavenly virtues.
St Catherine of Siena (1347-1380)
Unlike St. Mary of Egypt, St Catherine pursued a pious way of life from her earliest years. She was born into a large, well-to-do family in Siena, Italy. Her parents sought a good match for their favorite child, but Catherine decided otherwise. She made a personal vow to give her life to God and became a lay Dominican. She lived in her parent’s home as a hermit until the age of twenty-one, when she experienced a “mystical marriage” with Christ. Afterward, she started to live a more out-going life, by serving the impoverished and ill. She vexed her family by giving large amounts of food to poor persons. Her work gained followers, and when political events in Italy worsened, she intervened by her prayers and persuasive personality. She was particularly instrumental in bringing the Pope back from Avignon.
One day, Catherine conceived a great yearning for the virtue of fortitude. She had a spiritual encounter with Christ, who explained that she would gain this virtue through certain trials that would soon visit her. The trials were temptations to lust that beset her night and day. Vivid images filled her mind, as devils pestered her continually. She responded by incessant prayer and penances such as fasting, vigils, and scourging her body. The apparent absence of Christ compounded her struggles.
After several days of struggle, a ray of the Holy Spirit entered her soul as she returned from church. Her thoughts reminded her of what she originally hoped to receive, namely, the virtue of fortitude. She marveled that her endurance of strong temptations was the very means by which she acquired fortitude. She subsequently fought more earnestly to repel the demons that afflicted her. When a devil came to tempt her once more, she said she was willing to endure all pains. In view of her boldness, the devil fled and her temptations against chastity ceased. In view of her victory, Jesus visited her to bestow rich blessings on her soul.
She complained to him, “Lord, where were you when my heart was so tormented?” Jesus responded, “I was in the center of your heart.” Catherine wondered how it could be, as impure thoughts engulfed her mind. Jesus asked if the thoughts gave her pleasure or pain. She told him that the thoughts caused her pain and sadness. Jesus then explained to her that it was because he was in her heart, that these thoughts were painful and not pleasurable. He told her that he defended her throughout the ordeal.
It is noteworthy that temptations enriched St. Catherine immensely. Her victory in the time of battle gained for her purity, fortitude, and God’s copious blessings, such that by only reciting the Lord’s Prayer, she went into ecstasy. By her example, St. Catherine offers three helpful lessons for the tempted: remember God’s presence, live austerely, such as by fasting from excessive food, and finally, blessings will come after the storm, so be patient.
St Aloysius Gonzaga (1568-1591)
St. Aloysius was the eldest son of the Marquisate of Castiglione and heir apparent to great riches and power. At age seven, he fell sick with quartan ague. His thoughts ran deep like a river, as he understood the vanity of worldly success. Thus, after regaining his health, he aspired to devote his life to God. At age nine, he made a vow of virginity. What can such an innocent soul teach those who are more flammable?
In fact, St. Aloysius confessed that he had strong sexual desires as he matured. He may not have had modern-day seductions like the internet, yet he lived in a palace lurking with temptations. Knowing his weakness, he followed the example of the saints in subduing his passions. There are essentially three ways that he gained self-mastery.
1. Custody of the Eyes
Living amid many allurements caused St. Aloysius to take a radical step. He practiced the ancient discipline of custody of the eyes. He kept his eyes lowered in the company of females and controlled his curiosity. While this may appear overly prudent, his intention was pure. He took Jesus’ words to heart, “But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt 5:19)
One spark on dry grass can cause a wildfire. St. Aloysius understood the necessity to keep his soul moistened with divine grace. When the soul is bedewed with grace, sparks have little chance. By prayer, he obtained grace from God. He daily prayed the Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the seven Penitential Psalms. He rose at midnight and prayed on a stone floor, regardless of the weather. He took St. Paul’s advice to heart and filled his head with divine meditations: “Whatever is good, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely…think about these things.” (Phil 4:8)
3. Austerity of Life
St. Aloysius took up a life of self-discipline from the age of thirteen. Rather than dine sumptuously with his family, he fasted three days a week on bread and water. Furthermore, he scourged himself with a dog leash until the blood flowed. Though harsh sounding, his discipline mollified his hot-blooded nature so that he could be in command. In our modern day context, keeping fit is perhaps a better substitute for the whip.
Acquiring Custody of the Heart
The saints described in this article chose celibacy as a way of life because of their consecration to God. Nonetheless, their advice is applicable to everyone, married or single, because uncontrolled passions are harmful to society. It affects marriages, families, and friendships. What is the essential advice of these saints? It is the need for custody of the heart. This involves attentiveness to thoughts, custody of the eyes, and care in what we allow into our souls. As Jesus advised, “Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation.” (Mk 14:38) To keep watch means to be on the lookout like a good forest ranger, lest any fires spring out of control.
Confessions, by St Augustine of Hippo, Penguin Books, 1988
The Life of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, Patron of Christian Youth, by Maurice Meschler, S.J.,
The life of St. Catherine of Siena
A biography of St. Mary of Egypt
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