This is the eighth and final post in an 8-part series on the Seven Deadly Sins.
By: Rev. Paul Scalia
She came at this time of day to avoid people. Everyone else in town fetched water in the cool of the morning or evening, certainly not under the brutal midday sun. Sure, she might be alone at this hour, but at least she would not feel isolated and outcast in the midst of others, as they whispered and gossiped about her. So the last thing she expected – or wanted – was to encounter a man asking for water, and many other questions besides. But here he was, telling her about her own life and revealing to her what she knew so well: despite her many partners, she was alone – desperately lonely – and that even the man awaiting her at “home” was not her husband.
The vice of lust is the inordinate desire for sexual pleasure. Now neither sex, nor sexual pleasure, nor even the desire for that pleasure, is evil. The marital act in itself is good, the means by which God creates new life. It is indeed sacred, the consummation of that union that images Christ and the Church (cf. Eph 5:32). And God attaches pleasure to that act for good reasons: so that the desire for it will bring about more of us and so that husband and wife will associate self-giving with such delight.
Lust, then, is not simply the desire for sex or sexual pleasure, but the disordered desire for them – the desire to have that pleasure on our own terms, without consequences, without union, without the other. It seeks sex and its pleasure not as a means of union, or expressing love, or self-giving, but only as an occasion for indulgence.
Lust’s most obvious product, as the Samaritan woman knew so painfully, is loneliness. Lust does not care about the other, only about the pleasure. It desires not to increase or augment the marital bond but only to have the pleasure, or at least the consolation, that physical union might bring. It effects perhaps the greatest betrayal, inflicting loneliness by the very act that is meant to unite man and woman. Which is why we have a culture that is at once sexually promiscuous and tragically lonely.
Of course, lust is nothing new. Nor is it the worst of sins. Certain aspects of our society, however, enable its mischief and exacerbate its effects. First, contraception – our culture’s sacrament – produces a fundamental separation of persons even as their bodies ape a union. The act of the one-flesh union becomes a lie. The most obvious consequence of sex – a child – is avoided and the possibility of new life is deliberately eliminated. Without that consequence, lust has more room to run.
Second, pornography. All pornographers know that lust begins with the eyes. The gazing upon an impure picture or reading of an unchaste story places images in the mind and desires in the heart. If not rejected, those thoughts and desires become actions…which become habits…which become character, producing a culture of sexual consumerism. And again the result is loneliness. For pornography does not lead to the union of persons but typically to a solitary – and isolating – sexual act. It twists the most profound capacity for union with another into a focus on self.
Lechery is also a leech: it feeds off other vices. Vanity, that desire to be noticed and known, leads people to seek attention in all the wrong ways. What appears on the surface as unchastity may actually be the vain desire for attention…no matter what kind. Sloth prompts a man, desiring some fulfillment but not wanting to make the effort for God, to slouch into lust. King David was lustful because he was first slothful – away from the battlefield, napping in his palace. Gluttony, the indulgence of the flesh’s appetite in one area, inevitably provokes its appetite in another. No king eats and drinks without maidens about him. Herod was not satisfied with his food and drink; he also desired Salome’s lascivious dance.
Lust’s opposing virtue is, of course, chastity – a supposed impossibility in our culture. We typically think of it in negative terms – in all the ways it means No. But chastity, as a virtue, is a strength (virtus). Far from being mere suppression, it gives a person the capacity to control one of the most powerful human desires and to direct it to what is good and sacred. Chastity is ultimately the capacity – the power – to say Yes…to the right person, at the right time, for the right reasons. It just happens to require a lot of saying No along the way. And the person who cannot say No along the way will find it profoundly difficult to say Yes when he desires.
In Dante’s Purgatorio, the souls being purged of lust must learn to greet one another with a holy kiss. The poet’s point is clear: the problem with lust is not an exaltation of the body but a debasement of it. We must learn the proper dignity. Our bodies are indeed made for union – but in a sacred, holy manner, not as the beasts of the field. Some day our bodies will be raised and brought to the wedding feast of the Lamb, to the celebration of that union already imaged for us in the chaste love of husband and wife.
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