Lust is the decaying body of love without its soul. How does seeing iconographically help to move us past lust and into love?
Last time I talked about the theological significance of marriage and finding the fulfilment of our deepest desires in union with God, emphasizing that our desires are not there to be killed but to be transformed — changed from desires that miss the mark and can never be sated into desires that will ultimately be fulfilled in theosis — in that union with God in Christ which is our true destiny.
But today I want to talk more about those misdirected desires and what we can do about them to get onto the path of transformation. St Paul wrote, “Indeed, I do not know what I am doing! … In fact, the good which I desire, I do not do; but the evil which I do not desire, this is what I do! … What a wretch I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God through Jesus Christ, our Lord!… there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” (Rom. 7:15-8:1).
Any addict will recognize this process. Wanting something better, even determining to change, not to indulge the addiction again, and then, somehow, despite this desire and resolution, still giving in to the temptation. But I think we all understand addiction when put like this… Which of us hasn’t struggled to overcome some bad habit, hasn’t made resolutions which we’ve broken again and again, hasn’t gone back to confession and felt that we’re just confessing the same things over and over… Apparently almost every other person usually makes at least one new year’s resolution. But fewer than 1/10 of those who make a resolution actually keep it. A quarter of them don’t even make it through the first week! Habitual behaviour is not easy to change and it is easy to get disheartened… and then the feeling of failure makes us even more vulnerable to giving in to the temptations as the demons whisper into our minds that it will make it all feel better… and it doesn’t matter if I do it just one more time.
My desires are so conflicted. Even knowing Christ, I am still tempted to listen to those demons rather than the Word which is Christ, tempted to give in to the dead-end desires that miss the mark, that turn me away from Christ. So how can I participate in the iconographos of Creation and not rewrite it into pornographos?Lust is the decaying body of love without its soul Click To Tweet
The obscene writing — the pornographos — is about lust. Lust is the decaying body of love without its soul. In lust I am seeking the fruits of union and communion but without giving myself, without vulnerability… I just want to get the “feel good” part for me.
So lust is about fear — why don’t I want to be vulnerable? Because I’m afraid… afraid of getting hurt, afraid of getting lost, afraid of getting tied down in commitment and responsibility. So one thing that needs to be addressed is this fear.
And lust is about addiction — I like the “feel good”, the pleasure, and I want more of it. The fruit is so enticing, promising to fulfil what it can’t. And even though I know this, I still feel the blood rushing to my head even when I just think about indulging my temptation.
But indulging the desires in this way is counter-productive — not only because it can’t fulfil the deeper need, but because the pleasure it does give in itself forms a greater temptation to return to it… In this sense it is a loss of hope, a form of despair: Now I’m going to return to this pleasure because the desire seems like it can never truly be fulfilled, and this is the best I’m going to get as a substitute for that deeper fulfillment.
This pattern is obvious in pornography, and we’ve mentioned it before: why might I want to use pornography? For things I can’t get easily another way, or to avoid the danger of that true and deep relationship which, paradoxically, is what I really desire.
But there are many examples of this effect where expressing my desire ends up driving away the possibility of its fulfillment. For example, we’ve all seen or experienced a one-sided relationship where one is pursuing another… In the pursuer, that desire, that desperate wanting becomes neediness and then it repulses the person he desires and wishes to attract… Instead of offering himself as a gift, he is forcing himself on another and in the end precluding the possibility of knowing and being known. There is nothing wrong with the basic desire, the longing… but in trying to follow his desire, he destroys the possibility of its fulfillment. And this loss only serves to deepen the need, and so the pattern of relating can become a vicious circle, a destructive habitual way of relating.
So again, although we started by talking about pornography, we realize that we all have our parallel temptations and misdirected desires… We want to find useful ways of helping porn addicts, but really the only way we can help them is if we are helping ourselves the same way… if we are able to live out in our own lives a pattern of overcoming fear in order to venerate, and a pattern of overcoming addiction (the seeking after pleasure or ‘feeling good’) in order to truly desire, to seek after true and deep joy.
Again, the question is about transforming and re-orientating my desires. Purity is found here, not in closing down. Not in subduing my passions. The aim is not to become stoic, but to live fully. I don’t want to clean out the house of my soul only to provide it as a house for some new demons (Mt. 12:43-45); I want to fill it with desire to be united with the ultimate source of true joy. Purity is about putting on a marriage garment and going to a feast, a party. Purity is about freedom from prison, not locking myself or my desires in a prison of suppression or repression. That which is locked down inside will almost certainly eventually come out… and it is what comes out of a person that makes him impure: “it is from within, out of human hearts, that evil thoughts proceed: sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness. All these evil things come from within and make a person unclean.” (Mk 7:20-23)Purity is about putting on a marriage garment and going to a feast Click To Tweet
From within the heart comes that evil eye — the eye that sees pornographically… the eye of lust for sex, wealth or power. But the eye of our hearts is really designed to see iconographically. This, the true eye of the heart is called in Greek, the nous.
The nous is that power of the heart or soul that connects us to God… and purity is the context that enables us to see with that true eye. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Mt. 5:8). Later in the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord also says, “If your eye is sound, your body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. (Mt. 7:22-23).
St Gregory of Nyssa says that the man who purifies the eye of his soul will enjoy an immediate vision of God. (On the Beatitudes, Sermon 6) and to this end, St Augustine says, “Our whole business then, Brethren, in this life is to heal this eye of the heart whereby God may be seen. To this end are celebrated the Holy Mysteries; to this end is preached the word of God; to this end are the moral exhortations of the Church, those, that is, that relate to the correction of manners, to the amendment of carnal lusts, to the renouncing the world, not in word only, but in a change of life: to this end is directed the whole aim of the Divine and Holy Scriptures, that that inner man may be purged of that which hinders us from the sight of God.” (Sermon 38 on the New Testament, para 5)
Or, as St Isaac the Syrian nicely summed it up: “This life has been given to you for repentance; do not waste it in vain pursuits.”
So these things are inseparable: repentance, purity, a clear eye of the heart, a nous that connects us to God, enabling us to see truly, to perceive what is unseen, to see through the veils. This is a big turn about, a significant re-orientation, which is what repentance means, of course. And this is what iconography is about.
Pornography, ultimately, is an inevitable result of iconoclasm. If we disconnect ourselves from seeing iconographically, from being able to perceive what is behind the veil — in fact, even if we simply know that there is a behind-the-veil because we know that Creation is a veil… then the only alternative is to believe that what is materially before us is its own meaning; is all there is. Thus we cannot really see love, but only lust. Without seeing beyond the veil, we come to believe that love and faithfulness are not truly real, that they are just metaphorical or imaginary constructs that we use as a sort of ‘legal fiction’ to regulate sex, which is what we are really looking for. That’s the materialist’s way of seeing, the pornographic way of seeing.
The iconographic way of seeing is radically different. As iconophiles we know that what we see is just a small part of what really is… just the tip of the iceberg. And what lies behind the veil is veiled from us because we are not yet strong enough to see. Just like Moses, who had to hide in the cleft of the rock as God passed because no-one can see the face of God and live (Ex. 33:20-23). Seeing iconographically allows us to begin to perceive the face of God while knowing we are unable to fully face the Reality that lies behind. Seeing iconographically implies this humility of knowing how far we are from being ready to see that Reality directly (we see only through a glass darkly, as St Paul puts it). Seeing iconographically implies that repentance should be our way of life (not vain pursuits) so that we can purify the eyes of our hearts in order to be able to see more fully. Seeing iconographically implies that we understand the significance of our lives, as everything we say, think or do affects a reality much greater and deeper than we can know. Seeing iconographically implies that who we are and what we do is not ultimately determined by our genetic inheritance or our physical environment — that though we are affected by these, we have a freedom that goes far, far deeper than we can imagine.
And to close, a prayer from St Paul:
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation to bring you to full knowledge of him. Having the eyes of your heart enlightened, may you experience the hope of his calling and know the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints.” (from Eph 1:17-23)