Orthodox America

  On Preserving Purity of the Flesh

Guard the purity of thy flesh in the Lord, as a precious pearl. -- St. Ephraim the Syrian


            The lust of the flesh is very seductive; it easily catches the one who is careless and makes his soul a prisoner of the devil.  According to the word of the Lord, anyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matt. 5:28).  This means that one can defile oneself without having any physical contact with another person – simply through one’s eyes, through one’s imagination and the desires of the heart.  When lustful thoughts enter the heart, they already defile a man (Matt. 15:20).  For this reason Scripture says, Keep thy heart with all diligence (Prov. 4:23).  Inasmuch as the desires of the heart are often aroused in us through external impressions, one must also strive to guard one’s bodily senses:  sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch.  Referring to these, Scripture tells us:  death has come up through your windows, it has entered into our land (Jer. 9:21).  Through the senses the seductions of the world penetrate the heart and, even if it is full of good thoughts, they make of it a desolation, as it is said:  evil conversations corrupt good manners (I Cor. 15:33).

            Of all the external senses, sight serves as the most convenient transmitter of deceptions, and for this reason it poses the greatest danger to virginity.  The lust of the eyes, which catch beguiling objects, easily and quickly joins them with the lust of the flesh, and the man, without regard for time or place, commits adultery with whomever he so desires.  Deliberately gazing at beautiful faces, this adulterer always and everywhere carries and feeds within himself the indomitable beast of unclean desire.  What could be worse than such a state?  This is the same as a raging fever in which the afflicted, no matter how much he drinks, cannot slake his thirst.  The Scripture says:  look not upon another’s beauty…for herewith lust is kindled as a fire (Eccles. 9:9).  And what kind of pleasure can there be in the lust of the eyes?  Here there is no real pleasure, just a shadow, a surrogate, a deception.  Those who enjoy peace of heart are not those who give themselves over to the lust of the eyes, but those who do not give themselves over.  No matter how much the lustful man tries to capture pleasures for himself, he cannot retain them and make them last.  Not so is the consolation of the chaste:  one can say that his whole life is spent in enjoyment because his conscience is at peace and nothing agitates his heart; it is always calm and looks joyously up to heaven, as if winged with the desire of eternal good things.

            Well, you might say, what harm is there if I look and am not carried away by passion?  The first time you may not notice any harm to yourself, and if, as you say, you look once, twice, three times like this, perhaps you will still be able to overcome passion; but if you begin to do this often then you will surely be vanquished.  For you are not greater than the Prophet David who, we know, subjected himself to dangers from admiring the beauty of the female sex.  If you come close to a fire and burn yourself you will jump away at once; but once your soul is weakened by a woman’s flattery, you will not turn away from her soon.  In the Old Testament it is said:  Turn away thine eye from a beautiful woman…for many have been deceived by the beauty of a woman (Eccles. 9:8).

            In order to keep one’s eyes from beguilement, one should lower them more often, recalling the words revealed by God to St. Ephraim:  “From the earth thou art taken, look therefore to the earth.”

            One should be similarly careful in guarding one’s ears from hearing lewd conversation, worldly songs, music which is pleasurable and weakens the soul, because all this arouses in the soul impure love and carnal desire.

            One must be particularly careful in one’s acquaintance with the female sex.  Just as a soldier who finds himself in the midst of the enemy receives multiple wounds, so a man who has frequent contact with women subjects his soul to many injuries.  In the Old Testament we read:  Sit not at all with another man’s wife, nor sit down with her in thine arms, and spend not thy money with her at the wine; lest thine heart incline unto her, and so through thy desire thou fall into destruction (Eccles. 9:9).

            The sense of taste poses great danger to chastity, and therefore one should avoid taking pleasure in food and drink.  Who has not noticed what ruinous consequences come from indulging in sweet delicacies.  Not without reason does the Apostle say that the widow who lives in pleasure is dead while she liveth (I Tim. 5:6).  Strict guardians of virginity rarely ate sweet food but nourished themselves chiefly with bread and water.

            The sense of touch, although less subject to temptation, even so is extremely dangerous to virginity.  For this reason, avoid physical contact not only with the opposite sex but likewise refrain from touching those parts of your own body which lead to the arousal of passion.

            Of all the physical senses, smell poses the least danger to chastity; nevertheless, one should avoid perfumes which draw the soul towards effeminacy and dispose it towards sensuality.

            Besides all this, one must be very wary of impure thoughts or imaginings; these subject a man to spiritual decay much more than fulfilling the desire of the flesh within the lawful bonds of marriage.  For this reason the Apostle says It is better to marry than to burn (I Cor. 7:9).  Those who live in virginity must inevitably engage in warfare against carnal passion; and those who are inexperienced or untried in this warfare are threatened with being overpowered and falling; sometimes it even results in spiritual death, for, as Apostle Paul says, to be carnally minded is death (Rom. 8:6).  All the more so, then, are deeds born of lust considered deadly sins; it is said that no adulterer nor unclean person hath any inheritance in the Kingdom of Christ and of God (Eph. 5:5) if he does not repent, if he does not in his mind and heart turn away from his sin. 

Every man that striveth for mastery is temperate in all things. (I Cor. 9:25)

            Although abstinence from carnality is a difficult virtue, it is nevertheless possible, and in return it rewards its practitioner with an inexhaustible well-spring of consolation in God.  If a man desires to delight in spiritual blessings, he should strive to destroy within himself the desires of this sin-loving flesh, to exhaust his “old man”; here, let him imitate St. Ephraim the Syrian who said, “I torment him who torments me.”

            All ascetic strugglers, as Apostle Paul writes, are temperate in all things.  Imitating them, you, too, should not only refrain from eating anything that weighs down the body; you should not even drink water beyond moderation, so as not to burden the heart with a surfeit of drink and draw yourself away from the podvig of prayer and vigilance.  For, more than anything else, keeping vigil with prayer aids in all that is good:  it uproots passions of the flesh, it motivates one to guard purity of virginity, and it plants in the heart hope in God and love for God.  “He who loves God,” writes St. Maximus the Confessor, “will live an angelic life on earth, fasting and keeping vigil, chanting and praying.”

            It is rightly said in Scripture that neither adulterers nor fornicators will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven (I Cor. 6:9).  Apostle Paul counsels us not to communicate with adulterers, placing them in the same category with idolators; one should not even eat together with such people (I Cor. 5:11).  And this is given not without reason, as we can see from the following example. 

            Around the year 1140, there lived in the Kiev Caves Lavra a hieromonk by the name of Onesiphoros.  He had a spiritual son and friend, a monk who gave every appearance of being a faster, although he freely indulged in the sins of the flesh – a fact he kept secret from his spiritual father.  He was in good health when suddenly he died.  His body gave off such a stench that no one could come close to it.  The monks had to stand at a distance and even so they were barely able to conduct the burial service.  Covering their noses, they carried him away and placed him in the caves.  Many times the monks heard shrieks, as though someone were being tormented.  One night St. Anthony appeared to Onesiphoros and said to him sternly, “Why have you put here such an abominable man of iniquity?  He defamed a holy place.”  The next night Onesiphoros again heard a voice:  “Quickly throw him out of here; give him to the dogs.  He’s not worthy of being here.”  This shows how offensive to God and His saints is the secret sin of one who indulges the flesh.  Not only his soul but even his lifeless corpse is intolerable for them.  Justly does the Apostle write:  Every sin that a man doeth is without the body, but he that commiteth fornication sinneth against his own body (I Cor 6:18).

            One must also be aware that without God’s grace no one can preserve the purity of virginity; not is it granted to the negligent.  One must have ardent love for the study of God’s wisdom, eat and drink in moderation, and keep the body under subjection by vigils, labors and prayer.  Without this one inevitably faces a battle with the lust of the flesh, is overmastered by it and falls into sinful impurity.  The saints have observed that for pride and judging others, a man is also allowed to suffer fall from the despoiler of the flesh, and that to guard one’s purity it is very beneficial to frequently have confession and partake of the Body and Blood of Christ.  

(Translated and excerpted from How a Youth Can Guard His Path in Purity, Moscow, 1910)