The Flesh

According to the Church Fathers, the flesh can include bodily and physical desires such as food, drink and sexual desire. Some also include anger and rage as these can be found in physical action of the flesh. In the writings of the Church Fathers and in the hymns of the Church, the flesh is repeatedly referred to as the first sin. The fall of Adam and Eve came through the desire of the flesh, that is to eat in disobedience.

“For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.”

--St. Paul of Tarsus

This enemy often starts off with soft and innocent requests for comfort. This leads to laziness, complaining, irritability, eating, overeating, more laziness and often ends in one of many forms of lust and sexual interaction. What begins as a change of the thermostat by a couple degrees (because I’m feeling a little cold), leads to a series of small comforts and consolations. The sad part is this cycle often ends in unhappiness. With perfect stealthiness the enemy topples his opponent, leading us in murmurings and depression.

“Satiety in food is the father of fornication; but affliction of the stomach is an agent of purity.”

--St. John Climacus

St. John Climacus refers to the digestive process as, “That clamorous mistress, the stomach”. He makes a direct correlation to eating and lust when he says

He goes on to warn:

“He who cherishes his stomach and hopes to overcome the spirit of fornication, is like one who tries to put out a fire with oil.”

--St. John Climacus

And with a little humor he cautions that no matter how much we fill the hole in our belly, it never provides one with fulfillment.  

“Know that often the devil settles in the belly and does not let a man be satisfied, even though he has devoured a whole Egypt and drunk a River Nile.”

--St. John Climacus

Concerning sexual immorality, the church fathers talk at length about mental imagery and imagination as a way of tripping up the monk (and the Christian). They had it easy as all they could drum up is a memory of sex. Today we are are swimming is a sea imagery that is sex based. We can readily call up nasty images and videos on our phone while driving or riding the bus or laying in bed.

Chastity is the weapon of choice for the Christian. If we are blessed to experience lust diminishing over time, we may experience nocturnal emissions. Some of the Church Fathers explain that this may be an indication that there are still areas of comfort  in one’s life, or the belly is too satisfied. According to St John:

“A sign of real chastity is to be unaffected by the dreams that come with sleep. Equally, a sign of complete sensuality is to be liable to emissions from bad thought when one is awake.”

--St. John Climacus

In our age this level of purity is extremely hard to realize. As a culture we have fully embraced unrestrained sex and sexuality. Sexual imagery and content have become the infrastructure of popular culture and is pervasive in music, movies, television, online and in print.

Sex and intimacy used to be confined to the privacy of the bedroom. However, with the so called “sexual revolution”, and with the advent of birth control, indulging in lust is now enshrined as a recreational activity or pastime. Pornography, perversity and masturbation have become normalized in the public forum and are no longer considered socially embarrassing, inappropriate or perverse. Sexual imagery has become almost impossible to avoid.

It is the modern iconography that makes battling against the enemy of lust challenging. However, we must take courage because making progress in slaying this enemy can convert this distorted form of “love” into a divine love of God. As St. John Climacus said,

“I have seen impure souls crazed for physical love; but when these same souls have made this grounds for repentance, as a result of their experience of sexual love they have transferred the same eros to the Lord, They have immediately gone beyond all fear and been spurred to insatiable love for God. This is why the Lord said to the chaste harlot not that she had feared, but that she had loved much, and was readily able to repel eros through eros.”

--St. John Climacus

As Christians we are called to subjugate the flesh and all it’s lusts, desires and hungers. We are to be masters of our bodies and not let our bodies master us.