When the soul is willing, but the flesh is weak

Posted on June 30, 2013 by

Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.

Proverbs 16:32

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.

1 Peter 5:8

As a Christian, the hardest spiritual fight for me has been to temper my flesh; to gain self-mastery. It is much too easy for me to simply run out-of-control, whether it be with drink, food, sex, temper, worry, entertainment, work, the quest for knowledge, or etc.

All of these things are good or at least neutral in worth, but too much of a good thing is still too much. And, if there’s any phrase to describe my person, it would be “too much”. There is simply too much of me, in all regards, and I do everything to excess. It is as if my entire persona operates only in hyperdrive. Or, as my husband likes to complain, I have a toggle switch, but no dimmer.

Human virtues are firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life. The virtuous man is he who freely practices the good.

The moral virtues are acquired by human effort. They are the fruit and seed of morally good acts; they dispose all the powers of the human being for communion with divine love.

…Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable. The temperate person directs the sensitive appetites toward what is good and maintains a healthy discretion: “Do not follow your inclination and strength, walking according to the desires of your heart.” Temperance is often praised in the Old Testament: “Do not follow your base desires, but restrain your appetites.” In the New Testament it is called “moderation” or “sobriety.” We ought “to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church

I’ve always admired people who are temperate by nature, and I’ve often despaired of ever acquiring any of this particular virtue. Not only that, but I’ve been reluctant to ask the Holy Spirit for help in this regard, as it’s such a comfortable state to be in. I am like St. Augustine, begging for the grace to have patience and calm, but not yet. But I’ve decided to finally bite the bullet and I’ve begun using an ancient technique that is allowing me some progress: self-mortification and self-denial.

As anyone who sticks diligently to an intensive workout routine or diet knows, there are few things so spiritually freeing as knowing that you’ve developed the ability to say, “No,” to yourself. No, I’m not going to watch that TV show. No, I’m not going to eat that cupcake or drink that cocktail. No, I’m not going to pester my spouse for sex tonight or hand them the umpteenth raincheck. No, I’m not going to sleep in late this morning. No, I’m not going to delay this household task. No, no, no.

It should be noted, then, that all the harm the soul receives is born of its enemies, mentioned above: the world, the devil, and the flesh. The world is the enemy least difficult to conquer; the devil is the hardest to understand; but the flesh is the most tenacious, and its attacks continue as long as the old self lasts.
John of the Cross

What is freeing about this, is that when we say “no” to these temptations of the flesh, we’re actually saying “yes” to our true goals. “Yes” to virtue. “Yes” to what is best for the people we love. “Yes” to Christ himself. Because it is only when we can temper our flesh that we can turn to Christ without the distractions of the flesh. Distractions which are not evil of themselves, but that — when enjoyed in excess — can lead to the corruption of our hearts and preoccupation of our minds.

As I have often argued, Catholics are not dualists or puritans. We don’t think that the flesh is, in itself, sinful or problematic. However, we know that the desires of the body have become, through the fall, disordered. We experience the fact that they are no longer consistently subordinated to reason and that they can consequently appear in exaggerated form or assert themselves disproportionately.

Thomas Merton commented that the needs of the body—for food, drink, sleep, and sex—are like insistent children that pester us and demand to have their way. Just as children have to be disciplined lest they come to dominate the household, so the desires of the flesh have to be curtailed, limited, lest they come to monopolize all of one’s energies. Merton said that we fast, from time to time, from food and drink and sex precisely so as to allow the deeper spiritual hungers to surface and be satisfied.

Rev. Robert Barron

These habits of fasting from food, alcoholic drinks, and sex — like the habit of constant prayer — are traditions we took over from the Old Testament prophets, and from Jesus himself. Why did Jesus not marry? Why did Jesus go out to the desert and fast for 40 days? Why did He keep a schedule of prayer, rather than limiting Himself to random chats with the Father? What was the purpose of all of this, and why should we emulate His behavior?

Furthermore, why has the modern church largely abandoned these virtuous habits? Why do we only say now, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (Isiah 22:13) and “And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 8:15)

Is our burden truly so heavy these days that we have no need to suffer any penance, in order to feel closer to our Lord on the cross? I think not, at least not for most of us. For most of us, we wallow in decadence and fight against our own excess. While the Christians of time past often found joy in times of feast, perhaps we will find it more fully in times of fast.

The fourth precept (“You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church”) ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepare us for the liturgical feasts and help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church

So, I heartily recommend that you take up that cross in some tangible way. Whether you struggle with the abuse of some substance, such as drugs or food. Whether you struggle with sexual perversion, such as pornography or adultery. Whether you fight the urge to gossip or the tendency to rant (not that I know anything at all about that). Whatever it is, see if denying yourself in that area, or even in a different area (as all self-mastery chastises the flesh overall, with the art of fasting from food and sex being particularly efficient), helps you to regain control of your passions.

Then you can harness that passion and  redirect it to where it belongs: to Christ and the tasks He has laid before you.

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

Gal 5:16-24


More reading on fasting here, from the Orthodox perspective:

Fasting and Self-Control
Self-Control as Fasting
Fasting from Iniquities and Foods

And from the Roman Catholic perspective:

Penance and Mortification

Posted in: Religion