He dwells among us: The struggle for purity

The memory of God’s love and mercy always triumphs over sin and its memory

By Bishop Richard F. Stika

One hundred years ago, as the horrors of the First World War were in their final weeks, an even more terrible scourge than modern warfare was beginning to ravage the globe — the influenza pandemic. From the fall of 1918 until its ending in 1920, the deadliest plague ever in history claimed, by some estimates, as many as 100 million people around the world. As terrible as this pandemic was, another plague, far greater in scale, is presently ravaging the world unchecked, leaving in its wake destroyed lives, marriages, and families — the plague of pornography. But for those struggling with this terrible addiction, there’s a path for freedom and healing.

While there is much to discuss regarding pornography and the addiction it can create from even just an initial exposure to it, my intention here is to offer support and some practical counsel for those who daily struggle for a life of purity.

In counseling people trying to overcome addictions and vice, Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen stressed that one should not try to drive the sinful habit out of their life but “crowd it out” with the expulsive power of a new and greater love. How do we cultivate and nurture this greater love?

What makes the struggle with an addiction to pornography so insidious is that its images are so easily seared into the memory with a seemingly indelible ink. In confessing his sin of adultery, King David also laments its presence in his memory, saying, “My offenses truly I know them, my sin is always before me.” (Psalm 51:5)

Like the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, our memory is like a communion with that which has been known — with either the good we have chosen or with that which is sinful. And it is the memory of pornographic images that makes the struggle with this addiction all the more difficult and discouraging to combat. But what is infinitely greater than the memory of sin is the memory of God’s love and mercy.

Like the blind man who says to Jesus, “Lord, I want to see,” those who struggle with pornography should make these words their prayer. For the desire to be chaste of body and soul is the desire to see God — “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they will see God.” (Mt 5:8) And it is the experience of the encounter with the life-giving mystery of God that dilates the heart’s eyes more to the purifying light that fades and bleaches out sin’s image.

Purity in the biblical sense often means single-heartedness — an undivided heart, an undivided love. And it is frequent recourse to the sacrament of confession and the Eucharist, coupled with sound spiritual direction, a discipline of daily prayer, and visits to the Blessed Sacrament that are invaluable in helping to purify the heart as a place of communion with God.

Memory of God’s mercy and love is what destroys the memory of sin. That is one of the reasons why the Church so highly recommends praying of the rosary. For in contemplating the Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful, and Glorious mysteries, it makes present in our memory the mystery of God’s merciful love. Just as “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Lk 2:19), so, too, she helps us to treasure in our memory that which is of God.

But as an added help to “crowding out” the images and memory of sin, I recommend the use of icons as a part of one’s daily prayer. For good reason did St. John Paul II recommend the veneration of icons, a blessing from the tradition of the Christian East.

When I pray and contemplate the mysteries of our faith, I find the use of icons particularly helpful. Icons are not just pictures that remind people of holy things — they are “the Gospel in line and color.” They are more than art — they are an encounter with the reality that they depict.

With their flat, two-dimensional look and odd linear perspective, icons may seem amateurish by the standards of Western art. But when praying with an icon, it must be looked at in an entirely different way than ordinary art.

Whereas Western art, even sacred art, typically draws the eye and heart into it, the opposite is true with icons — the mystery it depicts enters into us! We become a participant, a sharer in what is depicted. And the more you pray and contemplate an icon, the more the mystery lives and reigns in your heart — the more it “crowds out” the memory of sin.

While there are literally thousands of icons to choose from, I would recommend the icon of “Our Lady of Perpetual Help.” Thought to be at least 500 years old, if not older, the icon depicts the Blessed Mother holding the child Jesus. On either side of them is an angel holding the instruments of the crucifixion. Mary’s expression is that of a mother who understands our pain and wants to help. With the angels on either side of her, we also have a beautiful image of Mary as the Ark of the Covenant who goes with us into battle and leads us to our promised homeland: heaven. The Paraclete bookstore almost always has this icon in its collection. Googling this icon will also offer you many to choose from.

As is often the case, those struggling with pornography can at times become very discouraged and think themselves unworthy of God’s love. But Jesus reminds all of us, as recorded by St. Faustina in her diary, that “The greater the sinner, the greater the right he has to My mercy.” (n. 723) In response to the two blind men who cried out for healing, Jesus asked, “Do you believe I can do this for you?” For those struggling with pornography, Jesus asks the same question. May the memory of God’s mercy and love for you always be greater than the memory of sin.

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