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Psychological Healing
in the Catholic Mystic Tradition

Questions and Answers

About a year ago I went to confession and confessed masturbation and looking at pornography and the number of times, also going to communion before confessing these sins. My priest told me that it was not a mortal sin in my case because it was leading me towards love and I should continue to take communion. What do you say about this? That response confused me. Anyway, I have still been troubled with these vices and I am unable to resist the temptations, I still look at porn and masturbate. What am I missing or what is my motivation behind this desire and why won’t I stop?

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Outline of the Answer
• Demons and Wolves
• The Theological Issues
• The Psychological Issues
• The Actual Failure
• The Urge to Masturbate
• Sin Feels Good
• Sexual Addiction?
• The Healing Process
• The Spiritual Battle

 
You’ve heard it said, “With friends like him (or her) I don’t need enemies.” Well, with priests like the one you encountered, you don’t need demons to seek the ruin of your soul. Christ told Peter to “feed my sheep” (John 21:15–19), and priests like this have been feeding His sheep all right—they’ve been feeding His sheep to the wolves!

That priest is wrong, for several reasons.

  
The Theological Issues

That priest is wrong theologically (a) because Christ Himself told us that lust—even lust in the heart—is a mortal sin [1] (Matthew 5:28), (b) because the Tradition of the Catholic Church has preserved Christ’s teaching through the ages, and (c) because the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2351–2354) continues to endorse that teaching.

 
The Psychological Issues

Moreover, that priest is wrong psychologically because he doesn’t understand that sexuality (when stripped of its procreative function) has nothing to do with love.

Sexual fantasies, whether thoughts or feelings, often arise as images of satisfaction when, because of other circumstances, we are feeling deprived, ineffectual, weary, unrecognized, or alone. The experience of genital arousal points to a yearning for an intoxicating existential merger with an “other” to hide the unwanted reality of your own brokenness, so that you can experience the ecstasy of transcending the “unknown” or of “seeing” or “feeling seen” (common male fantasies) or of “being filled” (a common female fantasy).

Same-sex attraction fantasies can reverse these roles: a man can desire to be filled with the strength of a father (who in reality was weak, or absent, or cruel); a woman can desire to see, or be seen by, a mother (who in reality was cruel or neglectful or smothering).

The combinations can be almost infinite, but they all point to a certain lack of unconditional childhood recognition, guidance, or acceptance that resonates with a current lack—that is, deprivation—of recognition, guidance, acceptance, resources, or time.

The psychological point here is that filling up a lack has nothing to do with love.

Sexual fantasies can also derive from memories of past sexual activity—voluntary or inflicted abusively—that now carry feelings of guilt or regret or even anger. In this context, men can have fantasies of raping, and women (and some men) can have fantasies of being raped.

The psychological point here is that guilt, regret, and anger also have nothing to do with love.

Pornography derives from the urge to defile an “other” by using the other as an object of consumption for your own pleasure. On the surface, it may seem that pornography is simply about erotic pleasure. But when the human body is made into a biological toy, it is stripped of all human dignity, and this defilement is a psychological act of aggression. The hostility may be unconscious or it may be openly violent, but, either way, it has its basis in resentment.

To whom, then, is the resentment directed? Well, as in all things psychological, the resentment goes back to the parents. Deep down, under all the apparent excitement, and despite the attraction to what is seen, lurks the dark urge to hurt and insult—to “get back at”—what is behind the scenes: a mother who devoured, rejected, or abandoned, rather than nurtured, or a father who failed to teach, guide, and protect.

So face it: in your childhood you were made into an object that was manipulated, scorned, or ignored, and now you seek the satisfaction of making others into objects of your pleasure.

The psychological point here is that revenge has nothing to do with love. 

Autistic self-stimulation (i.e., masturbation) does not lead you towards love because it’s a defilement of love. Masturbation makes your own body into an object that you use for your own pleasure, but real love does not seek anything for itself. Real love is not a feeling; instead, it is an act of will;[2] it’s a self-sacrifice for the sake of the salvation of other souls. Masturbation, in opposition to real love, seeks everything for itself; it’s really just a subtle form of anger for not having received your parents’ love—especially your father’s love.

  

As a child, you felt lonely and neglected, and you had to take matters into your own hands to teach and protect yourself. You essentially had to raise yourself as a child without your parents’ guidance. So now, as an adult, when you feel ineffectual, lonely, and neglected, what do you do? You take matters into your own hands and raise yourself—literally.

  

The psychological point here is that the defilement of love has nothing to do with love.

 
The Actual Failure

Finally, that priest is wrong in actuality because his advice has not only done nothing to help you, it has also confused you.

So let’s get to the truth of the matter and find out why you masturbate.

 
The Urge to Masturbate

The urge to masturbate begins because you have been feeling helpless, ineffectual, deprived, or burdened in some way. In this state of mind, you crave some comfort to relieve your emotional pain. Well, the four greatest natural emotional pain relievers are alcohol, drugs, food, and genital stimulation. It’s that simple.

As Christians we have been called to grow in spirit and love beyond the natural pleasures of the flesh. Nevertheless, even though you know that masturbation has nothing to do with love, the desire for pleasures of the flesh, rather than the spirit, grows in you because (a) unconscious anger at your parents for not protecting you and guiding you with true love leaves you feeling frustrated, and (b) unconscious anger at yourself because true love has been missing in your life leaves you feeling incompetent—like you’re trash.

These feelings of helplessness and deprivation will vary in detail from person to person and from situation to situation, but the point is that you don’t turn to God with all your mind, all your heart, all your strength, and all your soul in the midst of your emotional pain because no one ever showed you exactly how to do it. So, like a child—all alone, with no one to explain things, and trying desperately to figure out things on his or her own—you give in to the urge to take matters into your own hands to relieve yourself of your own despair. But, in all reality, that relief is just a short-lived illusion.

  

At the moment of orgasm, you will desire its ecstasy with all your mind, all your heart, all your strength, and all your soul. You will be desiring the orgasm with the same desire you wanted your parents to have for you, at the moment you were conceived and in every moment thereafter. But their love was flawed—or missing altogether. So, as a substitute for their acceptance, you will seek the acceptance of others. Yet they, too, will fail you. Angry and deprived, you will turn your back on God and, with all your mind, all your heart, all your strength, and all your soul, you will seek—not God—but . . . the orgasm, as you try to keep alive the illusion that you are wanted by the world.

  

Thus we reach the ultimate conclusion. You can’t use your own body to heal your emotional despair—and if you try, you will find yourself condemned to failure like Sisyphus, in Greek mythology, who struggled to push a heavy stone uphill, only to have it roll back down again, over and over for ever.

 
Sin Feels Good

How is it that we can continue to commit sin even when we know that it leads to nothing but failure? Well, the truth is, sin feels good.

Yes, sin feels good.

Lust gives us raw physical pleasure. It can be intense and intoxicating. But lust is not a sin because someone in authority, for some arrogant and mysterious reason, says so. Nor is lust a sin because it feels good. Lust is sin because it leads you away from the goal of holiness and into the empty pleasures of merely feeling good. Lust is sin because it misses the point of life.

God is the point of life, and He gave us genitals so that we could bring new life into the world. Note that we aren’t creators; God is the Creator and we are procreators—that is, we stand in the place of the Creator. Our genitals therefore serve the purpose of procreation. They serve love by bringing children into the world who will learn to love Love—God Himself—to become love themselves.

Lust, however, is not love. Despite its intensity of feeling, it is not love. It defiles love. It is the hatred of love because it defiles procreation. It makes pleasure its own end, and so it ends in failure.

Still, it feels good—and that points to the ultimate spiritual battle. Despite the throbbing intensity of lust’s attraction, we have to struggle against the pleasure to remind ourselves that, despite all the allure, lust is the hatred of love.

 
Sexual Addiction?

Individuals who don’t understand the reality of the great spiritual battle with lust use the term sexual addiction as a politically correct way to make it seem that sexual behaviors are matters for medical oversight and control rather than matters of personal responsibility. But the truth is that your recurring urges to masturbate derive from a false attitude to sexuality and are really evidence that you have been duped by a corrupt social world into believing that a hatred for procreation has power to fill your emotional emptiness.

You have been duped especially by the entertainment industry, an industry that has been working subversively through movies and television to destroy traditional Christian family values and to glamorize the sin of lust in our culture. For example, it may seem on the surface that “the woman” has been idealized, because she stands at the center of all erotic imagery, but the underlying motive has been to defile feminine modesty, stripping the female body of its holy dignity and reducing it, often with violent overtones, to a soulless sex object. Even though it may seem on the surface that socially progressive values have “liberated” women from “patriarchal oppression,” the truth is that women are increasingly enslaving themselves to lust.

The end result is that our secular culture worships lust as its goddess, and all Christians, even those with same-sex attractions, are surrounded with temptation to abandon their baptismal promises and to partake of the harlot’s allure.

You have been duped by the anti-Christian “progressive” liberal agenda of the entertainment industry into believing that sin is normal and acceptable and that sexual pleasure is necessary for your happiness. As a result, instead of taking personal responsibility to detach yourself from social illusions, you willingly consume them, over and over.

You have been duped into believing that you can use your own body to heal your emotional despair, and so sin enslaves you even as you are told that sin does not exist. It’s not an addiction that troubles you, it’s anti-Christian cultural brainwashing.

 
The Healing Process: Recognition, Language, and Prayer

Recognition

To be healed of your slavery to repetitive sin, first learn to recognize your feelings of helplessness and deprivation as soon as they occur. As you begin this learning process, there might be a long delay between your falling into a temptation and your discovering its triggers, but with practice you can shorten the delay; eventually, you will be able to recognize your particular triggers almost immediately. In any case, sooner or later, notice how they manifest in your particular circumstances.

Maybe they are a matter of your being overwhelmed with obligations, without proper guidance and assistance, so that you feel lonely, weary, and burdened.

Maybe they are a matter of your being obstructed and hindered by others, so that you feel insulted and neglected.

Maybe they are a matter of your own inner confusion and lack of confidence, so that you feel frustrated and stuck.

Language

Then put the feelings into language; that is, consciously explain to yourself how these feelings of helplessness and deprivation connect to similar feelings from your childhood. Think back to the actual childhood events that precipitated the feelings and describe them in detail.
 

Prayer

Then gather up all this scrutiny and bring it in prayer before Christ. Pray to Him, however, not just with formal prayers, but from your heart, as you would speak to another person. Pour out your feelings and doubts and frustrations in sincere honesty.

The mistake would be to believe that your sins make you unworthy for God to hear your prayers; the truth is that it is in these very moments of your weakness and vulnerability that Christ has the most compassion for you and the most eagerness to help you.

Pray that the desire for holy love will grow in you and overshadow every other desire.

Ask for the strength and courage to persevere through your painful feelings into confident trust in divine protection despite what others do.

Admit your wretchedness and ask for the grace to love, and to pray for, everyone—even your enemies—despite the mistreatment you received from your parents as a child and continue to receive, even now, from others.

Do this and you will not only understand love, you will be living it.

  

Lust. Competition. Vengeance. Three sins, any one of which will stop a man dead in his tracks on the way of perfection.

  

 
The Spiritual Battle

Below are some psychological concepts that can assist you in the battle with your impulses to sin.
 

Feel the Sorrow

When erotic fantasies or urges to look at pornography disturb you, it will be necessary to train yourself to seek only in Christ—not in the body of another person, and not in your own body—the true recognition and comfort that is lacking everywhere else.

Temptations can be so enticing, however, as to scatter your prayers; therefore, praying for the temptation to “go away” will not likely help you. Moreover, when confronted with temptations, many persons make the psychological mistake of telling themselves that they can’t have something or that they shouldn’t do something. Trying to force yourself away from a desire only increases its intensity!

The one thing that can help you the most is to focus on the sorrow of love being defiled. 

Consequently, it will be important to look beyond the illusion of satisfaction that the desire projects in front of you; instead of seeing the illusion, pay attention to what you are really seeing when you look at someone. Instead of seeing a body that arouses your lust, learn to feel the sorrow of God’s holy creation being defiled by immodesty. Learn to feel the sorrow of a wretched soul who has been duped by secular society into believing that emotional emptiness can be filled by using the body to incite lust in others. Instead of seeing your own pleasure, feel in your heart the sorrow of seeing another soul deceived by cultural lies and lost in sin. Feel the sorrow for a world that has been so deceived and overwhelmed by sin that it hates God.[3]
 

Beware the Immodesty of Other Persons

Many impulses to sin originate in the immodesty of other persons. When others wear clothing that does not cover their bodies with chaste dignity but instead draws attention to the intimate contours of their body parts, you will be attacked in two ways.

First of all, your curiosity to see “behind the veil” will become incited. 

The brilliant French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, tells the story of a competition between two ancient painters, Zeuxis and Parrhasios.[4] Zeuxis receives acclaim for painting grapes so life-like that even the birds who try to peck at them are fooled. In his pride, Zeuxis then goes to look at the work of Parrhasios. But Zeuxis sees only a veil, and so he asks to see the painting that Parrhasios has hidden behind the veil. Well, Parrhasios’ painting was the veil. It was so well done that it fooled even the master of deceptive painting himself. Hence Lacan points out that if you want to deceive someone, present him with a “veil,” something that incites him to ask what is behind it.

Then, with your curiosity incited, you will feel frustrated that you cannot see behind the veil, and to ward off the conscious awareness of your dreaded helplessness you will experience a surge of fantasies that offer imaginary relief to your frustration.

At this point STOP!

Remind yourself that those who love God respect the sanctity of their reproductive functioning and do not play with their bodies like toys. Tell yourself that you can love God like this, too.

Remind yourself that lust is just an unholy illusion that can never heal the emotional pain that provokes it.

Remind yourself that lust causes real spiritual harm to others—and to you. 

When you feel the urge to look at or touch or kiss someone erotically, tell yourself, “It’s futile. There is no point in thinking this way because it is not in accord with procreative sexuality.” [5]

Remind yourself that those who dress immodestly are themselves blinded by sin and trapped in it. Rather than make them into objects of your lust, feel sorrow for them and pray for their enlightenment.

Beware the Desire for Satiety

Practice the virtue of satiety prevention. Temptations to sin are all based in the desire to have your emotional emptiness filled—now! If your life has been structured around the comfort of immediate gratification and always feeling satiated, then, when temptations arise, there will be no voice of virtue to contain them. But if you can teach yourself to accept a lifestyle not based on constant satiety, you will have more confidence and strength to assist you in tolerating the fury of an unfulfilled temptation.

Is the radio in your car and the television in your home always on, just filling up the silence? Stop! Turn them off. Learn to appreciate contemplative silence.

Are you always carrying your mobile device with you, chatting, texting, constantly alert for messages, listening to songs, or playing video games ? Stop! Turn it on only to give or receive meaningful information. Games and secular music steal time away from prayer. Learn to focus your mind and heart on constant prayer, as Christ told us to do.

Do you eat until you feel stuffed? Are you always snacking and drinking coffee or cola? Stop! Learn to fast from the excess of the world so as to appreciate a spiritual hunger for holiness.

Beware the Anger Behind the Lust

Many people get taken by surprise by this fact, so be careful to understand that the more you overcome your urges to masturbate, the more prone you will be to feelings of irritation—and that the feeling of irritation can easily escalate into the sin of anger.

Why does this happen?

Well, remember what I said above about anger being the underlying psychological motive for masturbation. When you stop masturbating, that anger will still be present under the surface of everything. It will he necessary to deal with it in a healthy manner, or you will find it “leaking out” everywhere around you.

Learn how to manage anger in a healthy way with 
Anger and Forgiveness (Third Edition) 

Therefore, keep up a constant scrutiny of your emotions so that you can recognize your emotional injuries and then work to resolve them in a timely and spiritually healthy manner. Maintain a sense of peace within your heart through the practice of constant prayer.
 

Reinterpret Your Memories

Because it is not psychologically possible to erase from your mind memories of pornography and past sexual experiences, these old images and feelings will intrude into your consciousness with haunting regularity, and they will arouse erotic feelings. But, instead of falling into the temptations of eroticism, tell yourself, “In the past, I did these things for mere pleasure, but now I see them for the evil [6] they really are.”
 

Don’t Punish Yourself

When you try to resist temptations by sheer force of will, and then fail, you can fall into the trap of punishing yourself for your mistakes—and this only leads to further failure. Instead, turn to God in sorrow and tears and ask that He teach you to learn from your mistakes. His mercy is more gentle and compassionate than any punishment you can inflict on yourself. Ask Him for the courage to face your emotional pain directly, and ask Him for the grace to see your struggles with your psychological conflicts as opportunities to grow in wisdom and holiness.

 

  

I ASKED the LORD, “O LORD, why is it that we are so troubled with genital arousal and erotic desires? Why does our sexuality have to be this difficult?”

  

     He replied, “No one enters My Kingdom who has not resolutely chosen the Spirit over the Flesh. Let your genitals be a constant reminder of this, in every moment, with every breath you take.”

 

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Notes.

1. Transient erotic images that arise spontaneously in your mind, however, are not necessarily mortal sins unless you dwell upon them for pleasure. All fleeting fantasies are intellectual products, not acts of will; that is, they are products of unconscious defensive psychology. Through careful scrutiny (as I describe here) you can use the occurrence of such fantasies to help you understand your current emotional difficulties.

2. True love, as Aristotle explained (Rhet. ii, 4) and as Saint Thomas Aquinas reiterated, is “to wish the good of someone.” See Summa Theologica, I-II, 26, 4.

3. Not all of those who hate God have consciously given themselves over to evil; instead, some have become morally corrupted; that is, they have succumbed to an illusion that denies the reality of sin and evil, and so they deceive themselves in believing that their self-serving behavior is not an offense to God.

4. Jacques Lacan, “The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis.” Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, translated by Alan Sheridan. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1981). See p. 103 and pp. 111-112.

5. The fundamental meaning of sexuality is in its procreative function. This does not mean that every sexual act must produce a child; rather, it means that no sexual act has a legitimate purpose as something done for fun or entertainment or to soothe feelings of loneliness. To cast away the fundamental meaning of sexuality (through acts such as masturbation, oral sex, anal sex, artificial birth control, etc.) is to fall into sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses it this way: “. . . every action which . . . proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible is intrinsically evil ” (CCC 2370).

6. See Note 5.

 


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