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The phenomenon of onanism, or self-abuse, taken by many contemporary psychologists and even Churchmen, unfortunately, to be a natural appetency, is something which we have only reluctantly addressed in this column in the past (see Orthodox Tradition, Vol. IX, No. 1 , pp. 30-31). It is a subject which demands not only careful study but tremendous pastoral discretion, especially with regard to adolescents. This is partly because the scientific rigor of medical and academic psychology has, in the last decade or so, largely been set aside for the inane pronouncements of pop psychology; such superficial ideas as co-dependence, bizarre therapies, and the supposedly more enlightened models and therapies of holistic and New Age philosophies have erased away much of the traditional study of human behavior.
The concerns of even so ostensibly liberated a figure as Sigmund Freud (at least with regard to his thoughts on human sexuality) about the negative psychic effects of self-abuse have been tossed aside as symptomatic of the superstitious and medieval attitudes of antiquated cranks. And as a result, even Orthodox Pastors have come to speak of this sexual anomaly, once more, as a natural proclivity. (In this respect, one modernist Priest in America was heard to say in a seminary class, several years ago, that we shouldnt make too much of the narrow-minded ideas of some of the Fathers about the innocent aspects of human sexual behavior.) In the name of correcting some of the admittedly curious theories about onanism that held forth in eighteenth-century medicine, psychologists, psychiatrists, and clergymen have too often abandoned all sobriety with regard to this abusive habit, succumbing at times to a do-what-feels-right philosophy that is opposed both to Christian teaching—Scripture and the Churchs Canons consider self-abuse a serious sin—and the more circumspect theories of normal sexual development that prevailed when psychology was still a science and when normal was a word understood by all.
With the ascendency of the trashy morals and questionable cultural values that have entered into American life from television situation comedies, assaulting even those of us who do not—and will not—watch them, the question of onanism is of little import to most Americans today. In a society which enjoys armpits and half-nude bodies paraded across its newspapers, magazines, and television sets, not to mention open advertisements everywhere for personal products that even a decade ago were sold on the back shelves of pharmacies, onanism has even become the subject of humor. Not only is it considered normal, rather than abnormal and psychically and spiritually harmful, but a recent issue of a magazine for teenagers, according to a recent CNN report, ranked it among one of the significant pastimes of American youth: a harmless preoccupation! What in my generation was either unknown to young people, or at least an issue not at all to be mentioned outside confession, is now the subject of casual conversation. Added to the degraded state of the psychological sciences and the abandonment of their pastoral responsibilities by the clergy, the prevailing amoral culture in America and in the West serves simply to reinforce the idea, and this especially among youth, that self-abuse is not, as the Church and more responsible counsellors teach, a retreat into sin and destructive fantasy. Consequently, even Christians come to believe that this sexual sin has no consequences for the soul and for the psyche.
In an attempt to offer some sober guidance on this subject to our readers, I would like to recount two stories that were told to me by my spiritual Father, Metropolitan Cyprian—an accomplished spiritual therapist—, one told to him by a spiritual son and the other from a spiritual book that he read some time ago. I have used both stories to counsel and to enlighten a number of young people who have come to me for advice. They are about real people, neither of whom is now living (the stories therefore constitute no violation whatsoever of any individuals privacy), and offer us a vivid picture of the spiritual consequences of onanism: indeed, a very clear and effective corrective to all that we have said above about contemporary attitudes towards sexual self-abuse. May these stories help to enlighten many about the true consequences of this sin and thus save them from both spiritual and psychological harm.
A young man once related the following to me. As a teenager, he was interested in sports, especially wrestling. At about fifteen, a teammate introduced him to the sin of self-abuse. Out of shame, he did not confess the sin. One day, a month later, he was wrestling at home, on the living room floor, with his older brother. Inadvertently, his brother, who was very hefty, fell on his chest with such force that he could not breathe and literally died. In this state, he observed his own body, the shock of his brother and his mother, who had rushed in to help him, and his soul, accompanied by his Guardian Angel, as it ascended above his house, high over the city where he lived, and finally into the heavens. He then found himself in a long, dark tunnel, at the end of which he saw a light and Paradise. As he entered into this light, he saw the Theotokos, who asked his Guardian Angel why he was there. The Angel then related to her the details of the boys death. At this, the Theotokos turned to him and said, Your mother has prayed fervently to me for your return, and my Son has granted her request. The boy, overwhelmed by the beauty of Paradise, begged to remain. The Mother of God, however, replied: No. For the sake of your mother, you must return. But hear me: You must confess the sin that you committed a month ago. This is a frightful sin, and unless you confess it to a Priest, behold what will happen to you. At these words, the Theotokos asked the Archangel Michael to escort him to a precipice that overlooked the torments of Hell. The view was so frightening that the boy almost fainted. Afterwards, he re-traced his path through the dark tunnel, down through the heavens, over the city in which he lived, over his house, and then into the room where his family was gathered over his dead body. Then, feeling a tremendous pressure on his body, his soul returned to its place and he opened his eyes. He then related to his family all that had happened to him. His grieving mother, on hearing all that he told them, gave thanks to the Theotokos for her intervention with Christ on the boys behalf, and, weeping uncontrollably, embraced and warmly kissed him.
Another teenage boy also fell to the sin of self-abuse and, again out of shame, failed to confess it to his spiritual Father. It so happened that he contracted a fatal disease and was dying. His family sent word to the boys Confessor about his condition, but were unable to find him before the boy died. At the time of his death, the young man's soul was seized by two horrible demons, which began to drag him to a place of terrible torment. In the meantime, the boys spiritual Father arrived at his home and found the grieving family. If you had come earlier, they cried, you might have prevented his death. Please, please bring him back. The Priest began to pray and, lo, a miracle occurred. The boy indeed returned to life. He immediately cried out to his Confessor, You have saved me. And he then began to relate to him his terrible encounter with the demonic forces that, just before his revival, were on the verge of casting him into Hell. Not knowing of the boys sin, the Priest asked of him, How could this have happened to you? Why would these demons claim your soul? The boy then confessed his misdeed. Do you sincerely repent of this, my son, the Priest asked. Yes, the youth replied. Are you sure? the Priest asked once more. The boy replied, O yes, Father! The Priest then continued: And do you want to go to Heaven? You mean I can be with my Christ right now? the boy exclaimed. His spiritual Father assured him that he could. Then I wish to die, the boy said, crossing his arms on his chest. The Priest made the sign of the Cross on the boy, and the youth, closing his eyes, blissfully reposed.
I have long hesitated to undertake the task of approaching the intimate problem of human sexuality from an Orthodox point of view. In normal circumstances, this subject is personal, a matter of confessional guidance, and something not to be addressed in mixed company or in a public forum. But the circumstances of the society in which we live are anything but normal. Not only are sexual matters openly discussed in the least appropriate arenas, but a wholesale perversion of the nature of human sexuality reigns in modern society. Clergymen, then, cannot remain silent—even those of us in the monastic ranks.
In addressing various matters of human sexuality, I bring with me into this area of study two things: first, the teachings of the Orthodox Church, to the extent that I understand them after several decades of reading in the Fathers; and second, my background as a psychologist, which includes some years of study and research in the area of psychosexual development. Certainly there may be others better qualified to write on these matters, but the necessities which I feel as a pastor of the flock prompt me to speak out in a time of need, putting aside my admitted limitations in knowledge and expertise.
One troublesome problem that pastors and Church counsellors confront these days is that of self-pollution (or masturbation), a problem which one Church Father in particular, St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, has considered at length. His comments and the teachings of the Church have been largely hidden under the cover of modern theories which pastors have unfortunately gleaned from heterodox (and even un-Christian) sources. Moreover, the natural embarrassment that a pious Christian feels in discussing a matter such as this has served to allow misunderstanding and wrong teachings to proliferate, such that Churchmen have become remiss in teaching young people the true position of the Church with regard to this very serious matter.
Sexuality is part of our fallen nature. It is evil only to the extent that we misuse it—misuse that most certainly begins with the curiosity that young people develop at the age of puberty. At the age of sexual self-discovery, the problem of self-pollution is, whether we like to admit it or not, a rather universal one. Pastors have always realized this and have exercised care to deal with adolescents who fall to this sin with patience and careful guidance. With time, these youngsters can be led to understand its nature, to put an end to it before it becomes a habit, and to understand that the sexual urge, like any other, is subject to control.
While normal, healthy instances of adolescent purity do exist (despite the prevailing attitude that this is abnormal), the practice of self-pollution often does become more or less habitual through the younger years. Self-control is not something easily achieved by young people in the confused, first few years of sexual maturity. This is an unfortunate fact, but a fact; and here, again, we must guide young people with understanding and patience. But our guidance must focus on the fact that this activity is wrong, must be corrected, and certainly is not a matter of what today's social mors call "natural instincts." Habits cannot be overcome if we believe them to good or innocent. We must know that they are bad and detrimental, before we are prompted to control them. And it is this important perspective that the Church must restore. Self-pollution is not, as many Orthodox pastors today claim, a small matter or something incidental. It is a sin, and a serious one when it is habitual.
St. Nicodemos calls this sin a snare and points out that, according to other Fathers, those who are caught in its net have great difficulty extricating themselves and thus imperil their souls. (See Pedalion, Athens, 1982, pp. 704-705.) Indeed, the eighth canon of St. John the Faster assigns to a layman who falls to this sin, in addition to exclusion from Holy Communion, one hundred prostrations daily for forty days, along with a diet of nothing but bread and water. St. John's tenth Canon imposes a suspension of one year on any Priest who falls to self-abuse and, should he continue in such a sin two or three times, deposition. Moreover, St. Paul's famous and unequivocal statement in I Corinthians 6:9-10, that those who practice sodomy and who are "effeminate" cannot inherit "the kingdom of God," St. Nicodemos observes, can also be interpreted to apply to those who practice self-abuse: a sin which "damages" the soul (ibid.).
Aside from attributing to self-pollution various negative physical effects, St. Nicodemos rightly stresses that this sin opens the mind and soul to demonic influence. It is a path to self-seduction and the complete distortion of the meaning of human sexuality and, of course, the pure image to which the human being seeks to be restored in the spiritual life.
There are today few physicians who would attribute to self-abuse the negative physical effects mentioned by the Fathers of the Church. However, this is not on the basis of careful research, but stems from their acceptance of prevailing theories. The Fathers based their observations on data from pious physicians who carefully monitored their patient's moral lives and the consequent effects on their physical health. Such things are not done today. Therefore, the observations upon which the Fathers base their conclusions are often called into question. Nonetheless, the Fathers base themselves on empirical data, modern physicians on untested theory. Moreover, there is ample support by inference for what the Fathers and what Christian physicians in the past so firmly believed.
Today we know that there is a close link between the mind and the body and that, to be sure, the Fathers were correct in linking the health of the body to that of the soul. Therefore, while we may not have contemporary empirical studies to support the claims of the Fathers with regard to the negative effects of self-abuse, we can certainly affirm that the theory upon which they based their views—that one's moral life, a matter of the mind and soul, has consequences for the physical health of the organism—is valid. Furthermore, those of us trained in more traditional psychology are perfectly aware that masturbation has profound effects on the psyche and, thus, ultimately on the physical body. (Even Freud, whose revolutionary view of human sexuality is at times less than healthy and edifying, advised his daughter and other patients to avoid self-abuse.)
Self-abuse has two very serious psychological effects. Firstly, it focuses human sexuality away from the interpersonal dimension and thus distorts its natural goal: procreation—which in turn involves two people, a man and a woman. In so doing, it individualizes human sexuality and turns one entirely to himself. This narcissism can be unhealthy for the psyche, leading to selfishness, a lack of concern for others, and, in fact, sexual dysfunction. And to the extent that this practice focuses one on the self, it is perfectly possible that it leads one to the abnormality of fixation on those of them same sex. This in turn can lead to homosexuality. Thus, it is perhaps no accident that, at a time when society and even clergymen teach that self-abuse is normal, homosexuality (or bisexuality) is at least more open, if not more prevalent in the human population.
The other negative consequence of self-abuse is that it fosters delusions and fantasy. Human sexuality is bridled. Sexual passions are, indeed, quite quickly satisfied (for which reason they are reasonably easily controlled). Thus, whatever the fantasy one may have, in actuality sexual behavior is bounded on all sides by physical limits. Moreover, normal sexuality, involving both a man and woman, also rests on the personal, loving relationship of two people, which tends to transform passionate fantasy into a form of intimacy and into a union which is both decent and capable of sanctification (within the bonds of the Mystery of marriage). When the reality of an interpersonal relationship is absent, fantasy allows one to do whatever he wishes. And this acting-out, should it ever become real, can lead to poor and even violent relationships.
A mind which is turned in on itself, an individual who can live within the world of the passions without taking into account the reality of interaction with others, will ultimately come to a state of serious imbalance. And this imbalance will not only affect his or her physical health, as we have suggested, but will invite the action of negative psychic powers: demons. An individual who lives in proper harmony with those around him and who either controls the sexual impulse or expresses it in a marital context is healthy. His health keeps him watchful against evil and helps him develop as an individual and as a Christian. One who lacks such balance, whose mind has been twisted by the tyranny of the passions, is prey to things demonic. And so it is, of course, that the Fathers speak of self-abuse as a demonic ruse.
Absolute sexual purity is the result of mental health. It is normal. Sexual indulgence is abnormal. This is what we must stress to our young people. If the imbalance that accompanies adolescence leads to certain falls, young people must be guided away from these falls. They must know that sexual health actually resides in a life of absolute purity (ruling out self-abuse, of course) or marriage, in which the passions are modified by a Mystery of the Church and, at the same time, by the natural uprightness that accompanies physical acts carried out in an atmosphere of mutual love and respect. Self-abuse is not normal, but abnormal. And if great guilt attaches to it, this is not the result of the Church calling this sin abnormal; rather, it is the result of that which naturally proceeds forth from something which perverts the mind, body, and soul. It is as natural as the guilt which one feels at taking another life, whether intentionally or not, and helps us to understand the serious abnormality of what is today called an "unimportant and natural thing."
Conversing with Fr. Macarius, I happened to tell him that living in society, it happens that for no particular reason some girl will strike one's fancy. One word follows another, and one becomes so attached to her that afterwards one finds it necessary, out of fear of jealousy, to hide it from one's wife. Even at prayer and in the church of God, one is always thinking of her. Of course, with the passage of time this attachment passes all by itself and is forgotten, but still....
"Yes," said Fr. Macarius with a sigh, "to you people of high society, such frivolity seems nothing, insignificant. But all the same, a terrible evil is hidden in it, causing an abyss of troubles and misfortunes and robbing your spiritual treasury. The Savior plainly says, Everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matt. 5:28). You see—you only looked lustfully, and the sin has already been committed and the commandment of God broken. Even from a worldly point of view, how many bitter sorrows are caused by such predilections! Here, as I see it, you are now living happily and peacefully with your family. You love your wife and she loves you. You are candid with her, and have in her a friend who participates wholeheartedly in your sorrows and joys. But as soon as the thought of faithlessness enters your heart, the tempter will seize upon it right away and draw you with such strength that it will already be difficult for you to stop yourself and return to your sacred duty. From here it is not very far to a fall, and, if you commit it, everything is upset. In your wife, if she is faithful to you, you will have an enemy instead of a friend; you will begin to feel hatred towards her instead of love. instead of comfort, you will see in her a hindrance to the satisfaction of your crude and inhuman passion, and you will not even notice that you have become a lawless enemy to your lawful spouse. What a bitter future there is in such a life! But that is just here—what will happen beyond the grave? Terrible... It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God" (Heb. 10:31).
"Instruct me, then, Father," I said, "how to protect myself from the terrible temptation of passions in general, and from tempting thoughts while praying at home or even in church."
"The beginning of all these temptations," the Elder responded, "Is pride. A man imagines that he is living piously, not judging his own sinfulness at all, but sometimes even judging others—then, the Lord allows the enemy to lay snares for him. Be attentive to your own way of life, check your conscience, and you will always come, however unwillingly, to the conviction that you have not yet fulfilled even one of the Lord's commandments as a Christian should. Reasoning in this way, you will clearly see your spiritual weaknesses, which cause fleshly falls. In order to deliver yourself from these falls, you must acquire humility. As far as the sinful thoughts at church or while praying at home are concerned, since they are not caused by you, but by the enemy, you don't have to be troubled. Try not to dwell on these thoughts, but turn to God instead with the prayer: 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!' Here is an example for you: when parents take their little children out for a walk, they usually let the children go ahead, not letting them out of their sight. Suddenly, from out of some corner, a dog runs out and jumps at the children. What do they do? They rush right over to their parents, crying 'Papa! Mama!' With childish simplicity and pure faith, they expect their parents to help them. The same goes for you on the path of your temporal life. If our tempter, the devil, even starts laying snares for you, don't be disturbed, and do not even think of getting through it on your own, but with childlike simplicity hurry to the heavenly Father with the cry, 'Lord, I am Thy creation, have mercy on me!' Finally, I'll tell you that, in my opinion, it is hard to protect oneself from worldly temptations while living in big cities. How can a man who is still spiritually weak hold his ground against the temptations of the contemporary world? Take note that high society consists in part of people with other beliefs, and in part of Christians who, although Orthodox, have been so seduced by the customs of the world in their weakness, that they are Orthodox in name only, while in reality they have drifted far from true Orthodoxy. It's hard to fight the passions, but it is incomparably more difficult to withstand continuous temptations. Finally, luxury, the pursuit of fashion, the goals of this way of life—all of this is so expensive that no financial means would suffice to satisfy all the demands of high society.
"You have said yourself that your financial affairs are in disarray, but as you live longer in the village your financial situation will improve. Yes, and not only that! The human soul, as an immortal being, cannot remain in the same condition—it is either improving or deteriorating. It is no wonder that, by living a quiet country life, and of course with the help of God, your spiritual state should improve at least a little."
Our second struggle is against the demon of unchastity and the desire of the flesh, a desire which begins to trouble man from the time of his youth. This harsh struggle has to be fought in both soul and body, and not simply in the soul, as is the case with other faults. We therefore have to fight it on two fronts.
Bodily fasting alone is not enough to bring about perfect self-restraint and true purity; it must be accompanied by contrition of heart, intense prayer to God, frequent meditation on the Scriptures, toil and manual labour. These are able to check the restless impulses of the soul and to recall it from its shameful fantasies. Humility of soul helps more than everything else, however, and without it no one can overcome unchastity or any other sin. In the first place, then, we must take the utmost care to guard the heart from base thoughts, for, according to the Lord, out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, unchastity and so on (Matt. 15:19).
We are told to fast not only to mortify our body, but also to keep our intellect watchful, so that it will not be obscured because of the amount of food we have eaten and thus be unable to guard its thoughts. We must not therefore expend all our effort in bodily fasting; we must also give attention to our thoughts and to spiritual meditation, since otherwise we will not be able to advance to the heights of true purity and chastity. As our Lord has said, we should cleanse first the inside of the cup and plate, so that their outside may also be clean (Matt. 23:26).
If we are really eager, as the Apostle puts it, to struggle lawfully and to be crowned (2 Tim: 2:5) for overcoming the impure spirit of unchastity, we should not trust in our own strength and ascetic practice, but in the help of our Master, God. No one ceases to be attacked by this demon until he truly believes that he will be healed and reach the heights of purity not through his own effort and labour, but through the aid and protection of God. For such a victory is beyond man's natural powers. Indeed, he who has trampled down the pleasures and provocations of the flesh is in a certain sense outside the body. Thus, no one can soar to this high and heavenly prize of holiness on his own wings and learn to imitate the angels, unless the grace of God leads him upwards from this earthly mire. No virtue makes flesh-bound man so like a spiritual angel as does self-restraint, for it enables those still living on earth to become, as the Apostle says, citizens of heaven (cf. Phil. 3:20). A sign that we have acquired this virtue perfectly is that our soul ignores those images which the defiled fantasy produces during sleep; for even if the production of such images is not a sin, nevertheless it is a sign that the soul is ill and has not been freed from passion. We should therefore regard the defiled fantasies that arise in us during sleep as the proof of previous indolence and weakness still existing in us, since the emission which takes place while we are relaxed in sleep reveals the sickness that lies hidden in our souls. Because of this the Doctor of our souls has also placed the remedy in the hidden regions of the soul, recognizing that the cause of our sickness lies there when He says: Whoever looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matt. 5:28). He seeks to correct not so much our inquisitive and unchaste eyes as the soul which has its seat within and makes bad use of the eyes which God gave it for good purposes. That is why the Book of Proverbs in its wisdom does not say: Guard your eyes with all diligence but Guard your heart with all diligence (Prov. 4:23), imposing the remedy of diligence in the first instance upon that which makes use of the eyes for whatever purpose it desires.
The way to keep guard over our heart is immediately to expel from the mind every demon-inspired recollection of women even of mother or sister or any other devout woman—lest by dwelling on it for too long the mind is thrown headlong by the deceiver into debased and pernicious thoughts. The commandment given by God to the first man, Adam, told him to keep watch over the head of the serpent (cf. Gen. 3:15. LXX), that is, over the first inklings of the pernicious thoughts by means of which the serpent tries to creep into our souls. If we do not admit the serpents head, which is the provocation of the thought, we will not admit the rest of its body—that is, the assent to the sensual pleasure which the thought suggests—and so debase the mind towards the illicit act itself.
As it is written, we should early in the morning destroy all the wicked of the earth (Ps. 101:8), distinguishing in the light of divine knowledge our sinful thoughts and then eradicating them completely from the earth—our hearts—in accordance with the teaching of the Lord. While the children of Babylon—by which I mean our wicked thoughts—are still young, we should dash them to the ground and crush them against the rock, which is Christ (cf. Ps. 137:9; I Cor. 10:4). If these thoughts grow stronger because we assent to them, we will not be able to overcome them without much pain and labour.
It is good to remember the sayings of the Fathers as well as the passages from Holy Scripture cited above. For example, St Basil, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, said: I have not known a woman and yet I am not a virgin. He recognized that the gift of virginity is achieved not so much by abstaining from intercourse with woman as by holiness and purity of soul, which in its turn is achieved through fear of God. The Fathers also say that we cannot fully acquire the virtue of purity unless we have first acquired real humility of heart. And we will not be granted true spiritual knowledge so long as the passion of unchastity lies hidden in the depths of our souls.
To bring this section of our treatise to a close, let us recall one of the Apostles sayings which further illustrates his teaching on how to acquire self-restraint. He says: Pursue peace with all men and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14). It is clear that he is talking about self-restraint from what follows: Lest there be any unchaste or profane person, such as Esau (Heb. 12:16). The more heavenly and angelic the degree of holiness, the heavier are the enemies attacks to which it is subjected. We should therefore try to achieve not only bodily control, but also contrition of heart with frequent prayers of repentance, so that with the dew of the Holy Spirit we may extinguish the furnace of our flesh, kindled daily by the king of Babylon with the bellows of desire (cf. Dan. 3:19). In addition, a great weapon has been given us in the form of sacred vigils; for just as the watch we keep over our thoughts by day brings us holiness at night, so vigil at night brings purity to the soul by day.