Prayer and Chastity
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Our title for the present conference is “Prayer and Chastity.” It could just as well be “Without Prayer There Can Be No Chastity.” Or again the title could be “Christian Chastity Is Impossible Without Prayer.”
All that we have so far seen about Christian chastity tells us that this virtue is humanly impossible. I wish to stress the word humanly impossible. The moment we say that, we are in effect defining the meaning of divine grace. The grace that only God can give.
Why Chastity is Impossible Without Prayer
Over the centuries, chastity has been called the difficult virtue and Christ's teaching on chastity the difficult commandment. But that is an understatement. When Christ told us that, “without me you can do nothing,” He meant two things. He meant that without the possession of His grace in our souls no one can reach heaven. He also meant that without grace we cannot practice the virtues which He told His followers are necessary to remain in His friendship.
Our focus here is on the need for grace to practice the virtues prescribed by Christ as a condition for salvation. Two thousand years of Christian history have taught us that there are two virtues that require the grace of God, charity and chastity. Between these two, charity is certainly the most sublime, but chastity is the most difficult.
Once we say that we cannot practice any Christian virtue without the help of God's grace, we must logically admit that to remain chaste we need a superabundance of grace. Why? Because Christian chastity is so demanding on the generosity of the human will.
We go a step further. If divine grace is so necessary for the virtue of continence, how do we obtain this grace? We obtain this grace mainly and, in fact, indispensably through prayer.
Another question: why is prayer for grace so necessary? The basic reason is that we have a fallen human nature. Remedial grace from God is necessary if we are to practice Christian chastity. The most basic and most available source of this grace is prayer.
The next question I consider one of the most important that we can ask in life. Are we always assured the grace we need in time of temptation? No! We are not necessarily assured the actual grace we need to resist a temptation at the time it occurs.
As we have been saying in one conference after another, we can almost describe the modern world as demonically possessed to seduce people into sins of unchastity. How, then, are those who believe in Christ to remain faithful to His teaching on chastity? They must pray as no generation of Christians in two millennia has had to beg the Lord for His grace.
This raises another question: does this not seem to be an injustice on the part of God? Would we not expect Him to provide us with the light and strength we need to live up to the purity that He requires of those who claim they love Him? He does provide us with this light and strength but conditionally. The one grace that we can always be assured we have, is the grace to pray.
This means that our Lord is to be believed when He says, “Ask and you shall receive.” By implication, He is telling us, “If you do not ask, you shall not receive.” Either we have the humility to ask for divine assistance, or we pay the price for our pride. Those who are humble, pray; those who are proud, do not pray. In other words, those who pray are chaste; no one else is.
One more observation should be made. We spoke of the remedial grace that we need to practice Christian chastity. The language may sound strange, but “remedial grace” is the help that only God can give us to cope with the built‑in tendency that we all have to what we casually call the seven capital sins. They are really the seven capital tendencies that all of us have to satisfy our own desires independent of the will of God.
We are here dealing with a deep mystery. But as far as we can understand, God had at least one reason for allowing our first parents to sin and thereby lose for themselves and their posterity the innate control of our desires. Surely one reason was to keep us humble and make us realize that we cannot master our passions without His constant support. Among these passions, none is more imperious than the passion of lust. Only humble prayer can make us chaste.
Understanding Our Passions
We commonly associate prayer with asking God to strengthen our wills in His service. This is correct, but inadequate. The primary grace that we need is light for our minds. After all, the will is a blind faculty. It needs to be enlightened by the mind to know what to desire, what to choose and what to love. Correspondingly the will needs to be told by the mind what not to desire, what not to choose, and what to reject.
We may therefore say that prayer is necessary to enlighten the intellect on the beauty of chastity and, for our purpose, on the power of our passions.
Except for Christ and His Blessed Mother, the rest of us must either pray constantly to overcome our concupiscence or we shall give in to our irrational drives. Anger and pride and lust, avarice and envy and sloth and gluttony, are not only the names of the seven capital sins. They are the seven deadly enemies of our soul, synthesized by the Apostle in that one simple word, our “flesh.” These drives, irrational, maddening, unreasonable, persistent, are not only urges of the body; they are also urges of the spirit. It is not only that our bodies are fallen, but our nature is fallen, and that means body and spirit. There is no conquering these enemies or even controlling their hostility except by the grace of God to be obtained through incessant prayer. Why incessant prayer? Because we have incessant drives! That is why we should not stop praying, pardon the expression, until the moment after we have died.
People are not naturally humble. Did you know that? People are naturally proud. Memorize that! Human nature is naturally proud. When you see humility, say to yourself, “that is grace walking,” and it is not a woman's name.
People are not naturally chaste. They are naturally lustful, or as the expression goes, they are natural. Amen. So they are! That is what natural means — being lustful! They require and maintain chastity only if they pray, and pray as much as they need to resist the onslaughts of the flesh.
There is more reason for associating pride and lust than mere rhetoric. It is not only that pride and lust are the first two capital sins. The two go together as cause and consequence. Saint Paul is our authority for this. He tells us that God allowed the ancient Romans to become such slaves of lust because they were so terribly proud.
The wisdom of God is beyond our comprehension. But surely He knows, and we had better know, that either we bend our wills in humility by praying for His constant aid, or chastity is only a pious dream.
Coping with the Evil Spirit
Have we said everything that needs saying about the necessity of prayer for the practice of chastity? No, there is one more malevolent reason why we must pray to be chaste. That is the devil. Prayer is therefore necessary not only because we are creatures as we so pathetically are; and because we have a fallen nature that constantly needs divine grace to keep it from caving in.
Prayer is also dreadfully necessary because the evil spirit is so active among the sons and daughters of the human race. No one who sees what is happening in the world today, including what is going on in the Catholic Church, should have any doubts. The devil is more than ever at work in our times and phenomenally successful in leading not just individuals but multitudes, it seems whole nations, away from God. Need I say that the devil's principal lure is lust. With divine assistance available through prayer we can resist the evil one, but alone and without prayer we shall be overcome.
There are especially two principles to remember in dealing with the devil. The devil is a consummate liar and for all his cunning and deceit, he is never allowed to tempt us beyond our strength.
Suppose we look at each of these two principles separately and see them in the context of prayer. The devil is a liar by his fallen demonic nature. He tries to deceive us by presenting what is really evil as though it were something good. He tries to hide his malicious designs behind a mask of piety.
On this level, to cope with the devil we need light that we do not naturally possess. We are not naturally smart enough to out-smart the evil one. We must therefore pray for light to recognize the devil, here in order to preserve and protect our chastity. Leave it to the devil; he will never appear for what he is. He will hide himself behind all kinds of disguises. Forty-eight years in the priesthood have taught me many things. Not the least of these is how clever the evil spirit can be in seducing good people into lechery.
But good people must also be humble people. Proud persons are no match for the devil. The best remedy for pride is the practice of humble prayer, although I would add, besides praying in general, pray in particular. Our prayer is already an act of humility which earns graces from God. What we should ask of Him is the light to know beforehand what persons, places, reading, entertainment, even what conversation can be used by the devil to lead us into sins against the sixth and ninth commandments of God.
Our second principle in dealing with the evil spirit is the fact that he is never allowed to tempt us beyond our strength. What exactly does this mean? It means that we always have enough grace to overcome the devil; if I stopped here I would not be telling you the truth. We touched on this before, but let me be even more clear. Is it true that we always have enough grace to overcome the devil ‑ period? Absolutely not! We always have enough grace to overcome the demon of unchastity, provided we have prayed.
I cannot too strongly emphasize that when God permits the devil to tempt us, this does not mean that necessarily we already have enough light to recognize the demon or enough strength to resist him. We cannot bank on grace already had. We must, pray for additional light and more strength to identify and resist the evil one when he assaults us.
Daily Examen and Chastity
This conference would not be complete unless we looked at one form of prayer that, I am afraid, most Catholics would hardly associate with the virtue of chastity. This is a daily examination of conscience.
Call it a daily inventory, or a daily reflection on one's conduct, the examination of conscience is indispensable for the preservation and certainly for developing the virtue of chastity. In practice, it means that I ask myself, if only for a few minutes every day, how I stand before God. This will help me to know what occasions of sin I should avoid, what I should say, how I should act ‑ by anticipation. It will also keep me alert to temptations. I will learn to see them as actual graces for growing in what the saints call, “the angelic virtue.”
We have stressed how necessary is prayer for keeping and growing in Christian chastity. The daily examen of conscience provides us with the opportunity of becoming forearmed with God's grace. We ask the Lord beforehand to give us the light we will need to recognize a temptation against chastity from the world, the flesh and the devil. We ask Him by anticipation to give us the strength we will need to resist the temptation when it comes. All of this is good Christian strategy if we are going to preserve the one virtue, without which no one gets to heaven.
Dare we say that temptations against chastity are actual graces from God? Yes. We know that with God nothing happens by chance. What we call temptations are therefore part of God's mysterious providence. From His divine perspective, their purpose is to provide us with the opportunity of not only proving our love for Him, but growing in His love. But all of this presumes that we are prepared to profit from the temptations by our daily examen of conscience in the presence of God.
One of the factors which increases the merit of our good acts is the will power we put into whatever we are doing that is pleasing to God. Temptations are a providential means of evoking a maximum of will power in our cooperation with divine grace.
Resisting temptations to unchastity thus becomes a blessing. By demanding more effort on our part, we receive an increase in our supernatural life, including our possession of the virtue of chastity.
Does regular examination of conscience also help us to control unchaste thoughts? It certainly does, as the history of the saints so clearly shows. I plant the kind of thoughts I want to have, or not have, and on a positive method of controlling them. In this way, I give myself the best assurance of success. The reason is that thoughts are more elusive than actions. The power of the will over my thoughts is described as diplomatic rather than despotic.
I cannot say to my mind, “don't think this,” as I would say to my hand, “don't touch that,” and hope for an immediate response. I need to substitute another thought pattern for the undesirable one and thus drive the latter into subconsciousness. There is no more effective way of growing in chastity than to cultivate the habit of training myself to think chaste thoughts through a daily examen of conscience.
One last question: how does an examen of conscience help to plan a chaste lifestyle? Through the examination, I foresee what actions can be, substituted for the usual ones with consequently different thoughts evoked in the mind. I may have found that certain reading, perhaps innocuous in itself, brings on a train of thought that causes me trouble with carnal images. The foresight gained by examination will recommend changes in my reading habits, company keeping, conversation pattern, with corresponding freedom from disturbance in the mind.
I can even use my prayerful examen to plan on what kind of thoughts to substitute for the salacious ones; how I should maintain myself in peace when the body is aroused, and how to divert my attention to what is attractive but harmless, and away from what is sexually attractive but potentially sinful. This single rule: overcome venereal satisfaction with innocent enjoyment is a talisman of spiritual psychology and has been found effective since the dawn of Christianity.
Some Maxims of the Saints
The writings of the spiritual masters are filled with wise directives on how chastity is the fruit of God's grace through the practice of humble prayer.
Alphonsus Liguori recommends, “When an evil thought is presented to the mind, we must immediately turn our thoughts to God‑but the first rule is, instantly invoke the names of Jesus and Mary and continue to invoke them until the temptation ceases.”
Charles de Foucauld goes to the extreme of crediting God almost exclusively with the precious gift of continence. He is speaking to the Lord.
By force of events, you made me chaste …chastity became a blessing an inner necessity for me. It was you who did that, O God ‑ You alone. I, alas, had no part in it. How good you have been! From what sad and culpable relapses you miraculously preserved me! …The devil is too much the master of an unchaste soul to let truth enter it. You could not, O God, come into a soul where the devil of unbridled passions rules supreme. But you wanted to come into my soul, O good shepherd, and you yourself expelled your enemy from it.
But the classic passage from the saints on the need for prayer to practice Christian purity is Saint Augustine's historic passage in his Confessions. He is describing how he struggled with his passions and how he feared that by praying he might be cured. Speaking to the Lord, Augustine prayed, “In my great worthlessness, I had begged you for chastity, saying: ‘Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.’ For I was afraid that you would hear my prayer too soon, and too soon you would heal me from the disease of lust which I wanted satisfied rather than extinguished.”
Augustine knew that he could not be cured from the disease of lust except by prayer. He also knew that his prayer had to be sincere. He knew that God will give us the grace we ask for, provided we are willing to cooperate with the grace which He confers.
Prayer to Our Lady
“Immaculate Virgin Mary, I confide my chastity to your maternal heart. I ask your help to guard my senses, especially the eyes, for an unchaste eye is the messenger of an unchaste heart. Knowing my pride, I pray for that humility which invites the mercy of God. Knowing that I am human, I shall not be surprised at the urge of concupiscence, but trusting in your care I rely on your protection and all the graces that I need from your divine Son. Amen.”
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